Mary Jane West-Eberhard
|Alma mater||University of Michigan|
|Title||Vice-chair Committee on Human Rights, National Academy of Sciences USA, National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Engineers (2010-present)|
|Fields||Eusociality; Sexual selection; Phenotypic plasticity|
|Institutions||Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute|
|Academic advisors||Richard D. Alexander|
Mary Jane West-Eberhard (born 1941) is an American theoretical biologist noted for arguing that phenotypic and developmental plasticity played a key role in shaping animal evolution and speciation. She is also an entomologist notable for her work on the behavior and evolution of social wasps.
She is a member both of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2005 she was elected to be a foreign member of the Italian Accademia dei Lincei. She has been a past president (1991) of the Society for the Study of Evolution. She won the 2003 R.R. Hawkins Award for the Outstanding Professional, Reference or Scholarly Work for her book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (618 pages). In the same year she was the recipient of the Sewall Wright Award. She has been selected as one of the 21 "Leaders in Animal Behavior".
She is engaged in long-term research projects at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at the Escuela de Biologia, Universidad de Costa Rica.
West-Eberhard's mother was a primary school teacher, and her father, a small-town businessman, and as parents they encouraged her curiosity. She went to school in Plymouth Community Schools, Plymouth, Michigan. She recalls of her high school that the best scientific training "was an English course on critical reading and writing, taught by the school librarian. Biology class was just a workbook, an enormous disappointment for me."
She did all her degrees at the University of Michigan. She did her bachelor's degree from University of Michigan in zoology in 1963. She earned her master's degree from the same place in zoology in 1964, and then her PhD(zoology) in 1967. There she was taught by Richard D. Alexander and had part-time employment in its Museum of Zoology. She records that "I also learned the excitement of being a sleuth in the university libraries where even an undergraduate could explore an idea beyond textbooks and could feel like a pioneer". She also corresponded with Edward Wilson on trophic eggs in insects, and spent summers at Woods Hole and Cali in Colombia.
She did postdoctoral work (1967–1969) at Harvard University with Howard Evans. There she met her husband. She then spent the next ten years (1969–1979) as an associate in biology at the University of Valle. In 1973 she began an association with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Costa Rica which became a full-time employment in 1986.
West-Eberhard has studied many species of social wasps such as Polistes fuscatus, Polistes canadensis, and Polistes erythrocephalus. Through her studies she has investigated why wasps evolved from being casteless and nestsharing casteless to becoming highly specialized eusocial species using comparative studies of tropical wasps (Hymenoptera). She has argued that origins of nonreproductive females in social wasps involves mutualism rather than only kin selection or parental manipulation.
Her work upon social insects has played an important role in the development of her ideas upon phenotypic plasticity. As she notes "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."
West-Eberhard has written from the mid-1980s upon the role of "alternative phenotypes," such as polymorphisms, polyphenisms, and context sensitive phenotype life history and physiological traits. This resulted in her 2003 book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution.
She argues that such alternative phenotypes are important since they can lead to novel traits, and then to genetic divergence and so speciation. Through alternative phenotypes environmental induction can take the lead in genetic evolution. Her book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution developed in detail how such environmental plasticity plays a key role in understanding the genetic theory of evolution. Her argument is full of examples from butterflies to elephants.
As a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, West-Eberhard has served for three terms on its Committee on Human Rights. She has also been noted as "active in promoting the careers of young scientists, particularly those doing work in Latin America".
Since 2013, West-Eberhard has been listed on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Science Education.
For my generation–growing up in the 1950s (I was born in 1941)