Memoriam for Francisco Ayala by John Avise

March 6, 2023 • 8:15 am

Evolutionary geneticist Francisco José Ayala died yesterday, and although obituaries are beginning to appear, they’re all in Spanish (e.g., here and here). I expect the American press will catch up shortly. In the meantime, I asked his student and colleague John Avise (who posts bird photos here each Sunday) to write a personal account of his memories of Ayala. Here’s what John sent, posted with permission:

I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent passing of Francisco J. Ayala, a gentleman scientist with very European tastes and manners.

I knew Francisco for nearly five decades, first as his PhD student at University of California at Davis in the early 1970’s and much later as his friend and colleague at U.C. Irvine beginning in 2005.  Francisco’s early training as a Dominican priest in his native home of Spain, and soon thereafter as an evolutionary geneticist advised by Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University in New York, combined to give Francisco a uniquely international and interdisciplinary perspective on life that led to his reputation as a brilliant intellectual, a true Renaissance Man.  His oversized impacts on the field of evolutionary genetics and the intersection of science and religion are well documented, so here I will limit my comments to a few more personal experiences.

I will most remember Francisco as a generous, honest, honorable, and openly warm-hearted mentor who loved people and genuinely cared about the wellbeing of his students and colleagues.  Francisco slept little and wrote extensively, always in longhand.  He traveled and lectured widely, especially in Europe where he is perhaps even better known than in the U.S.  During his long career, Francisco received an extraordinary number of honors and accolades, for which he always expressed surprise and great gratitude.  In what became almost a ritual between us, each year I would beg him to write his autobiography, to which he would jokingly reply that he didn’t want to subject himself to that much introspection.

He took special pleasure in his ‘hobby’, owning and operating a vineyard from which emerged delicious wines that= he frequently shared with his friends, keeping us well supplied.  Although our scientific foci differed considerably, in many respects I personally regarded Francisco almost as a second father figure.  Indeed, to a considerable degree, his overarching concern with human affairs inspired me to write two of my own books on human genetics.  I will miss Francisco sorely, as will the fields of biology and philosophy writ large.

A photo of Ayala from the NYT:

Photo: Chas Metivier

Heather Hastie died

February 4, 2023 • 11:45 am

It’s with tremendous sorrow that I report the death in New Zealand of my friend Heather Hastie, who passed away at 5:30 a.m. Friday New Zealand time after a bout with cancer. She was only 59 years old, and left this world peacefully, with her family by her side.

Heather appeared on this website often, for we were of like mind: rationalist, science loving, and thoroughly atheistic. Her website, Heather’s Homilies, was a haven of good sense, and I often called attention to her posts, which became increasingly rare over the last few years. On her “About Me” page she describes her medical woes, starting with a hockey injury when young, which led to spinal surgeries, and, ironically, to her creating her website as a way of connecting with the world when she was largely immobile.

We became friends the way Grania and I became friends: I noticed an exceptionally keen mind in the blogosphere who was also a liberal nonbeliever, and we began exchanging emails. And, as with Grania, that led to Skyping, which for several years took place once a week or so. We had long chats about everything: politics, New Zealand, our personal woes, food, and so on. I often asked her advice, particularly about feminism, for she was an ardent advocate for women’s rights, and sometimes I vetted my posts by showing them to her before I published them. Talking to her was always a pleasant break for me, and I think Heather enjoyed our interactions, too.  She eventually adopted a neighbor’s cat, who she named Reilly: a gray tabby who she spoiled rotten. Many times I’d insist on her putting the cat on video to say “hi”.

When I finally got to New Zealand in 2017, I of course visited Heather in her small town of Taumarunui on NZ’s North Island, and I spent several pleasant days in her company. Although it was difficult for her to get around, she insisted on showing me the area, including trips to the mountains, the famous glowworm caves, and wildlife parks. We had a great time and promised to see each other again on my next visit to New Zealand. It was, I hoped, to take place not long from now.

