Lewis Thomas Prize Presentation and Lecture to Richard O. Prum, Ph.D.
- Lewis Thomas Prize
Richard O. Prum, William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Yale University
- Speaker bio(s)
Self-described evolutionary ornithologist Dr. Richard O. Prum has drawn from disciplines as varied as developmental biology, optical physics, molecular genetics, phylogenetics, paleontology, and behavioral ecology to fundamentally challenge conventional ideas about natural selection. In his 2017 book, The Evolution of Beauty, Dr. Prum asks readers of a general audience to consider Charles Darwin’s little known and still controversial theory of aesthetic mate choice as a driving force of evolutionary change in humans as well as birds.
Inspired by Darwin, Dr. Prum makes the case that females’ preference for the most stimulating, attractive mates drives the evolution of many of the elaborate and extraordinary traits of animals, from the songs of thrushes to iridescent hummingbird feathers. In The Evolution of Beauty, named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, he further applies the evolutionary dynamics of avian beauty to human appreciation of art—connecting the allure of the male peacock’s spectacular plumage with the enduring appeal of Mozart.
Dr. Prum has conducted research in the field, in museums, and in the lab for three decades, writing more than 100 papers that have extended our understanding of how birds’ anatomy and behavior have evolved. An early proponent of the now accepted view that birds descended from dinosaurs, he posited a new hypothesis for the origin of feathers, deducing with his colleagues the plumage coloration of a feathered dinosaur from fossilized remains. He also teamed up with mathematicians to determine how the feathers of one bird species scatter light to produce their vibrant blue color.
An avid birder since childhood, Dr. Prum had a “hunger for knowledge” about birds that took him to Harvard University for his undergraduate studies and then to the University of Michigan where he earned his Ph.D. Dr. Prum is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University and is Head Curator of Vertebrate Biology of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. From 2012 to 2017, Dr. Prum served as the inaugural director of Yale’s Franke Program in Science and Humanities, an initiative that aims to foster communication, mutual understanding, and collaborative research and teaching among diverse disciplines. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous other awards.
The Lewis Thomas Prize is an international award for writing about science that honors the rare individuals who bridge the worlds of science and the humanities—whose voices and vision tell us about science’s aesthetic and philosophical dimensions, providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation.
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