Bob Trivers’ (and my) take on famous evolutionary biologists

April 28, 2015 • 1:00 pm

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:

W. D. Hamilton
Steven Jay Gould
Richard Lewontin
Philip Darlington (a short piece), and
George C. Williams

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!

62 thoughts on “Bob Trivers’ (and my) take on famous evolutionary biologists

  1. I think it is fair to point out that Hamilton didn’t believe AIDS came from polio vaccines as they were developed and used in the Congo. He did consider it a valid hypothesis worth looking into. He died of malaria while doing field work (collecting DNA from resident chimps) in hopes of finding an answer.

  2. Apparently motivated by his anti-racist sentiments, Gould apparently didn’t look too closely at what Morton actually did…

    JC, This sentence confuses me. Which one had anti-racist sentiments?

    1. Gould had the anti-racist sentiments. His book was a critical history of “scientific racism”, the idea that different races had very different capabilities, which was common in the 1800s.

      So Gould was writing in a good cause. However, he allowed his enthusiasm for the cause to make unfair accusations about previous scientists.

      Similarly, unfair criticisms were made about Cyril Burt (regarding IQ) by Kamin.

      Gould, Kamin, Rose, Lewontin and others had a history of this, for example dismissing the idea that human “race” has any validity at all as a concept.

      “Never missing an opportunity to let their politics influence their science” as Dawkins (I think) put it in Ancestor’s Tale.

      1. That sounds like Dawkins.

        I like this quote of Abba Eban’s: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

      2. “…dismissing the idea that human “race” has any validity at all as a concept.”

        A sentiment still running strong in certain quarters.

      1. Me too. Unlike the target of his criticism, Dawkins has a talent for clear and entertaining writing.

    1. Yes, but I wonder if that’s anything more than a short comparison in one of Trivers’s books–maybe his new one on self-deception and deceit. I’d like to see a standalone vignette. And Trivers has known most of the greats in evolutionary biology over the last several decades.

  3. It is always interesting to learn something of the people behind the names. I look forward to reading the piece when I have the time.

    The only one I have any familiarity with at all is Gould. Jerry’s comments on Gould’s personality don’t surprise me and, in fact, match my impression of him. My impression formed only from his popular writings, popular writings by others (i.e. journalists) about him and comments from his peers. Most of which regarded him with a high level of respect which to me seemed incongruous with the person they portrayed.

    The little respect I have for Gould is due solely to the respect that other scientists that I respect unreservedly express for his contributions to biology coupled with me being an ignorant outsider. In other words, the respect I have for relevant experts makes me hesitant to accept my otherwise dim view of him.

  4. I had met Gould after he gave a talk many years ago when he was on a book tour. I chatted with him for quite a while, and he kindly signed my copy of Wonderful Life, even though it was not the book he was pushing. I can understand the views about his personality — those came across well enough during the talk and the questions that came after.

    I want to add that the Gould and Lewontin spandrels paper is still very significant.

    1. As to your last sentence, I respectfully disagree if you mean significant with regard to science and honesty. I could, however, concede that it may be significant in other ways.

      1. The Spandrel paper is more relevant today than when it was published in the late 70s. The number of genome-scan papers that fabricate just-so stories for the genes under putative selection– without functional validation– is truly astounding. You have a strong ideological commitment if you can’t acknowledge that biologists continue to mine this adaptationist vein.

  5. What a fine find. I wonder why John Maynard Smith was left out. The evolutionary demographics workers Eric Charnov and Derek Roff deserve mention. Perhaps Trivers will strike again.

    1. Omitting Maynard Smith also seems to me to be a major oversight. I can only guess that this is perhaps due to a lack of appreciation for the incredibly significant impact that his contributions in theoretical biology has made to Biology itself – in establishing such a robust mathematical model of the Darwinian process. As Maynard Smith charmingly put it “an ounce of algebra, is worth a ton of verbal argument”.

      I did a small writeup on Maynard Smith as an educator, and had a chance to interview some of his past students. I can’t imagine any academic held in greater esteem and affection by his students and colleagues. I was given a picture of him in his office at the University of Sussex. In the background of the photo is a mass of “home brew” beer making equipment that was always bubbling away in order to provide hospitality to any of his visitors.

  6. I worry that people are piling on SJ Gould after his death. He certainly had his faults, and his contributions to science can be debated. There is no doubt that his essays inspired many, many people (myself included) to pursue science. Punctuated Equilibrium was never the big splash he seemed to have hoped would secure his legacy as a great thinker. His sloppiness on Morton’s work will likely taint him even longer. But he did inspire with his writing. That should be satisfactory enough for most people, if not for him. I read the bits by Trivers and could only wonder what people will write about him!

    1. Gould’s essays are very well written and very persuasive. About half of them argue for a correct opinion and about half of them argue for a totally wrong opinion. They are thus very good intellectual exercise in trying to figure out which ones are which!

    2. I piled onto Gould well before his death: I (and some of my colleagues) criticized punctuated equilibrium severely while well before he died. And most of us recognize the good stuff he did, as I think I did above. But I’m not going to pretend that what he thought was his greatest scientific contribution–punctuated equilibrium–had any credibility. When you assess someone’s life and work, you don’t have to stay away from calling out bad behavior or bad science.

      Frankly, I don’t see any “piling on.” What I see is an honest assessment of the man when a sufficient period has elapsed to judge his legacy.

      1. To support what Jerry says (and I’m not being a suck up, for this is simply true), read what Jerry wrote about SJ Gould here. Indeed Gould interested me in science when I was young and I loved watching his many TV appearances and I read many of his books. I do tend to like rather alpha personalities and sadly this alphas are often narcissistic. Jerry does provide a very balanced view of him though.

    3. Steve showed little hesitation in denigrating deceased foes. He too often sought to undermine philosophical adversaries using not-entirely-honest exposés pinning rottenness on long-dead predecessors. The case I’ve informed myself on is that of German atheist evolutionist Ernst Haeckel.

  7. An interesting read – I first stumbled upon Gould’s writing as a high school student (late 70’s) while doing some research for a paper about legal battles over the teaching of evolution in public schools. His style was so warm and entertaining that I continued to read his works over the many years since. I never fell for his non-overlapping magisteria idea and later learned to alloy his ideas on punctuated equilibrium with the writings of other scholars.
    I have to admit that this was the first criticism I’ve read of The Mismeasure of Man and his error seems rather egregious. I’ll have to see what other criticisms of that work I can dig up. Despite all that, I feel I learned a good deal from Gould, particularly since I’m no biologist.

    The only Lewontin I’ve read is his Biology as Ideology. I read it again recently and felt that maybe it hadn’t withstood the test of time too well. When I read that our fine host had studied under Lewontin I wondered how he might feel about the view of genetic determinism his mentor expressed there. Did Lewontin err on the side of political rectitude? Does he still feel the same as he did writing it? Did I misinterpret Lewontin’s objection to genetic determinism? Maybe his views were sound and he was warning against the misinterpretation of the science?

    I hesitate to ask some of these questions since, as an electrical engineer, I’m a bit out of my depth. However I do gain a great deal of enjoyment learning what I can here. I’d like to encourage Dr. Coyne (and crew) to continue posting the technical articles. Even if I don’t feel qualified to enter the discussions I see these as a great window into how real scientists go about their work and enjoy reading them. In the current atmosphere of unreasonable public distrust of science, I think this kind of exposure and accessibility can only do good things for the public understanding of the scientific method and its credibility. I’m always pleasantly surprised at the statistical sophistication that’s applied even in the so-called “soft” sciences. (my partner, a cognitive psychologist/neuroscientist and an academic would surely hide me for using that phrase)

    Keep up the good work everybody!

    1. I concur. (sorry, i’m not hip enough to get this whole “sub” business)

      I’ve read a little about the fight over genetic determinism, and the political accusations, and found it confusing and disturbing. But, like you I enjoy this window into the real working world of science and scientists.

      1. quiscalus, “sub” just means we’re subscribing to a post here so that we’ll get email notifications of subsequent comments. Does that help?

    2. I’ve always found one part of _Biology as Ideology_ very strange. That’s because this part seems to very much be at odds with his usual caution etc. I was impressed (as a complete outsider) when he told a seminar I attended at UBC that those studying philosophy of science and rhetoric of science etc. like was the subject of the seminar should learn some before doing any of the above. (I always do, myself, but I cannot always speak for colleagues in such matters, alas.) Anyway, the stuff about norms of reaction and heritability he presented in the usual “anti genetic determinism” way was handy, etc. But getting back to the main point – BasI has a bit where he claims that not a single genetic basis for any human psychological trait has ever been discovered. I didn’t get the chance to bring it up in class, but I did write (at the time) how this contradicts his own (co-authored, admittedly) introductory genetics textbook, where the psychological effects of trisomy 21 (“Down syndrome”) are clearly discussed. I wondered if this was a “different audience” effect or the like – in the light of my colleagues studying rhetoric.

