When History Meets Science: A Remembrance of William B. Provine (1942-2015)

by Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis (University of Florida)

If we wish to work towards a purpose for the future of man, we must formulate that purpose ourselves. Purposes in life are made, not found.”
—Julian Huxley, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.
—Thomas Merton

I was at the University of Bialystock’s biological field station in Gugny, a remote part of Poland, when news reached me of Will Provine’s death. I had been thinking of him that afternoon. I had been trekking in the woods with a small group of biologists visiting Biebrza, a conservation area and national park. I was starting to get tired, uncomfortable, and my attention span was starting to go; keeping up with field biologists isn’t always easy, and, as I am known to say when I am challenged this way “if I had wanted to be a biologist, I would not have become a historian!” And that is the moment Will came to mind. Indeed, he comes to mind every single time I think of the relationship between history and science.

I pictured him way back in the spring of 1983 walking in the woods behind his farm in Marathon, New York with a visiting biologist from a nearby university in New York. Will had just signed on to my doctoral committee at Cornell, as chair, indicating the shift in my training from science to history. He was now the “first-in-command” of my graduate education. He had invited me to his farm, a place that dominated his life until 2013 when a combination of illness and love necessitated his move. It was the first time I saw him in his element, so to speak; until then, he had been a typical historian, a book-loving scholar, a serious intellectual comfortable in the realm of ideas, whether that was in the classroom, the seminar, or in his enormous office in the History Department’s McGraw tower, where the stacks of scientific reprints he collected had made an elaborate maze of the room. He was different on his farm: he was a naturalist, a kind of field biologist of sorts. It wasn’t as though he could name every single plant or living thing we encountered like many of the scientists I knew; he just loved feeling the earth under his feet, breathing the fresh air, and did not mind getting grubby. He delighted in the challenge of jumping over logs, walking through thickets, or climbing steep hills. Later on, he bought himself an enormous tractor, a kind of plaything in part, but a serious piece of farm equipment that enabled him to dig an enormous pond, adding to the diversity of environments–and the biological delight–of his land. He tried to teach me to use the thing once, but quickly gave up after I put it accidentally in reverse, taking it, and myself down a treacherous hill. Will actually loved his machines as much as he loved his wonderful books–tractors, cars, diesel engines or what have you, that he collected and kept in various stages of dismemberment in his huge barn. Indeed, he probably spent as much time in the barn with them as he did with his impressive collection of books comprising an extraordinary library specializing in evolution and genetics (he had begun to amass the collection while a bookseller early in his life). It wasn’t that unusual for him to come to the Cornell campus for a meeting or to teach, with grease on his trousers or under his fingernails; that just meant he had engine trouble with one of his many old Volvos, all of which seemed to be in a chronic state of disrepair.

Will Provine at the HSS annual meeting at the University of Florida, 1989. Photographic credit Don Dewsbury.

Will Provine at the HSS annual meeting at the University of Florida, 1989. Photographic credit Don Dewsbury.

Will loved music too, especially string quartets and anything from the Baroque period, and was a gourmet chef, whipping up spicy Chinese dishes for visitors to the farm. But what I remember most, was Will’s taste for the bizarre: he was an avid snake enthusiast, and kept a small collection of them in his sons’ bedroom. They were in large glass cages that lined the room—and they were huge! He was especially keen to show off his massive black indigo, a snake he thought especially beautiful, so he yanked the thing out of the cage lecturing to us about its sweet disposition, only to let out a howl when he was met with a set of fangs. Surprised by the attack, Will didn’t know what to do but to try to pull the thing off, making it worse in the process—the snake dug in deeper, leaving a spiral-like series of bite-marks. By the time the biologist came to the rescue, pushing the shrieking, bleeding Will into the bathroom, forcing the snake and his hand into the bottom of the toilet bowl so as to cool the animal and release its grip, Will’s hand was a mutilated mess. The image of my thesis advisor, the distinguished professor of the history of science at Cornell, author of the widely read The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, co-editor of The Evolutionary Synthesis, with no less a historic figure than the late Ernst Mayr, and the author of so many other important works, bending over a toilet bowl, writhing black snake digging into hand, blood dripping everywhere, stuck permanently in my mind. It came in handy whenever I felt intimidated by the formality of the historical profession I was hoping to enter.

