Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich wins prestigious biology award

February 4th, 2014
Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Stanford biologist PAUL EHRLICH has won the Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Ecology and Conservation Biology from the BBVA Foundation.

“He was the first to describe a case of co-evolution – between butterflies and plants – and how it may contrive to generate biological diversity,” the judges said in their announcement.

The judges noted that his achievements “draw equally on theoretical explorations and experimental results.” Or as Ehrlich put it after being notified of the prize, “I am a biologist with a keen interest in theory, or a theorist who likes testing his theories by experimentation.”

Ehrlich was lauded by the BBVA Foundation, based in Madrid, Spain, for his vital role in addressing one of the key questions in ecology: Why does our planet harbor so many different species? Ehrlich unlocked part of the secret in 1964, the judges said, in a paper co-authored with PETER RAVEN and published in the journal Evolution. In it, they concluded that co-evolution – the interactions occurring between different types of organisms without genetic exchange – is one of the main reasons for diversity of life on Earth and proposed the mechanism whereby this process might lead to the immense variety of plant and insect species.

As the jury put it: “Professor Ehrlich advanced the seminal idea that interactions of plants and herbivores co-evolve and shape the evolutionary history of species, as an engine for species diversity.” The winners of BBVA awards receive $540,000.

—DAN STOBER