September 24, 2011 is the 75th birthday of Professor Alexandr Pavlovich (Alex) Rasnitsyn - an outstanding zoologist and paleontologist, and the acknowledged leader of the Russian school of paleoentomology.
Alex grew up in a family of old Moscow intelligentsia, in Sivtsev Vrazhek Street in the heart of old Moscow, and embraced all the advantages of that now-almost-vanished way of life. His childhood interest in natural history, especially entomology, led him to the young biologists' club at Moscow Zoo (KYuBZ). This club at that time comprised a unique assemblage of young naturalists, many of whom went on to become acclaimed representatives of the Russian school of zoology (Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences E.V. Ivanter, Professors A.K. Agadjanian, E.N. Matyushkin, M.V. Mina, E.N. Kurochkin and others). It seems that by this time Alex already showed a true naturalist's intuition (a skill at getting to the core of events in nature) and the ability to organize field trips, valuable qualities that he has retained ever since.
When he began studying at the Biology Faculty of Moscow State University, Alex again joined a very good group, a student club that was forming around E.S. Smirnov (then Head of the Entomology Department). These were G.M. Dlussky, A.G. Ponomarenko, S.P. Rasnitsyn, Yu.A. Popov, R.D. Zhantiev, A.L. Tikhomirova, L.N. Medvedev, E.M Antonova, and others. It is not surprising that this epoch has been regarded as the "Golden Age of the Department" for all subsequent generations of entomologists, and Alex is one of its most prominent individuals.
After graduation, Alex was offered a position in the laboratory of Arthropods in the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which at that time was led by B.B. Rodendorf. Alex has been connected with this Laboratory throughout his professional life. The main principle of the Russian school of paleoentomology was formulated by Rodendorf as follows: only those with an excellent knowledge of the taxonomy of recent members of an insect group, can adequately study this group in fossils. This tradition of studying fossils on the basis of "biology" rather than "geology", and studying the extinct members of a group in close connection with the recent members, was very successfully developed by Alex throughout his scientific career. It is possible that this quality of Alex allowed him to make such an important contribution in such seemingly different scientific fields as taxonomy and embryology of modern Hymenoptera, comparative anatomy and phylogeny of many groups of fossil insects, paleoecology, systematics theory, evolutionary theory (in a very broad sense) and even the theory of the dynamics of plant communities. It is even difficult to identify in which "guise" Alex is best known and acknowledged by the scientific community. For entomologists he is one of the most important world experts on Hymenoptera. His monograph "Historical Development of Hymenoptera" (1980), in which, as discussed above, modern and extinct representatives of the order were studied together, has become a classical work, and the systematics of the order that he used has only been slightly improved upon. It is worth mentioning the ancestral nature of the complex antennae of Xyelidae, which was demonstrated by Alex based on both paleontology and embryological data, and allowed this relictual group to be placed next to the hypothetical ancestors of the order. It is also worth mentioning Alex's studies in the field of theoretical systematics. He was the first to suggest and explain that two seemingly "incompatible" approaches: phenetics (which he had contributed to as a member of Smirnov's school) and phylogenetic systematics (= cladistics) are in fact mutually complementary, and can only provide adequate results when taken together. In the last two decades, cladistics has acquired features of being the "only true notion", so it is not surprising that Alex is still regarded as one of the ringleaders of the "anticladistic Resistance." One of the most authoritative experts on zoological nomenclature in Russia, he has, among other things, made a large contribution is the nomenclatural methods of working with parataxa.
Studies of systematics and phylogenetics naturally took Alex into the field of theory of evolution, where in the 1960s-1970s he encountered yet another "paradigm crisis". In the former Soviet Union this was the time of the revocation of interest in modified nomogenesis (Lyubishchev and others) and heavy criticism of the selective nature of evolution by nomogenetics. Alex, however, remained on the side of selectionism - not it its synthetic theory of evolution (Mayr's) sense, but in the epigenetic (Schmalhausen's) sense. Alex should be acknowledged (together with M.A. Shishkin), as the most significant modern follower of the epigenetic theory of evolution, which he formulates as the "principle of adaptive compromise" (stating that the living organism is in principle non-optimal in any characters considered separately, because selection works on the system and on entity, rather than on isolated parameters). This has now reached the "who doesn't know that?" stage, while his idea that macroevolutionary processes cannot just be reduced to microevolutionary processes remains widely debatable. One of Alex's remarkable features is his ability (apparently originating from his KYuBZ years) not to pass by any interesting natural phenomena, which superficially do not seem to be directly connected to a particular field of science. For example, working in an expedition with the outstanding geobotanist S.M. Razumovsky, Alex was introduced by him to the semi-forgotten theory of monoclimax: he considers plant communities as highly entire discrete homeostates with (in matter and energy) a balanced state (monoclimax), and having the ability under the exogenic pressure to return to it through rigidly determined succession systems. Alex used diagnostic methods of entire plant communities to reconstruct succession systems of the past; this approach was very productive for paleoecology and was used for instance in studying Jurassic biocoenoses of Siberia. Later these models became one of important parts of V.V. Zherikhin's theory of the Cretaceous crisis. It is worth mentioning the story of how Alex noticed pollen in the intestine of fossil insects and invited paleobotanists to study this pollen because it opened a new page in the study of continental ecosystems of the past. However, the study of fossil insects has remained Alex's main field. It seems that he has contributed to the studies of most insect orders (perhaps excluding Coleoptera), and the number of taxa described by him is beyond imagination. His list includes exciting discoveries such as the description of the first fossil Mallophaga, and the strange mecopteroid Strashila, the order affinity of which remains uncertain. However, the bulk of his descriptions resulted from enormous day to day work describing hymenopterans, orthopteroids, mecopteroids, etc. It is very truly said that "undescribed material kind of doesn't exist" and it was Alex who was called on to "de-virtualize" the huge deposit of material accumulated in the collections of the Laboratory of Arthropods of the Paleontological Institute. This work was appropriately finalized by the publication of a seminal collective volume History of Insects, written under his leadership and with his active participation. This volume was a comprehensive study of fossil insects, which does not have even remote equivalents in the world's entomological literature. His theoretical works should certainly be also mentioned. Alex's hypothesis on the origin of flight and of winged insects remains probably the most popular theory in the field.
