Jim Crow died

January 5, 2012 • 4:51 am

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:

39 thoughts on “Jim Crow died

  1. As a UW alum, I am sad to hear this. It’s also sad that I never paid much attention to the accomplishments of many UW profs while a student and only now am beginning to get an idea of what they have done.

    I was at a party for Waclaw Szybalski last year (http://mcardle.oncology.wisc.edu/faculty/bio/szybalski_w.html) and was amazed at his genetic research and discoveries.

    Hopefully this will provide some motivation for me to take my stepkids to some of the public events at the new WI Institutes for Discovery.

  2. Turreli & Langley said that Crow is the “Lion of our field” (Genetics, December 1-2011). I said that Crow will be forever the great professor who popularizer the population genetics area in the last 60 years.


      1. Late to the party, as usual, but I was about to make the same point.

        But a quick google search implies he played both, as is often the case.

        His posture and bow hold look pretty good. He really must’ve been fairly accomplished.

        I can’t decide if polymaths like Crow are inspiring or depressing.

        1. Indeed, he looks quite comfortable with his instrument. I’d be surprised if he was any less than competent, but I’d want to hear him before raising the bar further than that.

          The MSO is a paid, contracted orchestra, and you don’t get a gig in an ensemble like that unless you’re at least competent.

          What I’m left wondering…where on Earth did he find time to practice? Because you can’t hold down a gig in a professional orchestra if you don’t, no matter how much talent you have….


    1. Actually, it’s a little-known fact that violins and violas are the same size. The only reason they look so different is that violinists’s egos are so big that their heads get overinflated, while violists tend towards microcephaly….


      1. Viola jokes. How wonderful. I don’t need this from you – if I want to be insulted, I’ll just go to orchestra rehearsal.

        1. Just trying to make you feel like you’re at home, is all.

          Besides, you didn’t really expect a brass hole like me to pass by an opening like that, did you?


            1. Funny you should mention that…many moons ago, long before Baihu was born, I had a lot of fun playing with the Mariachi Diablos del Sol for a few years….


              1. Nah…the band owned all the uniforms.

                Just as well…they’re not cheap (or, at least, they weren’t cheap to a college student), and they’re useless outside of the ensemble — each band has its own uniform.


  3. 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.

    Ironically, Crow’s lab did important work on segregation distortion in Drosophila!

  4. My condolences to all who personally knew and all who knew of Dr. Crow. His name is new to me, but I am inspired to learn from him, now. Sad to lose two great heros, Dr. Crow and Christopher Hitchens, in such a short span of time.

    1. Love the violin/viola jokes, BTW. I playes viola music on my violin, when there was a need, back in junior high. My grandfather, a professional musician of less than average height, was said to have played one of the world’s five smallest string bases. Keep ’em coming, guys!

  5. The hardest thing about playing first chair in band is getting your lips around the legs.

    (Not a viola joke, but . . . )

  6. For those with less ethics, I’ll note a unauthorized electronic copy of “An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory” can be found floating around some of the sketchier parts of the web. (Find it yourself, pirate. Arrr!)

    My impression from skimming the TOC and a few spot-checks is that it supports my whacky conjecture that the main problem with acceptance of evolution is fundamentally a failure of math education. (Granted, this may be like saying the primary difficulty with a pig orchestra is inadequacies in music education.)

  7. There does seem to be a connection between musical proficiency and scientific proficiency – at least it’s been noted noted before. I found this paper on that in Chem Educator which includes Hugo Theorell (Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology, 1955), who I’ll always think of in that regard. In a reminiscent talk I heard him give many years ago, he said that he had once been taken to play violin together with Einstein, on whose musical abilities he commented, “I can assure you that his meter and his tempo, like his theories, was entirely relative.” I didn’t realize how accomplished he was, though, until looking for links just now.

    Just to put these all in one place, this brief biographical sketch by his son gives many interesting details of his musical pedigree. I wasn’t expecting to find a video of him playing, though, so you can judge for yourself.

    1. Probably the individual who achieved the most in both music and science was Aleksandr Borodin, a surgeon, chemist, and canon composer.

      His Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor are quite beautiful.

    2. When my son was a member of the local HS Math & Science Center, it was difficult to find a student who wasn’t also in some sort of orchestra/band. A good proportion of the local junior symphony was enrolled there…

  8. This is sad news. I saw Dr. Crow speak at the FFRF convention in Madison in 2010 (yes, he was an unabashed atheist, another excellent reason to honor him). He discussed how UW-Madison had just named an evolutionary biology research institute after him. And he had one of the best lines of the convention: “Usually those are only named after people who’ve died,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye, “but I wouldn’t take the hint!”

    1. A while back Jerry wrote a post asking for examples of scientists who had publicly refuted some of their own work. (Which all scientists should do, of course, if subsequent evidence so demands.) Scientists, being human like the rest of us, can have trouble admitting erroneous stances…

      I immediately flashed to Jim Coors’s introduction of James Crow at the 2010 FFRF convention:


      What an inspiring paean to the joy of science, wherever it leads.

      And this is Crow’s speech from that convention:


  9. Read somewhere this summer, that players of fret-less instruments retain their mental faculties longest (as a group) compared to the rest of the population.

  10. Jim was a truly great geneticist, whose career spanned nearly the entire history of his subject. He worked with just about everyone, including other legends like R.A. Fisher. Nearly all my geneticist friends had interacted with him in the past, and all said wonderful things about him and his mentoring. Jerry is exactly right, one never hears a bad word about him, and he was completely without ego involvement or status consciousness when judging somebody’s new theory.

    I was lucky enough to get to know him briefly about five years ago. I had an idea that would overturn some of his own and Wright’s work. But I was afraid I might have made some mistake. I got up the nerve to write to Crow about it. Even though I was a complete unknown in genetics, and even though I had criticized the core of his work, he wrote me a charming letter, agreeing with me (“I have sinned” were his words) and giving some excellent historical reasons why he and the other pioneer geneticists were wrong. It was a selfless and kind piece of encouragement, exactly the sort of thing that he did with Jerry and with countless other young scientists.

    And he invited me to talk with him if I was ever at UW. Later I had the chance to go to UW and give a talk to explain my idea. I made an appointment to meet with Jim before my presentation, and he was happy to meet with me, even though we didn’t know each other and even though he had a big bandage on his head (he told me he had just come out of a brain operation!!!). He was totally disarming and humble. Talking to him was like talking to a next-door neighbor, friendly and casual and transparent. He had learned my idea well, and had good questions about it; even at ~90 he was smart and intellectually vigorous.

    When I gave my talk, he took a seat in the front row, and at the end he rose and turned around to face the audience, and praised my idea. This meant more to me than I can express.

    Later he gave me two really neat observations about my idea, which I had not thought of myself. I asked him if I could use them in my next paper and cite them as personal communications from him; he said “just use them, no need to credit them”.

    To judge from everyone else’s stories about him, this was how he treated all of the many people whose lives he touched. It was his genius to give his students the courage to pursue new ideas, and to widen their perspectives on the field. He will be remembered with deep affection.

  11. Yes, viola. Jim once played in the Madison Symphony in the orchestra pit at some stage performance. As he played he suddenly saw hundreds of small flies flying out of his viola. He kept playing, as he immediately figured out what had happened — members of his lab had played a practical joke on him by chilling down thousands of Drosophila from his lab and putting them into his viola. No one else there noticed.

    From my point of view as an undergraduate student hanging out in his lab, it was wonderful that he always seemed willing to be interrupted to discuss some question that you raised. I recall him standing in the corridor outside his office, holding stacks of urgent mail and answering at length my questions about matters such as the difference between inbreeding and variance effective population number.

  12. “And he was a terrifically nice guy, without an ounce of arrogance or cant in him. I know of nobody who disliked him,”

    Right. I first saw Jim when I entered the auditorium late at a conference — 15 or so years ago. I didn’t know who the speaker was, nor did I know anything about Jim Crow (I’m not a geneticist) except for a brief description by a mutual friend including his amiability and no doubt his importance as a population geneticist. I put two and two together and indeed it was he. We became friends after that and like so many others I profited greatly from his thoughtful and sometimes encouraging comments.

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