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Leigh Van Valen (1935-2010)

Posted by erweinstein on October 21, 2010

Leigh Van Valen, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, died last Saturday, October 16. An internationally renowned evolutionary biologist, Van Valen was the originator of the “Red Queen hypothesis” and a founder of the field of paleobiology.

From the official University of Chicago press release:

In his most famous paper, “A New Evolutionary Law,” published in 1973, he introduced novel observations and a radical interpretation that together continue to shape the field. The first, which he labeled the law of constant extinction—often called Van Valen’s Law—states that the probability of extinction for species and larger evolutionary groups bears no relation to how long it may have already existed. The fossil record, he argued, shows that lineages become neither more extinction-resistant nor more vulnerable over time.

To explain this surprising pattern, he proposed the Red Queen hypothesis, a model of co-evolutionary interaction, and one of the most enduring metaphors in modern biology. It holds that the struggle for existence never eases up, so that no species or lineage ever pulls ahead for long. Instead there is a constant arms race among species or larger groups, such as a community of competing lineages or parasites and their hosts. In a world with a fixed amount of energy, each must continually develop new adaptations, weapons or defenses to keep up with the other, a prolonged sequence of mutational one-upmanship.


Considered unconventional even by eccentrics, Van Valen had a wide range of interests, spanning the history of all life forms. “I don’t work linearly,” he explained in a note to his department chair. “I am a generalist and tend to open new approaches more than fill them in. What I work on changes irregularly and unpredictably with the progress of theory and knowledge.”

“Leigh Van Valen was an unbelievably broad thinker, uniquely so,” recalled his colleague David Jablonski, the William Kenan Jr. Professor in Geophysical Sciences. “The breadth of his work was staggering. He was interested in big questions—in everything, actually—but especially in topics like how diversity came about, how it changed over time.”

The picture that emerges of Van Valen is that of a divergent, even radical, thinker. Although capable of specific, technical, and highly theoretical research, he had the soul of a generalist, as evidenced by the wide range of interests he possessed (not to mention his own statements, seen above). As his colleagues and former students attest, he was a unique scientist, and he stood out even at a university that is known for having more than its share of offbeat and eccentric professors.

Van Valen’s work, as transmitted through his greatest popularizer–British science journalist Matt Ridley, was hugely influential on my own worldview and my scientific ethos. I read Ridley’s book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature my junior year in high school. I was enthralled by Ridley’s account of the development of modern evolutionary biology, and fascinated by the exciting yet painstaking research of Ridley’s protagonists, including W.D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Donald Symons, and Leigh Van Valen. Even more than was already the case, scientists became my heroes, and professors became the men (like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking) and women (like Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall) that I esteemed. Although I soon decided that I found history far more interesting than biology (and would later decide that I found economics even more interesting than history, as my favorite parts of history tended to be economic history), I remained committed to the idea that I would dedicate my own life to scholarly inquiry. Thus, I owe the direction of my academic career to my reading of Ridley’s The Red Queen, and that book truly would not have existed but for the contributions of Leigh Van Valen.

Bryan Caplan has written (on more than one occasion) that he misses Julian Simon, even though he never met Simon. Well, I can say the same thing about Leigh Van Valen. Even though I (probably) never met you, I will miss you, Professor Van Valen!

Posted in Science | 2 Comments »

Remarks of the week

Posted by erweinstein on April 11, 2010

While both of these stories have already seen some coverage on more popular blogs (most notably on my favorite blog Marginal Revolution), they both express important points about social change.

1. The aging of humanity, from NewScientist:

In 19 countries, from Singapore to Iceland, people have a life expectancy of about 80 years. Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now. Meanwhile, women around the world have half as many children as their mothers. And if Japan is the model, their daughters may have half as many as they do.

2. Avoiding nostalgia for a mythical age of lost liberty, essay by David Boaz at

If you had to choose, would you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?

Boaz’s exhortation to remember the freedom-crushing injustices of the past–like slavery–is even more relevant in light of the controversy over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) declaring April to be “Confederate History Month”, without making any reference to slavery.

As they say, “Demography is destiny”, and “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

To cite my sources, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to story 1 here and to story 2 here.

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Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on September 1, 2008

This week’s winner is previous winner Tyler Cowen, a prominent blogger and economist specializing in government, culture, and the arts.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the exact predictive powers of climate models, or for that matter economic models, but uncertainty about outcomes should make us worry more not less.  Uncertainty usually has two tails, not just one.