The vast quantity and extremely high diversity of fossil material that passed through Alex's hands inspired him to study the true dynamics of biodiversity in the geological past. Together with V.Yu. Dmitriev and A.G. Ponomarenko, he emended the methods of building extinction curves and reached a number of important conclusions on diagnosing the ecological crises of the past. In particular he showed that crisis events in insects begin not in the Mid-Cretaceous, but much earlier; accordingly the connection of this crisis to the expansion of angiosperms was more indirect than previously thought (but no less strong).
Alex is an old hand at field work, participant and organizer of numerous entomological and paleontological field trips to Siberia, the Far East, Central Asia, Mongolia, the Caucasus, and British Columbia. Amongst other trips, he was a participant in the legendary, almost Jack London-style discovery of the Cretaceous Taimyr retinite, the richest material of which was collected on the Khatanga River and Taimyr Lake, material which radically changed our knowledge of the fauna of fossil resins, and of Cretaceous insect faunas in general. Two years ago Alex shrugged off the years, and returned to field work, collecting substantial paleoentomological material from the Vyazniki locality, which is extremely important for understanding the events at the Permian-Triassic boundary. One important quality of Alex should be mentioned here: he is an excellent collector. There are plenty of scientists who can examine material in the laboratory but are incapable of collecting anything themselves; there are also ingenious collectors (often without any specialized education) capable in minutes of collecting in a series of a few meters a nodule with a very rare fossil, which most "specialists" would fail to discover. Only rarely are the "exceptional scientist" and "exceptional fossil collector" united in the same person. Alex is one of these rare people. In addition, he is also an exceptionally good fossil preparator, another skill seemingly only remotely related to science.
He also has ability, very well known to (and unashamedly used by) the team at the Laboratory of Arthropods, to repair all kinds of hardware, from sophisticated electronics to, to put it frankly, leaking lavatories. All this shows a unique combination of abilities. An old army saying puts the difference between a mediocre and a good leader as the difference between "Do as I tell you" and "Do as I do." Alex in this context is a good commander, and in all activities of the Laboratory of Arthropods he "rides a brave horse in the front rank".
We think it is appropriate here to mention an episode to which Alex perhaps does not give any particular significance. At the beginning of the 1990s many zoologists, especially in the provinces, had virtually no means of survival because of the difficult economic situation in Russia. At that time Russian science received "George Soros grants", sums of money for a "program of biodiversity studies." The task was how to distribute this money between the zoologists of the Former Soviet Union? Alex, who was suddenly appointed the Chairman of this "Rescue Center", managed to do something almost impossible: the money was divided strictly equally between ALL zoologists of the former Soviet Union, with no exception (approximately US$500 per person) which was just sufficient to survive the most critical period. It was transferred to each person directly, without any intermediaries (as was emotively requested by many provincial scientists). It is difficult to believe, but the members of that "Soros grant commission" did not take any share of the grant themselves.
As an exceptional person in many ways, Alex has become a hero of many legends and apocrypha, circulated in the professional community. For instance, it is often repeated that he, while answering, as every reader of Stanislaw Lem's fiction does, the enigmatic question "What are the sepulcas" radically solved the problem once and for all by describing a new family of fossil hymenopterans Sepulcidae, and sent the reprint to the author, the acclaimed master of science fiction, with explanatory comments, and received an acknowledgement... and the funniest thing is that this story is completely true.
We wish Alex health and happiness, so he can continue for many years to apply his various talents for the benefit of world science. We would like to have a present of a sequel to History of Insects - and ask him not to forget about sepulcas.
Laboratory of Arthropods
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