Leigh Van Valen, R.I.P.

Wilkins reports Leigh Van Valen, paleontologist and evolution polymath (theorist, philosopher, mathematician, proponent of the Ecological Species Concept, and coiner of the Red Queen Hypothesis) has died.

He was 75, and will live on through his many students and his astonishingly broad body of research, which touched on everything from the evolution of whales to whether HeLa cells could be considered a new species.


  1. #1 Birger Johansson
    October 18, 2010

    It is sad that so many pioneers in this and adjacent fields have passed away the last 3-4 years.

  2. #2 arrzey
    October 18, 2010

    In the days before the verb “to mentor” existed, Leigh always had time for students. Despite his issues with the University of Chicago, he never stinted on teaching, in his own inimitable way. He made a difference to me.

  3. #3 Brian Beatty
    October 18, 2010

    In my brief time at UChicago OBA, Leigh was really inviting. I wanted to talk whales with him, as well as nomenclatural acts focused on Tolkien names, and he had me over to his lab for lunch. His genius and openness to ideas will be missed.

  4. #4 erpiu
    October 31, 2010

    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 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/

  5. #5 Vinton Thompson
    October 31, 2010

    Hi Josh,

    I’m checking in as one of Leigh Van Valen’s Ph.D. students and an old friend of your father’s from days quite a while back hanging with the evolutionists at U. of C. Leigh seems to have been the last of the old science crew to be active, though philosopher Bill Wimsatt is hanging in. Leigh gave me refuge when I needed it, gave me the leeway to do a dissertation in which he had little direct interest, and, inadvertently, gave me what turned out to be my life’s scientific work when he handed me a foot high stack of reprints (not pdf’s – this was back in prehistory) and suggested I peruse them for interesting topics. I lit on a couple of papers in the pile by Olli Halkka on color polymorphism in spittlebugs. Leigh bought me an insect net in the summer of 1970 and I’m still chasing those bugs. He was an unforgetable character.

  6. #6 erpiu
    January 4, 2011

    PS. i heard from several uofc graduate students at a conference that over the last few decades 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 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 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 his colleagues when they retire.

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