In neither case was he a lone voice. But he is nothing if not confident, and not only in his science. Take the question of pizza.
In New Haven, pizza is something akin to a religion, and there are different sects. When I asked Dr. Prum who makes the best pizza in town, thinking he would pick one of the rival pizzerias, he didn’t hesitate.
“I do,” he said. He uses an outdoor grill with a special attachment, and he described his pursuit of the perfect pizza in some detail. When I raised an eyebrow he offered me a reference, a friend and writer who had consumed the Prum pies.
He also acknowledged that he approaches many things with single-minded intensity.
“I’m given to obsessions,” he said. Bird watching was the first and most long-lasting. Evolutionary biology may be the deepest. Cooking, opera, gardening and politics (left-wing) are others.
He has disagreed with the dominant view of sexual selection since graduate school and sees his new book, which he hopes will reach beyond scientists, as a kind of manifesto. It has too many parts to summarize. He takes a chapter, for instance, to speculate that same-sex attraction in humans evolved in our ancestors through female choices that undermine male sexual coercion. For a full account, you need to read the book.
Credit Universal Images Group, via Getty Images
But one particular aspect of his argument is his distress at the idea that almost all evolutionary change is assumed to be adaptive, contributing to fitness. In other words, if a fish is blue, it must be blue for a reason. The color must help it escape predators or sneak up on prey, or be otherwise useful in some way. Beauty, therefore, must be adaptive, or a sign of underlying qualities that are adaptive. Pick a behavior or an ornament or a physical trait, and it is useful until proven otherwise.
That’s backward, says Dr. Prum. Take beauty. Since animals have aesthetic preferences and make choices, beauty will inevitably appear. “Beauty happens,” as he puts it, and it should be taken as nonadaptive until proven otherwise.
In proposing this so-called “null hypothesis,” he draws on the work of Mark A. Kirkpatrick at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies population genetics, genomics and evolutionary theory and had read parts of “The Evolution of Beauty.”
“I’m very impressed that Rick is taking on this crusade,” Dr. Kirkpatrick said. He is not convinced that all aspects of sexual selection are based on arbitrary choices for perceived beauty, but, he said, if Dr. Prum can convince some other scientists to question their assumptions, “he will do a great service.”
For Dr. Prum, at least, there is a partial answer to the question posed by Dr. Prakash. Why are birds beautiful?
“Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.”