Peter H. A. Sneath (1923 - 2011)

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Word has reached me that Peter Sneath died last Friday at his home in Leicestershire. He was 87 years old. For a more complete and entertaining autobiographical account see page 77 of this Bulletin of Bergeys International Society for Microbial Systematics.

Peter was a medical microbiologist, who, in the late 1950s, began to work on numerical methods for classifying bacteria. He developed numerical clustering methods. He soon came into contact with Robert Sokal, who was doing the same. Together they wrote Principles of Numerical Taxonomy, a widely-noticed textbook advocating taking a phenetic approach to classification, basing it on measures of overall similarity rather than any inference of phylogeny. The smartest thing Sokal and Sneath did was to not fight over who invented numerical taxonomy, but to join together to promote it (Sneath was first author on the 1973 revision Numerical Taxonomy).

sneath.jpg

                 Peter Sneath with his children, about 1960. Photo by Joan Sneath, courtesy of the late Peter Sneath

Numerical taxonomy rattled the systematic establishment, then dominated by followers of Ernst Mayr and George Gaylord Simpson’s school of “evolutionary systematics”. It encouraged and stimulated many younger people to look into numerical approaches. By about 1980 phenetic approaches had been pushed aside by phylogenetic systematics, but Sneath and Sokal’s work is still regarded by mathematical clusterers as the most important founding work in their field. The most widely-used of Sneath’s methods is the UPGMA clustering method (independently also invented by F. J. Rohlf). [See comment of September 30 below for correction of this statement].

I always enjoyed meeting Peter and Joan Sneath. Peter was intrigued by any and all uses of numerical and computer methods in science, and was even willing on occasion to violate his own precepts and come up with methods for analyzing phylogenies.

He wrote a pioneering 1975 paper (with Sackin and Ambler) on detecting recombination between lineages, for example. I remember Peter telling me that as he traveled around he collected soil samples to study their bacteria. He carried no sterile vials for that – he simply went out and bought a ream of typing paper, as it was sterile, then used some to scoop up the sample and fold it into an envelope. It was a brilliant common-sense improvisation typical of the best of his generation of English scientists.

28 Comments

I was trained early on in cladistics, but Numerical Taxonomy was then and now considered a classic, and much of the work is still useful. It is sad to hear that Sneath has passed on. Thanks for the post.

My anthropology dissertation in 1976 referenced Sneath and Sokal, and Hardine and Sibson. Psychologists and linguists had been using clustering and multi-dimensional scaling methods for some time, (such as Johnson’s hierarchical clustering but the fortan routines in S&S ran much faster.

Sorry he has died.

Great story about the soil samples. Returning to the US in the early ’70s with bags, and vials filled with white, red, or brown powders (in fact mostly clays) was always good for an extra hour with customs agents. I found that if I gave them a copy of my field catalog, and a request form for samples they let me go.

Gary_Hurd said:

My anthropology dissertation in 1976 referenced Sneath and Sokal, and [J]ardine and Sibson. Psychologists and linguists had been using clustering and multi-dimensional scaling methods for some time, (such as Johnson’s hierarchical clustering but the fortan routines in S&S ran much faster.

It is true that many clustering methods were invented earlier than Sokal and Sneath’s work, and they do cite many of these. Someone estimated, for example, that single-linkage hierarchical clustering had probably been independently invented 30 times in different fields. (And people working with gene expression array data made more such reinventions more recently).

However the Sokal and Sneath 1963 book was the “big bang” that set off much other work on clustering. It explained many methods, described their properties, and put them into their own classification. Of course it also advocated a phenetic approach to biological classification as well, which scandalized many more traditional taxonomists. For me their book was essential. I was lent a copy by the systematist Lynn Throckmorton when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I had agreed to help him and his colleague Jack Hubby by writing a program to cluster their protein electrophoresis banding data on multiple Drosophila species. By the time I had got the program working I was hooked on writing programs for trees.

Peter was friendly, good-humored and straightforward to deal with, and never seemed to get overexcited. But he was clearly fascinated by all kinds of numerical algorithms for biological data.

