Yale professor of ornithology, ecology and evolutionary biology, Richard Prum, spoke about Charles Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” in the most recent installment of the Provost’s Lecture Series on Friday, Feb. 8.
Prum, the author of “The Evolution of Beauty” — named a Top Ten Book of 2017 by the New York Times and a 2018 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in General Non-Fiction — warned the audience that his theory of evolution was quite distinct from others in his field.
“The more you know biology, the more likely you will disagree with what I have to say tonight,” he said.
Prum’s lecture scrutinized Darwin’s most famous idea: natural selection. Natural selection is the process of adaptation of the traits of individual organisms to the environment. Darwin also wrote about sexual selection, which is when organisms of one biological sex compete with their peers in choosing members of the opposite sex to mate with. While Darwin introduced the idea of secondary sexual characteristics, such as ornate tail feathers on a peacock or large antlers on a moose, he never quite explained how these traits helped contribute to the species survival.
Professor Prum developed an alternative view of the Darwinian evolutionary process through his interests in birdwatching and scientific research. His so-called, “Beauty Happens” hypothesis explains how females’ mating choice is based on their aesthetic preferences. Furthermore, Prum showed how this contributes to the evolutionary development of organisms’ individual traits, including extraordinary ornamental features in male organisms like peacock feathers or moose antlers. In other words, the more beautiful male organisms are, the more beneficial genes they carry.
For male organisms, Prum explained, a beautiful outward appearance is an indicator of certain genetic benefits including less risk of catching sexually transmitted viruses, more efficient metabolic process, or immune function.
Prum pointed to the evolutionary development of ducks’ sexual organs as an example of deliberate mating choices made by female organisms. In order to avoid forced population growth, female ducks evolved the shape of their vagina to control fertilization. Prum explained that “aesthetic evolution,” in male organisms emerges as a consequence of “the cognitive evaluation and choices of the female.”
Although Prum’s take on the role that the aesthetic traits of animals play in their mating behaviors and communications was well received by those outside of the scientific community, they have been met with some controversy by other evolutionary biologists.
In fact, three biology and ecology professors from various universities recently countered Prum’s ideas in a 2018 book review published in the International Journal of Organic Evolution.
“We recognize its value in engaging the public in the study of evolution,” they wrote. “We disagree, however, with the book’s advocacy of a single evolutionary explanation for beauty in nature, and we were disappointed by its portrayal of modern sexual selection research.”
Despite this, Doreen Aveni, a WISE Honors Program academic administrator who attended the lecture, said she was intrigued by Prum’s hypothesis. She compared the phenomenon Prum described to “a social movement of women’s choice.”
“It was interesting how beauty was evolved not for any specific gene trait, gene strength, or gene population but rather the strength of female choosing what was beautiful was perpetrated to this evolutional beauty,” she said.