Dr. Richard Prum on Aesthetic Evolution

Yale University ornithologist Dr. Richard Prum experiences his field as an interdisciplinary program. His research on the development and evolution of feathers, the physics and evolution of structural coloration, and the phylogenetic ethology of polygynous birds breaches the seemingly unrelated fields of physics, evolution, culture, game theory. Dr. Prum asks bold questions, challenges conventional thinking, and—as the New York Times reported—he has, more than once, found himself “on the winning side of initially unpopular ideas.”


On 1 February, Dr. Prum gave a presentation on aesthetic evolution. His work largely reevaluates Darwin’s theory of natural selection; in fact, his research has led him to support a theory put forward in 1915 by the eminent English biologist Ronald A. Fisher: that females prefer some male traits not because they might promote survival of future offspring, but simply because they’re attractive.


“Maybe beauty is not only skin deep,” he said, and offered the example of the club-winged manakin, a tropical bird of Central and South America. The male “sings”—and attracts its mate—through the rapid oscillation of its wings. While birds normally have hollow wing bones, the manakin has evolved solid wing bones, allowing them to produce this singing sound. The females have the same solid wing bones, but because the bones are formed in the embryo before the sex is determined, she doesn’t use them to sing like the male. In fact, these wing bones actually make flying more difficult. “This as an indication that sexual selection can produce a kind of decadence, in which individuals become worse at their survival even as they’re more pleasing to each other,” he said. Natural selection makes sense in a lot of contexts, but when it comes to desire and attraction, many selections are simply arbitrary. It’s not about what makes the animals fly better or run faster, it’s about what the animal itself subjectively enjoys. He sees such aesthetic choices as driving a gradual “aesthetic remodeling”—an evolutionary reshaping of mating behavior, and even of male social behavior more widely, by the pressure of female preference.


Dr. Prum’s recent book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us, was named a best book of the year by the New York Times, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal.


The William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, Dr. Prum earned his degree in biology at Harvard and his doctorate at the University of Michigan. He was named a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2009 he received the MacArthur prize. Dr. Prum teaches undergraduate ornithology and graduate seminars in macroevolution.