NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Science / September 14, 2010
By Nicholas Wade
George C. Williams, an evolutionary biologist who helped shape modern theories of natural selection, died Wednesday at his home in South Setauket on Long Island, near Stony Brook University, where he taught for 30 years. He was 83.
Dr. Williams played a leading role in establishing the now-prevailing, though not unanimous, view among evolutionary biologists that natural selection works at the level of the gene and the individual and not for the benefit of the group or species.
He is “widely regarded by peers in his field as one of the most influential and incisive evolutionary theorists of the 20th century,” said Douglas Futuyma, a colleague and the author of a leading textbook on evolution.
Dr. Williams laid out his ideas in 1966 in his book “Adaptation and Natural Selection.” In it, he seized on and clarified an issue at the heart of evolutionary theory: whether natural selection works by favoring the survival of elements as small as a single gene or its components, or by favoring those as large as a whole species.
He did not rule out the possibility that selection could work at many levels. But he concluded that in practice this almost never happens, and that selection should be understood as acting at the level of the individual gene.
In explaining an organism’s genetic adaptation to its environment, he wrote, “one should assume the adequacy of the simplest form of natural selection” — that of variation in the genes — “unless the evidence clearly shows that this theory does not suffice.”
The importance of Dr. Williams’s book was immediately recognized by evolutionary biologists, and his ideas reached a wider audience when they were described by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” (1976).
Those ideas have continued to draw attention because group selection still has influential advocates. In highly social organisms like ants and people, behaviors like altruism, morality and even religion can be more directly explained if selection is assumed to favor the survival of groups.
Dr. Williams had a remarkably open turn of mind, which allowed him always to consider alternatives to his own ideas. David Sloan Wilson, a leading advocate of group selection, recalled in an interview that as a graduate student he once strode into Dr. Williams’s office saying he would change the professor’s mind about group selection. “His response was to offer me a postdoctoral position on the spot,” Dr. Wilson said.
Dr. Wilson did not take the position but remained close to Dr. Williams, though the two continued to differ. One matter of dispute was whether a human being and the microbes in the gut and the skin could together be considered a superorganism created by group selection. Dr. Williams did not believe in superorganisms. (Nonetheless, when Dr. Wilson came to visit him one day, Dr. Williams had taped to his door a hand-lettered sign saying, “Superorganisms welcome here.”)
Dr. Williams’s interests extended to questions that evolution seemed not to answer well: Why should a woman forfeit her chance of having more babies by entering menopause? Why do people grow old and die when nature should find it far easier to maintain a body than to build one?
An important article he wrote in 1957 on the nature of senescence led to a collaboration with Dr. Randolph Nesse, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan. Together they developed the concept of Darwinian medicine, described in the 1995 book “Why We Get Sick.” There the authors offered Darwinian explanations for questions like why appetite decreases during a fever or why children loathe dark green vegetables.
Dr. Williams pursued his ideas even to results that he found disturbing. “He concluded that anything shaped by natural selection was inevitably evil because selfish organisms outproduced those that weren’t selfish,” Dr. Nesse said.
Dr. Williams acknowledged that people had moral instincts that overcome evil. But he had no patience with biologists who argue that these instincts could have been brought into being by natural selection.
“I account for morality as an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability,” Dr. Williams wrote starkly in 1988.
In the field of evolutionary theory, “George was probably the most influential author in the 1960s,” said William Provine, a historian of evolution at Cornell University. But by choosing important subjects, Dr. Williams remained relevant. His ideas were approachable because he wrote in clear, simple prose and largely without the use of mathematics, an almost obligatory tool for most evolutionary biologists today.
Dr. Williams joined the State University of New York at Stony Brook (now Stony Brook University) in 1960 and worked there until his retirement in 1990.
In addition to his wife, who is also a biologist, he is survived by a son, Jacques; three daughters, Sibyl Costell, Phoebe Anderson and Judith Pitsiokos; and nine grandchildren.
Though a major expositor of evolutionary theory, Dr. Williams was always aware that his explanations were a work in progress and that they might in principle be superseded by better ones. Evolutionary theory, as stated by its great 20th-century masters Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright, “may not, in any absolute sense, represent the truth,” Dr. Williams wrote at the conclusion of his book on adaptation, “but I am convinced that it is the light and the way.”
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