Beauty for Beauty’s Sake: Richard Prum Delivers Spring Lecture to Connecticut Audubon Members & Others
by Liz Acas, for the Connecticut Audubon Society
March 8, 2018 – Richard O. Prum is an esteemed scientist, the winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and the author of a New York Times pick for best book of 2017. But, importantly, executive director Patrick M. Comins told the audience at Connecticut Audubon’s sold-out spring lecture Tuesday, this Yale University ornithologist is “just like us.” In other words, Comins said, Prum is a birder.
“You are my people,” he told the packed house of mostly Connecticut Audubon members at Kroon Hall, the LEED Platinum-certified home of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Science. It was the third time at Yale for the Connecticut Audubon’s Spring Lecture Series, which has included acclaimed authors of works about natural history, conservation, and, of course, birds.
Prum is the author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us. The book defends Darwin’s lesser known theory of sexual selection, which describes how aesthetic choices — namely, females’ preferences for beautiful mates — drive evolution. Beauty is a factor in mate selection not because it indicates fitness, Prum argues. Mating birds choose beauty for its own sake. And birds evolve according to those choices.
Prum’s assessment of beauty runs counter to the utilitarian view that many evolutionary biologists hold. His provocative stance has earned him praise from reviewers at Smithsonian, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes, all of which named his book one of the best of the year. Still, Prum knows that he has to convince people. The book’s goal, he told the audience, “is to change the way you think.”
Birders, a group that recognizes beauty in animals, may be more open to Prum’s premise. But, he said, there’s a trend among researchers to downplay their affinity for any one species, lest their objectivity come into question. “There’s an entire clique of scientists who are afraid to admit they love birds,” he said.
Not Prum, who is unabashed in his fondness for the avian world. Opening with a photo of himself as a bespectacled boy, he explained how he got his start: “In 4th grade, I got my first of pair of glasses and the world came into focus. Within months, I was a birdwatcher.” He never considered a field other than ornithology, he added. Prum also made a clear link between his start as a birder and his current work, calling it “a brand of bird-watching science.”
Prum argued his case with examples from the field, showing the overlap between birding and research. If bird watching is, as Prum said, “the process of recognizing animals as individuals,” then the lecture showed that evolution is, in part, the result of countless choices by individual animals. The audience saw these choices in action through videos of mating rituals of birds.
One such example was the Argus Pheasant of Southeast Asia. The males of this species perform a mating dance in which they fan out their feathers in a display several times the width of their bodies. They then slowly flap their feathers as the plumage encircles the female. In the video Prum showed, the female looks unimpressed and barely reacts. Comparing the bird to a sophisticated collector in an art gallery, Prum said the female had the air “of an evolved connoisseur.” Perhaps this bird was holding out for a more beautiful mate.
Looking at the Argus Pheasant over time shows that the males evolved to have more ornamentation. That is, they became more beautiful because females prefer it.
Another example was the Club-winged Manakin of South America, a species in which the males “sing” by vibrating their wings. The bones of manakin wings in males evolved to make them better for producing sounds, but less efficient for flying. Thus, there is an “evolution of decadence”—when adaptation favors beauty at other costs to the species.
Though grounded in evidence from 30 years of research, Prum’s talk was irreverent and occasionally saucy. This was particularly true when he veered into duck sex, a topic he called “like a gas. It fills whatever volume you put it in.” (That’s why, he added, he saved it for the end.) Showing a graphic video of duck anatomy, he noted that the ruler included for scale is “metric, so this is science.”
The remark prompted chuckles from the crowd, showing that birders and researchers share a sense of humor.