In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum’s award-winning career as an ornithologist and his lifelong passion for bird-watching come together in a thrilling intellectual adventure. Scientific dogma holds that every detail of an animal’s mating displays—every spot on the peacock’s tail—is an advertisement of its genetic material superiority to potential mates. But thirty years of research and fieldwork around the world led Prum to question this idea. Deep in tropical jungles are birds with dizzying array of plumages, songs, and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, and Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. Many such traits struck Prum as out-landishly unlikely to provide practical information.
His search for answers led him to a little-acclaimed theory of Darwin’s: aesthetic mate choice, or “the taste for beautiful.” Darwin proposed that choosing a mate for the mere pleasure of it creates an independent engine of evolutionary change.
Richard O. Prum is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is a winner of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and helped discover dinosaur feathers and their colors.
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