      (It isn’t that major a point, mind, but …)

  8. As Steven Pinker confirms in his “The Blank Slate,” Lewontin was one of the kingpins of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday. It was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time, putting the unpleasantness about Galileo and Giordano Bruno completely in the shade. In spite of his supposed disapproval of “cultural determinism” and “Skinnerism,” Lewontin not only disagreed with but vilified anyone who dared to suggest that there was such a thing as what’s referred to in the vernacular as human nature.

    Compared to what he said about Trivers, Trivers vignette of him is positively charitable. Over and over again in “Not in Our Genes,” which he co-authored with Rose and Kamin, Lewontin accused Trivers, not to mention W. D. Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and E. O. Wilson, with Robert Ardrey thrown in for good measure, of being willing lackeys of the international bourgeoisie, engaged in a conspiracy to prop up the status quo as a way of staving off the coming socialist revolution. Trivers, one of the few members of the Black Panther Party, and Ardrey, who almost became a Communist himself, as one can confirm by consulting the Ardrey archives right there at the University of Chicago, were denounced as ideological soulmates of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I can understand how a former graduate student might have warm feelings about his professor advisor. However, that’s the truth about Richard Lewontin.

    I will be glad to identify myself to anyone who cares to e-mail me.

  9. I knew Trivers long ago, and took a course and an independent study with him when he was still very young. I never had any doubt about his genius. I was a former undergraduate student of R.D. Alexander’s. The two of them had various disagreements; they argued about a lot of things, but I always thought they valued each other. I can’t understand why Dick isn’t on this list. Alexander never became as famous as either Trivers or Wilson, which frankly baffles me – Wilson is a better writer than Alexander but as thinkers you can’t compare them. Those of us who were privileged to know and work with Alexander know how great he is. I wish Trivers had recognized him here.

      1. According to Razib Khan, one of the columnists at Unz, from his “Robert Trivers, friends and enemies” post:

        “Robert Trivers is one of the giants of modern evolutionary biology, with a diverse portfolio of interests. Apparently he has an autobiography coming out in the near future, and his editors did not think it was prudent to include a chapter where he launched salvos against enemies, while praising his friends. Ron Unz has published it in unexpurgated form, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small. It’s fascinating, though probably on the whole not surprising to those who have followed Trivers’ career.”

  10. I’d say that Gould’s greatest contribution to science (aside from his popularizations) was his introduction, along with some others about the same time, of null models into paleontology. He was among the first to ask whether a particular pattern in the record could or could not have been achieved by chance. And that’s had a major influence on the field.

  11. Where would you rate E.O. Wilson in this crowd? It seems (notwithstanding his unfortunate late embrace of group selection and his recent ill-advised petty jibes at Richard Dawkins) that he was one of the brightest stars in the last 50-years’ firmament, both as an evolutionary biologist (especially as its preeminent myrmecologist) and as science popularizer. For all the political heat he took for it at the time (especially from his Marxist colleagues — owing perhaps, in some small part, to the grandiose use of the definite article in its subtitle), his “Sociobiology: the New Synthesis” seems to have generally carried the day, albeit after shedding the controversial “sociobiology” name in favor of “evolutionary psychology” and the like. Wilson’s thinking in this regard appears to have had a large influence on the burgeoning study of neurobiology.

  12. Interesting read, thanks for sharing your thoughts Jerry! I´ll be reading Trivers’ piece as well.

  13. Speaking as an outsider who used to read some of the more popular biology books, it seemed to me that S.J.Gould was very fond of punctuated equilibrium and liked to over-emphasise its differences (possibly illusory) with conventional Darwinism; and this was siezed on with great glee by the ‘Darwin-is-dead’ school of creationists. Which, to my mind, cancelled out much of the good he might have done in popularising evolution.

    Also, he seemed to attribute cosmic significance to baseball. 😉

  14. This question isn’t specific to evolutionary biologists (so perhaps it’s misplaced), but rather has to do with academics in the US who identify as Marxists and socialists. I’ve known of a dozen or so such throughout my career, and it’s always puzzled me as to what exactly they mean with this identification. Usually these individuals get defensive (or worse) when I try my typical direct approach of asking what they mean, and I’ve never received a satisfactory answer. Perhaps it’s too personal – but then why publicly identify as a Marxist or socialist? I am, admittedly, a fairly blunt and literal person, but I don’t think my questions about Marxism are out of line or insensitive.

