MacArthur Foundation

Yale ornithology professor Richard Prum was feeding his chickens last Thursday when he received a frantic call from his wife. At first, Prum thought something horrible had happened. But, to his surprise, his wife informed him that his book “The Evolution of Beauty” had just been recognized as one of the ten best books of 2017 by the New York Times.

Prum, who has been a professor at Yale since 1991, published his book, which connects the biodiversity and aesthetic evolution of birds to human sexuality, in May. While most evolutionary biologists believe that aesthetic ornaments, such as peacock’s tail feathers, are indicators of survival and fecundity, Prum argues in his book that there is no relation between beauty and fitness. He extends this notion to humans, arguing that physical features do not indicate fundamental flaws, developing what he describes as a feminist account of evolution.

“One of my biggest goals is to start a new conversation on evolution and culture studies,” Prum told the News. “That conversation has been damaged by the same kind of science I’m battling. It’s a long haul, since evolutionary biology has had such a negative influence on the way we view our own sexual selves, but that’s why this attention to the book is so exciting.”

Describing Prum’s book, the Times wrote, “If a science book can be subversive and feminist and change the way we look at our own bodies — but also be mostly about birds — this is it.”

David Skelly, a Yale ecology and evolutionary biology professor, praised Prum for drawing a connection between ornithology and human sexuality in his book, which focuses on sexual selection in birds, female sexual autonomy and the implication of Prum’s ornithological findings on humans.

“Rick has done a masterful job of weaving together theory and the evidence in the world around us into a compelling case for the way evolution works,” Skelly said.

The book begins with an analysis of bird behaviors intended to prove that sexual selection is driven by arbitrary aesthetic choices, rather than by environmental necessities. For example, in Prum’s view, certain waist-to-hip ratios are preferred not because they indicate higher fertility, but simply because birds perceive them as more aesthetically beautiful.

Prum disagrees with the majority of evolutionary biologists, who believe that aesthetic qualities reflect an organism’s fitness to the environment.

“Virtually everyone believes in the other theory,” Prum said. “But their position is based through faith-based science. Because they are so excited about the idea, they stick onto any data from nature that may support it. My book is trying to create a disagreement in evolutionary biology.”

According to Prum, the popular theory in evolutionary biology suggests that physical features, such as facial asymmetry or certain body shapes, indicate fundamental flaws. Prum said he recognized the damage this theory has done to human self-perception and felt a responsibility to correct it.

Additionally, in light of the popular view that dominant males dictate female sexuality in animals, Prum emphasized the importance of female mate choice in evolution. Male traits often develop because female birds prefer arbitrary and aesthetically pleasing characteristics, rather than ones that exhibit adaptive fitness to the environment. For example, the loss of canine fangs in primates demonstrate how important female choice is in transforming maleness, Prum said.

“What my book shows is that freedom of choice matters to animals, that female sexual autonomy is not an idea invented by suffragists and feminists in the 1920s,” Prum said. “It’s an evolved feature of sexual species — a necessary evolutionary consequence.”

Deborah Coen, a history of science professor, who is teaching a seminar called “Gender and Science,” told the News that “anyone concerned about recent revelations of sexual harassment needs to take stock” of the book’s argument.

Aside from sexual selection and female autonomy, Prum’s book also addresses the evolution of the orgasm and same-sex behavior.

“Evolution is not only deeply feminist, but compatible with many aspects of contemporary research in gender and queer studies,” Prum said. “I quote Colbert in the book: ‘Reality has a well-known liberal bias.’ Surprise! Not really.”

The hardcover of Prum’s book is currently out of stock. The paperback version will be available from April 3, 2018.

Serena Cho | serena.cho@yale.edu