Nikolai Nikolaevich VORONTSOV
(January 1, 1934-March 3, 2000)
Nikolai Nikolaevich Vorontsov, a prominent Russian biologist, a brilliant scientist, and an outstanding personality, has passed away. Vorontsov was among the founders of the Russian cytogenetic school; he left a constellation of talented disciples and followers who are successfully developing their mentor's ideas both in Russia and abroad. A distinctive characteristic of Vorontsov was his comprehensive biological education. He was a classical scholar of zoology, an ecologist, a geneticist, and a cytologist; he knew well molecular genetics; and he could analyze experimental data in all of these sciences. Vorontsov graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 and received a doctoral degree when he was only 33 years old. Having become interested in evolutionary theory early on, he did not waste time on philosophical discourses on phylogenetic mechanisms but started serious experimental studies instead. Even his first work in this field attracted attention. It dealt with so-called mosaic evolution, one of the most complicated problems of comparative zoology. Vorontsov conducted a meticulously accurate comparative analysis of the digestive system of rodents and demonstrated that the organs of this system in the same animal species might be at different specialization levels, whereas adaptive series constructed based on comparison of a single organ did not coincide with those based on comparison of other divisions of the digestive system. Vorontsov also demonstrated that this irregular evolution was universal. The results of this work were summarized in a fundamental book on a comparative analysis of the rodent digestive system and, afterwards, in the book Fauna SSSR. Vyp. 125. Nizshie khomyakoobraznye mirovoi fauny (Fauna of the Soviet Union. Issue 125: Lower Hamsters of the World Fauna) (Moscow: Nauka, 1982).
N.V. Timofeeff-Ressovsky and other leading Russian geneticists exerted a great influence on Vorontsov. Communication with them stimulated his interest in genetics and helped him to apply genetic approaches to experimental solution of evolutionary problems.
Vorontsov appeared in this field as an original scientist, who was able to go beyond the generally accepted paradigm, which had developed into a dogma, and to create new prospects. A series of studies ensued. Vorontsov and his disciples demonstrated the possibility of saltatory speciation via chromosomal rearrangements. An audacious hypothesis was put forward on two means of speciation: (1) speciation related to gradual accumulation of interpopulation differences leading to reproductive isolation, and (2) genetic saltatory speciation based on macromutations, which begins with reproductive isolation due to chromosomal rearrangements resulting in genetic and ecological differences. This hypothesis then developed into a theory on the possibility of both allopatric and sympatric speciation. The theory was supported by vast, reliable factual material, including data on the role of Robertsonian translocations in the formation and maintenance of reproductive isolation of karyomorphs with different chromosomes in mole voles (genus Ellobius) and other mammals and the discovery of the so-called Robertsonian fans. Having established this fact, Vorontsov continued the studies and succeeded in finding the factors that have increased speciation rates in some regions via a great chromosomal variation. These regions were found to have a high seismic activity accompanied by various mutagenic factors, including y radiation, high concentrations of radon waters and salts of heavy metals, etc. Vorontsov predicted, based on his theory, that the origin of the human would be found in Africa, and this prediction has brilliantly come true—it has been confirmed by recent results obtained by molecular geneticists! According to Vorontsov, seismic activity is not the only exogenous factor of increased chromosomal variation. For example, population size decreases after viral pandemics, and the affected population enters a new ecological cycle with a large load of various chromosomal mutations. Shortly before his death, Vorontsov summarized his views in an outstanding book Razvitie evolyutsionnykh idei v biologii (Development of Evolutionary Ideas in Biology) (Moscow: Progress, 1999), which will undoubtedly remain a handbook for all biologists for a long time.
Vorontsov was a prominent scientific leader and conducted a great deal of organizational work. From 1964 to 1970, he was an academic secretary of the Presidium of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union and made a great contribution to Siberian science. From 1970 to 1977, Vorontsov was the head of the Institute of Biology and Soil Science (Far East Center, Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union), a member of the Presidium of Far East Center, and a professor at the Far East State University. However, when Vorontsov refused to enter the Communist Party, he was dismissed from all these positions and worked as a chief researcher at the Kol'tsov Institute of Developmental Biology for the rest of his life.
The scientific merits of Vorontsov were highly valued. He was awarded the State Prize of the Soviet Union, the International Ecological Prize of the Max Plank Society (Germany), the Severtsov Prize of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, the Silver Medal of the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, the Vavilov Medal, the Timofeeff-Ressovsky Medal of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the Soviet Union, and the Pavlovskii Medal of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. Vorontsov was a vice-president of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences and a foreign member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the Academy of Sciences of Lithuania. He was never elected a member of the "Big Academy" (a commonly used nickname of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union and, later, the Russian Academy of Sciences): "no prophet is welcome in his home town." Fortunately, true scientific authority is not necessarily correlated with scientific rank and position. The government also did not spoil Vorontsov with awards: he received only the Medal in Commemoration of the 850th Anniversary of Moscow. As Beranger wrote, "Let them who trouble about decorations Have the awards—I don't strive for them."
However, Vorontsov's activities were not restricted to science. He is also known as a patriot and active citizen of his country. He was a people's deputy of the Soviet Union, a deputy of the State Duma (Parliament) of Russia, and the Minister of Ecology of the Soviet Union. In these posts, Vorontsov stood for freedom and democracy in Russia, fought for environmental protection and against persecution of environmentalists, and succeeded in releasing some of them from custody.
Vorontsov was a cheerful and witty person, kind-hearted by nature, who never wished nor did evil to anybody.
He will remain so in our memory.
L. I. Korochkin and M. D. Golubovsky