Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare


Gordon Orians


I am Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, where I spent my entire career after receiving a PhD in Zoology from the University of California, Berkeley, in August 1960.  My research interests have ranged over a variety of themes, but topics in behavioral ecology, such as habitat selection, mate selection and mating systems, selection of prey and foraging patches (foraging theory), and relationships between ecology and social organization, occupied much of my attention.  The primary subjects of my studies were blackbirds of the Family Icteridae, a group of birds noted for the diversity of their social systems.  My publications include theoretical papers as well as tests of theories using experimental manipulations and comparative analyses of interspecific patterns.  My peers thought highly enough of my research to elect me to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in1990.

For more than a decade my graduate students and I focused our attention on a long-recognized but surprising pattern in community ecology, namely that in most environments herbivores annually consume a relatively small proportion of the biomass of green plants.  Many different ideas have been proposed to explain this pattern, among which is the possible role of chemical defenses of plants against grazing.  We conducted research on the types of  defensive chemicals synthesized by different kinds of plants, how their production may be stimulated by herbivore attacks, and how herbivores neutralize toxic chemicals produced by plants. Clearly, plant defensive chemistry is part of the explanation for why the world is so green.

Although my research focused on basic rather than applied topics I have devoted much attention to applications of scientific information to social problems. For ten years I served as Director of the University’s Institute for Environmental Studies.  Also I devoted much time to the interface between science and public policy, serving on the Board of Directors of World Wildlife Fund, the Board of Trustees of The Washington State Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and the Board of Audubon Alaska.  The combination of my general concern with issues of environmental quality and environmental policies and my work on habitat selection among birds stimulated me to apply to human behavior the approach to the study of habitat selection I had used in my research on birds.  I began by studying how we select places in which to live and developed the Savanna Hypothesis to explain our responses to trees of different shapes. This research expanded to encompass a variety of topics and resulted in cooperation with psychologists, geographers, planners, and landscape painters. The culmination of this research is my book, Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare – How Evolution Shapes our Loves and Fears.


3 replies


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