Professor Geoffrey Parker, FRS

Doctor of Science Professor Geoffrey Parker

Friday 15 July 2011 - Orator: Professor Innes Cuthill

Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor,

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them; probably only one has achieved greatness through lying in a field near Langford, watching flies on cowpats. Geoff Parker's love of natural history in general, and of insects in particular, began during what he describes as idyllic childhood days near Warrington, with regular visits to Chester zoo coupled with weekends on a schoolfriend’s farm in North Cheshire. However, his intellectual journey began, side-by-side with the yellow dung fly, in Bristol. The journey would ultimately lead to the Derby chair in Zoology at Liverpool University, Fellowship of the Royal Society, the Darwin medal of the Royal Society and his current position, as research active as ever in retirement, as one of the greatest living theoreticians in evolutionary biology.

Geoff arrived in Bristol in 1962 to study medicine but, within days, realised he'd made a dreadful mistake. To quote his own words: “it was not the gruesome horror of the dissecting room so much as the realisation that my life was now diverting along a track that somehow did not seem its natural course. I wandered past the Zoology Department, longingly staring into its museum, wishing that I had not been so stupid as to be seduced by the power and social status of a career in medicine." Within two weeks, Geoff had effected the switch to a Zoology degree. It was not all plain sailing; in his first-year exams Geoff came second top in Zoology but failed his subsidiary subject of Botany by 2%. Only the pleading of the zoology staff prevented him from having to repeat the year and register for an ordinary degree. A glance at his second year marks suggests that he continued to be distracted by a growing interest in jazz, an interest he has maintained throughout his life, even today playing clarinet in no less than three local jazz bands. However, as I'm sure is true for many of the Zoology and Biology graduates in the audience today, the chance to do some primary research in the third year was the catalyst that allowed his academic career to take off. Geoff graduated with a First, winning the Rose Bracher prize for the top results in his year. In those days, students did several smaller final year projects, rather than a single large one, and for Geoff one of those projects was on power output in bird flight, supervised by a young Colin Pennycuick, now an emeritus professor here and widely regarded as the father of flight biomechanics. Working with Colin made Geoff realise the important insight that mathematics can give you when investigating the adaptations of organisms. Not having done A-level Maths, Geoff set about teaching himself, although to this day is absurdly self-deprecating about his abilities. The key project, however, was on the behaviour of the yellow dung fly and, having secured the top first and persuaded the distinguished entomologist Howard Hinton that he was up to the job, Geoff stayed on at Bristol to do a Ph.D. on this cow-pat-dwelling beast.

The string of papers that arose from his PhD thesis, and others inspired by fieldwork watching fly behaviour in the fields around Bristol, would be considered remarkable in their originality and impact in any era. But you have to understand the intellectual climate at the time to realise just how remarkable Geoff's early work was. Most biologists in the 1960’s were uninterested in the study of natural selection and, indeed, implicitly or explicitly believed that features evolved for the good of the species. This was 10 years before Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene and Edward Wilson wrote Sociobiology; the subject we now know as behavioural ecology, which seeks to understand the adaptive value of behaviour, was well in the future. Yes, there were isolated pockets where a new way of thinking about evolution and behaviour was being discussed - the Oxford of Niko Tinbergen and David Lack was one -but to think that way in Bristol at that time was radical. Geoff was a Young Turk, bouncing ideas off his fellow student Robin Baker, another left-field thinker who became an influential evolutionary biologist. Indeed, Geoff assumes that his supervisor Howard Hinton, although very helpful in other respects, probably actually never read Geoff’s thesis properly, otherwise he would not have written supportive references when Geoff applied for subsequent jobs! So, what were these new radical ideas? Why do Geoff's early, and vast corpus of subsequent, papers appear as classic examples in all the textbooks on behavioural and evolutionary ecology?

Mindful of today’s occasion, I set a question on Geoff Parker’s contributions to biology in my Finals paper this year. This is the moment when some of the new biology graduates in the audience groan when they realise what they should have put in their answers. Two things mark out Geoff's early work as pioneering. First, he took an individual or gene-centred perspective, seeing the success of species or groups as epiphenomena rather than the target of selection. Second, he took a mathematical approach, specifically that of an economist, but weighing up the costs and benefits of different courses of action in terms of Darwinian fitness rather than money. Where the best action depends on what others are doing, such as in social behaviour, there may be no simple ‘best’ option that all can take; think of the volatility of stock markets. Here economists use Game Theory to understand how strategies interact and Geoff was a pioneer of its use in animal behaviour. He was the first to model the “battle of the sexes”, with potential conflict between parents over care of the young, and also the effect of differing interests between parents and their offspring over how much should be invested in them, something that may ring a bell with many in the audience today! Furthermore, one of his earliest papers, in 1972, remains as one of the most plausible explanations for why two different sexes evolved in the first place. His work has also influenced our understanding of competition and displays between animals, animal distributions, coercion and conflict, decisions on dispersal, and the evolution of complex life cycles in parasites. However, I don’t relish explaining his most influential work to this family audience; it is somewhat X certificate.

Darwin proposed that many of the features that distinguish males from females evolved through what he called sexual selection: features like the antlers of stags and male aggression evolved as an aid to competition for females, and ornamental features like the peacock’s tail serve to impress the opposite sex. Geoff Parker realised that reproductive competition continues long after mating, and its imprint explains traits as varied as the vast overproduction of sperm and pollen, to sexual jealousy. Geoff has written that he regrets not being as good as some of his contemporaries in devising catchy titles for some of his theories, but when he coined the term “sperm competition”, this was a phrase guaranteed to get people talking. His realisation that the potential for conflict lies at the heart of all cooperative interactions now permeates far beyond animal behaviour and influences contemporary theories of how genomes are organised and evolve.

Many would argue that Geoff Parker is the greatest living theoretical behavioural ecologist; all would agree he is the most modest, and an inspiration to all who worry whether Nice Guys can finish first. He has achieved an enviable balance in life; family before career, always; jazz clarinet not far behind, and sometimes chickens too. Having started keeping hens as pets for his children, he started to breed them for show, winning Supreme Champion at the National Poultry Club in 1997 and going on to become the club’s President. Of course, he’s not the first insect-loving, disillusioned medic, with a fondness for breeding birds for show, to have become a major evolutionary biologist. Then again, Charles Darwin didn’t have the benefits of a Bristol education!

For a lifetime of hugely significant contributions to biology, I am delighted, Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, to present to you Geoffrey Alan Parker as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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