David Lack

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David Lack
Born(1910-07-16)16 July 1910
Died12 March 1973(1973-03-12) (aged 62)
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David Lack
Born(1910-07-16)16 July 1910
Died12 March 1973(1973-03-12) (aged 62)

David Lambert Lack FRS, (16 July 1910 – 12 March 1973) was a British evolutionary biologist who made contributions to ornithology, ecology and ethology. His book on the finches of the Galapagos Islands was a landmark work.[1][2]


Early life

Lack was born in London and educated at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences. He was the oldest of four children of Harry Lambert Lack MD FRCS, who later became President of the British Medical Association.[3] The name 'Lack' is derived from 'Lock'. His father grew up in a farming family from Norfolk and became a leading ear, nose and throat surgeon at the London Hospital. Although his father had some interest in birds as a boy it does not appear that he influenced David's interest. His mother Kathleen was the daughter of Lt. Col. McNeil Rind of the Indian army. Kathleen's father was Scottish and on her mother's side was part Irish, Greek and Georgian.[4]

Until the age of fifteen, Lack lived in a large house in Devonshire Place, London. By the age of nine, he had learnt the names of most birds and had written out an alphabetically arranged life-list.[4] In 1928, with an essay on 'My favourite birds' he was the national winner of the senior prize (a silver medal) in the Public School Essay Competition, organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.[5]


After Cambridge, he became a schoolmaster at Dartington Hall School, Devonshire until Summer 1938 when he took a year off to study bird behaviour on the Galapagos Islands. He was only in the Galapagos for part of that year, starting August 1938. April to August 1939 was spent at the California Academy of Sciences and at Ernst Mayr's home in New Jersey. He returned home in September 1939, after the outbreak of war.[6]

During World War II Lack served in the British Army working on radar research. After hostilities ended he was made Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford University (1945–1973). His wartime experience enabled him to make radar observations of bird migration.

Lack's work in ornithology was almost entirely based on studies of the living bird. He was one of the pioneers of life-history studies in Britain, especially those based on quantitative approaches, when some traditional ornithologists of the time were focussing their studies on morphology and geographic distribution.[7] Lack's major scientific research included work on population biology and density dependent regulation. His work suggested that natural selection favoured clutch sizes that ensured the greatest number of surviving young. This interpretation was however debated by V.C. Wynne-Edwards who suggested that clutch-size was density-independent. This was one of the earliest debates on group selection. Lack's studies were based on nidicolous birds and some recent studies have suggested that this may not hold for other groups such as seabirds.[8]

He wrote numerous papers in ornithological journals, and had a knack of choosing memorable titles: he once claimed to have single-handedly caused the renaming of a group of birds through the submission of a scientific paper, his 1935 publication, "Territory and polygamy in a bishop bird, Euplectes hordeacea hordeacea (Linn.)" in the journal Ibis. Birds in the genus Euplectes are referred to simply as bishops, but the journal editor felt that with that form the title might cause misunderstanding.

Darwin's finches

Lack's most famous work is Darwin's Finches, a landmark study whose title linked Darwin's name with the Galapagos group of species and popularised the term "Darwin's finches" in 1947, though the term had been introduced by Percy Lowe in 1936.[9] It is often forgotten that there are two versions of this work, and they differ significantly in their conclusions. The first is a book-length monograph, written after his visit to the Galapagos, but not published until 1945.[10] In it Lack interprets the differences in bill size as species recognition signals, that is, as isolating mechanisms.

