Several readers sent me a link to a piece by Bob Trivers called “Vignettes of famous evolutionary biologists, large and small” (Trivers is of course also a famous evolutionary biologist.) His essay is at the Unz Review, whatever that is, so I would have missed it.
Anybody who knows Bob, as I do, also knows that he has strong opinions as well as a colorful past, so when he’s talking about his colleagues, you know he won’t pull any punches. And this piece doesn’t disappoint, though I do take issue with his abrasive remarks about my own Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin. (Of course I may not be seen as objective about this, as I truly admire Dick.)
Trivers discusses his take on five evolutionary biologists:
I don’t have time to describe what these people were famous for, but you can check the links if you’re interested. And I’m curious why he omitted two other Harvard people he surely knew, E. O. Wilson (with whom Trivers worked closely, I believe) and Ernst Mayr.
It’s no surprise that Trivers gives big encomiums to Hamilton and Williams, both of whom were enormously accomplished adaptationists who had no beef with Bob. Nor is it surprising that he rips apart both Lewontin and Gould, who both had severe reservations about adaptationism (viz., The Spandrels of San Marco paper) as well as political disagreements with Bob over sociobiology.
Of the five, I met only Gould and Lewontin, who were both on my thesis committee. Although Darlington was at Harvard, we never crossed paths. But I know many people who were colleagues of both Williams and Hamilton, and without exception they had only good things to say about them—especially Hamilton, who was apparently a lovely individual.
Trivers mentions that Hamilton was a dreadful lecturer, which I’ve also heard, but in all other respects he was a real Idea Man, and although some of his notions were wonky (including the idea that AIDS came from polio vaccines), his ideas about behavior, kin selection, disease, and so on made him perhaps the most important evolutionary theorist of the late 20th century.
Gould comes in for the greatest thrashing, especially for his flawed analysis of Samuel Morton’s cranial-skull data described in The Mismeasure of Man. Apparently motivated by his anti-racist sentiments, Gould apparently didn’t look too closely at what Morton actually did before accusing him of unconsciously manipulating data. (Gould’s book, however, is well worth reading for the other stuff.)
Trivers also goes after Gould for his (and Eldredge’s) theory of punctuated equilibrium, and here I think he’s right. If you construe that theory as being not just about patterns in the fossil record but about evolutionary process—about traits being molded by species selection—then Gould was simply wrong about that, and Trivers’s conclusions are correct. Yet, in the last chapter of my book Speciation (coauthored with Allen Orr), I think we make a persuasive case that species selection has operated in nature, and has molded the frequency array of characters that we see around us (i.e., what proportion of birds, among all birds, show sexual dimorphism for color?) Gould’s mistake, I think, was to suggest that species selection could somehow create adaptations themselves rather than just affect the array of existing adaptations.
When I think about Gould’s scientific achievements, I come up with very little concrete discoveries he made that are of any note. But he was seriously important in restoring paleobiology to a respectable discipline, for he had the rhetorical and writing skills to revive that field. And that, at least, is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Further, Gould’s Natural History essays and other popular pieces were always interesting, if sometimes tendentious, and surely helped awaken the public to the marvels of evolution.
As for Gould as a person, I had little use for him. In my experience the man was arrogant, preening, and completely lacked empathy, especially for us poor students trying to ask him questions. He often treated people very shabbily. Gould was a smart man and an eloquent man, but not a nice man. But we’re used to such people in science.
I don’t really want to answer Trivers’s attacks on my advisor Dick Lewontin. Suffice it to say that my experience in his lab was a great one, and I always found Dick caring, helpful, and willing to go the extra mile for his people. He was a humanitarian, even if you disagreed (as I did) with his Marxism. Trivers does allude obliquely to Lewontin’s skills at assembling a good lab and training people in the following largely negative assessment (my emphasis):
Lewontin’s story is that of a man with great talents who often wasted them on foolishness, on preening and showing off, on shallow political thinking and on useless philosophical rumination while limiting his genetic work by assumptions congenial to his politics. He ran a successful lab for many years, and easily raised large sums of research funds, so many U.S. geneticists remember him fondly for their time with him at Harvard, as a grad student or post-doc, but as an evolutionary thinker, never mind geneticist (beyond his early work on linkage disequilibrium), he has turned up mostly empty and the best of his ex-students concede he had done little of note for more than 20 years. [JAC: Remember that Dick is now 86!]
Those who know Dick knew what he accomplished, and although his 1974 book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, didn’t achieve the sweeping synthesis it aimed for, he had ample accomplishments to his name, and produced tons of students and postdocs who, inspired and influenced him, comprise a large moiety of modern evolutionary biologists. Your legacy in science isn’t just your work, but in the work that would not have been done without your influence. And Dick has an immense legacy.
Trivers also levels this accusation:
By the way, Lewontin would lie openly and admit to doing so. Lewontin would sometimes admit, in private at least, that some of his assertions were indeed fabrications, but he said the fight was ideological and political—they lied and so would he.
All I can say is that I never heard Lewontin lie or admit he lied for political reasons. It would have been better had Trivers given some examples.
So I have countered some of Trivers’s experience with my own. But I’d love to see him write similar assessments of the other evolutionists he met in his career, including Ed Wilson and Ernst Mayr. Trivers may sometimes be wrong, but he’s always interesting.
And while I’m talking about famous evolutionary biologists, let me take this chance to congratulate my old pal Russell Lande (a fellow grad student in Lewontin’s lab) on his election to the National Academy of Sciences today. Someone fix his Wikipedia page!