Sadly, that second meeting will never happen.  Again like Grania, Heather has departed way too young, leaving a big hole in my existence, and of course in that of her friends and family.  During the pandemic, both of us became more hermitic and the frequency of our calls waned, probably because it, like everything else, became a huge effort to arrange things. We last Skyped five months ago, and it was clear then that she was not doing great. She hadn’t written on her website, and said that she didn’t feel well.  The next I heard was that she was in the hospital with an undiagnosed malady. It was quickly diagnosed as stomach cancer, and deemed terminal.  They gave her at most three months to live, and that was about a month ago. She went into hospice care, and I got the sad news this morning.

Heather made no bones about her lack of religious belief, so although there will likely be a memorial service for her, and it may be livestreamed (stay tuned), she would not want any palaver about “going to a better place.” Where she stays will be in our memories, but that’s all we have, and it’s an inferior substitute for the woman herself.

Farewell, my friend, and Ceiling Cat speed to you. My only hope now is that, knowing how deeply she loved her cat Reilly, someone will be taking good care of it, for I know that that would be one of her greatest wishes.

If there is a streamed memorial service, I’ll let you know.

I would put up a picture of Heather, but I have only one, and she made me promise never to show it to anyone or put it on my site. (Like many of us, she didn’t like the way her photos looked.) So I will respect her wishes and not show it now, but I will always picture her sitting in her special orthopedic, mechanically-tilting easy chair, computer on her lap and the inevitable can of lemon soda by her side. I imagine she would have had an insightful take on Jacinda Ardern’s stepping down as the Kiwi Prime Minister, for we talked about Ardern often. But Heather was nearly gone when Ardern made her announcement.

All I can say is that New Zealand’s titer of insight, rationality, and sanity has palpably dropped in the last few days. My deep condolences to her friends and family.

RIP: Richard Cook

September 22, 2022 • 9:15 am

Team Duck and I are deeply saddened by the recent death of one of our members, Dr. Richard Cook, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 31. He was only 69.  An anesthesiologist by training, he was also a polymath, something I discovered only after he died. Richard’s many talents are highlighted in one of the articles below; I did not know of these, for we Team members rarely talk about their work while on duty at Botany Pond. Usually we feed the ducks and then gather on the bridge or at a nearby table for a while, soaking in the beauty of the pond, chatting about this and that, and, of course, discussing the ducks and the vagaries of their behavior.

Richard and his wife Karen were on the team for two years, faithfully appearing every day two summers ago at 6:30 a.m. to do the morning feeding of Honey and Dorothy’s ducklings, and coming regularly after that.  Beyond the quotidian tasks of tending ducks, which require diligence and commitment, Richard had two special talents. One was to design various contrivances to assure the safe arrival of ducklings at the pond (cushions, covered holes, padding on spikes, and so on). He and Karen spent a long time preparing for the arrival of one brood of ducks this year (as well as Dorothy’s last year). Unfortunately, this year’s nest, under my air conditioner, never produced offspring, as the mother abandoned her nest after all the preparations. I am leaving up these preparations as Richard’s legacy to Team Duck.

Richard was also superb at calming me down during the many moments of anxiety I had as Duckmeister over the last couple of seasons. Perhaps it was his “bedside manner” acquired during his years as an M.D., but whatever it was, he helped me immensely to put things in perspective—to accept the things that I could not change, and to suggest how to proceed with the things I could change. He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, and though he was surely suffering from the disease during much of the time I knew him, we didn’t learn how ill he was until just a few months ago. Pancreatic cancer is a cruel ailment, and I could never have borne it with the fortitude he did.

Karen sent us the sad news, but added a summary of Richard’s life, work, and persona that I reproduce below; it was put together by his friends:

I have asked Richard’s closest professional friends to capture the arc of his career and highlight a few of his major accomplishments in the next couple of paragraphs. But because his career was both long, storied and highly influential, they have also put together a longer summary of his professional impact on many fields available at the following link:

What stands out, professionally, about Richard is how he dedicated himself to the health and safety of others in the many ‘acts’ of his career.

