Jan 15, 2011

Sometimes a Crank is Just an Unfamiliar Gear!

Leigh Van Valen died in last October. I read his obit in the NYT. I’d like to be able to say I recognized his name, but it was his picture that caught my eye. He looked like a grown-up version of some of the geeks with whom I went to school, the ones who were brighter than I. The way Dr. Van Valen lived his life has something to say to all of us.

The guy was brilliant: he published over 300 scholarly papers on all sorts of subjects, rarely twice in the same field. Although his early degree was in zoology, he was just as likely to write something publishable about evolutionary biology as about ecology. His immense energy led him to stick his nose into and challenge lots of established dogma. “He could be a fly in the ointment in the sense that his ideas often upset people, and it took time for them to be accepted,” said William B. Provine, a historian of science at Cornell.

One of Van Valen’s most talked-about concepts came to be known as the “Red Queen Hypothesis,” after the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. If you remember, the Red Queen noted that "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." The Red Queen Principle can be stated thus:

For an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with. (Van Valen, L. (1973). A new evolutionary law Evolutionary Theory, 1, 1-30)

In its time, that concept and the paper associated with it were deemed so controversial that the paper was rejected for publication by 20 established professional journals. As a reaction to his difficulty in finding a publisher for his ground-breaking, contrarian idea, to publish the paper Van Valen founded his own professional journal, Evolutionary Theory. As its editor-in-chief, for years Van Valen spent hours poring over every submitted manuscript, many of them from people whose credentials and publishing history were light to nonexistent. Asked “Why do you spend all that time with submissions from cranks?” he replied, “It can be hard to tell a crank from an unfamiliar gear.”

How well do we separate the cranks from the odd people who have something unexpected to offer or say? Today as part of our strategy to make it through too-busy days, most of us tend to triage our perceptive inputs, censoring what we’re willing to listen to. Consequently, I wonder what “unfamiliar gears” we tune out. Van Valen’s life and willingness to entertain ideas that are decidedly odd should make clear the wisdom of listening to ideas that challenge our own.

Who knows what "crank" will be coming up with the next great idea?