    So is Lewontin’s Marxism purely philosophical, or does it extend to the political, economic, and/or practical? I’ve never actually known an academic in the US to be an economic or practical Marxist/socialist, but my sphere of interactions is relatively limited.

    1. I don’t have anything to offer regarding your questions, but your comment “triggered” me to go ahead and air a complaint.

      Reading this post, the referenced article, the comments and all the associated references, was rather depressing to me. Ideology informing scientist’s science work was pretty much the norm in the “early days” of modern science. But it is damn depressing that that kind of thing was still so rampant as late as the 70s and 80s among even the best of the best. Damn depressing. Is that kind of thing still rampant today? It just reinforces that old adage that 90% of everything is shit. Not even the best of the best understand what the primary purpose of the carefully constructed methods of modern science are? When are we gonna learn?

      1. It also provides grist for mill of the postmodernists’ claim that science is “socially constructed” — which is in itself a soi-disant type of Marxism, not the “political, economic, practical” socialism that “barn owl” mentions above, but a Rococo Marxist form that imports the analytical templates and terminology and calls it “critical theory.”

        1. This is why (I believe, in part) that Lewontin was invited to the seminar I alluded to. The field of “rhetoric of science”, needless to say, has succumbed to pomo excesses (or did, at the time — 1999-2000). Shame, as usual, since there are potentially very interesting things to work on here if one can divorce the content from the form in scientific writing – if only methodologically.

          (Incidentally, the [now] notorious Disovery Institute fellow, J. A. Campbell, was *also* a guest of this same course. This was before he was at the DI, of course.)

        2. Soi-disant Marxism fits with my impression. An endowed professorship at an Ivy League university, with federal grants to fund research, is an undeniably bourgie gig.

      2. If lining one’s pockets and cronyism count as ideology, then that sort of influence in science still occurs today, though I don’t think it qualifies as “rampant” necessarily. I think it most often manifests in research funding decisions – you can Google “Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT)” and “corruption” as one example.

      3. Scientist have no superhuman powers, they are as fallible as anyone. Partly to blame is the myth that science is dependent on only a few very smart people.

        Science is a collective endeavor, individual scientists are not very important for its progress. Scientific discoveries, given the right climate, are just a matter of time. There are more than enough smart people on this planet.

        I don’t think bad of Gould, He was a good science writer. He just didn’t have enough luck to get him a Nobel-price. Though he did have enough ego.

        1. Are you attributing these things to me?

          I am not sure if it is your intention but you seem to strongly imply that improvement is either not possible or not worth any particular effort. I disagree. 1st, it is pretty clear that there has been improvement, 2nd, it is pretty clear that improvement is beneficial.

          Thanks, but I’ll continue to hope and work for improvement.

          1. I was reacting to your “But it is damn depressing that that kind of thing was still so rampant as late as the 70s and 80s among even the best of the best”.

            Surely science progresses, but the people who do the science are not improving. So there is no reason to be depressed or disappointed, it’s what we can expect.

            Hopefully this makes some sense because I didn’t understand your reaction.

        2. “Science is a collective endeavor, individual scientists are not very important for its progress.”

          I think you’re wrong there. No original thought ever occurred to a collective. Individuals make observations, have ideas, and have personal motivations (to compete, to help, to destroy) that result in ideas being combined and criticised and tested. Collectives require organisation by individuals in order to exist at all.

          Sure, there are more than enough smart people, but also far more than enough stupid and vicious ones. Each in their own particular ways.

          1. It’s the other way around; no good ideas without the many less successful ideas.

            I don’t believe these good ideas can ever come out of a vacuum. Their are mostly build on ideas that didn’t work that well, mostly helped by new technical inventions (telescope, microscope) and a liberal climate.

            I’ve no doubt that evolution would have been discovered without Darwin, classical mechanics and calculus without Newton, …

            Does remind me of a quote often attributed to Einstein:

            “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

  15. Gould can never come in for a big enough thrashing for his non overlapping magisteria. It continues to this day to act as an albatross around the neck of The God Debate.

  16. Trivers’ story about sending his chapter to Williams (in which he had not sufficiently credited Williams for the ideas therein) seems to fit a pattern I’ve noticed before, where work that is close to completely agreeing with the point of your current work is just hard to bring to mind. In subfields where there’s a lot of disagreement and minor controversy it’s common for particularly relevant papers (by opponents or indeed friends) to be left off the reference list, and I think this is very often a matter of individual psychology rather than political animus.

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