Richard Prum

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Richard Prum
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materHarvard University
University of Michigan
Known forEvolution of feathers
Scientific career
FieldsEvolutionary biology, ornithology
InstitutionsPeabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University
Thesis (1989)

Richard O. Prum (born 1961) is William Robertson Coe Professor of ornithology, and head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.[1][2]

Life and work[edit]

Prum describes himself as "an evolutionary ornithologist with broad interests in diverse topics," including phylogenetics, behavior, feathers, structural coloration, evolution and development, sexual selection, and historical biogeography.[1]

Prum grew up in rural Vermont and took his bachelor degree at Harvard in 1983, and received his PhD in 1989 from the University of Michigan. After gradually losing his hearing throughout the early 1990s due to illness, Prum moved from primarily doing field work to conducting research on plumage pigmentation, feather evolution, and Darwin's sexual selection theory.[3] He released a book in 2017 on the role of beauty in natural selection: The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us.[4]


In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg reflects on Prum's analysis of sexual selection in birds, considering whether female birds are exercising an aesthetic sense when they choose a mate. In a chapter titled "It could be anything", Rothenburg argues Prum's position, that the females' aesthetic choice is essentially arbitrary and decoupled from natural selection: anything the females begin to choose becomes what the males must have if they are to have any offspring.[5] The aesthetic aspect of sexual selection has been debated since the start of Darwinism in the nineteenth century. Prum is following Edward Bagnall Poulton, who was roundly criticised by Alfred Russel Wallace for asserting "female preferences based on aesthetic considerations".[6] In Rothenberg's words, Wallace "had no place for Darwin's love of beauty, caprice, and feminine whim".[7] Prum on the other hand considers art and male sexual display to be "coevolution of the work and its appreciation".[8]



From 1985 onwards, Prum has authored research papers including:[10]


Prum's 2017 book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017.[11]


  1. ^ a b Richard O. Prum's profile, Yale University: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 2003, retrieved July 7, 2010
  2. ^ Jabr, Ferris (January 9, 2019). "How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution – The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can't be explained by natural selection alone — so how did it come to be?". The New York Times. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  3. ^ "Ornithologist Is Reshaping Ideas Of How Beauty Evolves" by Veronique Greenwood, Discover Magazine, April 5, 2015
  4. ^ Dobbs, David (September 18, 2017). "Survival of the Prettiest". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  5. ^ Rothenberg, 2011. pp 74–101.
  6. ^ Wallace, Alfred Russel. Nature, July 24, 1890. pp 289–291.
  7. ^ Rothenberg, 2011. p 36.
  8. ^ Rothenberg, 2011. p 101.
  9. ^ "Lewis Thomas Prize". Lewis Thomas Prize.
  10. ^ "Welcome | Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology".
  11. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2017". New York Times. November 30, 2017. Retrieved February 9, 2018.


  • Rothenberg, David. Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution. Bloomsbury, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4088-2882-3

External links[edit]