Mary Jane West-Eberhard

Mary Jane West-Eberhard
Mary Jane West-Eberhard
Fields Eusociality; Sexual selection; Phenotypic plasticity
Institutions Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Academic advisors Howard Evans
Notable awards 2003 recipient Sewall Wright Award
Member United States National Academy of Sciences
Member American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Foreign member Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Mary Jane West-Eberhard 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 Nazionale dei Lincei.[1] She has been a past president (1991) of the Society for the Study of Evolution.[2] She won the 2003 R.R. Hawkins Award for the Outstanding Professional, Reference or Scholarly Work[3] for her book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (618 pages).[4] In the same year she was the recipient of the Sewall Wright Award.[5] She has been selected as one of the 21 “Leaders in Animal Behavior”.[6]

She is presently engaged in long term research projects at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at the Escuela de Biologia, Universidad de Costa Rica.


Early life

West-Eberhard’s mother was a primary school teacher, and her father, a small-town businessman, and as parents they encouraged her curiosity. 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.”[7]

She did all her degrees at the University of Michigan. 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.[7]

She did postdoctoral work (1967–1969) at Harvard University with Howard Evans. There she meet 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.

Social insects

West-Eberhard 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.[8]

Her work upon social insects has played an important role in the development of her ideas upon phenotypic plasticity.[9][10] 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.” [7]

Phenotypic plasticity

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.[11][12][13] This resulted in her 2003 book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution.[4]

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.

Sexual and social selection

West-Eberhard was among the first scientists[5] to reexamine Charles Darwin's ideas in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex about sexual selection and identify the key importance he gave to the “social competition for mates” as a factor in evolution[14] and speciation.[15] She has noted how sexual selection can trap animals into sexual reproduction.[16]

Other work

As a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, West-Eberhard has presently served for three terms on its Committee on Human Rights.[2][17] She has also been noted as “active in promoting the careers of young scientists, particularly those doing work in Latin America”.[5]


Marlene Zuk has described West-Eberhard's work as being similar to Sewall Wright's, in that it

reflects a careful attention to the details of natural history without losing sight of the theoretical significance of her findings; her ideas are infused with a pragmatism that makes her hypotheses testable in real world settings. She eschews fads, musing once that the phrase “cutting edge” always reminded her of a roll of aluminum foil and pointing out in another conversation that those who describe experiments as “elegant” are virtually always talking about their friends' work.[5]

West-Eberhard has written,

If the 20th century was the Age of the Gene, the 21st century promises to be the Age of The Environment, and of Gene Expression.[7]

the current movement of laboratory evo-devo from DNA to proteomics and beyond, is leading the most reductionistic fields of biology to embrace the phenotype and will eventually illuminate the genotype–phenotype map that permits a response to selection.[7]

Selected bibliography

Social wasps

Phenotypical plasticity

Sexual selection



  1. ^ West-Eberhard elected to the Italian Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei
  2. ^ a b Mary Jane West-Eberhard, CHR Vice Chair
  3. ^ R.R. Hawkins Award for the Outstanding Professional, Reference or Scholarly Work Press release.
  4. ^ a b West-Eberhard M-J. (2003). Developmental plasticity and evolution. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 978-0195122350
  5. ^ a b c d Zuk M. (2004). 2003 Sewall Wright Award: Mary Jane West‐Eberhard. American Naturalist 163:1, i-ii. doi:10.1086/381946
  6. ^ Drickamer L. Dewsbury S. (Dec 2009) Leaders in Animal Behaviour: The Second Generation. Cambridge University Press. [1]
  7. ^ a b c d e West-Eberhard MJ. (2009). BIO. Evol Dev. 11(1):8-10. PMID 19196328
  8. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1978). Temporary queens in Metapolybia wasps: Non-reproductive helpers without altruism? Science. 200(4340):441-443. PMID 17757302
  9. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1975). The evolution of social behavior by kin selection. Quart. Rev. Biol. 50(1):1-33.
  10. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1987). Flexible strategy and social evolution. , pp. 35-51In Animal societies: Theories and facts, Y. Ito, J. L. Brown, and J. Kikkawa, eds., Japan Scientific Societies Press, Ltd., Tokyo. ISBN 9784762205149
  11. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1986). Alternative adaptations, speciation, and phylogeny. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 83(5):1388-1392. PMID 16578790
  12. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1989). Phenotypic plasticity and the origins of diversity. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 20:249-278.
  13. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1998). Evolution in the light of developmental and cell biology, and vice versa. Proceedings National Academy of Sciences USA 95:8417-8419. PMID 9671691
  14. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1979). Sexual selection, social competition, and evolution. Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 51(4):222-234.
  15. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (1983). Sexual selection, social competition, and speciation. Quart. Rev. Biol. 58(2):155-183.
  16. ^ West-Eberhard MJ. (2005). The maintenance of sex as a developmental trap due to sexual selection. Quarterly Review of Biology 80(1):47-53. PMID 15884735
  17. ^ National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Rights and Institute of Medicine Committee on Health and Human Rights. (1992). Scientists and Human Rights in Guatemala: Report of a Delegation. National Academy Press Washington, D.C. National Academy Press Washington, D.C.

External links

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