Robert R. Sokal (1926-2012)

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It has been announced that Robert Sokal died on April 9. I wrote a brief obituary here last autumn for his co-worker Peter Sneath. Together they pioneered the use of clustering algorithms in taxonomy, and argued for the adoption of phenetic methods based on clustering there. While they were ultimately unsuccessful in this, they became founding fathers of work on mathematical clustering, and their book Principles of Numerical Taxonomy was widely-noticed and greatly stimulated the development of phylogeny algorithms. A paper by Michener and Sokal (1957) is, as far as I can tell, the first one publishing a numerical phylogeny. His publication of the 1965 paper by Camin and Sokal in Evolution, and a visit he made to the University of Chicago that year, inspired me to start working on phylogeny algorithms.

sokal1964.jpg Sokal2-n.jpg
Robert Sokal in 1964 at the International
Entomological Congress in London
Bob Sokal, more recently

Bob’s Stony Brook colleague Michael Bell has written a fine obituary, which I reprint below with his permission.

We are sad to report that Distinguished Professor Emeritus Robert R. Sokal passed away in Stony Brook on Monday, April 9, 2012 at the age of 86. Prof. Sokal was a founding member of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, co-founder of the methodological school of Numerical Taxonomy, and the principal investigator for major research programs in the spatial variation of insects and humans and the evolutionary response to selection in insects. He supervised the training of numerous Ph.D. students and taught biometry to a much larger number. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and received many other honors during his remarkable career. We in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook will miss his insights, support, and friendship.

Prof. Sokal was born into a middle class Jewish family on January 13, 1926 in Vienna, Austria, the only child of Klara and Siegfried Sokal. He fled the looming Nazi menace with his family in 1938 to Shanghai, China, which became the refuge for tens of thousands of European Jews during World War II. Robert attended secondary school and college in Shanghai, earning his B.S. degree in Biology from St. John’s University in 1947. There he also met a young Chinese student, Julie Chenchu Yang, who became his wife and lifelong love. A book entitled Letzte Zuflucht Schanghai (Final Refuge Shanghai) by Stefan Schomann (2008) in German and translated into Chinese chronicled Robert’s flight from Vienna, his family’s refuge in Shanghai, and the start of his life with Julie, before he came to the United States for his graduate education.

Prof. Sokal received his graduate training at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in Zoology in 1952 under the direction of entomologist Alfred E. Emerson and was strongly influenced by Sewall Wright. He joined the Entomology Department at the University of Kansas in 1951 as an instructor, and rose rapidly through the academic ranks to Professor of Statistical Biology in 1961. He was recruited by Lawrence B. Slobodkin to the fledgling Department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1968, where he spent the remainder of his career.

Prof. Sokal’s scientific publications span a broad range of subjects and seven decades. He published major papers in ecology, evolution, anthropology, geography, statistics, and of course systematics. His papers appeared in Science, Nature, PNAS USA, and many of the best specialty journals in ecology, evolution, systematics, anthropology, and statistics. He is probably best known to evolutionary biologists and ecologists for his Biometry textbook with F. James Rohlf, the fourth edition of which he completed less than a year before his death. A recent search of Google Scholar indicated that the third edition of Biometry had been cited 19,851 times. Prof. Sokal is also well known as the co-founder of Numerical Taxonomy with Peter H. A. Sneath in 1963. This work promoted digital methods for classification and was controversial both because it advocated abandonment of traditional evolutionary systematics and led to the debate between the advocates of phenetic and cladistic methods. Regardless, it is undeniable that Prof. Sokal pioneered the use of rigorous, objective statistical methods and the employment of computers in systematics. Prof. Sokal started his career with dissertation research on patterns of geographical variation in Pemphigus aphids. Later, he initiated research on the evolutionary response to selection in laboratory populations of Tribolium beetles and house flies. His last major empirical project, which he pursued for more than two decades, focused on analysis of patterns of spatial variation in human populations for a variety of traits and the development of new methods for these analyses. Prof. Sokal published 12 books (5 translated) and 206 articles, and his publications have been cited tens of thousands of times.

Prof. Sokal came to Stony Brook University as a Professor in 1968. He was named Leading Professor in 1972 and Distinguished Professor in 1991. He retired in 1995 and became a very active Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He served as the Chair and Graduate Program Director of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University from 1980 to 1983 and as Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies from 1981 to 82. He remained very active in scientific research, the Department of Ecology and Evolution, university affairs, and the National Academy of Sciences, even attending departmental colloquia until the last year of his life, when his declining health precluded it.

