I just saw the sad news that Will Provine, historian of population genetics, died peacefully at his home at the age of 73. Others will no doubt write of Provine’s legacy as a scholar and orator of the highest calibre, a fervent proponent of atheism and evolution that only a preacher’s son could be. 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.
I vividly recall Provine giving me a hard cover copy of the compendium of Dobzhansky’s papers he co-edited on our first meeting after class (pulled from a half-full box at the ready near his desk), and discussing the then-recent death of Motoo Kimura, who he was researching for his as-yet-unpublished history of the Neutral Theory. We met and talked about population genetics and molecular evolution several times after that, and for reasons I can’t quite recall, Provine ended up offering me keys to his personal library in the basement of Corson Hall. I’ll never forget the first time he showed me his library, with bookshelves lining what would have been a lab space, filled with various version of classic works in Genetics, Evolution, Development and History of Science. The delight he had in showing me his shelf of various editions of the Origin of Species was only matched by the impish pleasure he had in showing me the error in chromosome segregation on the spine of the first edition of Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species, or how to decode the edits to text of Fisher’s Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (see figure below).
His reprint collection was equally impressive (inherited from Sewall Wright from what I understand), with many copies signed, with compliments of the author, by the founders of the Modern Synthesis. Provine’s reprint collection was surpassed in value only by the FlyBase reprint collection in the Dept of Genetics in Cambridge, in my experience. I used Provine’s library to study quite often in my last year or so at Cornell, interrupting work on Alex Kondrashov’s problem sets by browsing early 20th century biology texts. Being able to immerse myself in this trove of incredible books left a lasting effect on me, and I have no doubt was a major factor in deciding to pursue academic research in evolution and genetics. Sadly while no longer physically intact, I am very glad to know the 5,000+ items in Provine’s library have been contributed to the Cornell Library, possibly the best place for the spirit of an atheist and historian to live on.