Richard D. Alexander. Image: Mark O'Brien.

Richard D. Alexander, Theodore H. Hubbell Distinguished University Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Curator of Insects, Museum of Zoology, Emeritus, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a pioneer in the study of the evolutionary basis of human behavior, died August 20, 2018 at age 88.

Alexander's life is an iconic American success story. He rose from humble beginnings, born November 18, 1929 and raised on a small, single-family farm in rural Illinois, without electricity or indoor plumbing. Although his early schooling took place in a one-room school house, and he had no thought of attending college, his good grades and keen intellect enabled him to attend Blackburn College and then Illinois State Normal University, obtaining his bachelor's degree in 1950. He served in the Army during the Korean War, stationed at Fort Knox, then went on to complete an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in entomology at Ohio State University in 1956. As a graduate student, he pioneered the use of new acoustic recording technology, developed in WWII, to study insect behavior, revolutionizing the study of acoustic communication and speciation in the process. He was a postdoctoral research associate at the Rockefeller Foundation before coming to Michigan. In 1957, he was hired by the University of Michigan as an instructor and curator of insects, where he spent his career. At Michigan, Alexander became a national leader in evolutionary biology. His early career awards include the Newcomb Cleveland Prize (1961) from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his paper “The role of behavioral study in cricket classification” and the Daniel Giraud Eliot medal (1971) from the National Academy of Sciences for “outstanding fundamental work on the systematics, evolution and behavior of crickets.”

Cover of the book "Human Social Evolution: The Foundational Works of Richard D. Alexander." Edited by Kyle Summers and Bernard Crespi

He was named Distinguished University Professor in 1989, and retired in 2001. Alexander introduced the first course in evolution and/or behavior at the U-M with his popular “Animal Evolution and Behavior,” which he first taught in 1960-61. He published over 140 scientific papers and books while at the U-M, the latter including “Darwinism and Human Affairs” (1979), “The Australian Crickets: (Orthoptera: Gryllidae)” (1983), and “The Biology of Moral Systems(1987). His systematic work on crickets (Orthoptera) resulted in the description of approximately 426 new species and genera, and the discovery of special problems in speciation. He was centrally involved in developing the field of sociobiology. He and his students studied the evolution of eusociality in animals and he famously developed naked mole rats as a vertebrate model system for studies of social evolution. Alexander mentored over 40 graduate students, many of whom have gone on to have distinguished academic careers, and he served as the director of the Museum of Zoology from 1993-1998.

In addition to being a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Alexander’s achievements were recognized at Michigan with multiple Excellence in Education awards (1993 and 1995), a Distinguished Faculty Achievement award (1982), becoming a Senior Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows (1987 – 1990), and recipient of the Henry Russel Lectureship (1989). He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ohio Academy of Science and the Animal Behavior Society.

Alexander is survived by his wife of 68 years Lorraine Kearnes Alexander; his brother Noel (Donna); his daughters Susan (Sarita) and Nancy; his grandchildren Morgan, Lydia, Lincoln and Winona; and his great-grandson Ezekiel; and several nieces and nephews.

The memoir above is excerpted from an obituary titled “The nine lives of Richard D. Alexander” published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior by his colleagues and former students Kyle Summers, David Lahti, Stanton Braude, Beverly Strassmann and Joan Strassmann, with permission.

Additional remembrances from three of Alexander’s former students follow. “What I remember most about Dick was just the relentless openness to discuss major issues in the evolution of behavior in general, and human behavior in particular,” said Kyle Summers, professor, Department of Biology, East Carolina University. “Coming into Dick's orbit, I was blown away with the constellation of amazing intellects that Dick had attracted and surrounded himself with. And the swirling, shifting groups of intelligent evolutionary biologists and anthropologists that surrounded Dick would (it seemed) constantly be discussing issues of profound interest and importance. He never seemed to tire of this. His style was challenging (he loved to argue), but friendly – I always had the feeling that he supported us and wanted us to succeed, even when he was challenging our arguments.

“Of course this has profoundly affected me ever since, and I still strive to recreate the atmosphere of those amazing discussions back in my grad school days. This is no easy task, but it serves as a model to aspire to.”

Regarding a letter Heather Heying sent to her former graduate student mentor in 2014, she wrote in, “characteristically, he wrote me back at length, in his usual style, full of logical surprises, and also sent me a draft of a book of poems he was working on.” Heying was, until 2017, an associate professor of biology and curator of vertebrate collections of the Evergreen Natural History Museum, Evergreen State College.

She shared her letter to her mentor as a blog post in and excerpts follow, with permission. “I learned from you how much fun evolutionary logic is to apply, and more importantly, how universally applicable it is … I came to understand that, among your myriad skills, deep and empathic mentorship was on the list,” Heying wrote.

Richard Alexander and a foal in 2015. Image: David Lahti.

“In large measure, I learned how to teach from you. Your approach, in Evolution and Human Behavior, that giant, amazing class that I was lucky to TA for multiple times, was awe-inspiring. You grabbed the attention of everyone in the room, and never let it go. You were surprising, flexible, brilliant. … there are many more young people wandering the globe who have not only answers to questions they have long asked, but the ability to both ask, and answer, many more.”

Beverly Strassmann, U-M professor of anthropology, said, “I am incredibly lucky to have been mentored by Dick Alexander, who thought deeply about how to apply evolutionary theory to understanding human behavior. He was as thrilled as I was about the opportunity to seek the biology hidden in culture. While I was in central Mali for 30 months in the 1980s, I was almost totally cut-off from the outside world. During this time it was important to know that I had the 100 percent support of my advisor. Dick deeply valued both graduate and undergraduate teaching, and as an impassioned educator he objected to the term ‘teaching load.’ I try to keep his role model in mind, as he was the ideal teacher and mentor.”    

The "nine lives" in the title of the obituary in Evolution and Human Behavior does not refer to a particular fondness for cats on Alexander's part (in fact, he was partial to horses), or to some series of near death experiences (although he had some of those). Rather, it refers to the many different interests that Alexander pursued during his lifetime. Growing up, he worked as a farmer, rancher and horse trainer, activities he continued throughout his life. He was also a talented poet, songwriter, musician, and wood-carver. In addition to his professional scientific writings, he was a prolific author of many kinds of books, including children's stories, biographical texts and practical guides, especially on horse training.

“My god was that man brilliant, and prolific, and diverse in his interests,” Heying wrote.

Richard D. Alexander website, managed by David Lahti

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein