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International Prize for Biology
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International Prize for biology

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Acceptance address


Acceptance address by Dr. Joseph Felsenstein

  Thank you for this opportunity to express my appreciation for the International Prize for Biology to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and its directors and committee members. We are especially honored to be here in Tokyo in the presence of Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress. His Majesty has himself advanced the study of the taxonomy of gobioid fishes. I am therefore happy that the field of evolutionary biology, in which His Majesty is a colleague, is receiving the attention which accompanies this Prize. I am pleased at the presence of so many other evolutionary biologists who are colleagues and old friends of ours.

  My original training was in theoretical population genetics, a field in which Japanese scientists have taken a remarkable role of leadership, starting in the 1950s and 1960s. The body of theory that I studied lies at the core of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, and provides a mathematical framework for describing its basic mechanisms. In graduate school in the mid-1960s I became fascinated by the mathematical, algorithmic, and statistical aspects of a different problem, reconstructing phylogenies, also known as evolutionary trees. At first I worked on adapting the statistical method of maximum likelihood to the problem of inferring phylogenies. I was able to solve some problems raised by Edwards and Cavalli-Sforza in their pioneering papers on using Brownian motion models of gene frequency change to infer the evolutionary history of phylogenies. In 1973 I constructed an efficient dynamic programming algorithm for computing likelihoods on phylogenies, and in 1981 I applied that algorithm to DNA data.

  Adapting the bootstrap method of statistics to phylogenies in 1985 provided a way to know which aspects of the evolutionary tree are well-supported and which are likely to be wrong. In that same year, I also found a statistically valid way to use the phylogeny to see whether two different characters are evolving independently. This is a firm statistical foundation for the task that biologists call the Comparative Method.
Since then my work has mostly been in connecting population genetics and quantitative genetics to methods of reconstructing phylogenies.

  All of this work at first seemed to be an eccentricity, simply a hobby of mine. But as time has passed, more and more scientists have gotten involved in inferring phylogenies and in using them to investigate patterns of natural selection. Phylogenies turn out to be central to analyzing data that comes from multiple species. I don’t think that I realized that when I started out in the 1960s. Now phylogenies and population genetics are merging in a major reunion of lines of work which have long been separate.

  Understanding evolutionary processes and evolutionary history does not immediately solve the basic problems of society: how people can achieve a more democratic society, how we can help support those who are abandoned or exploited, and how we can cope with global destruction of the environment. Evolutionary biology does give us insight into who we are and where we have come from. That insight allows us to see how we relate to nature, and how different forms of life are related to each other. Understanding these connections is fundamental to understanding how humans can relate to that larger world. I believe that in honoring my work, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science is acknowledging the importance of evolutionary biology in the development of humankind.