And the end of my last tale, “How I became a conscientious objector“, I had been released from my CO job by the Federal courts, and, as it was too late to start graduate school, I was headed off to Europe for a five-month “Wanderhalbjahr.”
This next part is a bit fuzzy, but before I went to Rockefeller University in the summer of 1971, I’d also been accepted to several other graduate schools, including the University of Chicago, where I wanted to study evolutionary genetics with Dick Lewontin. When I turned them down to study with Theodosius Dobzhansky at Rockefeller, I remember that they told me that if I changed my mind I could still go to Chicago. (Who imagined that I would wind up here today?).
Here’s a photo of me with my cabal of buddies at Rockefeller, probably taken in 1972 when I was doing my CO. I have the tennis racket, cigarette, and lab-made “hookah”. Everyone in the photo is a landsman.
When I was released from my CO, Dobzhansky had retired and gone to the University of California at Davis with his former student Francisco Ayala, who became a professor. As I didn’t want to study with someone who was retired (it may not have been possible anyway), I believe I called Chicago (not Lewontin himself) and accepted their offer for the fall of 1973. As I recall (again, the details are hazy), they said that was great, and I could start there in that fall. Relieved that I had a good grad school and a good professor to study with, I went off to Europe for five months with my girlfriend. That epic trip began in Athens and continued to Crete, where we lived for a month in the tiny village of Sitia (story here). That trip was to continue to Santorini, up through Greece to Istanbul, through Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, France, and Spain, then across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, and down to Marrakesh. But more on that later.
At any rate, when I returned from that trip in August, I believe I called Lewontin and said “I’m ready to join your lab in Chicago.” He then informed me that he had in fact accepted a job at Harvard beginning that fall. When I said, “Well, can I join you there?”, he informed me that he had already bargained with Harvard to take his five Chicago grad students and one postdoc, and I was not among them. When I asked them if he could do something for me, he said no. Lewontin barely remembered me, and as I recall, when I interviewed at Chicago and met him, he spent very little time with me and then dumped me onto somebody else. I didn’t know the drill then, but we became good friends later and so I don’t resent that. After all, though I had a good undergrad record, Dick didn’t know me from Adam. (I did have a four-year NSF predoctoral fellowship, which made me almost no financial burden to a University.)
I was of course downhearted, because graduate school was going to start in a month or so and I had nowhere to go, nobody to study with. I decided then and there that I would fly up to Harvard and try to get in on my own.
And so, within two days, I was on a plane to Boston with my papers, transcript, and other documents, determined to talk my way into Harvard. Oy, was I a greenhorn back then! Now I would have said the effort would have been futile. But I was young, fearless, and ambitious.
The next day I went to Harvard and, at 9 a.m., I knocked on the door of E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist who had an office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). I explained to his secretary what I wanted, and I was given an audience with the great man. Sitting in his spacious office, I pleaded my case, not forgetting to mention that I had four years of free tuition and stipend, and so would barely cost Harvard anything. I also had straight As from William and Mary, where I was a valedictorian, two published papers, and very good GRE scores.
I think Wilson thought me a good bet, because after our conversation he told me that he would make appointments for me with other Harvard professors so that I could have an impromptu interview. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon further pleading my case with other professors. Then, at the end of the day, somebody from the Biology office gave me an application for graduate school to fill out, took me down to a dark room in the MCZ basement and sat me down in front of an old Royal typewriter—not even an electric. They gave me a few hours to write my application, which included the crucial “why I want to study at Harvard” essay. Since I was not prepared to write that, I had to wing it.
A digression: You might know that Wilson and Lewontin were bitter enemies during the “sociobiology wars”, but earlier on they were good friends and part of a small group of ecologists and evolutionists (including Richard Levins and Robert MacArthur), who planned as a group to unite ecology and evolution into one theoretical framework. Wilson had in fact brought Lewontin to Harvard, so that Wilson was not at all put off that I wanted to study with Lewontin. But later Wilson began writing about sociobiology, first in articles and then in his eponymous book of 1975, and by then Dick and Ed had become bitter enemies, and wouldn’t even speak to each other in the elevator. (I rode up with both of them once, and believe me, it not a comfortable ride. Not a word was exchanged.)
Back to writing my Harvard application. I remember that at one point the keys on the typewriter jammed, and, trying to unstick several of the bars with the typeface on them (I type very fast), I cut my fingers and began bleeding all over my application. So what I turned in at the end of the day was a blood-spattered application for graduate school at Harvard.
I was told they’d convene a special meeting of the admissions committee, and I would hear shortly. I flew back to my parents’ house in Arlington, Virginia, and, sure enough, in a few days I was told I’d been admitted to Harvard (I’m sure my NSF fellowship helped, as I was pretty much of a freebie).
That September, I moved into a small apartment with friends in a basement on Beacon Street across the river in Boston, and began commuting every day to the MCZ. Lewontin’s lab was under construction on the third floor of the MCZ labs, one floor below Wilson’s space, so we all lived in cramped quarters on the first floor for a year. I should add that our landlord in Boston was Jim Davis, the owner of the New Balance shoe company, which was just starting up as a mainstream sneaker company. Jim used to give us samples to try out. (I still wear New Balance running shoes out of loyalty.) Now, of course, Davis is a billionaire.
And so I settled in at the MCZ, awed by both Lewontin and the high quality of the grad students and postdocs he had. (For several years I didn’t think I could ever measure up, but I gained some confidence after a while.)
So that’s how I got into Harvard. One more thing remains to be said. Despite the rancor between Wilson and Lewontin, I never really took sides, especially personally. Lewontin’s objection to sociobiology was largely ideological: the idea that humans had evolutionarily-based behaviors was repugnant to a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist like Lewontin, who believed in infinite human malleability. I was too scientifically naive to take sides in that debate, but I always liked Wilson. Not just because he helped me get into Harvard, but because he really was a nice guy and without the arrogance of, say, Steve Gould (who was on my thesis committee). I also was a teaching assistant for Ed for two years in the introductory course Bio 1, and it was a pleasure (Ed was a great lecturer).
I have of course had scientific differences with Ed in recent years as he moves toward group-selectionist explanations for everything, but as a person and a human being I still respect him immensely. He’s been a great force in promoting conservation and ecology and a polymathic biologist despite some of his misconceptions.
More stories to come, I guess. Here’s a photo of me at Harvard taken by my friend Peter Haas. I’m not sure of the date, but it’s probably around 1975: