Leigh Van Valen, at 76; prolific evolutionary biologist

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / November 1, 2010

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NEW YORK — 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 Dr. 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.

Dr. Van Valen, who died in Chicago on Oct. 16 at age 76, changed the conversation about how life works in 1973 when he put forward “a new evolutionary law.’’ Others call it Van Valen’s law.

Based on the study of fossils, it states that the length of a species’ existence says nothing about its chances of dying off. For Dr. Van Valen, evolution was an “arms race.’’ The best a species can do to survive, he said, is to respond to an adversary’s adaptations, quickly and ceaselessly. A modern lion, for example, might easily outwit an ancient antelope, but it might be no better at outwitting modern antelopes than ancient lions were at outwitting ancient antelopes, and vice versa. (The antelopes might run faster.)

Dr. Van Valen’s metaphor to describe this idea came from the Red Queen. In Carroll’s book, Alice complains that she is exhausted from running, only to find she is still under the tree where she started.

The Red Queen answers: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.’’

While it might seem more efficient for an organism to reproduce without the need for a second sex, Dr. Van Valen’s Red Queen hypothesis maintained that sexual reproduction beats the asexual kind because the former multiplies the possible genetic combinations, bolstering a species’ ability to respond to an enemy’s adaptations.

Allan Larson, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, called “A New Evolutionary Law,’’ Dr. Van Valen’s paper on the subject, “one of the most influential and controversial works published in evolutionary biology.’’

The range of Dr. Van Valen’s work was staggering, said David Jablonski, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. Among his discoveries was that primates had coexisted with dinosaurs, which he later helped prove had survived a million years longer than thought.

Dr. Van Valen never wrote a book but churned out more than 300 papers, many of which provoked new directions of inquiry. After each, he tended to move on, often never publishing in the same field again.

Leigh Van Valen was born in Albany. He earned a zoology degree at age 20 from Miami University of Ohio.

After earning his PhD from Columbia, Dr. Van Valen did postdoctoral work at Columbia, University College London, and the American Museum of Natural History. He joined the University of Chicago in 1967.

Dr. Van Valen died of complications of pneumonia, said his wife, Virginia Maiorana.