Cowen’s comment illustrates why, although I am somewhat skeptical of many claims associated with anthropogenic climate change and very skeptical of the specific predictions of most climate modelers, I favor moderate but immediate action to reduce carbon emissions and to prepare fail-safe measures for climate-related natural disasters. Provided, of course, that we can listen to economists as well as climate scientists and design policies with cost-benefit analysis in mind. On this subject, see William Nordhaus’ excellent book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming and Freeman Dyson’s comments in his essay/review of that book.

Happy Labor Day to all my readers, and on this US holiday the thoughts and prayers of myself and my relatives go out to the residents of the Gulf Coast who have been separated from their homes, friends, and families by the hurricane-related evacuation.

Posted in Economics, Random Thoughts, Science | Comments Off on Remark of the Week

Department of Meta

Posted by erweinstein on May 25, 2008

Nowadays, polls are so common that a telephone poll was done recently to estimate how often individuals are surveyed (the answer was about once per year).

Written by Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman.

Also read Lance Fortnow, a Northwestern University professor of theoretical computer science, complaining about this issue and the related matter of self-selected sample bias.

Meta-curiosities aside, Gelman’s statement is part of a very interesting blog post (and follow-up) about whether or not it is rational to vote given the low probability of one vote being decisive.

Gelman and his colleagues blog at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, one of the most consistently-educational and useful academic discipline blogs. Although some of the posts discuss very specific issues in applied statistics and are not intended for lay audiences (I don’t know R, although I hope to learn one day, so I have to skip the posts about statistics coding), Gelman often links to and explains his own research. The papers analyzing voting, districting, party affiliation, and other political issues are especially interesting (and timely, considering that we’re approaching a potentially historic presidential and general election season in the US), and he also throws in posts about methodology/philosophy in statistics and social sciences for variety. A new book summarizing his applied research on US elections and voting behavior, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (see here also), is due to be published this fall.

P.S.: Thanks to Eli for pointing out in an unrelated conversation a few months ago that meta is Greek for “after”.

Posted in Politics, Random Thoughts, Science | 2 Comments »

Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on November 2, 2007

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, discussing this article by his colleague Ed Glaeser:

Ed Glaeser thinks boys and girls are different. Does this mean he will never be President of Harvard?

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High school math boosts college science

Posted by erweinstein on July 26, 2007

A Harvard press release details a new study showing that preparation in high school mathematics predicts better grades in college biology, chemistry, and physics. The study was conducted by Philip M. Sadler of Harvard and Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia, and their journal article will be released in Science this week. Sadler and Tai surveyed 8,474 students taking “introductory science courses” at 63 colleges and universities and found interesting relationships between years of high school coursework and college grades. While the amount of high school background in each subject correlates with college performance for that same subject, only high school mathematics demonstrates the “halo effect” that improves college scores in other fields.

Posted in Mathematics, Science | Comments Off on High school math boosts college science

Proof is the bottom line for everyone

Posted by erweinstein on October 5, 2005

I have a confession: I haven’t seen ‘Serenity’ yet. I’ll get to it, I promise. But at the University of Chicago, everyone is excited about the movie ‘Proof’. In case you haven’t heard, it’s about an earth-shatteringly brilliant but mentally ill University of Chicago mathematician (Anthony Hopkins), who in his final years is cared for by his daughter (Gweyneth Paltrow), herself a would-be mathematical theorist. The title has multiple meanings, but one of them refers to the discovery of what may or may not be an extremely important mathematical proof, completed by the Hopkins character during a period of mental clarity. On Tuesday night, I saw a special screening of ‘Proof’ at the campus cinema. The theater was packed to capacity, and the management actually delayed the start of the film by fifteen minutes so they could fill the last few seats. In addition to being set at the University of Chicago, the exterior shots were actually filmed in Chicago. Because it was the home-town crowd, there was some unnecessary but expected cheering upon viewing familiar locations or hearing some of the characters’ particularly Chicago-centric banter (including the obligatory potshots at Northwestern). However, the movie was excellent. In addition to agreeing with Roger Ebert’s four-star review, I have my own comments and analysis.

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Posted in Arts and literature, Mathematics, Religion, Science | 1 Comment »