Will Provine died

September 3, 2015 • 12:00 pm

I’m saddened to report that historian of science and population geneticist Will Provine, a professor at Cornell, died on September 1 at 73.  His wife has posted an unbearably sad memoriam on her Facebook page, and Casey Bergman, one of our Chicago Ph.D. students and now a professor at Manchester, reported the news on his website An Assembly of Fragments.

Will was a student of my own Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin—Dick’s first student who was a historian rather than a working scientist. (Dick went on to work with and mentor many other students of the history and philosophy of science.) Will’s Ph.D. thesis became a short book, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics (1971), that was (and remains) essential reading for students in population genetics.

Will was a delightful guy, but those who knew him quickly learned that he pulled no punches. He was, as they say, “strident”: strident about creationism and intelligent design, which he detested, strident about religion (he was a diehard atheist, although, as I recall, his father was a preacher), and strident in his later-life opposition to genetic drift, which he viewed—erroneously, I think—as a misguided concept. Religionists often quoted with disdain his remark about the incompatibility of science and religion, “You have to check your brains at the church-house door if you take modern evolutionary biology seriously.”

But opinionated as he was, he was a pleasure to talk to, ever friendly and helpful. As Casey wrote on his site:

I’m moved by his death to recall my experience of having Provine as a lecturer during my undergrad days at Cornell 20 years ago, where his dramatic and entertaining style drew me fully into evolutionary biology, both as a philosophy and as a profession. I can’t say I knew Provine well, but I can say our interactions left a deep impression on me.  He was an incredibly kind and engaging, pulling you onto what he called the “slippery slope” where religious belief must yield to rationalism.

And that is my impression, too.

A long time ago Will developed brain cancer—a glioma, as I recall, which is a deadly form of the disease. He spoke openly about it and gave the impression that he didn’t have long to live. But he beat the odds, and must have survived for at least 15 or 20 years after diagnosis.

I remember that when we held a retirement symposium for Dick Lewontin at Harvard, Will gave the opening talk, and was wearing on each side of his head a metal disk with a target on it—a target for the radiation therapy aimed at his tumor. At that time we thought he would die soon, and that, combined with his deeply moving tribute to Lewontin, brought many of us to tears. It was the only time in my life that I saw Dick in tears as well: he had to put his head in his hands.

But it is a great mercy that Will lived so long after that talk—which was years ago—and remained active to the last. I, and many others, will miss him.

                                           Will Provine (1943-2015)

29 thoughts on “Will Provine died

      1. I should add that I was aware of Provine’s clear atheism (from some article, I think – it was years ago), and always wondered why it wasn’t more public. And now I know what a difficult time he had, and I can assume Provine choose wisely for himself.

  1. Two of his books, “The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics” and his biography of Sewell Wright, “Sewell Wright and Evolutionary Biology” were extremely influential to me when I was first trying to think of my own research projects. Both books are still chock full of great ideas for young scientists.

  2. Jerry,
    Just to report that, over the last few days, I’ve not been receiving the emails notifying new posts as normal. Are any other readers experiencing this (or is it something wrong at my end)?

    1. I had a random problem. I think there were some internet disruptions earlier in the week in the US so that may have affected some of us depending on routing.

  3. I’ve already posted on Will’s Facebook page, but in brief, it is because of him (and to a lesser extent Bruce Wallace) that I became a population geneticist. When I was a sophomore at Cornell (his first year there, I believe), he loaned me the galley proofs of his book, in the hopes that I could find a suitable term paper topic in it. I did (Fisher, Wright and the evolution of dominance), and with his help an encouragement I did a creditable job. I remained in touch with him over the years, visiting him a couple of times at his farm in Marathon and admiring his tractors. And as it happened, my son took Will’s non-majors evolution class the last time he taught it (in about 2008). He was an incredible scholar and human being – he will be missed by many,

  4. RIP, Will. I take evolutionary biology very seriously. Thanks for everything that you did in furthering the science of population genetics.

  5. Provine also ardently believed that free will does not exist, and that materialism and a lack of free will were inevitable corollaries to Darwinian evolution.

  6. After his first bout with brain cancer, Provine had to re-learn to speak. Since then his speech had been halting, but clear.

  7. I first met Will Provine while I was in graduate school. He came to my institution to give a talk on evolutionary biology, and scheduled a separate meeting to discuss philosophical and religious implications of evolution. This was in the 1980s. I was already an atheist by then, but I was impressed that someone was discussing these things publicly. Most academic scientists I knew deliberately shied away from any mention of religion.

    1. How difficult a thing to deal with. I saw a young boy being treated, for what I figured was brain cancer, when I was getting my own radiation. He could walk only very slowly and was not very steady on his feet. Over the weeks, he seemed to improve though. The treatment is quite nasty in that you have to have an appliance attached to you so that you don’t move; often this appliance covers your whole face.

      I used to think that I would live to old age but I no longer consider that an option and expect to die before retirement. The good thing is, I don’t have to worry about really old age.

      1. If you sincerely think that — and I think that might be overly pessimistic — then you owe it to yourself to make as much as you possibly can with all the time you’ve got left. Don’t waste your time working at jobs you hate just to save up money for a retirement you don’t think you’ll have; find ways to fill your hours in ways meaningful to you.

        …advice I’d offer to anybody, of course, but especially to short-timers….


  8. I think I knew Will longer than anyone in this thread, having met him when he was a graduate student at the same time as I was. Here are some brief comments I made yesterday at Sandwalk in a thread about Will’s recent book The “Random Genetic Drift” Fallacy. I hope to post soon at Panda’s Thumb some recollections of my own interactions with him.

  9. I don’t understand the following sentence from Will’s Wikipedia page:

    “Provine was a determinist in biology, but not a determinist in physics or chemistry, thus rejecting the idea of free will in humans.”

    How can one be a determinist in biology but not in physics and chemistry? If he wasn’t a determinist in physics and chemistry how could he reject the idea of free will in humans?

  10. I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his work yet, but I hope to rectify this soon, starting with The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics.

  11. Jerry, I don’t know how to contact you, so I’m hoping you read this. We in Australia have a fundie, about to be politician who refused to discuss his religion, however here is evidence of one of his problems with the evolution of the horse.


    Can you add a couple of sentences to tear him apart. Thank you.


    1. Dawn, I assume the candidate you are talking about is Andrew Hastie, ex SAS soldier. It is suggested that he is the son of Rev Peter Hastie, to whom your link refers, so Rev Peter Hastie isn’t about to become a MP.

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