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 theory that birds are descendants of dinosaurs? Prum's research supplied the key piece of evidence, and his account of feather evolution is now widely accepted. His study of feathers took him into the physics of color, which led to research that is helping to develop a new kind of paint. When the MacArthur foundation named him a "genius" fellow in 2009, the committeecitedPrum's roving, interdisciplinary curiosity.

Some of Prum'slatest workis 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. The males perform an elaborate dance, including moves that look a lot 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 is that ornament in manakins evolves merely because it's beautiful," Prum says.

This idea clashes with the view of most evolutionary biologists, who see displays like these as signs of evolutionary fitness. They think the male manakin's dance signals to females that he is healthy and will sire strong offspring. Prum disagrees: he thinks that dance moves, or colorful 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 this idea about animals having aesthetic preferences anthropomorphize them? "I think that we don't anthropomorphize birds enough!" Prum says. "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, mating dances, plumage, and flower petals are not categorically different than dance music or cool sneakers. "What is important is that every kind of art exists in a community of producers and consumers," he says. For Prum, art exists in dialogue with its audience and critics. "Mozart's symphonies transformed the audience's imagination of what music could be, and those new evaluative opinions fed back upon music," he says. This "coevolution" of aesthetic expression and its evaluation is what defines art. "Whether it's a rose-breasted grosbeak or abstract expressionism, these are communities of individuals that have aesthetic interactions," Prum says.

Prum doesn't see his theory as diminishing human artworks like Bach's cantatas or"Mad Max: Fury Road."Quite the contrary. "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