No, I’m not announcing the end of segregation: James F. Crow was a giant in modern evolutionary and population genetics, and he died yesterday at the age of 95.
I’ll remember him for several things, the foremost being his fantastic textbook with Motoo Kimura: An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory, the book that taught me the theory underlying evolutionary genetics. It took me a year’s hard slogging to work through the equations, but it was the most rewarding learning experience I ever had in graduate school. The book was long out of print, but I see you can once more obtain it from Amazon at the link above. If you’re a grad student in evolutionary genetics, get it and work through it.
Crow also wrote a widely read introduction to genetics, Genetics Notes, which has been used throughout the world.
He was instrumental in developing the neutral theory of population genetics, which worked out the consequences of genetic variants (“neutral mutations”) that had identical fitness, and whose fate in populations was thus determined by stochastic effects alone. But he was also a genetics polymath, doing seminal work on inbreeding, medical genetics and the estimation of mutation rates, and the evolution of sex.
Finally, he was a fantastic mentor and teacher. His list of former postdocs and graduate students reads like a Who’s Who of population genetics.
And he was a terrifically nice guy, without an ounce of arrogance or cant in him. I know of nobody who disliked him, and I can’t say that about any other evolutionary biologist (except, perhaps, Peter and Rosemary Grant).
I remember that after I wrote a paper in Evolution on Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory with my colleagues Michael Turelli and Nick Barton—a paper that severely attacked an extremely popular and influential evolutionary theory concocted by one of Crow’s friends and Wisconsin colleagues—Jim wrote me a nice note saying that he thought we were right, and that Sewall had been misguided all along (Wright was dead by then, of course)! That was a nice boost for a young faculty member.
We’ve lost one of the great ones, and although I didn’t know him well, many of my colleagues did. We will all miss him, and the field will miss him even more.
To read more about Crow, skip the Wikipedia article, which doesn’t give a full flavor of his accomplishments or his personality, and read the short essay in Genetics by his student Dan Hartl, “James Crow and the art of teaching and mentoring.” It’s free at the link above.
Oh, and he was an accomplished violinist, too: