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International Prize for Biology 2004 Acceptance Address

Your Majesties, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am greatly honored to receive the 2004 International Prize in Biology in the field of Systematic Biology and Taxonomy. Exactly ten years ago I met your Majesties at the presentation of the prize in the same field to Ernst Mayr, who celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year, and with whom I have since kept in touch by correspondence. It is a pleasure to be back here again and to renew my acquaintance with your Majesties and with Japan, beautiful islands, set like our own British Isles in seas still abounding in fishes, about which the Emperor knows far more than I do.

My own research has mainly involved much smaller, single-celled organisms but I have always been interested in the full diversity of living things. I chose to go to Cambridge University as a student rather than to Oxford, where I now work, because only there could I study both Botany and Zoology. One of my Cambridge botany teachers was Professor E. J. H. Corner, the very first recipient of this prize, also in the same fields. I found Corner an inspiring lecturer and writer, who sought to tell the fascinating story of the evolutionary march of seaweeds onto land to become forest trees, wheat and rice. We now know that it was not, as Corner thought, the large brown seaweeds that did this 400 million years ago but the tiny single-celled green ones.

An honor such as this recognizes the importance of a scientific field as much as an individual's contributions. It is therefore a special pleasure to accept the award as a mark of the value of two areas of science. One is the study of single-celled organisms, our most distant relatives and ancestors, some of which are so immensely complex that they have as many—or even more—genes as we do. The second is the importance for science of the synthesis of knowledge.

Even before I went to Cambridge I attended a lecture by Professor Irene Manton, who would have been an ideal female recipient of the Prize had she still been alive. She showed electron microscope pictures of the cells of many marine algae in which the membrane arrangements were far more complex than in human cells or in plant cells. She said that nobody knew the functions of these extra membranes.

Those were the cells of algae that I later placed in the new kingdom Chromista, the sixth kingdom of life. We now know that those extra membranes are evolutionary relics of the internal enslavement by an ancient protozoan cell of a one-celled red alga related to the popular Japanese food nori. We cannot understand why these cells or our own are built as they are just be studying their current function. Deep understanding of the nature of life requires knowledge of its history as well as its current workings.

Manton's lecture was in my home city of Norwich, where my 93 year old mother still lives. It was she who told me what biology was when I was only nine years old. That, plus the wildlife of the restful Milford countryside in which we then lived, inspired me to become a biologist. It is sad that the inevitable degeneration that we all one day suffer has made my mother unable to appreciate properly the honor that you have bestowed on me today, and to participate in this result of her early nurturing.

All the universities in which I have worked have also nurtured my work; during the past decade, especially, so has the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research's Evolutionary Biology Program, of which I am Fellow. I also owe much to students and postdoctoral fellows, one of whom—Prof. Ishida—organized Wednesday's symposium. I thank them and past supporters of my research, and give special thanks to my wife and research assistant Ema Chao, whose DNA sequencing and boundless other help enabled me to establish two new protozoan phyla.

I also thank my international colleagues in so many countries who have generated data and exchanged ideas, enabling the syntheses that have preoccupied me. We must never forget that science is an international endeavor that makes progress by cooperation and competition, and especially by healthy criticism. Scientists are not perfect and make some mistakes; progress nevertheless comes about by learning from these mistakes.

A willingness to question basic beliefs and to foster open debate is central to science, which progresses best in countries like Japan and Britain, which encourage—or at least allow—such activities. Questioning and reasoned criticism are also vital for long-term social progress and harmony. But in many countries, not all of them poor, there are sadly immense impediments to such free expression and the right to disagree.

Therefore, all of us in privileged developed countries with a strong science base should ask whether we can do more to help less fortunate countries participate in the excitement of science and the hope of economic and social progress, which the skeptical but constructive scientific spirit makes possible.

Another cause for concern it that distant generations may not be able to enjoy sushi or study fish taxonomy like the Emperor. Unless one abolishes government subsidies to fishing fleets and establishes marine reserves, so as to check harmful over fishing. That is according to Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, where I worked for a decade. Our distant relatives, the bacteria, which are such important parts of our lives and global stability, will be able to fend for themselves, but higher forms of life, now mostly depend on human restraint in our own population growth and in our often excessive demands on the environment for their survival.

In ending, therefore, I wish not only to thank the Emperor, Prime Minister, Minister of Education and Committee Chairman for their kind words, but also to express the hope that all countries will collaborate to conserve the biodiversity that I have spent my life trying to understand and order so that future generations may enjoy and use it.

Thank you all.

 
 
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