One funny occasion was when a meeting in London was to have its banquet at a famous (or perhaps infamous) restaurant, Simpson’s of the Strand. They had a dress code that required me to wear a suit jacket, and I had not brought any. Peter and Joan Sneath heard me worrying, and came up with a spare jacket of Peter’s. He was a tall English beanpole, and I wasn’t, and the jacket was just the right style for England of the 1950’s, so about 25 years out of date. I felt like an idiot wearing it to the restaurant, but the attendant took it off me and checked it without comment. I don’t suppose I will ever wear that style again – one sees it only in movies. I sat near Peter and Joan at the banquet. It was kind of them both to have lent the jacket, and even kinder of them not to have laughed at the way I looked wearing it.

Joe Felsenstein said: One funny occasion was when a meeting in London was to have its banquet at a famous (or perhaps infamous) restaurant,Simpson’s of the Strand. They had a dress code that required me to wear a suit jacket, and I had not brought any. Peter and Joan Sneath heard me worrying, and came up with a spare jacket of Peter’s. He was a tall English beanpole, and I wasn’t, and the jacket was just the right style for England of the 1950’s, so about 25 years out of date. I felt like an idiot wearing it to the restaurant, but the attendant took it off me and checked it without comment. I don’t suppose I will ever wear that style again – one sees it only in movies. I sat near Peter and Joan at the banquet. It was kind of them both to have lent the jacket, and even kinder of them not to have laughed at the way I looked wearing it.

Have you by any chance been to the Royal Society of London? I think you have been to the Linnean society because they awarded you a “Friend of Darwin and Wallace” medal or something like that. You should be aware that much of the scientific establishment of England has its roots in freemasonry with its bizarre beliefs and rituals. There is a reason why high society people get dressed up and it isn’t just about decorum.

Cripes, this is just getting weird.

Dave Luckett said:

Cripes, this is just getting weird.

It tends to get weird in England where the “public schools” are really elitist private schools whose graduates become often members of secret societies. Most scientific institutions in England have a masonic connection and this explains their anti-theistic bias. Someone like Joe Felsenstein rose to prominence through his own merit, whereas in England the “old boy network” ensures that only certain people can ever rise to distinction. The country is still a very hierarchical and feudal society.

You have to also realize that Darwin is championed by the British Establishment only because he represents the “Empire” at is peak rather than because he was anything like as great a scientist as Newton. As such, it is Charlie and not Isaac who appears on the back of the £10 note. I am campaigning for him to be removed.

Atheistoclast said:

Dave Luckett said:

Cripes, this is just getting weird.

It tends to get weird in England where the “public schools” are really elitist private schools whose graduates become often members of secret societies. Most scientific institutions in England have a masonic connection and this explains their anti-theistic bias. Someone like Joe Felsenstein rose to prominence through his own merit, whereas in England the “old boy network” ensures that only certain people can ever rise to distinction. The country is still a very hierarchical and feudal society.

Oh the irony! Public schools in England were called “public” because when the first ones were founded they were places anybody (with nothing more than money) could go when the only other way to get an education was in elitist private schools controlled by the “old boy network” of religious institutions.

Atheistoclast said: There is a reason why high society people get dressed up and it isn’t just about decorum.

I think high society people in England got dressed up long before there were Freemasons.

Campaigning to have him removed!

That goes alongside the “my mission is to destroy atheism” in the goober file. This guy is Dagenham - he’s out beyond Barking.

Atheistoclast said: Someone like Joe Felsenstein rose to prominence through his own merit, whereas in England the “old boy network” ensures that only certain people can ever rise to distinction. The country is still a very hierarchical and feudal society.

You have to also realize that Darwin is championed by the British Establishment only because he represents the “Empire” at is peak rather than because he was anything like as great a scientist as Newton. As such, it is Charlie and not Isaac who appears on the back of the £10 note. I am campaigning for him to be removed.

This is a thread in memory of Peter Sneath, who despite his philosophy of classification would oppose you there,

In memory of Peter and in memory of the purpose of this thread, you may continue your campaign, and all comments about Freemasons and why the British ruling class never dressed up before Freemasonry existed [?] … on the Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

Sorry for the delay in acting, folks, I was away from my computer.

In response to one question about Sneath: he retired at the normal age in 1989, as was explained in the 2010 article which I linked to in the post. As to whether people (like me, for example) are continuing to work past retirement age because we are terrified of yielding our post to younger folks who would agree with the Discovery Institute … please discuss that on the Wall. If at all.

