Richard Prum

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Richard Owen Prum
Born1961 (age 62)
Alma materHarvard University (AB)
University of Michigan (PhD)
Known forAvian biology
SpouseAnn Johnson Prum
AwardsFulbright Scholar (2001)

Guggenheim Fellowship (2007)
MacArthur Fellowship (2009)

Lewis Thomas Prize (2021)
Scientific career
FieldsEvolutionary biology, Ornithology
InstitutionsAmerican Museum of Natural History

University of Kansas

Yale University

Richard O. Prum (born 1961) is an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist. He is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, as well as the head curator of vertebrate zoology at the university's Peabody Museum of Natural History.[1][2] His 2017 book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times[3] and was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.[4]

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]

External video
video icon Ornithologist Richard Prum: 2009 MacArthur Fellow | MacArthur Foundation (September 21, 2009).
video icon The Evolution of Beauty: Richard Prum at TEDxYale (June 2, 2013).
video icon Richard Prum: Evolution and Beauty at the Chicago Humanities Festival (November 15, 2017).
video icon Richard Prum on Birds, Beauty, and Finding Your Own Way (full) | Conversations with Tyler with the Mercatus Center (June 30, 2021).

Prum grew up in rural Vermont. He received his bachelor degree at Harvard University in 1983 and completed his doctorate at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1989. He then worked at the American Museum of Natural History[5] until 1991, when he became a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas.[6] 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.[7] Prum was a Fulbright scholar to Brazil in 2001,[8] and he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007[9] and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.[6]

He released The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us, a book on the role of beauty in natural selection, in 2017.[10] In 2021, he received the Lewis Thomas Prize for his "exceptional writing".[11]


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. 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.[a] 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 criticised by Alfred Russel Wallace for asserting "female preferences based on aesthetic considerations".[13] In Rothenberg's words, Wallace "had no place for Darwin's love of beauty, caprice, and feminine whim".[b] Prum, on the other hand, considers art and male sexual display to be "coevolution of the work and its appreciation".[c]


  1. ^ a b "Yale Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology". Yale University. Archived from the original on June 21, 2013.
  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. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2017". New York Times. November 30, 2017. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  4. ^ "2018 Pulitzer Prizes". Retrieved December 28, 2022.
  5. ^ Prum, R.O. (December 20, 1990). "A test of the monophyly of the manakins (Pipridae) and of the cotingas (Cotingidae) based on morphology" (PDF). Occasional Papers of the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan. 723: 1–44.
  6. ^ a b "Richard Prum". Retrieved December 28, 2022.
  7. ^ Greenwood, Veronique (April 1, 2013). "Ornithologist is Reshaping Ideas of How Beauty Evolves". Discover. Archived from the original on April 4, 2013.
  8. ^ "MacArthur Fellowship Recipients | Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs". Retrieved December 28, 2022.
  9. ^ "Richard Owen Prum". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved December 28, 2022.
  10. ^ Dobbs, David (September 18, 2017). "Survival of the Prettiest". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  11. ^ "Evolutionary biologist and ornithologist Richard Prum receives the 2021 Lewis Thomas Prize". The Rockefeller University. April 26, 2021.
  12. ^ a b c Rothenberg, David (2011). Survival of the beautiful : art, science, and evolution (1st ed.). New York: Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1-60819-216-8. OCLC 707329321.
  13. ^ Wallace, Alfred R. (July 24, 1890). "The Colours of Animals". Nature. 42 (1082): 289–291. doi:10.1038/042289a0. ISSN 1476-4687.

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Rothenberg, 2011. pp 74–101.[12]
  2. ^ Rothenberg, 2011. pp 36.[12]
  3. ^ Rothenberg, 2011. pp. 101.[12]