A Non-Utilitarian View of Beauty in Birds
Why does beauty exist?
This interesting New York Times piece on the work of ornithologist and evolutionary biologist Dr. Richard Prum has had me thinking about the question. The dominant view in evolutionary biology is that beauty exists only to signal the health and vitality of an animal to a prospective mate. In this utilitarian conception of beauty, any idea that animals seek out beauty for beauty's sake, or have their own view of what constitutes beauty in a mate, is lost. Dr. Prum is working to contest this idea with his research on the role beauty has played in the evolution of birds.
The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it’s mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Dr. Prum defines it as “co-evolved attraction.” They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution.
Back on land, there's insight from Dr. Prum's work that we can apply to our inquiries in fashion. First, I was struck by the idea that the pursuit of beauty can change the course of evolution. Far from the assumption that beauty is trivial, here is an argument that it's nothing if not consequential: it's changed how species have evolved and adapted over time. If we as a human civilization built societies that elevated the pursuit of beauty could we change the course of humanity? Second, Dr. Prum is suggesting that beauty doesn't have to be utilitarian. In other words, beauty doesn't necessarily have a purpose other than beauty. When it comes to why we get dressed, this means that we can feel free to pursue beauty—to get dressed up, wear what makes us happy, and feel beautiful— for any reason or no reason at all. Finally, when asked why birds are beautiful, Dr. Prum shares this response: “Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.” If in nature species get to define what is beautiful for themselves, why should we be different? There is no industry, no accepted standard of what constitutes beauty, that should disempower us from our natural claim to being beautiful to and for no one other than ourselves. And just like that, we're free as a bird.