H. Allen Orr

H. Allen Orr

Infobox Scientist

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name = H. Allen Orr
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field = Evolutionary biology
work_institution = University of Rochester
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prizes = Darwin-Wallace Medal
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H. Allen Orr is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester. [cite web |title=H. Allen Orr Named 'University Professor' for Diverse Body of Achievements |date=2008-04-01 |accessdate=2008-04-23 |url=http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=3135]

Education and career

He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Philosophy from the College of William and Mary and his Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Chicago. At Chicago, Orr studied under Jerry Coyne. He performed postdoctoral research at the University of California, Davis [Orr's CV from his lab page] .


Prof. Orr is an evolutionary geneticist whose research focuses on the genetics of speciation and the genetics of adaptation, in particular on the genetic basis of hybrid sterility and inviability. How many genes cause reproductive isolation between species? What are the normal functions of these genes and what evolutionary forces drove their divergence? He studies these problems through genetic analysis of reproductive isolation between species of "Drosophila".

In his adaptation work, Dr. Orr is interested in theoretical rules or patterns that might characterize the population genetics of adaptation. He studies these patterns using both population genetic theory and experiment. [ [http://www.rochester.edu/college/BIO/faculty/Orr.html Faculty Bio-page] ] Orr is said to be one of the few evolutionary biologists ever to have made fundamental contributions about how changes occur within lineages over time, "and" about how lineages split to result in new species. [ [http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=2827 U of Rochester announcement] ]


His book "Speciation" [Coyne, J. A. and Orr, H. A. (2004). "Speciation". Sinauer Associates Inc., Sunderland, MA, USA, ISBN 0-87893-091-4] , co-authored with Jerry Coyne, was hailed in Science as "exceedingly well-written and persuasive" [EVOLUTION:How Species Arise A review by Benjamin K. Blackman and Loren H. Rieseberg "Science" 305 no. 5684, pp. 612-613] . They consider that studying speciation is largely synonymous with studying reproductive isolation, and explore what we know about where, when, and how isolating barriers evolve. Following Ernst Mayr they argue that speciation usually occurs where populations are geographically isolated or allopatric. They present evidence for the primacy of natural and sexual selection over genetic drift in driving speciation. Signatures of positive selection on genes involved in postzygotic isolation and reproductive proteins as well as experimental evidence from both the lab and field connect adaptation and sexual selection to reproductive isolation. They also present evidence for the congruence of the Dobzhansky-Muller model for the evolution of postzygotic isolation with the genetics of hybrid incompatibilities in many natural systems. Results that support their conclusions in the book continue to be published [see eg D. A. Barbash, D. F. Siino, A. M. Tarone, J. Roote, "Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A." 100, 5302 (2003) and the paper in "Nature" 423, 715 cited below]

Philosophy, science and religion

Orr frequently reviews books that seek to link biological ideas to religion or philosophy - this aspect of his work was specifically cited in his appointment as Shirley Cox Kearns Professor. [ [http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=2827 U of Rochester appointment announcement] ] .

He believes that "Good science demands two things: that you ask the right questions and that you get the right answers. Although science education focuses almost exclusively on the second task, a good case can be made that the first is both the harder and the more important. Getting Mendel's laws from Mendel's data may not be easy, but surely the hardest part is daring to ask Mendel's question: Despite all appearances to the contrary, might heredity obey simple laws?" [Cite journal |author=H. Allen Orr |title=An Evolutionary Dead End? |journal=Science |date=July 1999 |volume=285 |issue=5426 |pages=343–344 |doi=10.1126/science.285.5426.343] .

Orr considers "scientism, the view that all truths are ultimately scientific" to be naive, hubristic and just plain wrong [ [http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/orr.html Gould review] - the full quote is "It may seem obvious that there are mathematical truths (1+1 = 2), logical truths (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates was mortal), historical truths (Socrates was mortal), folk psychological truths (someone who’s blushing is embarrassed) and socially constructed truths (paper bearing George, but not Grover, Washington’s likeness is worth something). And it may seem equally obvious that none of these is scientific. The world is not all science and there are places where science cannot and even should not go. But this lesson has come surprisingly hard to many philosophers and scientists–for instance, E. O. Wilson. Gould has, all along, been on the right side of this skirmish. Scientism is naive and it is hubristic. But, most of all, it’s just plain wrong."] and is generally critical of what he sees as unwarranted attempts to generalise or draw philosophical conclusions from scientific facts. He laments the popular trend whereby "some pet theory gets elevated to its rightful place as "the" way to think about evolution. But this longing to dress up biology in unusual new perspectives has, so far, yielded more book deals than results" [Cite journal |author=H. Allen Orr |title=An Evolutionary Dead End? |journal=Science |date=July 1999 |volume=285 |issue=5426 |pages=343–344 |doi=10.1126/science.285.5426.343] .