Nor was this some isolated incident on that farm. There were many other creatures, including not only the usual companion animals, but also visiting wildlife, orphaned babies, or animals injured and needing care. He and his first wife, Marie, along with their two boys, Charlie and Stuart, made the farm a kind of sanctuary for needy animals (including some graduate students, I need add). Stories of encounters with those creatures, often made their way into the grad or undergrad history seminars that Will taught. They were intended to amuse us or break the ice, but once in a while left students aghast: was it really necessary to describe in gory detail the grotesque intestinal parasite he found in one of the baby raccoons, and with that much glee? It was a history course, not mammalogy or parasitology.

Will would often do or say things to intentionally shock as well as provoke, and usually had a funny way of chuckling to himself, after telling you or showing you something gross, creepy, or weird. He had so much of the impish provocateur that I often saw him as a cross between Dennis the Menace (the hair and overalls) and Huck Finn, his Tennessee upbringing often coming across in his speech, rich in Southernisms, and uttered with an inflected drawl (as in “dang,” “doggone it,” or “I’m gonna bust his butt”!). It was very effective when debating creationists who Will engaged with extraordinary enthusiasm, alacrity, as well as respect. Well before his exchanges with Phillip Johnson, and others that made him the delight of the Discovery Institute, and well before he became a kind of celebrity in films like Expelled, Will interacted with religious fundamentalists like Luther Sunderland, inviting them to class in the way of provoking discussions—and provoke he did, to my consternation, when he made headlines with strong statements like if you believe in evolution and went to church, you had to “check your brains at the church-house door.” I didn’t know anyone could actually be a proselytizing atheist until I met Will—who else could make a litany out of “I am an atheist, materialist, reductionist, determinist” and then conclude with the claim “there is no free will”(the double meaning of “free Will” made it really fun).

In short, Will was no “compatibilist,” a term of derision he used against anyone who tried to find a middle ground. He was especially disappointed with Carl Sagan, his fellow Cornellian and friend, after reading Contact because it was too “soft” in its stance. Will was expecting a hard-line position, especially after he and Sagan had been co-teaching an entire course on science and religion. Will was, however, tolerant of students and their views, who seemed to love him, the more hard-line he got. His popular course in the history of biology was structured so as to engage the argument from design and to follow its trajectory: it began with close reading of Plato’s Timaeus, moved to Descartes, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (the whole thing) making its way to Claude Bernard’s Introduction to the Study Experimental Medicine. It sounded like pretty standard reading, until I realized that it was a way of getting at what really motivated him about the subject, namely killing the argument from design.

He was at his best as agent provocateur in the classroom, sparking lively conversation, and drawing out even the shyest of students. It made no difference whether he was teaching a small seminar or a large lecture course—Will had the rarest of abilities to bring everyone in, making teaching feel like a free exchange of ideas between two friends. It made him one of Cornell’s most popular and beloved teachers, earning him teaching awards, and drawing small crowds of adoring students who could often be seen walking with him on campus or forming lines outside his door. He was a champion of student rights, a progressive to the core, earning himself the reputation of campus liberal, especially after he began to give access to anyone who wanted to use Olin, the research library (he kept stacks of access cards in his room). He was also one of the founders and first resident faculty in the co-ed Risley Residence Hall, which fostered creativity, free inquiry, and encouraged students to challenge prevailing social norms. He loved students who were “irreverent,” one of his favorite words. He was especially proud of Cornell’s reputation for turning out misfits, and often evoked the term “Cornell maverick” for the ideal graduate.

Will’s liberal attitude did not, however, sit well with the mighty campus conservative, the late L. Pearce Williams, who just happened to be Cornell’s other distinguished historian of science. Pearce’s graduate courses were taught out of Olin, and he preferred to maintain the status quo. My introduction to Pearce still reminds me of that; it came with the sound of a karate chop on one of Will’s precious reprint boxes stacked in McGraw one day—“are you Will’s new graduate student” he said, entering the room filling it with his enormous physique. He didn’t wait for me to answer before he began extolling the virtues of historiography and launching an attack on the history of recent science—there was too much “noise” in the system, he said. “Noise in the system”? Will said when I queried him about Pearce, “that just means documents lost—work on living scientists, and interview them when you can” was his response. Reaching for a file folder, he placed in my lap his recent interviews with Barbara McClintock and added “work on scientists, focus on the science and you’ll be fine.” “But I wanted to be a historian, not a scientist,” I said quite insistently. “I want to understand the past, on its own terms;” and so, despite the fact he wanted me to work with a biologist, despite the fact that they didn’t always see eye-to eye on things (that is an understatement, actually) he accepted Pearce as my “second-in-command.” I didn’t know that I was the only person in the history of Cornell to be able to work with the both of them!

