Order of Multitudes

Beyond Birds: Taking Richard Prum’s Path from Ornithology to the Humanities

Richard Prum is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology. He also serves as the Curator of Ornithology and Heard Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, as well as the Director of the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. Dr. Prum welcomed me into his office where he shared a snippet of his current interests and ongoing projects.

Allison Chu: What are your research interests and how do they fit into the Sawyer Seminar project?

Richard Prum: I am an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist. Over the years, through my interactions with the humanities, I’ve realized that a lot of the action, intellectually, over there is in area studies: Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, Latin American Studies, American Studies, etc. I have been acting as if Ornithology, my discipline, is Avian Area Studies: it is not just a set of tools, but an opportunity for exploratory questions and investigation. Among many other things, I’m interested in aesthetic evolution—the evolution of those aspects of the phenotype of the organism that evolve to function through the subjective evaluation and choices of other individuals. That includes mate choice, but also ecological interactions like pollination and foraging, where animals select potential food opportunities among plant sources. In all of these cases, animals are subjective agents in their own evolution, and this can drive evolution in distinct ways—aesthetic ways—that are outside of the traditional view of adaptation by natural selection. I am also a historian of big history; the history of organismal evolution, in my case, biology or birds, over millions or hundreds of millions of years. I’m interested in genealogy, not just the genealogy of ideas, but of organisms themselves. 

So, how am I connected to the Sawyer Seminar? A lot of my work has been focused on or took place in museums. I got into my first large scientific collection of birds as an undergraduate at Harvard, and I’ve been associated continuously with a world-class collection of dead birds since that time. I’m talking about “keys in my pocket” access to birds. I can’t function intellectually without a hundred thousand dead birds across the hallway. I have been engaged and trained in museums. I am a curator of birds, I have been a curator that is administratively and intellectually responsible for the growth and success of a scientific collection since my first job at the University of Kansas in 1991. That means I am embedded in one of these institutions at the core of the Seminar. Also, I enjoy playing with others. I think that science has been damaged significantly by its concern for defining rigid boundaries for itself.

AC: Why birds?

RP: The answer is ’cause! But in truth, it doesn’t matter. I mean, why ballet, why German literature, why haiku? These are just realms of study, and people don’t study composition or painting or poetry because it’s demanded by some external logic. And I, as a bird nut, require no other reason other than that they fascinate me. I started as a birdwatcher at the age of 10. I never considered doing anything else. In college, I discovered that evolutionary biology was the area of science that was about what I found fascinating about birds, which was their diversity, their history, all of the ways in which they vary. Of course, a lot of people in biology imagine that they study this yeast or that receptor because it really is objectively the best place to ask that question. But to me, birds are a muse. 

AC: What would you say is the most fascinating or exciting part of your work?

RP: Whatever keeps you at the desk that morning! If there was some work that was more exciting, I’d be doing it! Right now, I’m at the point where I have the intellectual freedom, breadth of experience, and capacity to develop collaborators so that I can do whatever I want. So I try to do whatever is the most mind-blowing thing I can do now. 

AC: I’m curious about what you’re working on right now. What’s capturing your attention at this moment?

RP: Right now I’m working on a small book exploring the explanatory power of gender performativity as a way of understanding the genotype/phenotype match or relation. What does that mean? It’s queer theory meets developmental genetics. Gene action during development is a kind of discourse that is explicitly performative. It involves a network of agents which include cells, tissues, and organs of the body. The body is itself a performance of the self, as well as the result of a performative process. I’m calling this “performance all the way down.” I’m hoping that this work will open up new space for a feminist and queer analysis of the material body: one that is completely at home with the scientific data and the mechanisms of knowledge production, and can therefore influence those domains in ways that are scientifically and culturally productive. I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it now, and it’s deeply frightening, because I have no prior expertise in this area. Yet it seems to be a part of science that is untheorized and really ready for queer analysis. 

AC: I saw that you are also the author of a Pulitzer-nominated book! So it seems to me that you really value presenting your research to the larger public. Why is this important to you, and how do you accomplish this?

RP: Yes, my 2017 book Evolution of Beauty was a Pulitzer finalist in 2018. I have over the years written a number of what you might call “popular works.” I’ve always maintained a foothold in the world of birdwatching. I am a birdwatcher, so almost every year of my career, I have given a talk to a bird club or an Audubon Society somewhere. I have my roots in an active and intellectually advanced, but still public, community of bird watchers. 

Why did I write The Evolution of Beauty and why did it succeed in this way? Well, I wrote it because I had been writing a number of papers over the decades about sexual selection and essentially the precursors to the ideas of aesthetic evolution and animal agency, and getting nowhere. I wasn’t causing intellectual change. You can’t re-steer the boat, pull the social entity of science in a new direction. So, how do you create intellectual change? One way I decided to try to do it was to write a book for the public that could invite new voices into a broader conversation about the topic and thereby change the science. That is, I wanted to get a critique or new kinds of thoughts coming from a broader audience that somehow would destabilize the current way, with which I was really unhappy. So my book wasn’t really about “Oh, here’s what we know about science,” it was really about, “Here’s a problem that needs a solution and my job is to recruit you into understanding it and playing a role.” As a result, my job, in the book, was an explicit part of my intellectual mission. That made it important enough to do well, and for me to finish in the first place! Interestingly, some of the absolute best responses to the book have been among academics and intellectuals in the humanities. So I think my impact there has been stronger than in any potential audience, and that is really gratifying.

AC: Last question: do you have any fun hobbies outside of your field of study that might come to bear on your work in a surprising way?

RP: I can connect my aesthetic theory derived from birds to aspects of the human arts through my interest in opera. I love classical music, mostly chamber music and opera. The two are at the far extreme ends of the musical spectrum, from the non-representational and structural to completely emotional storytelling. I love cooking; I’m also a father of three kids, now all out of the house. And politics: unfortunately I am consumed, like many of us, by politics.