Temptation: Yale prof Richard Prum on “The Evolution of Beauty" at AADL


Richard Prum

For the birds: Richard Prum's new book documents his avian studies on mate choices in the animal world.

Yale ornithology professor Richard Prum did his graduate work at U-M in the 1980s, but the two places where he spent much of his leisure time no longer exist.

“The Del Rio was a great place,” Prum said of the beloved bar that stood at Ashley and Washington for more than 30 years. "And I went to Borders, back when it was the only one in the whole world. It was such a great bookstore. I remember going to Borders and deliberately leaving my wallet in my office. Not that I ever had much money in it, anyway, but I didn’t want to be tempted.”

Temptation, as it happens, plays no small role in the former MacArthur “genius” fellow’s new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World -- and Us, which he will discuss at the Ann Arbor District Library Downtown Branch on Thursday, May 18, at 7 pm. The book argues that mate choice in the natural world is often driven by a subjective desire for beauty instead of more pragmatic considerations, thereby complicating the long-held notion that natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life.

“Many of my colleagues are resistant to these ideas,” said Prum. “One guy said, ‘But that’s nihilism.’ So here I am, getting goosebumps from thinking about how beauty evolves in the wild, while he sees a theory so bleak that he can barely get up in the morning. … That’s when I decided, ‘Wow, I have to embrace aesthetic Darwinian language and focus on what makes this worldview a productive and interesting mode of expression.’”

Charles Darwin suggested these ideas himself, but he was shouted down by Victorian Age critics.

“There’s always been a strong current of cultural influence on how ideas are perceived,” said Prum. “And there were two main drivers of the backlash. One was misogynistic. The idea of female choice, and the freedom of that choice as a force in nature, was just unbelievably radical. … (English biologist) St. George Mivart was the first critic saying … that kind of freedom of choice is basically immoral, right out of the gate. … Another thing that came up immediately was prudery -- anxiety over the topic of sexual pleasure and desire. … That causes pleasure to become standardized as a scientific objective in itself. There’s often this sense that, we have to stand outside of this topic in order to be real scientists.”

Prum has closely studied and observed exotic birds all over the world for many years, so he draws a great deal of evidence for his book’s thesis from his own research; yet The Evolution of Beauty broadens its scope in the final chapters, extending Prum’s argument into the human realm to discuss Freud, the evolution of the female orgasm and more.

“On the science side, I’m hoping to create a broader cultural conversation about beauty that will, in some ways, destabilize the narrow academic band of how it’s discussed and studied,” said Prum. “Second, I want to possibly recruit new people into the field who will relate to the topic. Instead of feeling that nihilism I mentioned before, they’ll feel goosebumps, like me, and feel there’s a reason to do this work.”

One section of the book that has shocked some readers is the description of the violence inherent in duck mating (and the resistant biological traits that female ducks have developed in response). When asked if sexual violence is more common than a layperson may realize in the animal kingdom -- thereby making the idea of “sexual choice” more suspect -- Prum noted that multiple variables make that a tough question to answer (such as the fact that more than 50 percent of animals in the world are beetle varieties). But female bedbugs -- who don’t have a genital opening, so the male essentially stabs through the female’s exoskeleton to inject semen into her abdomen -- also experience “traumatic insemination,” as do other species.

Yet beauty’s role in the natural world’s organic design has been central, Prum argues, despite the fact that beauty itself does not necessarily indicate genetic health or any other kind of objective superiority over others.

“Wealth can give a person lots of advantages, and beauty can, too, but these things don’t make you objectively better than another person,” said Prum. “This concept has really invaded the culture, though, and I think that’s bad. That’s why I really hope that some of my readers will be teenage girls. In America today, and in much of the Western world, sexual development equates to suddenly having status as a sexual object, especially for girls, and what I want to emphasize is that that’s only a partial and impoverished view of what we’re about. We’re sexual subjects as well, with our own innate and personal and constantly developing and changing desires and needs. We all have a right to pursue that, right? That’s something that’s missing from the conversation when we talk with kids about sexuality.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Richard Prum will be at Ann Arbor District Library Downtown Branch on Thursday, May 18, at 7 pm to discuss his new book, “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World -- and Us.”