Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What's beauty got to do with it?

Dear friends of reading and writing,

I just read an article on a man who studies birds in an interdisciplinary way, in the Yale Alumni Magazine (The bird-filled world of Richard Prum by Cathy Shufro).  I'm sure I'll be thinking about this article for a long time.  Near the end of the article, Shufro describes how Prum changed the way people think about bird coloration.  Biologists have explained the bright colors we enjoy as evidence of fitness, so they are supposed to help a female choose a mate with good genes since he's so fit.  Kind of like advertisers think about great arm muscles and abs for human males, it seems to me.  But Prum could not really buy the theory, and harked back to the ideas of Ronald A. Fisher that females choose those bright males just because they are attractive.  People resisted his ideas until he realized it's about beauty and moved into the philosophy of aesthetics.  Feather art, like human art, he theorizes, is a form of communication via beauty and it co-evolves with its evaluation. As females enjoy red throats, they get brighter and bigger.  As humans enjoy irony in art, it gets ever more ironical.  He has no trouble connecting flowers, birds, and consciously made art in the category of Art, since he defines it as this communication with co-evolution by evaluators.  Who evaluates flowers, you ask?  Bees, birds, all the pollinators.  But what they receive is the joy of beauty.  So I think this is a message for writers too.  Writers need to write for themselves, but in the end, their work will rise or fall based on how well it communicates and how the readers respond.
Photo credits (Wikipedia Commons): Cardinal by a Fish and Wildlife Service Employee, Peach-faced lovebird by Stephen W. Dengler, 2005, via Gnu.


Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,
The more you change into a writer, the more your biology background seems to enrich your writing. I love reading about the beauty of birds and thinking about the role of beauty in writing. Thanks!
Roz A

Anonymous said...

Could be a flaky theory, but still fun to hear about. Like Roz, I like it when you weave together biology and writing like this. It's fun and it stretches my brain sort of like Douglas Hofstetter (The Eternal Golden Braid guy).

Anonymous said...

Hey Mohan, Yale profs are usually the opposite of flaky. But reading about this guy, he jumps between fields so often thta some of his thoughts could be naive. But he's a Macarthur Genius, so they're sure to be worth thinking about.
I think he was an early proponent of dinofeathers.
Kate M

Lorelei said...

Hi Roz, Mohan, and Kate,
I'm glad you liked Prum's ideas. It's incredibly sad that he lost his hearing when he had memorized hundreds of bird songs, but the colors of feathers brought him back to bird aesthetics anyway. Yes, he's very interdisciplinary, and says that is where all of science is going now.

Anonymous said...

So writers who show the seamy side, leave us all depressed, are unlikely to succeed because they won't attract co-evolving readers? Or maybe they will because life is so hard and people like to see themselves in writings. Okay, I'm no good at philosophy, I know that (made C- in it once!).