He is highly critical of William Dembski's "No Free Lunch" suggesting that although the counterintuitive No Free Lunch theorems of computer science do indeed rule out the generation of "specified complexity" in a specific technical sense, this has nothing to do with Darwinism which is not trying to reach a pre-specified target [Cite journal |title=Book Review: No Free Lunch |author=H. Allen Orr |journal=Boston Review |url=http://bostonreview.net/BR27.3/orr.html |volume=27 |issue=3 |date=Summer 2002 |accessdate=2007-04-01] , and of Michael Behe's "Darwin's Black Box" which he characterises as "cleverly argued, biologically informed — and wrong" [Cite journal |title=Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again) |author=H. Allen Orr |journal=Boston Review |url=http://bostonreview.net/BR21.6/orr.html |volume=21 |issue=6 |date=January 1997 |accessdate=2007-04-01] . He concedes that there are biological systems which are irreducibly complex in Behe's sense but suggests that "An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become — because of later changes — essential" [Orr Cites: H. J. Muller, "Reversibility in Evolution Considered from the Standpoint of Genetics," "Biological Reviews" 14 (1939): 261–80] . He also suggests that, while he has "utter confidence in Behe's biochemistry" Behe "is not at home in the technical evolution literature."

However he is also critical of Daniel Dennett [Cite journal |title=Dennett's Strange Idea |author=H. Allen Orr |journal=Boston Review |url=http://bostonreview.net/BR21.3/Orr.html |volume=21 |issue=3 |date=Summer 1996|accessdate=2007-04-01] , Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins [Cite journal | title=A Mission to Convert | author=H. Allen Orr | volume=54 | issue=1 | date=January 2007 | journal=New York Review of Books | url=http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19775 | accessdate=2007-03-03] , expressing serious reservations about their arguments and defending these in extended follow-up correspondence [Dennett also objected to Orr's review of The God Delusion which led to an extensive exchange of letters [http://www.edge.org/discourse/dennett_orr.html#dd reproduced here] ] .

Orr is not satisfied by Steven Jay Gould's NOMA suggestion. Whilst highly critical of claims that physics has "found God" he points out that "many of the [20th] century’s leading scientists – including some of the brightest stars of evolutionary biology...were deeply religious... Theodosius Dobzhansky was a Christian and something of an amateur theologian; Sir Ronald Fisher was a deeply devout Anglican who, between founding modern statistics and population genetics, penned articles for church magazines; and J.B.S. Haldane was an unabashed mystic". However Orr thinks that Gould's redefinition of religion to be solely concerned with moral values is not what anyone who practices the thing means by religion (or almost anyone, anyway), and that it will not do to pretend that all will be well in some imagined world where people of goodwill pursue invariably consonant views. So whereas it may be that the road Gould cuts is in a sensible enough direction (a considerable improvement over the present state in which creationists pester scientists and scientists preach values, and avoiding many of the inanities that often accompany talk of religion by scientists) it is a far bumpier road than Gould lets on. [ [http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/orr.html Gould on God Can religion and science be happily reconciled?] in the Boston Review]

Awards and recognition

Orr has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar in Residence Fellowship at Bellagio Study Center, Italy. He was awarded the Dobzhansky Prize by the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Young Investigator Prize by the American Society of Naturalists. He was also named Professor of the Year in Natural Sciences by the Student Association at University of Rochester in 2002. In 2008 he was one of thirteen recipients of the Darwin-Wallace Award, which is bestowed every 50 years by the Linnean Society of London.

Personal life

Orr is married to Lynne Orr, a Professor of Physics at the University of Rochester, who works in the field of high energy phenomenology.


Orr is widely published in some of the leading scientific journals including Nature, Science and PNAS. [ [ CV Publications] ]


* "Speciation". 2004. ISBN 0-87893-091-4.

cientific publications

Orr's more notable papers include:

* "A test of Fisher’s theory of dominance", "PNAS" [Orr, H. A. 1991. A test of Fisher’s theory of dominance. "Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA" 88: 11413-11415.]
* "Haldane's rule has multiple genetic causes", "Nature" [Orr, H. A. 1993. Haldane’s rule has multiple genetic causes. Nature 361 532-533. [See “News and Views” by J. Brookfield: "Nature" 361: 496-497.] ]
* "A mathematical model of Haldane's rule", "Evolution" [Orr, H. A. 1993. A mathematical model of Haldane’s rule. "Evolution" 47: 1606-1611. [See “News and Views” by J. Coyne: "Nature" 363: 298.] ]
* "The evolutionary genetics of speciation", "Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. B" [Coyne, J. A. and H. A. Orr. 1998. The evolutionary genetics of speciation. "Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B" 353: 287-305. [reprinted in Evolution of Biological Diversity, Ed. by A. E. Magurran and R. M. May. pp. 1-36. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999. Also reprinted in Evolutionary Genetics: from Molecules to Morphology, Ed. by R. S. Singh and C. B. Krimbas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000. Also reprinted in Evolution, Second Edition, ed. by M. Ridley, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003] ]
* "The population genetics of adaptation: the distribution of factors fixed during adaptive evolution", "Evolution" [Orr, H. A. 1998. The population genetics of adaptation: the distribution of factors fixed during adaptive evolution. "Evolution" 52: 935-949. [See “News and Views” by N. Barton: "Nature" 395: 751-752. See also "Science" 284: 2106-2107.] ]
* "Haldane's rule is obeyed in taxa lacking a hemizygous X", "Science" [Presgraves, D. C. and H. A. Orr. 1998. Haldane’s rule is obeyed in taxa lacking a hemizygous X. "Science" 282: 952-954. [See “Perspectives” by M. Turelli: "Science" 282: 889-891.] ]
* "Morphological innovation and developmental genetics", "PNAS" [Marshall, C. R. H. A. Orr, and N. H. Patel. 1999. Morphological innovation and developmental genetics. "Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA" 96: 9995-9996.]
* "Adaptive evolution drives divergence of a hybrid inviability gene in Drosophila", "Nature" [Presgraves, D. C., L. Balagopalan, S. M. Abmayr, and H. A. Orr. 2003. Adaptive evolution drives divergence of a hybrid inviability gene in Drosophila. "Nature" 423: 715-719. [See “News and Comment” by M. Noor: "Nature" 423: 699-700; see also news item in "Nature Reviews Genetics" 4: 580; “Faculty of 1000” listed paper] ]


Orr's frequent contributions of book reviews and critical essays to such publications as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books are cited as an important part of his work [Both in his own CV and specifically cited in his [http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=2827 appointment as Shirley Cox Kearns Professor] ] . The following is a selection of his more notable literary criticism and academic book reviews:

* "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel Dennett. [Evolution 50: 467-472, adapted as Cite journal |title=Dennett's Strange Idea |author=H. Allen Orr |journal=Boston Review |url=http://bostonreview.net/BR21.3/orr.html |volume=21 |issue=3 |date=Summer 1996|accessdate=2007-04-01 |format=dead link|date=June 2008 – [http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=author%3A+intitle%3ADennett%27s+Strange+Idea&as_publication=Boston+Review&as_ylo=&as_yhi=&btnG=Search Scholar search] . There was a subsequent exchance of letters between Dennett and Orr published as "The scope of natural selection (Dennett-Orr exchange)". Boston Review (October/November 1996: pp. 36-38)]
* ' by Michael Behe. [Cite journal |title=Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again) |author=H. Allen Orr |journal=Boston Review |url=http://bostonreview.net/BR21.6/orr.html |volume=21 |issue=6 |date=January 1997 |accessdate=2007-04-01. (Reprinted in "Think: Philosophy for Everyone" (Royal Institute of Philosophy), Autumn 2005, 11"', pp. 41-53; also translated into Polish for the philosophical journal "Filozoficzne Aspekty Genezy"; excerpt also reprinted in 30th Anniversary issue of "Boston Review" (September/October, 2005: p. 46)]
* "Phenotypic Evolution A Reaction Norm Perspective" by Carl D. Schlichting and Massimo Pigliucci. [Cite journal |author=H. Allen Orr |title=An Evolutionary Dead End? |journal=Science |date=July 1999 |volume=285 |issue=5426 |pages=343–344 |doi=10.1126/science.285.5426.343]
* "Rocks of Ages" by Stephen Jay Gould [ [http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/orr.html Gould on God Can religion and science be happily reconciled?] in the Boston Review]
* "No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence" by William Dembski. [Cite journal |title=Book Review: No Free Lunch |author=H. Allen Orr |journal=Boston Review |url=http://bostonreview.net/BR27.3/orr.html |volume=27 |issue=3 |date=Summer 2002 |accessdate=2007-04-01]
* "The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker [ Darwinian storytelling The New York Review of Books, February 27, 2003, pp. 17-20. - see also “The Blank Slate”: an Exchange. The New York Review of Books, May 1, 2003, pp. 48-49.]
*"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. [Cite journal | title=A Mission to Convert | author=H. Allen Orr | volume=54 | issue=1 | date=January 2007 | journal=New York Review of Books | url=http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19775 | accessdate=2007-03-03]

Notes and references

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