David Raup, paleontologist who transformed his discipline, 1933-2015

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

University of Chicago paleontologist David Raup, SB’53, an innovative authority on evolution and mass extinctions, died of pneumonia July 9 in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. He was 82.

Raup’s former students and colleagues uniformly praised his unique creativity along with his astute capabilities as an academic adviser, senior colleague and paleontological statesman. They remember him for the sweeping scope of the questions he asked, his analytical and quantitative rigor, and his skepticism and humility.

“David Raup ushered in a renaissance in paleontology,” said Raup’s former student and colleague Charles Marshall, SM’86, PhD’89, director of the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology and professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “Before Dave, much of the discipline was centered on describing what was. Dave taught the discipline to think about the processes that might have generated the past record.”

Raup introduced statistical concepts to paleontology that treated the fossil record as an outcome of yet-to-be-discovered processes. Raup was widely known for the new approaches he brought repeatedly to paleontology, such as extensive computation, modern evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology and mathematical modeling. 

As Marshall put it, Raup created new intellectual space for paleontology. “That was, in my opinion, his greatest contribution. It is not that Dave just transformed the discipline, but his students, and their students, continue to fill and expand that space,” Marshall said.

Another former student and colleague, Michael Foote, expressed similar sentiments.

“By any conception of what it means to be influential, Dave was one of the most influential paleontologists active during the second half of the 20th century,” said Foote, SM’88, PhD’89, a professor in geophysical sciences at UChicago. “In the areas he chose to touch, nobody, in my view, surpassed him.”

Paleontological innovations

Early in his career, his extensive computational work included a geometric analysis of coiling in seashells on an analog computer with the results displayed on an oscilloscope. The computer was later exhibited at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. His colleagues often single out such quantification of paleontological research as one of the most important features of his work.

“Certainly he was quantitative, and one of the early users of computational methods in paleontology, and these tools helped him address questions that had barely been touched before,” Foote said. “But to put the emphasis on the tools gives short shrift to the questions. He was clearly motivated by questions of major importance and learned the tools he needed to address them.”

One question that Raup tackled is the extent to which major changes in biological diversity documented in the fossil record can potentially be accounted for by changes in the amount of exposed sedimentary rock that preserved the fossils.

“This question, which he initially addressed in the early ‘70s, is still hotly debated and has influenced major infrastructural developments in the field,” Foote said. These developments include the Paleobiology Database co-founded by Marshall and another of Raup’s UChicago students, John Alroy, SM’93, PhD’94, associate professor of biological sciences at Macquarie University in Australia.

Raup also questioned whether the time pattern of extinction in the history of life was haphazard, whether it showed conspicuous features, and whether different biological groups displayed idiosyncratic features or commonalities. Raup collaborated with former UChicago colleague Jack Sepkoski and others to show that there were two components to extinction: a slowly decreasing background rate, interrupted by rare and possibly periodic mass extinctions.

“We still do not know definitely the reasons for these features, but Raup’s results continue to motivate research,” Foote said.

UChicago’s David Jablonski also marveled at the astonishing breadth of the major questions that Raup undertook. Raup analyzed long-term diversity trends in the history of life, and distinguished genuine biodiversity patterns from misleading sampling biases. He also examined the role of mass extinctions in the history of life, noted Jablonski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Service Professor in Geophysical Sciences at UChicago.

Extinction cycles

“He detected a 26-million-year periodicity in extinction pulses that continues to intrigue paleontologists and astrophysicists alike,” Jablonski said. The interest of astrophysicists stems from Raup’s still-unproven proposal that periodic showers of comets or asteroids caused the pattern of regular mass extinctions.

Jablonski also noted Raup’s supportive generosity. “My career, and that of many others, would have been very different, and less rich, without him,” he said. Foote and Marshall experienced Raup’s nurturing mentorship as PhD students working under his supervision.

“I could not have imagined a better graduate adviser than Dave,” Foote said. “He left us alone when we needed to be left alone, let the students do most of the talking, but was always supportive and always had a keen insight when we discussed research.”

Marshall said that his appreciation for Raup’s style as an adviser and mentor has grown over the years.

“I realize that one of his outstanding capacities was his quiet, almost imperceptible ability to empower those around him.”

Students knew that they could regularly find him in the department’s lunchroom, where he would arrive almost daily shortly after noon and leave shortly before 1 p.m.

“I realize, in retrospect, that this sort of steady, open interaction provided the space and energy for us to grow into our own ideas, into our own selves. A truly, truly remarkable mentor.”

From UChicago student to scholar

Raup was born in Boston on April 24, 1933. A 1953 graduate of the University of Chicago’s undergraduate College, Raup received his PhD from Harvard University in 1957. He taught briefly at the California Institute of Technology, then at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Rochester.

Raup returned to UChicago as a visiting professor in 1977. He joined the University faculty in 1980, and chaired the Department of Geophysical Sciences from 1982 to 1985. From 1978 to 1982, he was chairman of geology and dean of sciences at the Field Museum. He was named the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor in 1984, and retired as an emeritus professor in 1995.

The paleontology program flourished at every university where Raup worked as a professor. “It is hard to capture just how deep his transformational effect was and continues to be,” Marshall said.

Raup received the Paleontological Society’s first Charles Schuchert Award for outstanding young paleontologists in 1973. He also was an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. He served as president of the Paleontological Society in 1976-77.

Raup authored or co-authored three books, including The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of the Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science (1986), and Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? (1991). He also was co-author of Principles of Paleontology. First published in 1971 and translated into Russian, Spanish, Polish and Chinese, it was the leading textbook in the subject for more than 20 years.

Additionally, he edited or co-edited three books: Handbook of Paleontological Techniques (1965), The Evolution of Complex and Higher Organisms (1985), and Patterns and Processes in the History of Life (1986).

Despite the achievements and accolades that Raup accumulated during his career, he remained surprisingly soft-spoken and thoughtful.

“He lacked the tendency to self-promotion and aggrandizement that often accompanies those who rise to prominence,” Marshall said. “He consciously eschewed being placed on a pedestal, which generated a deep respect in his students and colleagues.”

He married his second wife, Judith Yamamoto, in Chicago at the University’s Quad Club in 1987. His first marriage, to the former Susan Shepard, ended in divorce. After his retirement, Raup and Yamamoto moved to Washington Island, Wis. “He threw himself into the life of his adopted community, directing his drive and energy into volunteering for community organizations and creating computer-generated art,” his wife said.

Raup is survived by his wife, Judith Yamamoto; a son, Mitchell D. Raup; grandson Hugh J. Raup and stepson David P. Topaz.