Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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Mary Jane West Eberhard
receives Linnean Medal for Zoology

June 9, 2021

“Her unification of developmental plasticity and genetics is a huge advance in our understanding of evolution. Her decades-long work with tropical social wasps focusing on careful field observation is testimony to what a careful observer of natural history can contribute to evolutionary biology.”-the Linnean Society

Mary Jane West Eberhard, staff scientist emerita at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, has just received the 2021 Linnean Medal for Zoology, one of the most important distinctions in the field of biology. She joins an impressive list of zoologists who have received the medal since it was first given in 1888, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, John Maynard Smith and William D. Hamilton. Since 1958, the Linnean Medal is given to one botanist and one zoologist each year.

“Her unification of developmental plasticity and genetics is a huge advance in our understanding of evolution,” reads the statement issued by the Linnean Society. “Her decades-long work with tropical social wasps focusing on careful field observation is testimony to what a careful observer of natural history can contribute to evolutionary biology.”

The Linnean Society, named for Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl von Linné, is the oldest extant natural history society in the world, founded in 1788. The society was the venue for the first public presentation on the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1858 by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.

Women have been admitted to the society since 1904. Winners of the medal need not be members of the society, but only seven women have been awarded the Linnean Medal in Zoology.

Mary Jane West Eberhard. Credit: Courtesy of Mary Jane West Eberhard.

West Eberhard is truly an exemplary individual who was able to follow her passions during a lifetime of research. Her fascination with social insects and what they have to teach people about the evolution of societies began as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan where she completed all of her academic degrees (B.Sc. 1963, M.A. 1964 and Ph.D. 1967). After meeting and marrying Bill Eberhard during a post-doc at Harvard, the two of them set off on a life-adventure supported by a shoestring budget, flying to Cali Colombia in 1969, where, in association with the University of Valle, they were able to survive and start a family while West Eberhard studied wasps in places like her garden and her kids’ nursery school grounds.

“The trick is to start with the specifics—a single wasp species or a biological process that doesn’t seem especially significant—and to arrive at much more general interpretations of nature,” West Eberhard said. “I asked why organisms live in societies. It doesn’t matter if they’re insects, elephants or human beings.”

In 1973, West Eberhard began to receive a small stipend from STRI, and by the time the political situation in Colombia drove the couple to seek another home, they were able to arrange two half-time positions at STRI as Bill began to teach at the University of Costa Rica and Mary Jane continued to study wasps at home. “That was kind of an odd-arrangement, but it showed huge flexibility on the part of Ira Rubinoff, who was the director then,” she said in a video interview posted by the Organization for Tropical Studies, By 1986, she was working for STRI full-time. This arrangement made it possible for her to “live a whole life in the tropics.”

West Eberhard has championed the important role of concepts including kin selection (behaviors that may seem altruistic, but actually contribute to the survival of family members and thus, the transmission of shared genes) and sexual selection (the way competition for mates via social interactions leads to differences in reproductive success and genetic evolution). She showed that the division of labor between a queen (a reproductive individual) and her non-reproductive daughters who go outside and bring food back to the nest can be a mutualistic or a kinship arrangement that works for individual benefit.

Linnean Medal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“From there I got interested in alternative phenotypes—alternative pathways and decision points during development, and their significance for evolution, especially for higher levels of organization, for speciation, and for macroevolutionary change without speciation.” (Wikipedia)

In 2003, she published her 618-page tome, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution, which clearly spells out the concept and draws together countless examples of phenotypic plasticity, including the contribution of flexible behavior to survival, and thus, to evolution. In the same year, she received the Sewall Wright Award, given to an active researcher who contributes to the unification of ideas in the biological sciences. West Eberhard is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Costa Rican Academia Nacional de Ciencias. She has been president of the Society for the Study of Evolution (1991) and in 2005, she became a member of Italy’s Accademiadei Lincei.

West Eberhard has played an active role on the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Human Rights and has helped to support the careers of countless young scientists, especially in Latin America. She has also served on the Advisory Council for the National Center for Science Education. “I would encourage people to look for things they love and that they have a passion for, and that passion does not have to reflect how much money they can raise.”

West Eberhard is currently an Associate in Biological Sciences at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

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