It is rare for people to have second, third or even fourth acts in their careers (some concurrently). He was foremost a caring physician and anesthesiologist dedicated to his patients well being (for 25 years at the Ohio State University (OSU) and University of Chicago Medical Centers). For example, after the massive Haiti earthquake of 2010, Richard helped lead a University of Chicago-sponsored medical mission to set up a field hospital caring for the injured and destitute.

But, both at the beginning and at the end of his career, he worked on computing challenges as a software engineer (after college at Control Data Corp.; after ending clinical practice, co-founding a successful software engineering company, Adaptive Capacity Labs).

Alongside these careers, he was a researcher for 35 years – at OSU, University of Chicago, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), and OSU again. From the beginning he pursued new paths in Human Factors, in Human-Computer/Automation Interaction, and in Resilient Performance in complex systems, and then helped young researchers expand the new directions. His ideas and innovations arose from his commitment to learning from incidents – close observation of actual work, not work as imagined from afar. As a result, he made lasting contributions to the fields of Cognitive Systems Engineering (designing joint systems of people and computers in high performance, high risk settings) and Resilience Engineering (how people provide a unique and critical form of adaptive capacity to make complex systems work). His publications and recorded talks in these areas are a gold mine for young researchers (google “How Complex Systems Fail”).

As a patient safety advocate, he used his science and engineering expertise to contribute to the start of the patient safety movement (he was a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation in 1996 and co-founded the GAPS Center in 2000 to conduct a major patient safety campaign in the VA of Ohio). He was unafraid to speak out whenever the movement veered off-course from the science.

Through all of the varied acts of his career, he looked closer, thought harder, saw deeper, and envisioned new directions. As one colleague said, “Richard is a genius troublemaker.” Then he patiently shared his wisdom with varied emerging talents he encountered across the diverse ‘acts’ of a storied life.

Richard leaves his wife, Karen, three children, Cliff, Kristin, and Kara Schwandner and their spouses, his father, Richard G. Cook, his siblings, Sue and Paul Cook and six grandchildren. He is remembered as an extraordinary person, both funny and generous with his time, an incomparable doctor and a wonderful husband, father and grandfather. He was a lovely man in every sense.

It is only now, as I said, that I’m learning what a polymath the man was. We will miss him, as will our feathered charges at the pond.  Here are Richard and Karen photographed on the bridge on November 10 of last year, at the tail end of duck season:

And here’s the memoriam to Richard assembled by three of his colleagues; click on the screenshot to read it.

Like our ducks in the fall, he left us suddenly and unexpectedly, and we won’t see his like again. We join his friends and family in remembering him and being grateful for the time we had in his company.

Richard Leakey dies at 77

January 2, 2022 • 12:22 pm

This just in: Richard Leakey, well known paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician, has died at 77.  (Two of his team’s finds are H. rudolfensis and “Turkana Boy,” placed in H. ergaster.) A brief bio from the France 24 website:

World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and politician Richard Leakey, who unearthed evidence that helped to prove humankind evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country’s president said.

“I have this afternoon… received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, Kenya‘s former Head of Public Service,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement late Sunday.

Leakey, the middle son of famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, had no formal archaeological training of his own but led expeditions in the 1970s that made groundbreaking discoveries of early hominid fossils.

His most famous find came in 1984 with the uncovering of an extraordinary, near-complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of his digs in 1984, which was nicknamed Turkana Boy.

In 1989, Leakey was tapped by then President Daniel arap Moi to lead the national Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), where he spearheaded a vigorous campaign to stamp out rampant poaching for elephant ivory.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both legs.

He also tried his hand at politics, ran civil society institutions, and briefly headed Kenya’s civil service.

In 2015, despite ailing health, he returned to the helm of the KWS for a three year term at the request of Kenyatta.