I realize that people here did not know Peter Sneath, and are not that involved in, or aware of, the work on phylogenies and systematics. So I don’t expect this memorial thread to go far, but I will patrol (or should I say “patroll”) it against rampant diversionary nonsense.

Joe -

I had read some of Sneath’s papers in graduate school and did peruse Sokal and Sneath once. Am surprised that virtually no one working in systematics - with maybe one or two exceptions - has posted their condolences here (In the interest of full disclosure, I had studied systematics from cladists. But I think I did have a biostatistician professor who had praised Sneath’s work.). You have my condolences on the loss of your old friend and colleague.

Sincerely,

John

John said:

Joe -

I had read some of Sneath’s papers in graduate school and did peruse Sokal and Sneath once. Am surprised that virtually no one working in systematics - with maybe one or two exceptions - has posted their condolences here (In the interest of full disclosure, I had studied systematics from cladists. But I think I did have a biostatistician professor who had praised Sneath’s work.).

There are a modest number of systematists who post here, but many of them probably didn’t know Peter personally.

There is a mailing list, Taxacom, for taxonomists, and on it Rod Page (phylogeny / systematics guy at University of Glasgow and a past president of the Society of Systematic Biologists) has posted a link to my obit here, and also linked to it in the Wikipedia page for “Peter Sneath” that he created.

You have my condolences on the loss of your old friend and colleague.

Thanks, though we should realize that he lived a very long life.

I was interested to see that he was apparently a very influential figure in the organizations that were concerned with bacterial systematics, in spite of the rejection of phenetic classification elsewhere.

And here is an appreciation of the impact of Peter Sneath’s work by University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist Kent Holsinger.

… and here is a brief notice by his University of his death, mentioning some circumstances.

… and searching more carefully gives dozens of sites that mention his death. Unfortunately with the exception of the ones mentioned above, all of them start out “Word has reached me …”! Most are anticreationist or science-promoting sites just putting in a link to PT.

As for the rest, Grrr …

Here’s one that’s different, and not in response to Peter’s death. A book review of the book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (2009) by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, in which she is quoted and paraphrased as saying that Sokal and Sneath’s method of numerical taxonomy carried us away from a real appreciation of nature. An implicitly negative assessment.

Yoon’s book is a popularized account of developments in taxonomy and systematics (including molecular systematics), not heavy on details. Using Google Books I found that Sokal and Sneath’s work is mentioned on a series of pages from page 195-227, and Google Books will let you see the text for most of these mentions.

Bob Sokal, Peter’s co-thinker, has contacted me. He thanked me for this obituary post. He also corrected me about the invention of UPGMA clustering. He says that he invented it about 1953. Peter Sneath invented single-linkage clustering (probably the next most-widely-used method). However, I think UPGMA was not actually published until Rohlf’s thesis of 1962 and a paper by Peter Sneath in that same year.

Here is an appreciation of Peter by Mike Stevens, a microbiologist who once worked for Peter and who knew him for many years.

Michael Goodfellow, of the University of Newcastle, has published a good and appreciative obituary at the web site of the Society of General Microbiology.

At the plant systematics journal Taxon is this very good appreciation of Peter’s influence by Daniel Barker, who acknowledges that he never met Peter. It can be accessed freely (sometimes).

Daniel Barker sends along the following correction of his article:

Thank you again for your link to my tribute to Peter Sneath from Panda’s Thumb (in your comment of 16 April).

Readers of the journal kindly pointed out that a caption incorrectly identified Rogers McVaugh as ‘M.C. Vaughn’. I mention this in case you might wish to also add a link to the erratum, which is freely available:

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/conte[…]000003/art00 029

I am keen to spread the correction around, to a reasonable extent, particularly since the mis-labelling also appears elsewhere:

(Sneath 2010, Bulletin of BISMiS 1: 77-83, http://www.bergeys.org/bismisbullet[…]ssuesv1.html ).

The University of Leicester has published a more extensive obituary of Peter Sneath, written by Dorothy Jones and Bill Grant. It emphasizes both Peter’s work on numerical taxonomy and his work on bacterial classification.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Felsenstein published on September 13, 2011 2:59 PM.

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