Prof. Sokal also served in many other prestigious capacities, including President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, the Classification Society, and the International Federation of Classification Societies, the last of which he helped found. He was an associate editor of Evolution (1965-68) and editor of The American Naturalist (1969-1974). He received many high honors, including both Fulbright and Guggenheim awards, the Charles R. Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and many others. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and The American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Robert R. Sokal is survived by his wife of 64 years, Julie Sokal, his children David Sokal and Hannah Sokal-Holmes, and four grandchildren. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends, and colleagues.

Michael A. Bell, Professor Department of Ecology and Evolution Stony Brook University Stony Brook, NY 11794-5245, USA

Bob’s life story was, as you can see, very dramatic. He was a fluent speaker of the Shanghai Chinese dialect, as well as of English and German.

I will miss Bob, who I interacted with over many years, particularly at the Numerical Taxonomy conferences that he ran annually for many years. He was always passionate about the wars in systematics, and would always insist on firmly rebutting criticisms of phenetic approaches to taxonomy. I vividly remember one time describing “pattern cladistics” to him and saying “Isn’t that a phenetic position?” and him raising his eyebrows and saying in his Henry-Kissinger-like accent “as far as I can see it is”.

18 Comments

I raise my copy of Biometry - Sokal and Rohlf, 1969 - in tribute.

I never met the gentleman, but my undergrad professor of biostatistics, Theodore Crovello, was one of his students and pretty much idolized him.

fusilier James 2:24

If they ever make a movie based on Sokal’s life, I suggest Jude Law play Sokal in his younger years. May he rest in peace.

A long, productive, well-lived life.

He fled the looming Nazi menace with his family in 1938 to Shanghai, China, which became the refuge for tens of thousands of European Jews during World War II. Robert attended secondary school and college in Shanghai, earning his B.S. degree in Biology from St. John’s University in 1947.

Didn’t the Japanese occupy Shanghai during WWII? Does this mean that the Japanese government of WWII tolerated the presence of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany? Forgive my ignorance if there is some reason that this interesting-seeming question has an obvious answer.

harold said:

A long, productive, well-lived life.

He fled the looming Nazi menace with his family in 1938 to Shanghai, China, which became the refuge for tens of thousands of European Jews during World War II. Robert attended secondary school and college in Shanghai, earning his B.S. degree in Biology from St. John’s University in 1947.

Didn’t the Japanese occupy Shanghai during WWII? Does this mean that the Japanese government of WWII tolerated the presence of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany? Forgive my ignorance if there is some reason that this interesting-seeming question has an obvious answer.

Yes, the Jews who reached Shanghai after fleeing the Nazis were going to a place under Japanese occupation. In fact, Jews who reached Japan itself were subsequently relocated to the Shanghai ghetto. There they were under a rather harsh regime but were able to receive some money from outside sources. The Nazis urged the Japanese government to murder them, and even sent an SS officer to Shanghai to plan this, but the Japanese government stalled and did nothing. After the war many of the 20,000 refugees went to the United States.

There is a Wikipedia page on the Shanghai ghetto and several books have been written on this.

Apparently Bob Sokal was one of 16 students given passes to attend St. John’s College in Shanghai (the Shanghai Ghetto Wikipedia page calls it “St. Francis Xavier University” for reasons I have been unable to discover).

I salute Robert Sokal for a life well lived, for being a great biostatistician and systematist. I acquired the second edition of “Biometry” when I was a college senior and have used that, as well as later edition, ever since. My condolences to his colleagues and friends at Stony Brook and elsewhere and, of course, to his family.

Joe Felsenstein said:

harold said:

A long, productive, well-lived life.

He fled the looming Nazi menace with his family in 1938 to Shanghai, China, which became the refuge for tens of thousands of European Jews during World War II. Robert attended secondary school and college in Shanghai, earning his B.S. degree in Biology from St. John’s University in 1947.

Didn’t the Japanese occupy Shanghai during WWII? Does this mean that the Japanese government of WWII tolerated the presence of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany? Forgive my ignorance if there is some reason that this interesting-seeming question has an obvious answer.

Yes, the Jews who reached Shanghai after fleeing the Nazis were going to a place under Japanese occupation. In fact, Jews who reached Japan itself were subsequently relocated to the Shanghai ghetto. There they were under a rather harsh regime but were able to receive some money from outside sources. The Nazis urged the Japanese government to murder them, and even sent an SS officer to Shanghai to plan this, but the Japanese government stalled and did nothing. After the war many of the 20,000 refugees went to the United States.

There is a Wikipedia page on the Shanghai ghetto and several books have been written on this.

Apparently Bob Sokal was one of 16 students given passes to attend St. John’s College in Shanghai (the Shanghai Ghetto Wikipedia page calls it “St. Francis Xavier University” for reasons I have been unable to discover).

Now that is extremely interesting. I’m surprised I didn’t know this at all. I’m not a WWII-era geek, but still. Of course, we do have to weigh this humane and courageous policy against the overall Japanese WWII record, which is rife with horrible crimes against humanity.

Joe Felsenstein said:

harold said:

A long, productive, well-lived life.

He fled the looming Nazi menace with his family in 1938 to Shanghai, China, which became the refuge for tens of thousands of European Jews during World War II. Robert attended secondary school and college in Shanghai, earning his B.S. degree in Biology from St. John’s University in 1947.

Didn’t the Japanese occupy Shanghai during WWII? Does this mean that the Japanese government of WWII tolerated the presence of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany? Forgive my ignorance if there is some reason that this interesting-seeming question has an obvious answer.

Yes, the Jews who reached Shanghai after fleeing the Nazis were going to a place under Japanese occupation. In fact, Jews who reached Japan itself were subsequently relocated to the Shanghai ghetto. There they were under a rather harsh regime but were able to receive some money from outside sources. The Nazis urged the Japanese government to murder them, and even sent an SS officer to Shanghai to plan this, but the Japanese government stalled and did nothing. After the war many of the 20,000 refugees went to the United States.

There is a Wikipedia page on the Shanghai ghetto and several books have been written on this.

Apparently Bob Sokal was one of 16 students given passes to attend St. John’s College in Shanghai (the Shanghai Ghetto Wikipedia page calls it “St. Francis Xavier University” for reasons I have been unable to discover).

There was no systematic persecution of Jews by the Japanese in Japanese-ruled territories. Instead, I know of at least one Japanese diplomat who has been noted as among the righteous at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel.

John said:

There was no systematic persecution of Jews by the Japanese in Japanese-ruled territories. Instead, I know of at least one Japanese diplomat who has been noted as among the righteous at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel.

That was the famous case of Chiune Sugihara, who however was acting against his instructions from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and subsequently lost his job. The Japanese militarists of the 1930s understood the Nazi invasion and domination of other countries, as they were doing the same. And they did themselves regularly commit massive atrocities. But the Nazi persecution of Jews was different. It was a mystery to them – why was this one bunch of crazy Westerners upset with another bunch? It made no sense to them.

harold said:

[About the Japanese toleration of Jewish refugees in Shanghai]

Of course, we do have to weigh this humane and courageous policy against the overall Japanese WWII record, which is rife with horrible crimes against humanity.

I wouldn’t say “humane and courageous”. More like “cautious and mystified”.

Joe Felsenstein said: But the Nazi persecution of Jews was different. It was a mystery to them – why was this one bunch of crazy Westerners upset with another bunch? It made no sense to them.

From the Japanese viewpoint, the Jews and the Nazis all looked alike?

Paul Burnett said:

Joe Felsenstein said: But the Nazi persecution of Jews was different. It was a mystery to them – why was this one bunch of crazy Westerners upset with another bunch? It made no sense to them.

From the Japanese viewpoint, the Jews and the Nazis all looked alike?

In a way, you can say that.

To the Chinese, the Jews and Muslims were considered extremely similar because of their dietary restrictions.

apokryltaros said:

To the Chinese, the Jews and Muslims were considered extremely similar because of their dietary restrictions.

Well, the subject of this thread was actually Robert Sokal (remember him?). I don’t recall him being too picky about dietary restrictions. I did have dinner with him in various restaurants, and he was an appreciator of fine food. But he was known to complain (with somewhat pointed humor) if I chose too pricy a restaurant.

He did consider some Chinese customs funny. Once he and Julie went back to China to Beijing, where her brother was a doctor in one of the hospitals. The brother arranged for them to stay at an inexpensive hotel in the suburbs near his hospital while they were visiting. After visiting with the brother, Bob was supposed to give a lecture at Beijing University about his work. He was to be formally welcomed by the University people at a reception at his hotel. But they complained that he was in too cheap a hotel, so that it was too low-status a place and they could not do that. They made Bob and Julie move to a fancier hotel in the center of the city so that they could formally welcome him there. Bob found that amusing.

One restaurant I took him to (along with Jim Rohlf when they were all here in Seattle for a meeting) was a Chinese restaurant owned by a Taiwanese man. Of course we all expected Bob to help us find the good dishes. He and the owner started speaking in Chinese. But the owner did not speak Shanghai Chinese, and Bob did not speak Taiwan Chinese. So they both tried Mandarin, and basically both were not good enough at that. So finally they both went back to English.

As an outsider (biochemist) I found taxonomy esoteric and arbitrary. In 1980 the Halstead Museum of Errors letter and following squabble attracted my attention. Finding it both interesting and mysterious I visited the exhibit at the Natural History Museum and gradually figured out what numerical taxonomy and cladistics were all about. The obit is fascinating and fills a hole in my taxonomy education.

