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.

David M. Raup, 1933-2015

July 16, 2015 • 4:39 pm

by Greg Mayer

David Raup, one of the leading figures in the return of paleontology to the “high table” of evolutionary biology in the late 20th century, died this past Thursday, July 9, at the age of 82. Raup attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, got his doctorate at Harvard, and was associated most prominently first with the University of Rochester, and then again the University of Chicago, from which he retired in 1995.

David M. Raup, 1933-2015
David M. Raup (1933-2015) in 1981.

Beginning in the 1970s, paleontology was rejuvenated by a renewed interest in what the fossil record shows about both the broad scale patterns of changes in biodiversity through time, and the details of how particular lineages change through time. Raup was one of the most influential figures in this recrudescence, along with his colleagues Stephen Jay Gould, Tom Schopf, and Jack Sepkoski. The great British geneticist John Maynard Smith, said in 1984 of this flowering of paleontology, “The paleontologists have been too long missing from the high table. Welcome back.”

Raup’s most distinguished contributions came in two areas, both marked by a sophisticated, quantitative, approach. In the first, he made great strides in the area of theoretical morphology, developing mathematical descriptions of the possible shapes of mollusk shells, and then asking which parts of the morphological space defined by these equations are occupied, which are not occupied, and why. In a popular exposition based on Raup’s work, Richard Dawkins called this morphological space “The Museum of All Shells”. The mathematical description of shells that don’t exist (i.e. those that are in the parts of the morphological space not occupied) might seem odd or unnecessary, but understanding the possibilities of morphological transformation is key to understanding what it is that constrains, and what it is that enables or directs, evolutionary change. As A.S. Eddington put it, “We need scarcely add that the contemplation in natural science of a wider domain than the actual leads to a far better understanding of the actual.”

Raup's (1966) morphological space-- the
Raup’s (1966) morphological space– “The Museum of All Shells”.

In the second, and more extensive, area of his distinguished contributions, Raup looked at levels of diversity, origination, and extinction through time in order to describe the pattern of these events and to model processes that could account for them. He was particularly interested in the relative influences of random versus deterministic factors in explaining the broad patterns in the history of diversification and extinction, notably detecting a periodicity in the history of mass extinctions.

A 26 million year periodicity of mass extinction (still debated) from Raup and Sepkoski (1980).
A 26 million year periodicity of mass extinction (still debated) from Raup and Sepkoski (1984).

In addition to his intellectual contributions, Raup had a significant effect on the institutional development of the field. In 1975, he was one of the founding members of the editorial board of Paleobiology, a journal dedicated to advancing, and a marker of, paleontology’s growth and renewed influence in the broader discipline of evolutionary biology. He had two papers in the inaugural issue, one coauthored with Schopf, Gould, and Daniel Simberloff.  His other major contribution to the institutional development of the discipline was the publication, with Steven M. Stanley, of the influential textbook, Principles of Paleontology (1971; second edition 1978). Unlike previous paleontological textbooks, Principles had nary a key for identifying fossils or a compilation of taxa and their geological distributions: it was about the principles: systematics, biostratigraphy, paleoecology, evolution, and biogeography. On my own bookshelf, it sits inches away from an earlier influential text– Moore, Lalicker, and Fischer’s Invertebrate Fossils— which has a lonely chapter on principles, followed by 22 chapters and 700 pages of dense taxonomic and morphological detail. Raup stood out from traditional paleontologists, even among his fellow young Turks, for doing little or no descriptive systematic and stratigraphic work– even Gould had a long (and little-known) parallel publishing career on the systematic and zoogeographic nitty gritty of West Indian land snails of the genus Cerion— and his textbook reflects this.

Principles of Paleontology (2nd edition, 1978).
Principles of Paleontology (2nd edition, 1978).

The University of Chicago remained a hotbed of palebiology after Raup’s retirement, and his influence there is still strongly felt, with luminaries such as Dave Jablonski and Raup’s former student Mike Foote carrying on the tradition; Mike, with Arnold Miller of the University of Cincinnati, has brought out a third edition (2006) of Raup’s textbook.

h/t Bob Richards


Dawkins, R. 1996. Climbing Mount Improbable. W.W. Norton, New York.

Foote, M. and A.I. Miller. 2006. Principles of Paleontology. 3rd edition. W.H. Freeman, New York.

