The Atlantic

Animals Like Beauty for Its Own Sake

In a new book on duck sex, dancing birds, and human orgasms, Richard Prum argues against a cold and utilitarian view of nature's splendor.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For ornithologist Richard Prum, manakins are among the most beautiful creatures in the world. He first started studying these small South American birds in 1982, and he’s been privy to many of their flamboyant performances. One species has a golden head and moonwalks. Another puffs up a white ‘beard’ and hops about like a “buff gymnast.” Yet another makes alarmingly loud noises by clapping its club-shaped wing bones. Each of the 54 species has its own combination of costumes, calls, and choreography, which males use in their mating displays. To Prum, this is a great example of “aesthetic radiation,” where a group of animals has evolved “54 distinctive ideals of beauty.”

That’s not a common view among evolutionary biologists. Most of Prum’s colleagues see outrageous sexual traits as reliable advertisements. The logic goes that only the fittest manakins could coordinate their movements just so. Only the healthiest peacocks could afford to carry such a cumbersome tail. Their displays and dances hint at their good genes, allowing females to make adaptive decisions.

But Prum says that view is poorly supported by years of research, and plainly makes no sense when you actually look at what birds do. How could there be adaptive value in every single minute

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