Evolutionary Biology : Elisabeth S. Vrba FRSSAf

Evolutionary Biology and the Royal Society of South Africa:
Elisabeth S. Vrba FRSSAf

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf.

Among the fields of science in which South Africa is particularly strong are palaeontology and palaeoanthropology. There is a pantheon of well-known scholars who have contributed enormously to our knowledge of life on the planet before modern humans proliferated into almost every corner of it. In recent years great strides have been made not only in discovering new older forms of hominins, therapsids, and other fauna in the fossil record but also in piecing together – albeit fragmentarily – the complexity of species and environmental relationships in the far distant past. Many of the eminent academics involved in these studies, and the various disciplines associated with it, have been, or are currently, Fellows of the Royal Society of South Africa. The Society is extremely proud to record the long lineage of fossil-finders dating from the 19th century and those who have contributed to the hominid record since the 1920s. Because the topic of how modern humans came to be what we are is socially, culturally and politically relevant, and because the Cradle of Humankind – the hominid fossil localities at Gauteng and its serial sites at Taung and Makapan – were inscribed as being of universal value as a World Heritage Site in 1999 – new finds are reported enthusiastically in the popular press as well as in the scholarly literature.
What garners less attention, although they are of equal importance, are studies in connection with how the process of evolution operates and how it might unfold. This may be because evolutionary biology is more complex, interdisciplinary, and difficult to explain to a popular audience that rewards the drama of discovering a new hominid species, or a new group of dinosaurs exposed by laboratory preparators and their drills. In the field of evolutionary theory one of the most prominent scientists, and one who has an enormous international reputation, is Professor Emerita Elisabeth S. Vrba (née Munchmeyer), a Fellow of the Society since 1985, who studied in Cape Town, and who was employed by what was then the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. She has been described by a colleague as having ‘one of the most brilliant minds among living scientists’ and her own maxim has been to engage ‘in pushing out the frontiers of science’. This she has been doing throughout her career since the mid-1960s, seeking answers to questions she has posed, such as ‘How do new species originate?’; ‘How do new organismal form and functions evolve’, and ‘How do the evolutionary changes relate to climatic changes?’
Born into an academic family in Hamburg, Germany, during World War II, with her mother Vrba emigrated to Namibia at war’s end. She studied at the University of Cape Town (where she was known affectionately as ‘Munch’), obtaining her BSc in 1964 (zoology and mathematical statistics) and BSc Honours in 1965 (zoology). Her PhD, in zoology/palaeontology, was awarded in 1974. Between her degrees, Vrba worked as a postgraduate researcher and a school teacher. From 1973 to 1986 she was Head of the Department of Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at what was then the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria (now the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History) and from 1977 to 1986 she was its Deputy Director. During Vrba’s period of employment, the Director of the Museum was the remarkable Dr C.K. (Bob) Brain FSSAf, under whose leadership it enjoyed a high reputation as of the most scientifically productive institutions on the continent. While at the Transvaal Museum, Vrba directed the new fossil excavation projects at Kromdraai and Gondolin – both within the Cradle of Humankind.
Unlike some of her colleagues, Vrba’s interest did not lie solely in attempting to uncover the human family tree. She studied the fossil antelopes (Mammalia, Bovidae), with particular focus on chronology and palaeo-ecology, tracking the fossil sequence and analysing their morphology. Her first publication – while she was still a student in 1965 – demonstrated her interest in the ‘big picture’. With the title ‘Evolution, species and fossils: How does life evolve?’, it appeared in the South African Journal of Science 61(2), 1965, pp.61-84, and outlined the various evolutionary theories then being debated. Of these, punctuated evolution was one. In 1974 and 1975 she first published in Nature, and since then publication output has been extremely high, both in books and in journal articles. She has also amassed an impressive list of awards and honours.
While at the Transvaal Museum, Vrba’s ability, talent, and innovative ideas came to the attention of Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), a contemporary, and scientist at Harvard University. Vrba began publishing with Gould in the 1980s. Like Vrba, Gould was fascinated by the big picture, but he was also an influential and widely read popular scientist, with a flair for explaining abstract and complex ideas in a manner understandable to the general public. Gould and Vrba collaborated on hypotheses that expanded upon the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis. In particular, their work related to inventing the term ‘exaptation’ to replace the clumsy ‘pre-adaptation’ or ‘co-option’ in order to describe a change in the function of an evolutionary trait that was naturally selected for one purpose but came to serve another. Exaptation may refer to anatomical or behavioural traits, and relate to either the processes or products of evolution. An example would be the feathers of birds that may initially have evolved as a way of regulating temperature but that later were adapted for flight.

In 1986 Vrba left South Africa to take up the position of Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, where she had been an invited visiting professor in 1983. The following year she was appointed Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Vertebrate Osteology of the Peabody Museum at Yale. This is one of the most prestigious of the natural history museums worldwide, whose 12 million specimens include several internationally significant collections – among them its fossils – together with space for teaching, storage and research, and augmented by field stations.
Vrba’s innovative ideas and hypotheses have been recognised by international leaders in science. Her collaborations with peers and others in her field were able to blossom in this period of the academic boycott against apartheid. She spread her wings and came to prominence with her work with Gould and many others, and she worked on many fossil sites in Africa and beyond. Vrba’s interests extend to the influence of climatic change on evolutionary processes, and also the turnover-pulse hypothesis, an addition to macroevolutionary theory. Her many publications on this topic over the decades of an outstanding career attest to her expertise and her scientific creativity.
Elisabeth Vrba’s contribution is not only to be found in her publications but also in the many students she has encouraged and inspired over the years. Her Wikipedia entry has a description by a student who describes experiencing ‘not only her charisma and clear talking but also her humanity and openness (she patiently answered questions coming from hundreds of students, professors and children … sitting on a stairway)’. Like one of her early mentors, Bob Brain, Vrba has never sought the limelight. She has come, however to deserve it through the excellence of her ideas and the high quality of her science.

The internet contains abundant references to Elisabeth Vrba and Google Scholar contains her very many papers and references to books and other publications.