The Evolution of Beauty
with Richard Prum
Offered in partnership with The American Museum of Natural History
Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why is bird song so rich, complex, and variable? Why do animals perform elaborate courtship displays? Why do flowers smell good? Why do skunks smell bad? In each of these cases, organisms have evolved features that appeal to, or revolt, the senses and sensibilities of other individuals. Unlike adaptations that solve challenges to survival, bird song, courtship displays, and floral odors function through sensory seduction. Darwin proposed that some of these aesthetic traits evolve by sexual selection. Today, most evolutionary biologists view sexually selected displays as adaptive, honest advertisements of individual quality. But how do we account for the evolution of the diversity of aesthetic preferences? And what is the relationship between aesthetic evolution and human culture? This Master Class explores aesthetics and beauty from the perspective of evolutionary biology, human biology, art, and culture. We will consider aesthetic evolution in animals and plants and explore an aesthetic theory that spans from warblers to Warhol, from mimosas to Mozart.

Richard Prum received an A.B. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, where he is also the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He also serves as the Director of the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. He received a MacArthur Genius grant in 2009.