Les Lane said:

As an outsider (biochemist) I found taxonomy esoteric and arbitrary. In 1980 the Halstead Museum of Errors letter and following squabble attracted my attention. Finding it both interesting and mysterious I visited the exhibit at the Natural History Museum and gradually figured out what numerical taxonomy and cladistics were all about. The obit is fascinating and fills a hole in my taxonomy education.

You should also check out the obituary post on Peter Sneath that is referenced above.

People may not remember the Halstead uproar. There was a cladistics-based exhibit on human evolution at the Natural History Museum in London in 1980. L. Beverly Halstead objected to it in a letter that he sent to Nature, which Les has usefully given us a link. Most of Halstead’s objection was that the exhibit dogmatically assumed that fossils couldn’t be ancestors, an assumption that is probably not true for human ancestry. He was correct about that. But in part of the letter he went overboard and saw the exhibit as promoting Marxism, a thought that was probably distant from the exhibit designers’ intent.

I have two insights into that exhibit. First, the late Colin Patterson, who was central to promoting cladistic classification in Britain, told me that he actually had nothing to do with planning the exhiibit, which was put together by the museum’s exhibits department. Whatever the exhibit was, it was not a conspiracy of the senior cladists at the museum.

The other is that I actually saw the exhibit. I was passing through the museum about 1980. I noticed a bunch of computers set up in the main hall, with exhibits nearby. I suddenly realized that this was the infamous exhibit. Was it brainwashing a generation of British school children? I saw numbers of noisy children run up to the computers, furiously bang randomly on the keyboard, and when nothing happened except evolutionary trees appearing or slightly changing, the children ran on to terrorize other parts of the museum. The exhibit was not brainwashing anyone – it was not even achieving its own modest goals. I did buy the two small pamphlets that Halstead mentions, which the museum had on sale, so I have some documentation of the material displayed.

During my first year as a graduate student at the University of Michigan I had the very good fortune to be part of a seminar class dealing with various applications of numerical techniques to ecology and systematics that Dr. Sokal taught as a visiting researcher on sabbatical. Having had read his work on Numerical Taxonomy prior to arriving at Michigan I was quite delighted at the prospect. Dr. Sokal was at the time involved in the application of the technique of spatial autocorrelation and it became a big focus of the course.

Early on in the seminar, each student was assigned to give an overview presentation on the various topics. I was given the task of presenting the first seminar on that topic by summarizing the basic ideas presented in Cliff and Ord. I can remember being quite nervous and intimidated since it was both my first presentation as a grad student before a packed room full faculty and more senior grad students, and also because it was my first exposure to spatial autocorrelation. I can also quite vividly remember Dr. Sokal for being so kind as to be encouraging and offering support during the subsequent question and answer period when George Estabrook, who later was on my committee, began to pin my ears back over a change in notation in the mathematical presentation. Looking back, it was an exciting experience that will always remain with me. He also gave me the chance to work with Neal Oden during the early stages of their review of the topic, and whose software I later used to apply the technique to the analysis of meristic variation in a killifish. This gave me my first idea of what being a grad student was all about and hence, fond memories of his mentorship stay with me.

His graciousness and hospitality were always evident, as was an incredible passion and thoughtfulness that he always displayed for the many ideas inherent in systematics. I have always felt so extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to have met such a fine scientist, scholar, and gentleman. It is with a very deep sense of sadness that I learn of his passing. As Michael said, he will be missed.

Stuart Poss

It seems that Modern scientists are standing the assumptions of Bertrand Russell that “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” But human being is always looking for the basic questions about: “How did everthing begin?” “what are we all here for?” “what is the point of living?” Science’s limitations is that it has nothing to do with the meaning qeustion of our life. How to explain the behavior of altruism if we basically have the ‘selfish genes’ by Richard Dawkins?

Jay said:

It seems that Modern scientists are standing the assumptions of Bertrand Russell that “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” But human being is always looking for the basic questions about: “How did everthing begin?” “what are we all here for?” “what is the point of living?” Science’s limitations is that it has nothing to do with the meaning qeustion of our life. How to explain the behavior of altruism if we basically have the ‘selfish genes’ by Richard Dawkins?

The evolution of altruism has good explanations (kin and group selection) and those are discussed in the same books that discuss “selfish genes”. I guess you are not familiar with them. Jay’s comment is irrelevant to a thread on Robert Sokal.

Greg Mayer has now posted a recollection of Robert Sokal at Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True. He gives a vivid and amusing account of Bob’s influence when Greg was a student in his department in the late 1970s. There may be more of interest to come in the Comments section of that post.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Felsenstein published on April 17, 2012 4:45 PM.

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