Maynard Smith, J. 1984. Palaeontology at the high table. Nature 309:401-402 pdf

Moore, R.C., C.G. Lalicker, and A.G. Fischer. 1952. Invertebrate Fossils. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Raup, D.M. 1966. Geometric analysis of shell coiling: general problems. Journal of Paleontology 40:1178-1190. pdf

Raup, D.M. and J.J. Sepkoski. 1984. Periodicity of extinctions in the geologic past. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 81:801-805. pdf

Raup, D.M. and S.M. Stanley. 1971. Principles of Paleontology. W.H. Freeman, San Francisco. (2nd edition, 1978).

RIP Christopher Lee

June 11, 2015 • 12:00 pm

by Grania Spingies

Christopher Lee has passed away at the very respectable age of 93, and what a life it’s been.

In recent years his portrayal of Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy made him a household name to a new generation, but of course he was also a veteran of countless Hammer Horror movies and was the iconic Count Dracula in many of them. His voice gave his roles the sort of gravitas that made him impossible to ignore.

Dracula

saruman

The movie that I think was probably his finest was The Wicker Man (1973) where he was just the right combination of authoritative voice of reason and coldly calculating cult leader.

wicker man 1973

I was told when I bought the movie that it was a frightening horror film, but I found myself grinning in delight most of the way through it. Perhaps I am a psychopath, but more likely it is just a superbly crafted and performed film.

He was also a veteran of World War II, something that he elaborated on a bit in the DVD extras of LOTR, when he calmly tutored his director on what someone being stabbed in the back really sounds like. It was a whole other life and career before acting made him famous.

He was not however, at all glib about that experience:

lee quote

A remarkable person and a remarkable life.

 

 

 

Evolution 2014: Daniel Matute, Dobzhansky Prize winner

July 14, 2014 • 10:26 am

by Greg Mayer

At the end of last month I attended the Evolution 2014 meetings in Raleigh, North Carolina. Jerry already posted one note about the meetings from Mohamed Noor’s tw**t about the “banana creationist” who protested outside the meeting, and I’ll have a few more posts to add. A good place to start is with Daniel Matute, Jerry’s “hot-dog student” (Jerry’s phrase!), who was awarded the 2014 Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize by the Society for the Study of Evolution, as Jerry announced here earlier this year.

Dan Matute giving the Dobzhansky Prize Lecture at Evolution 2014 in Raleigh, NC.
Daniel Matute giving the Dobzhansky Prize Lecture at Evolution 2014 in Raleigh, NC.

Dobzhansky, as we’ve noted here at WEIT before, was one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, a key figure in expanding the synthesis of Mendelism and Darwinism from theoretical population genetics into the more empirical disciplines, both through his own work and his influence on others; he is also Jerry’s academic grandfather, and thus Daniel’s academic great-grandfather. The prize recognizes an outstanding young evolutionary biologist of great accomplishment and promise; Daniel is the second of Jerry’s students to receive it (the first was Allen Orr). The chief duty of the prize winner is to give a plenary address at the annual meeting (and pick up the award check!).

Dan Matute, just after giving his talk.
Daniel Matute, just after giving his talk. [JAC: he does have arms!]
Daniel’s talk was entitled “Drosophila, reproductive isolation, and speciation”, and concerned his work on the genetics of speciation, with special reference to the species of São Tomé Island in the Gulf of Guinea (here’s a video of a talk Jerry gave on the subject), and natural selection favoring pre-zygotic isolating barriers (a phenomenon known as reinforcement, because it ‘reinforces’ the isolation between nascent species). Jerry has discussed Daniel’s work in previous posts here, here, and here, and you should look at these for a fuller discussion of Daniel’s work.

Daniel also reflected on his path from Colombia to the University of Chicago, and now “soon to be professor” (as Dobzhansky always said) at the University of North Carolina, noting that English was a second language (saying that when he got here, “it was painful to read me”), and thanking all those who had guided and helped him along the way. He said, “Jerry is family to me.”

Peter O’Toole, 1932-2013

December 15, 2013 • 2:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

The great Irish/English actor Peter O’Toole has died at the age of 81 in London. He was nominated eight times for the Academy Award for Best Actor from 1962 to 2006, but never won it; he had the most nominations ever of a non-winner. His most famous role was as T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia“.

Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence, in a still reminiscent of a famous sketch Lawrence. (From The Guardian)
Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, in a still reminiscent of a famous sketch of Lawrence. (From The Guardian.)

Jerry and I both have an interest in the real T.E. Lawrence (Jerry recounted a visit to Lawrence’s home, Clouds Hill in Dorset, while I gave a brief account of his life here at WEIT), and it is through the lens of his breakthrough role that we see O’Toole. I regard his portrayal as a great achievement in acting in a great film, even though there is much that is historically inaccurate in it for the Lawrence aficionado. The following picture is of O’Toole with Omar Sharif (also excellent) as Sherif Ali bin Hussein (a composite character based on several actual Arab leaders) at the battle of Tafas. The scene is brilliant cinema– it is so searing I can recite most of the lines from memory– though much of the dialogue and action is fictionalized. The scene captures well the strength of the film as art, and also its limitations as history.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in "Lawrence of Arabia". (From The New York Times.)
Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia”. (From The New York Times.)

O’Toole of course did much work besides this breakthrough role. I would particularly note his role in “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter“, and his ‘performances’ on any number of late night talk shows, where he never failed to please as a raconteur and bon vivant par excellence. (And also “How to Steal a Million“!) The news articles linked to in the first sentence lead to obituaries giving a much fuller account of his life and work.  Benedict Nightingale at the New York Times describes him as

… an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose magnetic performance in the 1962 epic film “Lawrence of Arabia” earned him overnight fame and put him on the road to becoming one of his generation’s most accomplished and charismatic actors… A blond, blue-eyed six-footer, Mr. O’Toole had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man…

A wide-screen view of O'Toole as Lawrence. (From Yahoo News.)
A wide-screen view of O’Toole as Lawrence. (From Yahoo News.)

Addendum. And here’s a favorite late night appearance. In it, O’Toole says what he wants written on his tomb stone: “It distresses us to return work which is not perfect.” Watch it for the full story.

[link updated 10.i.2019]

The anniversary

November 22, 2013 • 7:49 am

All Americans, and many others, know that today is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas in 1963. He was 45 years old.

If you were alive then, and in America, you’ll remember the initial confusion after he had been shot, for it was a considerable time between the shots in Dealey Plaza and the official announcement of Kennedy’s death. You’ll also remember the mass outpouring of grief: the way perfect strangers hugged each other and everyone was crying in the streets, listening the news on car radios.  If you were watching television, you’ll remember Walter Cronkite’s poignant announcement of Kennedy’s death, and how he removed his glasses to look at the clock, checking the official time of death:

Everyone who was alive then, and old enough to have memories, knows exactly where they were at the moment they learned that Kennedy was dead. I was in junior high school, in class, when an announcement came over the public address system giving the news.  There was horror, shock, and lots of tears, but I don’t remember classes being cancelled.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the next three days until Kennedy’s funeral: the wondering whether the Russians would take advantage of his death to “do something”, the speculation that the assassin had acted on behalf of a group, the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, live on television. And finally the closure of the funeral itself: the grace and dignity of Mrs. Kennedy in the face of her husband’s horrible death (she had recovered bits of his brains from the trunk of the car in Dallas), the caisson, the riderless horse with the boots backwards in the stirrups, and the ineffably moving salute of John-John as the coffin passed.

If you were alive then, do you remember where you were?

Remembrances of Ken Miyata

August 5, 2013 • 12:08 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry and I have written a number of times here at WEIT about our late friend and colleague Ken Miyata, a naturalist, scientist, photographer, writer, and fisherman of great talent who named Jerry’s frog, Atelopus coynei, and tragically died in 1983.

Ken Miyata fishing, by b wu.
Ken Miyata fishing, by b wu.

Jon Losos at the Museum of Comparative Zoology has prepared for publication some of Ken’s unpublished studies, and they have just appeared in the latest issue of the MCZ’s Bulletin. In addition to Ken’s paper, there is an online supplement  to the Bulletin with remembrances of Ken by Jerry, myself, and several other of Ken’s friends and colleagues (and a further posting at Anole Annals with the recollections of David Wake). Some of the recollections will be familiar to WEIT readers from previous posts by Jerry and me, but others, especially those of b wu and Eric Larson, will give new insight into Ken’s remarkable accomplishments during his all too short life.

