DeVane Lectures to explore ‘The Evolution of Beauty’

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Why is bird song so variable? Why do some animals perform elaborate courtship rituals? Why do skunks smell so bad? These are among the questions that will be explored during this semester’s DeVane Lectures, which will be presented by Yale evolutionary ornithologist Richard O. Prum.

The DeVane Lecture series, this year titled “The Evolution of Beauty: From Warblers to Warhol,” is open to the public and is also offered as a course for credit to Yale undergraduate students. The lecture series was established in 1969 to honor William Clyde DeVane, dean of Yale College from 1939 to 1963.

Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, says in his course description that the series “will broadly explore aesthetics and beauty from the perspective of evolutionary biology, human biology, art, and culture.

“The course will begin with an introduction to mechanisms and processes of aesthetic evolution in animals and plants,” he adds. “The course will also explore the nature of sexual conflict over reproduction, and the special role of aesthetic mating preferences in the evolution of sexual anatomy. The course will then investigate the aesthetic coevolution and sexual conflict in the evolution of human sexuality and sexual diversity. Lastly, [it] will investigate coevolution in the human arts. The goal will be an interdisciplinary, non-reductionist aesthetic theory that spans the domains of the human and biotic arts — from warblers to Warhol, and mimosas to Mozart.”

No previous background is required to take the course, which will feature 13 hour-and-a-half lectures on evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary anthropology, aesthetic philosophy, and human aesthetics.

The lectures will begin on Thursday, Aug. 28, and will take place on subsequent Thursdays through Nov. 27, at 4 p.m. in Rm. 202 of Osborne Memorial Labs, corner of Prospect and Sachem streets. There are no classes during breaks on Oct. 16, Oct. 23, and Nov. 20.

Prum is also curator of ornithology and head curator of vertebrate zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He also directs the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, an initiative at Yale that aims to foster communication, mutual understanding, collaborative research and teaching among diverse scientific and humanistic disciplines.

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