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I had a great fortune to have met Leigh Van Valen in person once. And of course I read a lot of his stuff. Always thought-provoking. His wisdom will be missed.
I’ll have to dig out Van Valen’s big paper, and blog about it. But a little wrinkle is that he originally called it the “Red Queen’s Hypothesis”, and was explicitly interested in extinction. Somewhere both the name and the intention of the theory shifted.
I actually took one of his classes. The class (Evolutionary Processes) was an amazing review of “older” literature (i.e. 10 years-200 years old), and was so wide-ranging as to not really fit into any category. It could be painfully awkward at times. He encouraged class participation at times by saying “I will not be the next to speak.” And, true to his word, sometimes 20 minutes would go by with almost nothing said.
That being said, after going through that class, you’d have a hell of a shelf full of reading material, and if you read half of it, you could consider yourself introduced to evolution. And if you showed up for the final class, you were treated to a spectacle of Leigh variously bellowing at the top of his lungs or chanting softly to many verses of his own poetry on evolution. He brought along a pillow for the purpose of percussion accompaniment. He would set it on the large heavy wood table and pound on it in time to one of the poems (about dinosaur copulation, if I recall). It was bizarre, amusing, fun, and very memorable.
An interesting note is that the journal he started “Evolutionary Theory” was also the journal that he published his famous Red Queen Hypothesis in. If I recall properly (and I may be wrong) this was basically a 1970s attempt at PLoS. I don’t think he sought to make a profit or own the copyright of any of the works in that journal. Leigh was an interesting man indeed.
The Red Queen’s hypothesis paper was the first paper in Evolutionary Theory. I dug out my photocopy of it – some of the equations are written in by hand!
What a terrible year, and loss, for Chicago.
I remember three things very clearly about Evolutionary Processes. (Hey, it’s a wonder I can remember anything at this age.) First, a big discussion about the meaning(s) 0f “individual”. This can be complicated, especially in plants. Second, a major argument about cladistics, with Leigh taking the anti position and everyone else taking the pro. And third, the last class, more or less as JJE described it, but minus the pillow. I recall that we came in and sat down, Leigh completely silent, and then at the appropriate moment he began singing “It’s a long way from Amphioxus”. Eventually he gave us a handout with the words.
In my opinion, Van Valen was one of the most creative and diverse thinkers in evolutionary biology. His work on species concepts, fluctuating asymmetry, homology, extinction rates, thermodynamics of community assemblages, early fossil primates and other mammals, group selection, and fuzzy sets are all great contributions. He wasn’t always viewed as “right” but there are productive ways of being wrong. And many things he got right.
Evolutionary Theory was always an interesting read, particularly the stuff published in the mid 70s.
i only knew leigh from my years of writing a blog, but he invited me to move into a flat that he owned next door to his house in chicago during those incredibly rough 6.5 years of unemployment. i’ve been ill recently, but i plan to write about leigh on my Guardian blog.
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. http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/dick-lewontin-reviews-what-darwin-got-wrong.
PS. i heard from several uofc graduate students at a conference that over the last decade leigh was harassed systematically by the former ecoevo chair, c-i.wu. this creep wanted to take away leigh’s lab space to install a paper churner who would bring fed.grant money to the uofc’s parasitic bureaucrats. the harassment included hiding leigh’s excellent teaching evaluations to deny him any defense arguments. i also heard that leigh lost his space but only after the creep resigned due to a scandal involving fraud by a top clerical officer. sounds like disneyland !? 😉
i also was told that leigh’s papers have been claimed by the american association for the history of science [or something like that]. and they offered to make paper shredders available for his colleagues when they will retire.
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