The second is the later book in which the differences in bill size are interpreted as adaptations to specific food niches, an interpretation that has since been abundantly confirmed.[11] This change of mind, according to Lack's Preface, came about as a result of his reflections on his own data whilst he was doing war work. The effect of this change in interpretation is to put the emphasis for speciation onto natural selection for appropriate food handling instead of seeing it primarily as a by-product of an isolating mechanism. In this way his work contributed to the modern evolutionary synthesis, in which natural selection came to be seen as the prime mover in evolution, and not random or mutational events. Lack's work laid the foundations for the much more extensive work of Peter Grant and his colleagues.[12] Also, Lack's work feeds into studies of island biogeography which continue the same range of issues presented by the Galapagos fauna on a more varied canvas.[13]

"The person who more than anyone else deserves credit for reviving an interest in the ecological significance of species was David Lack... It is now quite clear that the process of speciation is not completed by the acquisition of isolating mechanisms but requires also the acquisition of adaptations that permit co-existence with potential competitors." [14]

Religious beliefs

Lack became a convert to Anglicanism, which led to his composition, in 1957, of a brief book, Evolutionary theory and Christian belief, on the relationship between Christian faith and evolutionary theory. This book foreshadows, in some ways, the non-overlapping magisteria conception of the relationship between religion and science later popularized by Stephen Jay Gould.

Arthur Cain remarked of him "David Lack was the only religious man I knew at that period who did not allow his religion to dictate his view of natural selection." [15]

Career outline

The Common Swift


The centenary of Lack's birth, 16 July 2010, was marked by a 'David Lack Centenary Symposium', hosted by the Edward Grey Institute. A programme of talks focused on and celebrated the scientific contributions of Lack to ornithology, and the broader fields of ecology and evolution, and assessed the development of these fields in the 21st century.[16]

Major publications


Selected papers


  1. ^ Charles H. Blake (1974). Obituary, The Auk, 91 (1) : 239 Obituary
  2. ^ Information in Royal Society Archives
  3. ^ Harry Lambert Lack, MD FRCS, obituary in Journal of Laryngology & Otology (Cambridge University Press, 1943), 58, pp 135-136
  4. ^ a b Thorpe, W. H. (1974) David Lambert Lack. 1910-1973. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 20: 271-293
  5. ^ Public School Essay Competition in The Times, Monday, Dec 17, 1928; pg. 12; Issue 45078; col C
  6. ^ Provine, William B, 1986. Sewall Wright and evolutionary biology. Chicago. p406
  7. ^ Johnson K. 2004. The Ibis: transformations in a twentieth century British natural history journal. Journal of the History of Biology. 37 (3): 515–555. doi:10.1007/s10739-004-1499-3
  8. ^ R.C. Ydenberg and D.F. Bertram 1989. Lack's clutch size hypothesis and brood enlargement studies on colonial seabirds. Colonial Waterbirds. 12 (1): 134-137. doi:10.2307/1521328
  9. ^ Steinheimer, F.D. (2004). "Charles Darwin's bird collection and ornithological knowledge during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1831–1836". Journal of Ornithology 145 (145(4)): pp. 300–320. doi:10.1007/s10336-004-0043-8. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=A161&pageseq=1. Retrieved 2008-12-08
  10. ^ Lack, David. 1945. The Galapagos finches (Geospizinae): a study in variation. Occasional Papers of the California Academy of Sciences 21:i–vii, 1–152.
  11. ^ Lack, David 1947. Darwin's Finches. Cambridge University Press (reissued in 1961 by Harper, New York, with a new preface by Lack)
  12. ^ Grant, Peter R. 1999. Ecology and evolution of Darwin's finches. Princeton NJ.
  13. ^ MacArthur R. and Wilson E.O. 1967. The theory of island biogeography. Princeton 1967.
  14. ^ Mayr, Ernst 1985. The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36446-5, ISBN 978-0-674-36446-2, p274–5. This book (partly) online available at Google Books
  15. ^ Cain A.J. and Provine W.B. 1991. Genes and ecology in history. In Berry R.J. et al. (eds) Genes in ecology: the 33rd Symposium of the British Ecological Society. Blackwell, Oxford. p9
  16. ^ "The David Lack Centenary Symposium". The Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology. http://www.zoo.ox.ac.uk/egi/newsevents/2010conferences.html. Retrieved 5 May 2010.