At the time, Will was in the throes of his famous collaboration with Sewall Wright. His emphasis was shifting towards very technical internalist history of science; you practically had to be a mathematical population geneticist to understand it. He was recreating Wright’s own evolution of thought. It made sense, if you knew Will. He had received his PhD from the University of Chicago working with historian Alan Debus as his chair, but he had been most influenced by Richard C. Lewontin, a biologist, and considered him his true mentor. Will was actually a disappointed mathematician, himself. He told me later on when visiting me at the University of Florida, that he was devastated when he realized he would never be able to become a brilliant mathematician. I think this is what attracted him to Wright—the collaboration enabled him to use that region of his brain that delighted in abstract mathematical thought. Interestingly, he admired Wright and was saddened by his death, but he also didn’t delve very deeply into Wright’s own peculiar metaphysical leanings. He only gave scantest attention to Wright’s pansychism. I’ve always suspected Will just couldn’t accept that “flaw” in Wright.

The publication of Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology in 1986 changed his life. It was a tour-de-force, given high praise from the scientific community, the audience he had come to value the most. I was there when he opened an envelope from Stephen Jay Gould, with a review of the book titled “Write on Wright, Right On!” Will just loved that. And he was ecstatic to see an entire feature article in Science on his radical reinterpretation of Wright’s metaphor of the adaptive landscape. Scientists were learning science from his work. He had done the exceptional—taking history to science and reaching a community that was being left behind by many historians of science. With all the attention the book drew, Will’s career skyrocketed, and combined with his charismatic lecture style, he was invited to give seminars, all over the world. Back in the days before Homeland Security, that meant Will often cut arrival at the airport very close (he always cut things close). I can still picture him running, everywhere: long legs in blue jeans, a crumply tweed jacket casually tossed, shirt with bolo tie, beaten-up leather briefcase in hand.

Biologists just loved him, and invited him to join the Section of Ecology and Systematics right around that time. He was as happy as a clam (a favorite expression of his), tackling the next formidable project, a collaboration with Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura. He was flying back and forth to Japan (some 13 times in total), when he began to have the seizures that were symptomatic of the brain tumor, the treatment of which, eventually took his life. It took nearly 20 years for that to happen, meaning Will lived with cancer for a significant portion of his adult life. He faced it directly with honesty and humor, making a daily engagement with death part of his existence, especially while debating intelligent design advocates. He also managed to write, completing his last book, a challenge to genetic drift, and in good Provine fashion, managed to stir the pot of controversy over that.

In the last five years of his life, Will also fell in love, marrying Gail Light Provine in a secular ceremony and, remarkably, gave up his farm. He gushed with happiness saying to me: “I am an atheist, materialist, reductionist, determinist…and romantic!” I smiled: a man who didn’t believe in purpose, had found it in love! Gail was there when Will received the first David Hull Prize of the ISHPSSB meetings in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a bunch of Will’s former students in tow, but was also with him at the end when Will died in their home. I last saw them both in May 2015, there in Horseheads, New York. Sadly, I was there for a memorial for Pearce Williams who died earlier this year after a prolonged struggle with Alzheimer’s. Will had only the kindest words and remembrances for Pearce, reminding me of the decency, graciousness, and open-mindedness for which Will is known. To me, however, he was first and foremost a scholar, and a formidable intellect who shaped the field for an entire generation of historians of modern biology; and, although he appeared warm and inviting on the surface, he did not suffer fools gladly, at all. The few of us who actually had Will as chair of their doctoral committee, knew that; he believed in independence of mind and in high-quality work; he was tough, and uncompromising in that. His technical mastery of the subject is still not easily matched, and in cultivating an enormous audience of scientists, gives historians of science seeking relevancy food for thought.