R.J. “Sam” Berry, 1934-2018

July 6, 2018 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Robert James ‘Sam’ Berry, Emeritus Professor of Genetics in the Genetics, Evolution and Environment Department at University College London, died on March 29 of this year, following a stroke the previous summer. For decades, Berry had been a major figure in population and ecological genetics.  Announcing his death on the UCL website, department head Prof Andrew Pomiankowski wrote

With sadness we note the passing of Professor R J (Sam) Berry, who was the Professor of Genetics at UCL (from 1974) and an active member of the Genetics, Evolution and Environment Department up to the present, and a massive figure in evolutionary and ecological genetics, biodiversity and conservation biology. He was also a leading Christian and wrote extensively on science and religion. We will miss him greatly.

R.J. Berry at Callanish standing stones, Lewis, Outer Hebrides, ca. 2016. Courtesy A. Berry.

Born in Lancashire, he attended Shrewsbury School (Darwin’s alma mater), and did his undergraduate work at Cambridge under R. A. Fisher (whose mathematics, he confessed, was rather over his head). He then went to UCL, where he spent most of his career, receiving there his PhD, and, later, a DSc. In a brief history of his department, he noted its early Darwinian connection, and long affiliation with biological conservation. He did his PhD under the supervision of the mouse developmental geneticist Hans Grüneberg, but, under the influence of Oxonian Bernard Kettlewell, he quickly realized the importance of field work for understanding the genetics and evolution of populations in nature, and he became a lifelong field biologist. He later wrote of Kettlewell, in the preface to Inheritance and Natural History,

More especially, I would like to pay tribute to Bernard Kettlewell, who first taught me to understand and investigate genetical problems in natural populations, and to whom I shall always remain grateful for demonstrating so clearly that true science is vastly greater than the absurd reductionism that too often goes on in laboratories.

R.J. Berry and colleague in the field, ca. 1970s. Courtesy of A. Berry.

His scientific work centered on the nature, distribution, and causes of variation in natural populations, often involving populations on islands, especially the small islands of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. His choice of study organism was usually a mammal of some sort, often voles, wood mice, and, especially, house mice. In doing so he expanded ecological genetics beyond the realm of the snails, butterflies, and other insects that had long been its focus. In his work on house mice he also expanded his geographic focus, encompassing the study of populations from around the world. This commensal species, carried by humanity all around the globe, found itself newly arrived in places as physically and biotically disparate as tropical Pacific atolls and Antarctic islands. Berry strove to understand the evolutionary underpinnings and consequences of the species’ remarkable geographic and ecological diaspora.

R.J. Berry on Deception Island, South Shetlands, in the far south Atlantic, austral summer 1999-2000; note the shorts. Courtesy of A. Berry.

In much of his mouse work, Berry studied non-metrical skeletal variations– not the lengths or shapes of bones, but the presence or absence of qualitative states, such as a foramen or ossicle being present or not. Such traits, being the result of both genetic and environmental factors during development, he aptly named “epigenetic polymorphisms”, explicitly using the term in its original (and useful) Waddingtonian sense. (C.H. Waddington was his PhD examiner.) One of his uses of these traits was to affirm that the Orkney vole was introduced from the Continent, a conclusion confirmed by later molecular work. An exhibit at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology last year highlighted some of Berry’s work, including 4000 house mouse skeletons used in his studies of evolution on islands.

A closeup of some house mouse skeletons at the Grant Museum. Note the skeletons from the Welsh islands of Skokholm and Skomer. Courtesy of A. Berry.

I was early attracted to his work, since my own interests also centered on the phenomena of island life, and I have been drawn to consult it again and again. Most recently, his work on island races and founder effects in wood mice has seemed relevant to my own interest in these phenomena in New Guinean birds, while his synthetic works on island faunas have proven very interesting for looking at the factors influencing island species diversity.

The latter works of Berry just mentioned– his syntheses of island faunas and natural history– reveal another major part of his contribution. Besides his technical papers, he was a superb synthesizer and presenter to the general public of the results of his and others’ studies. This is reflected most clearly in his four volumes in Collins’ New Naturalist series: The Natural History of Shetland (with J.L. Johnston); The Natural History of Orkney (with a revised edition in the Poyser Natural History series); Islands; and Inheritance and Natural History. In the latter, he summarizes and presents clearly not only his own work on British island mammals, but also the voluminous work carried out in Britain on snails, butterflies, grasshoppers, spittle bugs, etc.

The cover of Berry’s last New Naturalist. A St. Kilda wren (Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis), an endemic subspecies produced by insular evolution,  overlooks Village Bay on St. Kilda, while puffins and gannets, for which St. Kilda is an essential breeding stronghold, wheel overhead. It illustrates two of Berry’s greatest interests: the importance of islands for studies of evolution, and for conservation.

His interest in natural history led naturally to a strong interest in the promotion of conservation, and in this work he promoted and recognized the importance of dedicated amateurs to understanding biodiversity– what is now sometimes called ‘citizen science’. His New Naturalist books on Shetland and Orkney depended heavily on the contributions of local and amateur naturalists to achieve their comprehensive coverage, which he freely acknowledged. His conservation work was recognized by the National Biodiversity Network Trust, which awarded him Honorary Membership in 2009.