_______________________________________________________________

Miyata, K.I. 2013. Ecological and population data on some little known Ecuadorian anoles. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 161(2):45-78. pdf

Wu, B., E. Larson, G. Mayer, J. Coyne, R. Huey, and C. Crumly. 2013. Ken Miyata: some remembrances. Supplement to Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 161(2), 9 pp. pdf

Google doodle honors Douglas Adams

March 11, 2013 • 8:54 am

I have to confess that I’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I really want to, but I’m terribly pressed for time and the only copy in the University of Chicago Library is the last volume—and it’s far away in the law library, of all places. But I’ve watched Douglas Adams’s wonderful talks on YouTube, and have read his engrossing book written with Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See, a hilarious and touching paean to vanishing species (highly recommended).

Today’s Google Doodle, which is animated (see it here), honors Adams, taken far too young by a heart attack (he would have been 61 today had he lived, but he died in 2001).

Picture 3
We all know Adams’s famous refutation of the anthropic principle involving a puddle that fits nicely in its hole. He was of course a “militant” atheist. This morning the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent around some information as part of its “Freethought of the Day”.

Adams called himself a “committed Christian” as a teenager, who began to rethink his beliefs at age 18 after listening to the nonsense of a street preacher. He credited books by his friend, Richard Dawkins, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, for helping to cement his views on religion. In one of his speeches, Dawkins quotes Adams, who said: “Now, the invention of the scientific method is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked. If it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. (“Emperor Has No Clothes” Award acceptance speech, reprinted in Freethought Today, October 2001.) In The Salmon of Doubt, a compilation of Adams’ writings published posthumously in 2002, Adams wrote of religion: “But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously.”

And Adams’s “thought:

“If you describe yourself as ‘Atheist,’ some people will say, ‘Don’t you mean “Agnostic’?” ‘ I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god—in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague wishy-washy Agnosticism—both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.”

—Douglas Adams, interview, American Atheist (Winter 1998-99)

h/t: Dennis, Diane G.

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., 1940-2012

November 13, 2012 • 11:42 pm

by Greg Mayer

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Alexander Agassiz Professor in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, died on November 11, 2012. Farish made major contributions to vertebrate paleontology, functional morphology, and evolutionary biology. He had been ill with cancer for some time, but had continued to work productively, and his death came quickly following a recent reverse. (See update below.)

Farish Jenkins in the vertebrate paleontology collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, holding a skull of Massetognathus, a Triassic cynodont (an advanced mammal-like reptile) from the Chanares Formation, Argentina. Photo by Hilary Rosner, Tooth & Claw.

Although Farish published on many subjects, the part of his work likely to be of most interest to WEIT readers is that on transitional forms. Farish worked on three great transformations in the history of tetrapods, including two that have become classic case studies in the origin of higher taxa. First, he worked on the origin of mammals, often in collaboration with his  MCZ colleague, A.W. “Fuzz” Crompton. That the ancestors of mammals were to be sought among a particular group of fossil reptiles known as synapsids had been known since the 19th century. What Farish, Fuzz, and many colleagues helped to show was how this transition occurred, and how the bones of the reptilian jaw joint of synapsids moved in to the middle ear of mammals to become ear ossicles, while a new jaw joint, the mammalian jaw joint, evolved. It is a favorite tactic of creationists, even today, to ask how possibly could the jaw of a reptile come unhinged, and a new joint develop, with the reptile bones passing into the ear? Well, the answer is, we know exactly how they did it, because we have the fossils- read Crompton and Jenkins, and look at the pictures!  (For the latest on mammalian ear evolution, see this paper by Luo Zhe Xi.)

Farish was one of the triumvirate who, along with Neil Shubin and Ted Daeschler, described Tiktaalik, the fish-tetrapod intermediate from Arctic Canada that made the front pages of newspapers around the world when it’s discovery was publicly announced in 2006. Neil and Ted got most of the media appearances, but it was Farish who was the old hand at arctic paleontological exploration (in the video below, look for Farish at 1:45). Although describing Tiktaalik taxonomically and morphologically was but a small part of his copious output, Farish may be best remembered for this work.

Most recently, Farish and colleagues completed a monographic account of Eocaecilia, a caecilian with limbs (which they had named and briefly described years earlier). Caecilians (not to be confused with the edible variety) are a group of tropical amphibians which today lack limbs, and Eocaecilia is a form that is transitional from fully-limbed ancestors to the modern condition.

