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.