Here’s Leakey in 2010:

And Turkana boy (1.5-1.6 million years old), the most complete early hominin skeleton found to date:

E. O. Wilson died

December 27, 2021 • 6:06 am

Matthew sent me a tweet this morning saying that Edward O. Wilson, known to all of us as “Ed”, died yesterday at at 92. He died at the same age as my mentor—Ed’s nemesis Dick Lewontin—as both were born in 1929.  There’s a short obituary by Carl Zimmer that you can read at the NYT link below (click on screenshot); there will be a longer one for sure as Carl fleshes it out.

As usual, I’ll leave the details of his career and accomplishments to the formal obituaries and to Wikipedia (look at his list of books!), except to say that Ed was a polymath who was a Harvard professor for 46 years before retiring. And he was working tirelessly up to his death, just like his colleague Ernst Mayr (who died at 100).

Ed’s lab occupied the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) Laboratories at Harvard, while Lewontin’s lab, where I worked, was one floor below. But they might as well have been light years apart, for Lewontin intensely disliked Ed, and the feeling was mutual. (Ed had less rancor, he was more or less blindsided when Lewontin and Steve Gould—who worked in the adjacent main MCZ—began attacking him as a reactionary biological determinist after Ed published his landmark book, Sociobiology.)In fact, Ed originally helped recruit Dick to Harvard from the University of Chicago; but that didn’t make Lewontin temper his reaction when the Great Sociobiology Wars began.

But I did not share Dick’s dislike of Ed. If you knew Ed as a person—and I knew him as an acquaintance—you simply could not dislike him. (Dick and Steve’s animus was based purely on politics.). Ed was mild-mannered, gentle, and helpful: I’ve written before about how he got me into Harvard as a graduate student in a single day, an act of generosity I’ll never forget. I also taught two semesters of Bio 1 (introductory biology) under Ed, and was great friends with some of the people in his lab. The result was that I spent a fair amount of time on the fourth floor, but never in my six years at Harvard did I see Ed on the third floor—our floor.

Only one time I know of was he even near Lewontin. That’s when I was waiting with Dick for the elevator to the third floor, and Ed strode into the building and joined us in the elevator. The tension immediately became thick and palpable. It was a silent and uncomfortable ride up three floors; not a word was exchanged between the two Harvard professors, not even “hello”.

In his later years, Ed became wedded to the idea of group selection, and wrote several books and papers touting it as an explanation for eusociality in insects like ants and bees (communal living with a queen and sterile workers), as well as for many traits in humans. This was unfortunate, as this view was almost surely wrong, but Ed clung to it tenaciously. It was, I think, his only big misstep in a sterling career. Sadly, I had to review one of his books on group selection and panned it.

When I interviewed Dick a few years ago about his own career, he had nothing nice to say about Wilson; in fact, that was the one time he made me turn the tape off, and you can imagine what he said during the hiatus, though I’m not at liberty to divulge it. But Dick also mourned the loss of the great evolutionary biologists who reigned when he was a student: people like Ernst Mayr, Al Roemer, G. G. Simpson, and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dick said, “There are no great ones left. Where are the great ones?”

He was wrong. Ed was one of the great ones. Evolutionary biology, ant biology, and conservation biology will be poorer for his absence. And he was a terrific guy—rare for someone who was so famous. Just ask people who knew him.

Here are two photos I took of Ed at a lunch at Naomi Pierce’s and Andrew Berry’s house in Cambridge on October 5, 2007.  This was during was a symposium at Harvard, though I don’t remember what it was about.

Talking to Patty Gowaty.

A eulogy for Hitchens by Douglas Murray

December 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011—ten years from last Wednesday.  There have been a lot of pieces about Hitchens since then, as well as postmortem collections of his own writing, but I haven’t read any eulogy for Hitchens as eloquent and touching as the one below (h/t Chris). It’s from conservative Douglas Murray in the 2011 Spectator, and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot (it’s a very short piece). If the link on the screenshot is paywalled, this one is archived and free. (By the way, I did read and like Murray’s anti-woke book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity).

It’s a testimony to the expansiveness of Hitchens’s character that he and a pretty right-wing guy were friends—and according to Murray, they were pretty tight. At any rate, I’ll let you read this lovely piece for yourself—it’s ten years old and was clearly written in the moment right after Hitchens had died. I’ll give a few excerpts.

