Decoding Nature’s Most Elaborate Mating Dances

Studio 360

Richard Prumis an ornithologist at Yale University --- not exactly the person you'd expect to come up with a revolutionary theory of aesthetics. But Prum is no ordinary researcher. The recent theory that birds are descendants of dinosaurs? Prum's research supplied the key piece of evidence, and his theory of feather evolution is now widely accepted. His study of feathers took him into the physics of color, which led to research that is being applied in the development of a new kind of paint. When the MacArthur foundation named him a "genius" fellow in 2009, the committee cited Prum's roving, interdisciplinary curiosity.

Prum's latest work is on the philosophy of aesthetics. It stems from his earliest research, as a young scientist, studying small South American birds called manakins. Manakins are known for outlandish mating displays in which males perform an elaborate dance, including moves that look for all the world like moonwalking. To Prum's eye, the diversity and complexity of these dances could only be explained as an appeal to the birds' aesthetic preferences --- in other words, it's art. "My hypothesis," he explains to Kurt Andersen, "is that ornament in manakins evolves merely because it's popular, or merely beautiful."

This idea conflicts with the mainstream view of evolutionary biologists, who view these 'useless' displays as surrogates for evolutionary fitness. In this conception, the male manakin's dance is supposed to signal to females that he is healthy and will sire strong offspring. Prum's view is that dance moves, or gaudy plumage, have evolved for their own sake ---because potential mates think they're hot. And Prum says that Charles Darwin was on his side. "That was Darwin's original idea about mate choice --- it's about the aesthetic faculty, the ability of individuals to observe and have opinions about the beauty of other individuals," he says.

Doesn't the notion that animals have aesthetic preferences anthropomorphize them? "I think that we don't anthropomorphize birds enough!" Prum tells Kurt. "We're afraid of talking about their subjective experiences, because we can't measure it. But in fact, what they experience is desire, the subjective experience of beauty, of being attracted to something."

Lately, Prum has worked on developing an entire aesthetic theory around his hunch. In this new definition of art, dancingand plumage and flower petals are not categorically different than breakdancing and haute couture. "What is important is that every kind of art exists in a community of producers and consumers," he says. Art influences its critical evaluation. But just as crucially, the critical response exerts influence on artistic production. For example, "Mozart's symphonies transformed the audience's imagination of what music could be, and those new evaluative opinions fed back upon music." The "coevolution" of aesthetic expression and its evaluation is what defines art. "Whether it's a rose-breasted grosbeak or abstract expressionism," Prum says, "these are communities of individuals that have aesthetic interactions."

Prum doesn't see his theory as diminishing human artworks like Bach's cantatas or Guardians of the Galaxy. "By entertaining other kinds of art that isn't human, we enhance the richness of our understanding of what human art is."

Video: The mating display of the Red-capped Manakin