Berry was also active in scientific societies, being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1981, and being influential in the creation of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in its present form (as well as being President of the Society). He was the second editor of the Journal, and edited a number of important issues, including one on evolution in the Galapagos, for which he wrote the introductory essay “Darwin was astonished” (one of my favorite paper titles). In celebration of his many contributions, the Linnean Society has issued a virtual issue of many of his most important papers in the Journal. These articles are open access, and will give a good feel for the depth and range of Berry’s research.

R.J. Berry and colleague with a house mouse in front of a corn rick; ricks are fertile ground for collecting house mice; ca. 1970s. Courtesy of A. Berry.

He was an engaged member of the Church of England, and wrote a number of books arguing the essential compatibility of science and religion, and he was the Gifford Lecturer on natural theology in 1997-98. There have been notices and appreciations by a number of Church related organizations, including Christianity Today and The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.  Joining his religious convictions with one of his secular interests, he was a leading advocate of Christian environmentalism, and was a founder of A Rocha International and the John Ray Initiative, both prominent Christian environmental organizations.

As a prominent accommodationist, his views were in strong contrast to Jerry’s frequently expressed view, epitomized in Faith vs. Fact, that science and religion are incompatible. I can find no evidence that Berry’s work, in lab or field, was influenced by his religious commitments– in all of it he was a thoroughgoing participant in the mainstream of Darwinism. Indeed, I read his work for decades before appreciating his religious views. As John Maynard Smith said of Dick Lewontin‘s Marxism, Berry’s Christianity is not a readily evident determinant of his scientific conclusions.

The British Library interviewed Prof Berry for their Voices in Science project. You can listen to a few clips here, or to the full interview here.

R.J. Berry, showing off a vole for the camera. Courtesy of A. Berry.

I am grateful to my colleague Andrew Berry, Sam Berry’s son and lecturer on organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard, for answering queries, providing photos, and commenting on an earlier draft of this post.

There is no listing of all Berry’s publications that I am aware of. I include here just a few works that I have read or own.

Berry, R.J. 1964 The Evolution of an island population of the house mouse. Evolution 18:468-483.

Berry, R.J. 1969. History in the evolution of Apodemus sylvaticus (Mammalia) at one edge of its range J. Zool. London 159:311-328.

Berry, R.J. 1977. Inheritance and Natural History. Collins, London.

Berry, R.J. 2000. Orkney Nature. T & AD Poyser, London.

Berry, R.J., T.J. Crawford and J.M. Hewitt, eds. 1992. Genes in Ecology. Blackwell, Oxford.

Berry, R.J. and F.E.N. Rose. 1975. Islands and the evolution of Microtus arvalis (Microtinae). J. Zool. London 177:395-409.

Berry, R.J. and H.N. Southern, eds. 1970. Variation in Mammalian Populations. Zoological Society of London Symposia 26. Academic Press, London.

Berry, R.J., F.H. Tattersall, and J. Hurst. 2008. House mouse. pp. 141-149 in Harris, S. and D.W. Yalden, eds. Mammal of the British Isles: Handbook. 4th ed. Mammal Society, Southampton.

Maynard Smith, J. 1985. Molecules are not enough (review of The Dialectical Biologist by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin). London Review of Books.

Searle, J.B. … R.J. Berry, … and F. Johannesdottir. 2009. Of mice and (Viking?) men: phylogeography of British and Irish house mice. Proc. Roy. Soc. B 276: 201-207.

9 thoughts on “R.J. “Sam” Berry, 1934-2018

  1. What a nice, interesting write up. I have never heard of “Callanish standing stones, Lewis, Outer Hebrides”

    1. The Callanish standing stones are pretty spectacular, in a spectacular landscape – there are at least three sets. See Wikipedia for more info. I’ve visited them a few times while cycle touring on the Hebrides.


  2. Thanks Greg for the very interesting obituary. Never read any of his work but have read about it…

    By the way all the New Naturalist books are beautiful.

  3. A warm, heartfelt remembrance and a pleasure to read. As a non-scientist/science wannabe, I appreciate posts like these as they expose me to the work and lives of the non-celebrity scientist (not that I find fault with them or their popularity) however I think it would be a nice occasional feature here if we could hear about these quiet giants of the field and lab before they die. Either way, thank you for sharing and for alerting me to some (old) new books I’ll have to seek out.

  4. What a lovely tribute. I must get a copy of Islands.
    I dont know if this is of relevance but the CofE is a rather different prospect that American Evangelism in terms of it’s religiosity.
    (Old joke, for the British Census under “Religion” if “None” put “Cof E”.)
    No specific beliefs other than a liking for country churches seem to be required for membership.
    Frankly, we Brits all thought we had sent the religious wingnuts off to America (and good riddance to them, “Bye bye nutters, go off and be America!” we said as we waved them goodbye at Plymouth. Phew, now we can party).
    However, we then decided to import a new crop of wingnuts. It seems like the stock of wingnuts is more or less constant

  5. What an interesting guy. Had I stayed in biology that’s exactly the sort of work I’d have loved to do. Hooray for field work!

    It’s really a shame people can’t read their obituaries before they die. (Well, some do; some even write theirs, of course; I don’t mean them.) Professor Berry led such an inquisitive, accomplished, generous, and no doubt vastly rewarding life. So nice to read about such a person.

  6. His Inheritance and Natural History in the New Naturalist series is an excellent book (albeit probably slightly dated by now) and a great introduction to population genetics.

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