This is an excellent beginning:

Just one of Christopher Hitchens’ talents would have been enough for most people. In him those talents — like his passions — all melded into each other: as speaker, writer and thinker. Yet he was more than the sum even of these considerable parts, for he possessed another talent that was even rarer — a talent for making us, his readers, want to be better people. He used his abilities not to close down questions and ideas, but to open them up. In the process he made you, the reader, aware that you needed to do more, engage more, think more and know more. Writers often feel a need to impress their readers. Christopher made his readers want to impress the writer.

Murray describes Hitchens’s well-known capacity to travel and work at a pace that would drive others to a frazzle, and to drink Mr. Walker’s amber restorative copiously all the while. And even then, tired and besotted, Hitchens could turn out the most wonderful and thoughtful prose. Do read Murray’s account of how, after a bibulous day, Hitchens went home and wrote a brilliant piece.

One nice bit:

He was a master on the page. But on stage he perhaps excelled even further. As a mutual friend observed some years ago: ‘There is only one real rule in public speaking: never speak to an audience with, before or after Christopher Hitchens.’

That’s for sure!  And Murray has a touching ending that rings very true:

A couple of days before Christopher’s diagnosis we spent a day together at Hay. I was reading the memoir that he was promoting, Hitch-22, the opening chapters of which are among the most moving ever written. At the end of a long day he dropped me at my hotel. In the morning he would fly to the US. His schedule was always extreme but for the first time it seemed to be taking a physical toll. If we will keep on wishing that we had had another couple of decades of him, we will also have to concede that he lived his life exactly how he wished, burning bright and burning hard. That included working himself right up until the end for the things he believed in, the things he wished to fight for and — which was the same — the things he loved. As I waved him off that night I remember registering the thought that the day would come when we would have to live without Christopher. Now that day has arrived. It will be hardest of all for his wife, Carol, and for his brilliant children of whom he was so very — and justifiably — proud. But it is also something that, in an incomparably smaller way, the rest of us will have to manage too.

We have lost our sharpest wit, one of our finest writers and one of our best minds. There are no false consolations to be had. Only the truth that from now on, instead of knowing what Christopher thinks, we will have to consider what he would have thought. We will, in other words, have to think for ourselves. If we manage it then, in large part, it will be thanks to Christopher and the incomparable example — in life and work — that he provided.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. Yes, he did live the life he wished, and I doubt that he spent much time doing things he didn’t love.  Even so, many of us wish he were here now, for the follies happening in America would surely provide ample fodder for his scathing wit. As Murray says, we’ll never know what he would have thought about things like cultural appropriation, transgender activism, pronoun usage, and the racial tension that’s permeating society. But we do know three things: he would have something to say, what he’d say would be interesting and thought-provoking (and perhaps contrarian), and the prose would get us hooked.

As for thinking for ourselves, that was the point of Hitchens’s last public speech, when he received the Richard Dawkins Award less than two months before he died. While he was clearly ill, Hitchens’s words are loud and clear (his bit starts at 12:10, and if you haven’t seen this video, watch the whole thing):

Dick Lewontin’s colleagues remember him

November 30, 2021 • 11:30 am

My beloved Ph.D. advisor and role model, Dick Lewontin, died on July 4 of this year at age 92, three days after his wife had passed away. I was glad that he lived so long, for he influenced many people (see below), but of course you miss someone like that no matter how long they lived.  Shortly after his death I wrote a memorial  on this website; it was too personal to be put in a journal, and I’ve refused offers to write any further obituaries. That would be like writing an obituary for one’s parent, and the last thing I wanted to do was give a canned summary of his accomplishments.

As I said, Dick’s intelligence and work had a huge influence—not just on evolution and genetics, but on the philosophy of science. When I was in his lab, there was always a philosopher or two visiting or in residence, for Dick appreciated philosophy and was willing to host science-friendly philosophers and historians.  Now a number of them, along with a couple of scientists, have written memorials to Dick in an issue of the journal Biological Theory, and it’s free. Click on the screenshot below, or find the pdf here.

