The questions Prof. David Jablonski asks aren’t the little ones.
“How do you go from a monkey hanging out in a tree, to an organism who can build electric guitars, and air conditioners, and trains, and airplanes?” he asks.
“For that matter, why are there so many species of ants and so few species of elephants?” Jablonski continues. “Why are we here and the dinosaurs aren’t?”
Jablonski’s questions have shaped the modern approach to the fossil record and changed the landscape of evolutionary biology. For this, the Linnean Society of London recently presented him with the Darwin-Wallace medal for his innovative research and unique perspective. Only three other paleontologists have received the medal since it was first awarded in 1909.
Jablonski is a paleontologist, but he doesn’t work in a paleontology department. Instead, he serves as the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. This is deliberate; he believes the only way to answer these kinds of big questions is to draw from multiple fields.
‘It changed my life’
Jablonski’s approach to evolutionary biology is reflected in the path he took to get there. “I’m one of those kids who got hooked on dinosaurs at about the age of 5,” Jablonski says. “The American Museum of Natural History was my babysitter.”
He attended New York’s Columbia University for his bachelor's degree, where he worked hands-on with the specimens he grew up studying behind glass at the museum.
He began his first paleontological endeavor while at Columbia. “I edited an encyclopedia of paleontology, 700 pages long. I know: insane. I got it started as an undergraduate, and I ended up knowing everybody in the field.”
One paleontologist he discovered was University of California-Berkeley Professor James Valentine.
“Valentine wrote a book about how the world works, about the evolutionary ecology of the ancient world,” Jablonski says. “I read it in college, and it changed my life.” The book, ‘Evolutionary Paleoecology of the Marine Biosphere,’ challenged the bounds set by classical paleontology and sparked field-wide controversy.