Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deceased--Leigh Van Valen

Leigh Van Valen
August 12th, 1935 to October 16th, 2010

"Leigh Van Valen, Evolution Revolutionary, Dies at 76"


Douglas Martin

October 30th, 2010

The New York Times

His beard, it was said, was longer than God’s but not as long as Charles Darwin’s. Thousands of books teetered perilously in his office, and a motion-sensitive door startled visitors with cricket chirps. He took notes on his own thoughts while conversing with others.

The evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen’s eccentricities were legend far beyond the University of Chicago, where brilliant and idiosyncratic professors rule. He named 20 fossil mammals he had discovered after characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction, and his most famous hypothesis — among the most cited in the literature of evolution — was named for the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”

That hypothesis helped explain why organisms, competing for survival, developed two sexes. It did not explain why Professor Van Valen gave better grades to students who disagreed with him — provoking an instant evolutionary adaptation in the tone of student essays — much less why he wrote songs about the sex lives of dinosaurs and paramecia.

Dr. Van Valen, who died in Chicago on Oct. 16 at the age of 76, changed the conversation about how life works in 1973 when he put forward “a new evolutionary law.” Others call it Van Valen’s law.

Based on the study of fossils, it states that the length of a species’ existence says nothing about its chances of dying off. For Dr. Van Valen, evolution was an “arms race.” The best a species can do to survive, he said, is to respond to an adversary’s adaptations, quickly and ceaselessly. A modern lion, for example, might easily outwit an ancient antelope, but it might be no better at outwitting modern antelopes than ancient lions were at outwitting ancient antelopes, and vice versa. (The antelopes might run faster.)

Dr. Van Valen’s metaphor to describe this idea came from the Red Queen in Carroll’s “Looking Glass.” In the book, Alice complains that she is exhausted from running, only to find she is still under the tree where she started.

The Red Queen answers: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

Another renowned, white-bearded evolutionary biologist, Michael L. Rosenzweig, came up with pretty much the same idea the same year. He called the evolutionary running-in-place the “Rat Race.” In 1985, the journal Science said Dr. Van Valen’s more charming metaphor had prevailed among biologists.

Allan Larson, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, called “A New Evolutionary Law,” Dr. Van Valen’s paper on the subject, “one of the most influential and controversial works published in evolutionary biology.”

The range of Dr. Van Valen’s work was staggering, said David Jablonski, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. Among his discoveries was that primates had co-existed with dinosaurs, which he later helped prove had survived a million years longer than thought.

Dr. Van Valen never wrote a book but churned out more than 300 papers, many of which provoked new directions of inquiry. After each, he tended to move on, often never publishing in the same field again.

“People have devoted their entire lives to working out the ramifications of some of his papers,” said Benedikt Hallgrimsson, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

Dr. Van Valen found that human intelligence correlated with brain size. His research on the human body’s asymmetry sparked papers on topics from social dominance to aging. He was one of the first to propose the idea of “fuzzy sets,” a mathematical means of addressing classes of phenomena that are different but closely related.

He explored the origin of whales, rabbits and bats, and refined the understanding of energy as evolution’s driving force.

“You couldn’t catch him on many things because he knew so damn much,” said William B. Provine, a historian of science at Cornell. “He could be a fly in the ointment in the sense that his ideas often upset people, and it took time for them to be accepted.”

While it might seem more efficient for an organism to reproduce without the need for a second sex, his Red Queen hypothesis maintained that sexual reproduction beats the asexual kind because the former multiplies the possible genetic combinations, bolstering a species’ ability to respond to an enemy’s adaptations.

Various experiments have upheld this hypothesis of adaptation, including one at the University of Liverpool this year. In hundreds of generations, it showed that bacteria adapt to fast-evolving viruses. When the ability to adapt to the virus was removed from bacteria, the evolution of bacteria slowed drastically.

Leigh Van Valen was born on Aug. 12, 1935, in Albany and was chosen “most academic” in the first grade. He earned a zoology degree at age 20 from Miami University of Ohio. As a graduate student at Columbia, he studied under George Gaylord Simpson and Theodosius Dobzhansky, both giants in honing the synthetic theory of evolution, which melded Darwin’s ideas about evolution with Mendel’s on genetics.

After earning his Ph.D. from Columbia, Dr. Van Valen did postdoctoral work at Columbia, University College London and the American Museum of Natural History. He joined the University of Chicago in 1967.

Dr. Van Valen died of complications of pneumonia, said his wife, Virginia Maiorana. He and his first wife, Phebe May Hoff, divorced in 1984, and he was separated from Ms. Maiorana. In addition to her, he is survived by his companion, Towako Katsuno, and a daughter, Katrina Van Valen. Another daughter, Diane, died in 1995.

After his Red Queen paper was initially, and repeatedly, rejected, Dr. Van Valen started his own journal, Evolutionary Theory, to publish it. As its longtime editor, he treated all submissions seriously. “It can be hard to tell a crank from an unfamiliar gear,” he wrote.

He also started the more lighthearted Journal of Insignificant Research. It ridiculed academic pomposity, exuberantly quoting learned articles that stated the obvious in a hopelessly tangled manner.

His whimsical approach further showed in his suggestion that a line of cancer cells used in countless experiments around the world had evolved into an independent species. But the human from whom the single-cell cancer cells were taken had, of course, evolved from a single cell 3.5 billion years ago.

So could the same group evolve twice? It is a tenet of evolutionary theory that evolution does not repeat itself. Dr. Van Valen, as a consequence, held back from suggesting a name for the seemingly new species — not even one from his beloved Tolkien.

But nothing could stop him from breaking out in song at scholarly meetings with one of his musical inspirations, like “Sex Among the Dinosaurs.” One line: “Stomp your feet, crack your tail, 6.6 on the Richter scale!”

Leigh Van Valen [Wikipedia]

1 comment:

erplus said...

scientists in other fields often catch up to you without you knowing about it, and they confirm what you asserted. several cancer-cell lineages have been discovered that are passed from individual to individual be it horizontally or vertically, and are thought to be very old. the TAZ one, e.g., and several others.

leigh’s greatest achievement is what he called “the 3rd law of natural selection” (1976; van valen meant evolution by natural selection when writing “natural selection”), an unsuccessful but brilliant and valiant attempt to overcome the mindless story-telling that characterizes the modern “natural selection” casuistry industry.

search for “van valen” in the link below, second posting by erpiu.