Rick Harrison died

I was shocked to learn this morning that Rick Harrison, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell, died at 70. He had been treated for a form of cancer a while back, but that was a long time ago, and I assumed he was okay. I’m not sure if that caused his very untimely death (he was a runner, and in terrific shape), but never mind. He was one of the good ones, and I’ll miss him.

There’s an obituary in the Cornell Sun, and I’ll quote from it, but want to add my own take. Like me, Rick was an evolutionary biologist with a leaning toward genetics, and worked on speciation and population differentiation, particularly in hybrid zones, which was seminal work. His research, largely on crickets, was thorough and careful, and he himself was properly cautious (his long list of papers is here). One of my favorite papers of his (probably because he agreed with me!) was his discussion of species concepts and its relevance to systematics, a paper I always assigned for my graduate course on speciation:

Harrison, R. G. Linking evolutionary pattern and process: The relevance of species concepts for the study of speciation.   Pages 19-31 in Endless Forms: Species and Speciation (D. J. Howard and S. H. Berlocher, eds.).   Oxford University Press.

Although I admired Rick as one of the more critical thinkers in the field, he was a truly nice guy: he would criticize work, and species concepts, but never people. I wish I had that personality! Here is an excerpt from the obituary:

Harrison’s work was “held in highest regard by his peers,” according to Prof. Ronald Hoy, neurobiology and behavior.

Prof. Charles Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, added that Harrison was also known for his eloquence and scholastic integrity.

“If Rick published something, you could believe the results completely and trust that his interpretation was balanced and objective,” Aquadro said. “This level of intellectual honesty is all too rare and will be sorely missed.

Prof. Kelly Zamudio, ecology and evolutionary biology, said Harrison’s contribution to students and mentees was as great as his contribution to evolutionary biology.

“He was incredibly giving of his time,” Zamudio said. “He had a really high dedication to the department and to people in the department.”

Those are from his Cornell colleagues, and he was chair of that department (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) from 1996-2001 and 2006-2009. It’s a tribute to his people and administrative skills that he was not only chairman twice, but the faculty he supervised liked him so much—as did everyone else in the field.


h/t: David


  1. Posted April 26, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I am truly saddened to hear this. I did not know Rick personally, however I do have a bond – he was the TA in my Evolution course (taught by Bill Brown) that I took my senior year at Cornell. I remember him much as the Sun article and his colleagues describe him – thoughtful, engaging, and seemingly incapable of personal animus.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 27, 2016 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      Rick & I were grad students together.

      And wasn’t Bill Brown a kick? 😀

  2. Ivy Privy
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Harrison did public outreach.
    I had the experience of attending an Intelligent Design “discussion panel” in ~2006 which featured Harrison and Kern Reeve (also of Cornell) and ID proponent Cornelius Hunter of Biola. Hunter began by spreading a thick carpet of “Gish gallop.” Harrison and Reeve completely ignored this, and instead laid out the evidence for evolution. I thought they did a fine job.

    • Brian Barringer
      Posted May 1, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      I was at that “debate’ as well. In fact, I met with Rick and Kern a few days beforehand, at their request, in order to help them understand the subtleties of the ID crowd’s arguments. I was working on my PhD in Rick’s department at the time and he was on my dissertation committee. I had become somewhat morbidly fascinated with the ID movement at the time so I guess Rick and Kern figured it might be a good idea to chat.

  3. Posted April 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear it. Scanned the list of his publications. Jaw-droppingly interesting set of papers.

    Speaking of evolutionary biology…saw a news blurb last night on the Sonic hedgehog gene providing some evidence that our limbs may have evolved from sharks’ gills. I don’t know the discourse (not in the field myself), but thought it was interesting and wondered what researchers who’d been in the field, like Harrison, thought about it.


  4. µ
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I took Evolution from Rick 30 years ago. I did not plan to become an evolutionary biologist at that time, but Rick’s lectures changed all those plans. Now I teach Evolution every year (20th time this year; UT Austin). I still have not been able to do what Rick was able to do: transmogrify premeds into evolutionary biologists.

  5. rose
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    So its not the guy from Pawn Stars.Anyone else think of that show?

  6. Luana Maroja
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Very sad news. I’m one of the many Harrison’s grad students (now at Williams college), we all miss him immensely. He died while snorkeling in Australia about 2 weeks ago… possibly a heart attack or stroke. Very sorry.

    • Posted April 26, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Oh, well thanks for the update; I hadn’t heard.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 27, 2016 at 2:37 am | Permalink

      All in all, as long as it was sudden, not a bad way to go…

  7. Posted April 26, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Very sorry to hear this. He was a good guy and a fine evolutionary biologist.

  8. Diane G.
    Posted April 27, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    He was droll, twinkly-eyed, loved Jefferson Airplane (back in the day, anyway), compassionate, and somewhat proud of his Harvard background. 😉 Only a tiny bit of what I remember from when we were lab-mates all those years ago. Why do the good ones have to go so (relatively) young?

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