Remembering Regents Professor John Alcock


ASU Regents Professor John Alcock smiling at the camera holding a specimen net.

“Through his prolific writings for scientific and popular audiences and his teaching, John drew his readers and students into the field through infectious enthusiasm and passion for animal behavior, natural history, natural selection, the adaptationist hypothesis and fieldwork that were the hallmarks of his career,” said Ronald Rutowski, Emeritus Professor of the School of Life Sciences. Photo courtesy the School of Life Sciences

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John Alcock, a beloved Arizona State University Regents Professor and pioneer in ecology and animal behavior, died on Jan. 15 at the age of 80. 

“John Alcock was a scholar of evolutionary biology who devoted his career to studying how animals adapted to living in the natural world and then teaching others the wonders he discovered,” said James Collins, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment.

Alcock first came to ASU in 1972, joining what was then the zoology department. The department was later renamed the Department of Biology, which was then combined with plant biology and microbiology in 2003 to form the School of Life Sciences

He was fully committed to both teaching and research, as well as a diligent application of scientific analysis of animal behavior, and over his 36 years at ASU he instilled in his students a respect and awe for the natural world.

“John was one of the most dynamic and engaging lecturers I have seen. I am forever grateful that I had the honor to teach with him and see how to do it well. He taught boldly, and his gravitas was backed up by his deep understanding of animal behavior as a research field and as a conceptual force,” said Jennifer Fewell, President’s Professor in the School of Life Sciences and associate dean of faculty for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Early in his ASU career, Alcock wrote his widely used and engaging textbook "Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach." This book featured an approach that was a hallmark of virtually every book he wrote — that is, an enthusiastic use of testing hypotheses for the adaptive function of traits to unravel the complexity and hidden secrets of the natural world, especially the behavior of animals. His textbook and lectures walked students through scientific analyses of behavior in a way that was understandable, empowering and exciting. 

“John arrived at ASU just as evolutionary biology was in the midst of a major conceptual transformation in terms of understanding Darwin’s vision of natural selection and its relationship to the process of adaptation,” said Collins, who serves as the faculty group leader of Global Change Biology for the School of Life Sciences, as well as a professor for the Center for Evolution and Medicine. 

“It is fair to say that his textbook, 'Animal Behavior,' along with his other publications, were major contributors to that transformation," he said.

Alcock regularly revised his textbook, ultimately producing an astounding 10 editions, the last printed in 2013 before he enlisted Dustin Rubenstein as a co-author for the 11th, the last edition that John co-authored, in 2018. Thus, his writing drew students into the field and shaped their thinking about the process of science and animal behavior for over 40 years.

“John Alcock was first of all a superb naturalist in the sense as Ed Wilson has called himself a naturalist. He asked the right questions and ingeniously found the right answers without much monetary expenditure. He loved his study objects (bees, wasps, birds and all creatures big and small), and he celebrated nature with his beautifully written books,” said Bert Hoelldobler, University Professor, Regents Professor and Robert A Johnson Chair in Social Insect Research for the School of Life Sciences. 

“His textbook on animal behavior was a tremendous success; it has been adopted by many academic teachers who taught a course on this subject. It was one of the required readings for my course — ethology — I taught for many years at Harvard University,” he said.

Alcock’s love of nature started at an early age in Pennsylvania as a deep love of bird-watching, a love that persisted throughout his life, although his interests later expanded to include the natural history of all things. He received his undergraduate degree at Amherst College, and went on to graduate school at Harvard University, where he did his doctoral dissertation on learning in birds. 

Upon graduating from Harvard in 1969, Alcock initially took a faculty position in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, but a research trip to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona changed the entire trajectory of his life. It was here that he fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. He joined the faculty at Arizona State University and shifted the focus of his research program from birds to insects. 

In the ASU community, Alcock was known for his passionate outlook and views and his dedication to teaching and research. He was a prolific writer, an active educator of natural history and a staunch defender of the application of an adaptationist approach to understanding the behavior of humans as well as other animals. 

“John had a lively and infectious personality. When he cared about something, he made sure it got done right: teaching, gardening, research, his popular books with their lovely illustrations,” said Jane Maienschein, University Professor of History of Science; Regents, Presidents and Parents Association Professor for the School of Life Sciences; and director of the Center for Biology and Society.

“I co-taught a course on evolution with him and two other colleagues when evolution was being attacked by the state legislature. John wanted the students to learn what evolution really means — and that it wasn’t whatever misrepresentation they might have heard around their dinner table. He cared,” she said. 

His skills and excellence in teaching and research were widely recognized, both at ASU and across the world. The Animal Behavior Society elected him as a fellow in 1990, and he received their Exemplar Award in 1996, and a teaching excellence award in 2007. In Britain, the Association for the Study of Animal Behavior presented him with their ASAB Medal recognizing his contributions to the science of animal behavior.

At ASU, he received an award for teaching excellence from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1974, and was honored with a Regents Professorship in 1988 — the very first group of faculty to receive this distinction in ASU’s history. 

“He was a true master in the classroom — funny, thoughtful, provocative. He had a big influence on me,” said Ryan Sponseller, who graduated with his PhD in biology in 2006.

Alcock's work focused on the study of insects with particular emphasis on their mating systems. He recurrently worked on several taxa, especially burrowing bees, both in the U.S. and Australia, tarantula hawks and damselflies, producing detailed and insightful studies of the strategies, such as hilltopping, used by males to maximize their chance of encounters with receptive females. All told, his efforts yielded over 200 peer-reviewed publications and his widely cited book with co-author Randy Thornhill, "The Evolution of Insect Mating Systems."

Alcock was also very active in presenting natural history to a broader audience. In addition to 57 articles in the popular press, he wrote eight books on topics ranging from gardening and insects in the desert to orchids. One of those books, "In a Desert Garden: Love and Death among the Insects," received the John Burroughs Medal as the best natural history book of 1998.

“He dedicated the first edition of his textbook: ‘To my students, who cheerfully remind me each year how much I have yet to learn.’ An award-winning teacher, he inspired generations of biologists who would forever see the natural world through fresh eyes as a result of encountering John in person or through his publications,” said Collins.

“ASU was fortunate to have John Alcock as part of our community for as long as we did,” he said.

The family asks that remembrances be in the form of donations made in John’s name to the Center for Biological Diversity or the Nature Conservancy of Arizona. Memorial service information may be found at JohnAlcock.com

Ronald L. Rutowski, ASU School of Life Sciences Emeritus Professor, contributed significantly to this article and penned an additional obituary distributed directly to colleagues and family.

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