Sewall Wright Award 2018

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John McNamara

The Sewall Wright Award, established in 1991, is given annually and honors a senior but still active investigator who is making fundamental contributions to the Society's goals, namely, promoting the conceptual unification of the biological sciences. The 2018 award goes to John McNamara. A list of previous recipients can be found here.

John McNamara is a mathematical biologist, whose work has contributed significantly to the conceptual unification of three biological fields: behavior, ecology and evolution. He has developed a general theoretical framework to analyze how individual actions contribute to lifetime reproductive success. This framework provides a rigorously justified common currency for decision-making, while taking into account factors such as physiological changes during an animal’s lifetime. His approach provides a natural way of building more holistic and realistic models of behavior that capture the essential biology of the organism and consider differences between individuals. This framework allows one to predict and understand how evolved behavior depends on state and time.

In 1986 Professor McNamara published a seminal paper in the American Naturalist (McNamara, J.M. and Houston, A.I., 1986. The common currency for behavioral decisions. American Naturalist, 127, 358-3780), which changed the field of behavioral ecology and evolution. Prior to this landmark paper foraging behavior was mainly analyzed from a perspective of energy maximization. John established how energy gain, predation risk and other activities can be combined into a common currency that encapsulates the selection pressures acting on decision making. The dependence of future reproductive prospects on current state and sequences of behavior is central to this approach. This approach naturally leads to consideration of optimal sequences of actions where each action can depend on current state, and contributes to future states. This publication introduced state-dependent dynamic models into evolutionary ecology and showed how stochastic dynamic programming can be used to find optimal (evolutionarily stable) strategies.

The theoretical framework of state-dependent dynamic models and stochastic dynamic programming has been central to much of the subsequent work of John McNamara, but has also been widely adopted by many others in a diverse array of applications. Examples of applications from John’s own work range from exploring the consequences of the trade-off between foraging and predation, the evolution of daily routines in animal behavior, the behavioral responses to risks, the adaptation to fluctuating environments, the evolutionary importance of individual differentiation and the evolution of state-dependent life histories. To highlight a specific example, John and his long-time collaborator Alasdair Houston used the approach to show that if animals respond to a trade-off between foraging gains and predation risks in a state-dependent manner then it is actually possible that starvation levels increase while predation levels decrease as food supply increases. This influential paper furthermore illustrated the importance of formal models as it revealed the fallacy of the verbal reasoning about this problem that had been practiced previously.