David Lack

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

David Lack
David Lack.png
Born David Lambert Lack
(1910-07-16)16 July 1910
Died 12 March 1973(1973-03-12) (aged 62)
Nationality British
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Known for
  • Peter Lack (b. 1952)
  • Andrew Lack (b. 1953)
  • Paul Lack (b. 1957)
  • Catherine Lack (b. 1959)
Scientific career
Fields Ornithology
Doctoral students
Other notable students Robert H. MacArthur

David Lambert Lack FRS[2] (16 July 1910 – 12 March 1973) was a British evolutionary biologist who made contributions to ornithology, ecology and ethology.[4] His 1947 book, Darwin's Finches, on the finches of the Galapagos Islands was a landmark work.[5] He developed what is known as Lack's Principle which explained the evolution of avian clutch sizes in terms of individual selection as opposed to the competing contemporary idea that they had evolved for the benefit of species (also known as group selection). His pioneering life-history studies of the living bird helped in changing the nature of ornithology from a collection oriented field. He became Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at the University of Oxford.

Education and early life[edit]

Lack was born in London, the oldest of four children of Harry Lambert Lack MD FRCS, who later became President of the British Medical Association.[6] 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.[2] Kathleen had been an actor and was a supporter of women's suffrage. At home they organized meetings of the poetry society. David was schooled at home until seven and then went to the Open Air School in Regent's Park before going to The Hall, Hampstead followed by Foster's School, Stubbington and Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. Lack was taught biology at Gresham's by W.H. Foy and G.H. Lockett. He then went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences, gaining a 2nd class degree.

Until the age of fifteen, Lack lived in a large house in Devonshire Place, London. The family spent their summers in New Romney Kent where Lack became familiar with the local birds. By the age of nine, he had learnt the names of most birds and had written out an alphabetically arranged life-list.[2] 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, organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.[7]

Lack received his Master of Arts degree from Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1936.[citation needed]

Career and research[edit]

Lack had a long and distinguished career.

The Common Swift, one of many subjects studied by Lack.


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.[8]

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.[9] 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 his findings may not hold for other groups such as seabirds.[10]

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[edit]

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.[11] There are two versions of this work, differing significantly in their conclusions. The first is a book-length monograph, written after his visit to the Galapagos, but not published until 1945.[12] 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.[1] 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.[13] 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.[14] According to Ernst Mayr,

"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."[15]

Lack's Principle[edit]

Lack is also known for postulating Lack's Principle, which states that "the clutch size of each species of bird has been adapted by natural selection to correspond with the largest number of young for which the parents can, on average, provide enough food".[16][17][18]

Published books[edit]

  • Lack, David. 1943. The Life of the Robin. Witherby, London. ISBN 978-1843681304
  • Lack, David. 1947. Darwin's Finches.[1]
  • Lack, David. 1950. Robin Redbreast. Oxford. (A new edition of this book, revised and expanded by Lack's son Andrew, was published under the title Redbreast: the Robin in life and literature by SMH Books in 2008.)[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1954. The Natural Regulation of Animal Numbers. Oxford University Press, Oxford.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1956. Swifts in a Tower. Methuen, London. ISBN 0412121700
  • Lack, David. 1957. Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief: The Unresolved Conflict. Methuen, London.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1965. Enjoying Ornithology. Methuen, London.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1966. Population Studies of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1968. Ecological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds. Methuen, London.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1971. Ecological Isolation in Birds. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and Blackwell, Oxford.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1974. Evolution Illustrated by Waterfowl. Harper & Row, London.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David. 1976. Island Biology Illustrated by the Land Birds of Jamaica. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-03007-9 (posthumously).

Published journal articles[edit]

  • Lack, D. (1940). "Evolution of the Galapagos Finches". Nature. 146 (3697): 324. Bibcode:1940Natur.146..324L. doi:10.1038/146324a0. 
  • Lack, David (1942). "Ecological features of the bird faunas of British small islands". Journal of Animal Ecology. 11: 9–36. doi:10.2307/1298. 
  • Lack, David. 1945. The Galapagos finches (Geospizinae): a study in variation.[12]
  • Lack, David. 1947-8. The significance of clutch-size. Ibis 89, 302–352; 90, 25–45. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.1947.tb04155.x
  • Lack, David 1949. The significance of reproductive isolation. In Jepsen G, Mayr E and Simpson GG (eds) Genetics, palaeontology and evolution. Princeton.
  • Lack, David. 1954. The evolution of reproductive rates. In Huxley J, Hardy AC and Ford EB (eds). Evolution as a process. Allen & Unwin, London.[ISBN missing]
  • Lack, David (1967). "Interrelationship in breeding adaptations as shown by marine birds". Proc. XIVth Int. Orn. Congr. Oxford. 1966: 3–42. 
  • Lack, David (1973). "The numbers of species of hummingbirds in the West Indies". Evolution. 27: 326–337. doi:10.2307/2406972. 

Awards and honours[edit]

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.[19]

Personal life[edit]

David Lack was married to Elizabeth Lack (née Silva) and they had four children: Peter Lack (born 1952, a biologist), Andrew Lack (born 1953, also a biologist and academic), Paul Lack (born 1957, a freelance teacher), and Catherine Lack (born 1959, a university chaplain).[4] In Oxford, the Lacks initially lived in a flat in Park Town, Oxford, and later on Boars Hill, just south of Oxford.

Religious beliefs[edit]

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 popularised 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."[20]


  1. ^ a b c Lack, David 1947. Darwin's Finches. Cambridge University Press reissued in 1961 by Harper, New York, with a new preface by Lack; reissued in 1983 by Cambridge University Press with an introduction and notes by Laurene M. Ratcliffe and Peter T. Boag). ISBN 0-521-25243-1
  2. ^ a b c d e Thorpe, W. H. (1974). "David Lambert Lack 1910-1973". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 20: 271–293. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1974.0012. 
  3. ^ Perrins, Christopher Miles (1963). Some factors influencing brood-size and populations in tits (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford. OCLC 44835614. 
  4. ^ a b Anderson, Ted R. (2013). The Life of David Lack: Father of Evolutionary Ecology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-992264-2. 
  5. ^ Blake, Charles H. (1974). "Obituary" (PDF). The Auk. 91 (1): 239. doi:10.2307/4084715. 
  6. ^ n.p. (2007). "Harry Lambert Lack, M.D., F.R.C.S". The Journal of Laryngology & Otology. 58 (3): 135. doi:10.1017/S0022215100011038. 
  7. ^ "Public School Essay Competition", The Times, 17 December 1928; p. 12; Issue 45078; col C
  8. ^ Provine, William B (1986) Sewall Wright and evolutionary biology. Chicago. ISBN 0226684733 p. 406
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Ydenberg, R.C.; Bertram, D.F. (1989). "Lack's clutch size hypothesis and brood enlargement studies on colonial seabirds". Colonial Waterbirds. 12 (1): 134–137. doi:10.2307/1521328. 
  11. ^ 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 (4): 300–320. doi:10.1007/s10336-004-0043-8. 
  12. ^ a b Lack, David (1945). "The Galapagos Finches (Geospizinae) A Study in Variation". The Auk. 62 (4): 644–645. doi:10.2307/4079846. ISSN 0004-8038. 
  13. ^ Grant, Peter R. 1999. Ecology and evolution of Darwin's finches. Princeton NJ.
  14. ^ MacArthur R. and Wilson E.O. 1967. The theory of island biogeography. Princeton 1967.
  15. ^ Mayr, Ernst (1985). The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36446-5, pp. 274–5.
  16. ^ Lack D (1954) The regulation of animal numbers. Clarendon Press, Oxford
  17. ^ "JSTOR: Oikos, Vol. 56, Fasc. 3 (Nov., 1989), pp. 416–420 (subscription required)". Retrieved 30 August 2014. 
  18. ^ "JSTOR: The American Naturalist, Vol. 100, No. 916 (Nov. – Dec., 1966), pp. 687–690(subscription required)". Retrieved 30 August 2014. 
  19. ^ "The David Lack Centenary Symposium". The Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology. Archived from the original on 30 August 2010. Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  20. ^ 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. p. 9.