Below we have two scientists (Newman and Hartl), two historians of science (Beatty and Paul) and the rest philosophers of science, some of whom have made contributions to pure science (e.g., Kitcher and Sarkar). All of them harbored a deep appreciation and respect for Dick. What I learned from this piece was a great deal about Lewontin’s contributions to the philosophy of science, so this was a valuable read for me. And if you want to know more about Dick, read on:

I’ll give just one anecdote from Dick’s colleague Dan Hartl; it’s about Lewontin’s involvement at the onset of the government’s using forensic DNA in criminal cases, something that I was independently caught up in. Like Dick, I felt that the government often played fast and loose with the data to obtain convictions at any price. (Most of the problems have since been recitified.) Godfrey-Smith:

For some years after our meeting in Minnesota, Dick tilted at his windmills and me at mine, and we seemingly went our separate ways. But then, one day early in 1991, he called me to suggest that we should write a paper together on shortcomings of DNA typing as it was then being practiced. The story is told in detail in the New York Times of December 20, 1991 (Kolata 1991). In brief, the story is that Lewontin and I had written and submitted an article to Science disputing the notion that DNA fingerprinting could identify a suspect with only a negligible chance of error. Shortly thereafter I got a call from a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice, who told me that he felt that publication of the paper would be a disservice to the system of justice in the United States. I told Lewontin about this call, and he sent off a scathing letter to the prosecutor saying, “When someone who is an official in the Department of Justice Criminal Division Strike Force telephones a private citizen to request an action the citizen would not ordinarily take, then a form of intimidation has been used.”

The prosecutor then called me, wanting to know whether I had recorded his previous call. (I had not, as a matter of principle.) He then asked if I had felt intimidated by his earlier call. I told him that his call had stunned and chilled me, and that he certainly did make me feel intimidated.

While all this was unfolding, the Science paper had been reviewed and accepted. But then the editor interjected himself. He said he wanted us to soften our conclusions or withdraw the paper and resubmit it as a short opinion piece. Lewontin flatly refused. He later told his interviewer: “We finally did make some changes, against my better judgment” (Kolata 1991).

The man had no fear.

Here’s a picture of Dick carrying in the birthday cake at my 60th birthday celebration in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts—a suburb of Boston. It was a festive and bibulous occasion, and my cake was shaped like a cat.

Kink the Cat has gone missing

October 2, 2021 • 8:45 am

Reader Doc Bill is extraordinarily fond of his cat Kink, so named because of a bend in his tail (see last photo below). I visited Doc Bill in Houston five years ago and met this estimable cat, who sat next to me on the table at dinner (Doc Bill and his wife are great cooks!)

Now Kink has unaccountably disappeared from the front yard where he customarily sits, and it’s unexplainable. He was either kidnapped or a predator got him.  He may not come back, and that’s what Doc Bill is assuming. [He was chipped, so I am still holding out hope.]

So I am presenting Doc’s memorial for Kink below as a supplement to today’s Caturday Felid post, which will be up later. Doc’s words are indented:

Kink the Cat, so named because of the distinctive kink in his tail, was my constant companion for 15 years.  Kink was a very vocal cat with about a dozen different sounds from “hello, I’m here” to “food!” to “where are you” and more.  A very photogenic cat, Kink earned several awards from photography contests, including his most prized possession, an autographed and illustrated copy of WEiT.  Throughout his life Kink was devoted to the study of gravity.  Whether it was a bowl of food or a bottle of wine, Kink felt that not enough experimentation had been done.  The sound of things crashing to the floor was common in our house.
Kink disappeared from home last week suddenly and without a trace.  He was a homebody, not a wanderer.  He never missed breakfast.  Kink came into our lives by chance and left us with a mystery.  He will be missed greatly.
Photos:  Portrait from 2011; sitting on a sweater 2021; tail picture [showing the kink] 7-months old.