Van Valen

"My interests go beyond what the blurb indicates."

I was born in Albany and raised in Cincinnati. I went to Miami (Ohio) University because Chicago rejected my undergraduate application, and then to Columbia and the American Museum of Natural History for graduate work with George Gaylord Simpson and Theodosius Dobzhansky. I did a postdoc in London with John Maynard Smith and then supported myself on grants until I arrived at Chicago in 1967. After a few years I escaped from what was then the Anatomy Department and joined what is now Ecology and Evolution.

I’m a relative generalist; e.g., I’ve supervised doctoral theses in all four graduate Divisions. Such deviance still causes problems. Thus I can’t predict even what field of science I’ll be working in even a year in advance, and I’m unwilling to say falsely that I can. I’ve therefore been ineligible for grants (for myself, not students) from all sources for 35 years, although I had been 100% supported for about ten years before this. In 1976 I published an account of the problem in Nature.

Most of my work has been in paleontology, ecology, genetics, macroevolution, and philosophy, but I’ve done a good deal of work in other areas in and outside of biology. An advantage of being a generalist is the ability to see important gaps in a wide variety of areas. My work has been more in finding new ways to look at gaps rather than filling them in, although I’ve done quite a bit of the latter too. I’ve originated a moderate number of widely used concepts, not all uniquely, probably the most important being:

  • Fluctuating asymmetry
  • Fuzzy sets (as later renamed by Zadeh)
  • Red Queen’s Hypothesis (which has always been primarily a hypothesis in ecology)
  • Metapopulations (published a few months earlier by Levins, but our only communication on it had been from me to him; the term is his)
  • Source-sink equilibria (published a few months earlier by Lidicker, in a book I hadn’t seen; the term is his)
  • Ecological species concept
  • Hennig’s Principle, published before I or most other non-Germans had heard of his earlier book (but this one might be considered reinventing a wheel)
  • There is also something called Van Valen’s Test in statistics, to which the current Encyclopedia of Statistical Sciences devotes four pages.

I founded two journals that partly filled large gaps (by their approaches rather than subject matter). I avoid hot areas, including those I’ve originated myself. In general I try to do work nobody else is likely to do, at least not in ways that I want to do it.

Leigh Van Valen