Günter Wagner receives the 2018 Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences

Günter Wagner, the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has received the 2018 Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for his fundamental contributions to our understanding of the evolution of complex organisms.

Wagner is an evolutionary geneticist with training in biochemcial engineering, zoology and mathematics. His academic career began at the University of Vienna, and in 1991 he became professor at the Biology Department at Yale. From 1996 to 2001 he was Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, and in 2010 his lab moved to the Systems Biology Institute at Yale’s West Campus.

First awarded in 1917, the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal is awarded for meritorious work no earlier than the last presentation of the medal (2012).

Wagner has made a lifetime of fundamental contributions to the integration of developmental and evolutionary biology, most recently and most notably his 2014 book “Homology, Genes and Evolutionary Innovation,” which addresses a question that has persisted since the time of Charles Darwin, namely the origin of evolutionary novelties, or how new or original traits emerge in organisms.

In the book – constructed like Darwin’s “Origin of Species” as “one long argument” – Wagner advances a model as to how organisms rapidly evolved novel characteristics or innovations, such as feather or flowers. To accomplish this, Wagner’s book makes two primary claims: First, that novelty is a process that generates newly individuated morphologic characters; and second, that these novel characters are generated by recursively wired gene regulatory subnetworks, which Wagner first described in 2007 as “character identity networks.”

Already a highly analyzed volume, “Homology, Genes and Evolutionary Innovation” is predicted to orient research in evolutionary developmental biology for decades to come.

In 2016 Wagner received global acclaim for groundbreaking research on the evolutionary origins of the female orgasm. While playing no obvious role in human reproduction, the research found that the trait originated as a way to stimulate ovulation. The work is based on what some researchers call “homology thinking,” an approach developed in Wagner’s 2014 book, which questions how traits originate rather than how they get modified once established.

The Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal has recognized the most prestigious zoologists and paleontologists over the past 90 years. Previous Yale recipients were George Evelyn Hutchinson (1984), pioneer in the biogeochemistry of freshwater lakes and considered the father of limnology, and Charles G Sibley (1988), American ornithologist and molecular biologist whose taxonomy substantially altered our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern birds.

Contact: Jon Atherton