Eocaecilia micropodia (‘the tiny-footed dawn caecilian’) from Jenkins and Walsh, 1993.

Both Jerry and I knew Farish from our days at the MCZ. I last saw him on a visit a year or two ago, after he was diagnosed with cancer, but he was his usual voluble self; Jerry saw him at the MCZ just a few months ago. Always impeccably dressed and charming, he had the demeanor of what I imagine a retired officer of the Royal Horse Guards would be like. He helped organize and lead a superb graduate course on vertebrate paleontology (I cannot recall now whether I enrolled or just attended) in the comfortable environs of the Romer Library, named for one of his distinguished predecessors at the MCZ, Alfred Sherwood Romer. I do recall stories of Arctic fossil hunting, with high powered rifles a necessity, as one man stood guard for polar bears, while others peered at the rocks. In addition to his teaching duties in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Farish taught human anatomy at the medical school. His comparative and evolutionary approach was not only appreciated by medical students, but also provided an opportunity for vertebrate morphology graduate students, by either taking the course or assisting in its teaching (or both), to gain the experience and background in human anatomy that would allow them to go on and train generations of physicians, as well as commanding the much higher salaries found in medical school anatomy departments. The Nature News Blog has some nice recollections of Farish by Hopi Hoekstra, the MCZ’s curator of mammals. The science writer Hilary Rosner has posted an endearing reminiscence of her encounters with Farish, along with a number of fine photographs, at her blog, Tooth & ClawAs another MCZ colleague put it to me earlier today, “His lectures were legendary…He was a scholar and a gentleman, and truly one of kind.”

A symposium in Farish’s honor, Great Transformations, was held last June. Like Ernst Mayr, also of the MCZ, who got to attend and speak at his 100th birthday symposium, Farish too was able to attend and speak at this gathering to celebrate his achievements. I understand there is a festschrift of the contributions in the works, but unfortunately Farish will now not see it.

Update. More accounts and reminiscences well worth reading have appeared in the Harvard Gazette, Boston Globe, and at Postcardsfrom Farish.

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Crompton, A.W. and F.A. Jenkins, Jr. 1973. Mammals from reptiles: a review of mammalian origins. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 1:131-155.

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50 years on: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”

September 27, 2012 • 4:37 am

by Matthew Cobb

Over at The Guardian, Leo Hickman reminds us that 50 years ago today, Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” was published, with an amazing first print run of 150,000 copies.  Carson’s dramatic ecological warning of the effects of insecticides on bird populations played an important part in bringing the problems of population, and the complexity of ecology, into the public domain.

Hickman has asked the great and the good to send him their views of the influence of the book, which makes for pretty interesting reading. He also has some telling and perceptive contemporary reviews, including this one from a personal hero of mine, W. H. Thorpe, one of the early pioneers of animal behaviour, and in particular of the studies of insects.

So, readers of WEIT: what are your memories/knowledge of Silent Spring? At home we had one on our shelves, which my mother must have bought (my father died in 1961). I never spoke to her about why she bought it, and she’s too old to remember now. To my childish mind, it formed part of the catastrophic sci fi literature of the 1950s and 1960s (Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, On the Beach, Canticle for Leibowitz etc), which I read and devoured. The difference was, this was real. And 50 years on, we can see the consequences, at least in the UK, where once-plentiful birds like sparrows and starlings have become rare, at the same time as many insects have declined. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but this link seems pretty compelling.

Rachel Carson herself I am amazed to learn, died in 1964, at the amazingly young age of 57 (she had a heart attack, but had been suffering from breast cancer). She was a marine biologist, who wrote popular books on conservation, and can be seen here doing field work in 1952:

File:Rachel Carson Conducts Marine Biology Research with Bob Hines.jpg

Carson was also a cat person, as this great pic from 24 September 1962 shows. The cute kitteh is called Moppet.

The book – which had an amazing print run of 150,000 copies – is still in print, though bibliophiles might prefer to pick up a first edition, which go for upward of $700. The top price on Abebooks.com (keep away from the website if you want to keep your bank balance) is $5500 for this copy, complete with signed card:

A Sunday newspaper cartoon marked Carson’s passing in a touching way in 1964:File:Gordocarson.jpg

Info and pics from Wikipedia, with the exception of the Moppet pic and the book pic (abebooks).
h/t to Bernard Leikind who pointed this out to Jerry, who asked me to post.