Stanford professor wins million-dollar Dan David Prize

Stanford biologist Marcus Feldman has won a $1 million prize from the Dan David Foundation for his work on evolution. Prizes are awarded annually for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world.

L.A. Cicero Marcus Feldman

Marcus Feldman was awarded the prize for his research into plant and animal evolution.

When Stanford Professor Marcus Feldman received a phone call two weeks ago, the caller immediately said, "I hope you're sitting down." There was good reason for such a warning: Feldman had just won $1 million.

Feldman, a biologist and expert on evolution, received one of three 2011 Dan David Prizes for his work. He will receive the award in May at Tel Aviv University.

"It really was an incredible surprise," said Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. "I was kind of staggered. I never expected such a thing," he said.

He was surprised to even be nominated, after seeing the list of past winners, who include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Feldman was awarded the prize for his research into human and animal evolution as well as mathematical theory applied to evolution of behavior. "His work has led to highly focused insights of cultural significance such as the out-of-Africa model of human evolution, as well as cultural preferences in different civilizations," the Dan David Foundation said.

The prize, created in 2002, is endowed by the foundation, headquartered at Tel Aviv University. Three prizes of $1 million each are awarded every year "for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world."

The awards are given in three categories – past, present and future – that represent realms of human achievement. Feldman won for expanding human knowledge of the past. "One of the important things about the prize was its recognition of the study of evolution and its ramifications as an important scientific endeavor," he said.

Feldman is particularly well known for his work on cultural evolution, and how genes and culture interact. A single cultural change, such as the development of agriculture, can have massive effects on the human genome, he said.

Feldman hasn't had time to think about what he will do with the prize money. "I have no idea. I've been so busy with work," he said. But all winners of the Dan David Prize donate 10 percent of their prize money to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in their respective fields.

The other prizewinners for 2011 are University of California-San Francisco Professor Cynthia Kenyon and Harvard Medical School Professor Gary Ruvkun, who won the prize in the future category for their work on aging; and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who won the prize for the present for their work in cinema and society.

"It is really flattering to win the prize with such great scientists as Kenyon and Ruvkun and well-known people like the Coen brothers," Feldman said. "I really like their films."

Sandeep Ravindran is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,