Balzan prize to Russell Lande!

by Matthew Cobb

Jerry’s pal Russell Lande, an evolutionary biologist and quantitative geneticist from Imperial College, has just won the Balzan Prize for Theoretical Biology or Genetics. This is no small beer – 750,000 Swiss Francs – and, strikingly, the terms of the prize are that ‘half (…) must be set aside (…) for research projects, preferably involving young researchers’. The International Balzan Foundation changes the subjects for which it awards its prizes each year.

I’m no expert on Russell’s work – the maths is a bit tough for me – but as a PhD student I was struck by his 1981 paper on ‘Models of speciation by sexual selection on polygenic traits’ (open access here). This is pretty heavy going (I found and still find), but the key thing is that he shows that ‘genetic mechanisms (…) can initiate or contribute to rapid speciation by sexual isolation and divergence of secondary sexual characters’. In other words, that things like courtship behaviour and sex pheromones (‘secondary sexual characters’) can be involved in rapid speciation. You still need the observational evidence to prove this is the case in any given instance, but it was this kind of ground-breaking work and his subsequent focus on the identification of characters under selection, and issues associated with conservation biology that convinced the Foundation to award Russell his prize.

Here’s a picture of the man in action, in 2007:


Russell Lande (c) Aline Magdalena Lee


  1. Dominic
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    Well done to Lande – & how refreshing that they have to give money to research students. I will have a look at the article but if YOU found it hard going, I will probably find it impossible!

  2. Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    ‘half (…) must be set aside (…) for research projects, preferably involving young researchers’.

    Ahem, aren’t there certain rules of ethics that discourage human experimentation? 😀

    • Dominic
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Very good! I know a few researchers who really do not like students – goodness knows where they expect the next generation of scientists to come from if not from students!

  3. Diane G.
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink

    As per Dominic’s comment, I think I’ll skip the paper and rely on your succinct summary instead. Which does make it sound like very elegant and useful work, indeed.

    Here’s a picture of the man in action, in 2007. . .

    For some reason, this comment and the picture itself made me start imagining a line of Hasbro Scientific Action Figures.


    Well, why not?

    • Dominic
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Very funny! 🙂

  4. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    I’m jealous, even though I’m in Valencia and he’s not.

    By the way, Russ is known to his pals as “Doctor Drift” because of his work on genetic drift as a factor in speciation and phenotypic evolution.

    • Occam
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      You’d have some reason to be jealous if this was the venue:

      Unfortunately, the ceremony alternates between the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome and the Swiss Parliament Building in Berne, where it will be held tomorrow:

      Anyway, probably the brainiest assembly gathered in that august precinct.The parchments will be handed over by the second-most clueless and dull member of an already not overly bright Swiss government.

      The most interesting guy on the official scene will be the Balzan Fund president, former distinguished Italian diplomat Bruno Bottai. He’s the son of Giuseppe Bottai, Mussolini’s minister of education. Bottai senior was one of the few interesting figures in Fascism: a hardcore fanatic, at the same time a protector of dissident artists and intellectuals, ruthless in the application of anti-Jewish laws from 1938 onwards, and in 1943 one of the Fascist grandees who toppled Mussolini. Condemned to death in absentia by Mussolini, he served in the French Foreign Legion 1944-1948.

      • Dominic
        Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Re Bottai – and we are told it is not who you know! 🙂

  5. Chinahand
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    I’ve had a quick search but found no talks by Prof Lande on the internet. Anyone know any buried in a University Website or similar beyond the reach of Google’s crawlers?

  6. Occam
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    +1 for talks.
    The most mathematically accessible paper co-authored by Russell Lande in my database is:
    Chevin L-M, Lande R, Mace GM (2010) Adaptation, Plasticity, and Extinction in a Changing Environment: Towards a Predictive Theory. PLoS Biol 8(4): e1000357. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000357
    (Open Access)

    Probably not representative for Lande’s main body of work, but even more accessible:
    (a seminal paper on assessing extiction threats for the Red List classification)

  7. Posted November 17, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Lande was a vigorous critic of my own work on diversity and differentiation measures in ecology (which, in turn, was highly critical of his additive partitioning approach, which he regularly applied to non-additive measures). Our correspondence was heated, to say the least. However, he has been very quiet about it for many years now, and has not yet blasted my work on genetic drift (though I keep expecting it).

    Russ, if you are reading this, congratulations, and I hope we can someday return to a discussion of these issues.

    • Posted November 17, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Here is what may be Lande’s most influential mathematical paper in ecology:

      Lande, R. (1996) Statistics and partitioning of species diversity, and similarity among multiple communities. Oikos, 76, 5–13.

      This additive partitioning approach (also used in genetics to analyze differentiation and drift) has serious interpretational problems, which can lead to incorrect conclusions about conservation and evolution. Some of these problems are described and illustrated by practical, real examples in this article:

      Jost, L., DeVries, P., Walla, T., Greeney, H., Chao, A. and Ricotta, C. (2010). Partitioning diversity for conservation analyses, Diversity and Distribution, 16, 65-76.

      It is worth noting that most of the authors of this paper had previously published articles using Lande’s approach.

  8. Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I like those terms! It’d be fantastic if more prizes followed suit.

    And conga rats, Dr. Lande! Here’s hoping the funds from the prize help your students to stand on your shoulders.


  9. ChasCPeterson
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    He may be known as ‘Dr. Drift’ in some circles, but his work with Steve Arnold on estimating selection coefficients and fitness landscapes for actual measurements of phenotypes was seminal to a lot of people that study organisms instead of equations.

  10. Posted November 17, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Lande, in my view, is one of the most innovative evolutionary biologists practicing today. Among my favorite papers is his quantitative genetic theory of life history evolution (in Ecology 1982), his paper on peak-shifts in Paleobiology (around 1985), the brain-body allometry paper, his early work on morphological integration (which is buried in his exploration of the “genetic covariance between characters maintained by pleiotropic mutations), and all his recent stuff on demography and demographic stochasticity. There are too many to mention here. Truly a gifted mathematical biologist…

  11. Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    “and, strikingly, the terms of the prize are that ‘half (…) must be set aside (…) for research projects”

    Why is this striking? While with some prizes one can do what one wants with the money, some stipulate that all of it has to go into research.

%d bloggers like this: