Leigh Van Valen, RIP: The man behind the Red Queen

By Carl Zimmer | October 31, 2010 11:24 am

In the New York Times, Douglas Martin has a fine obituary of one of the more intriguing figures in the history of evolutionary biology, Leigh Van Valen:

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.

Be sure to read the rest. (One clarification worth making: the cells Van Valen thought should be named their own species were none other than HeLa cells, derived from Henrietta Lacks, the subject of Rebecca Skloot’s recent bestseller.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Link Love

Comments (7)

  1. Awh … thanks for posting this. For those interested, here’s the original 1992 Discover Magazine article about Van Valen’s theory that HeLa cells were no longer human, that they’d evolved into their own species. No one ever argued against his theory, but no one ever acted on it either:


  2. erpiu

    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 valiant attempt to overcome the mindless story-telling that perverts the modern evolutionary biology of “natural selection”. search for “van valen” in the link below, second posting by erpiu.


  3. Jacqueline

    Thank you for this. I did not know of him, but have enjoyed reading about his life and his contributions. This is possibly the most interesting and entertaining obituary I’ve ever read.

  4. That hypothesis helped explain why organisms, competing for survival, developed two sexes.

    That’s pretty mangled. Firstly, Van Valen’s Red Queen’s hypothesis had nothing to do with sex – he was explaining why extinction rates were constant within groups. The sex idea came later.

    Secondly, the Red Queen Hypothesis doesn’t explain why there are two sexes, but rather why there is sex at all. i.e. why an individual would reproduce by throwing away half of their genetic material.

  5. XJTA

    “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. ”

    I’m not aware of any biologist who has ever suggested that Helacyton was the last common ancestor of all eukaryotes.

  6. John Kwok

    Bob O’H –

    You’re absolutely right about the Red Queen. Am surprised, however, that the obituary author did get right the fact that eminent ecologist Michael Rosenzweig had proposed, independently of Van Valen, the Red Queen (Mike dubbed it the “Rat Race”), in a paper published in American Naturalist the very same year as Van Valen’s. While Mike was – and still is – brilliant is in own right, I can’t think of a prominent evolutionary biologist with a mind as unique as Van Valen’s.

  7. erpiu

    PS. i heard from several uofc graduate students at a conference that over the last decade leigh was harassed systematically by his 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 split with the uofc’s parasitic bureaucrats. the harassment included hiding leigh’s excellent teaching evaluations to so deny him defense arguments. i also heard that leigh lost his space 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 that the association offered to make paper shredders available for his colleagues when they retire.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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