George C. Williams

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George C. Williams
George C. Williams.jpg
Born (1926-05-12)May 12, 1926
Charlotte, North Carolina
Died September 8, 2010(2010-09-08) (aged 84)
Nationality American
Fields Biology
Institutions Stony Brook University
Alma mater UCLA
Known for theories of natural selection
Influences Charles Darwin
Influenced Richard Dawkins
Notable awards Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal (1992)
Crafoord Prize (1999)

George Christopher Williams (May 12, 1926 – September 8, 2010) was an American evolutionary biologist.[1][2][3]

Williams was a professor of biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who was best known for his vigorous critique of group selection. The work of Williams in this area, along with W. D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and others led to the development of a gene-centric view of evolution in the 1960s.

Academic work[edit]

Williams' 1957 paper Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence is one of the most influential in 20th century evolutionary biology, and contains at least 3 foundational ideas.[4] The central hypothesis of antagonistic pleiotropy remains the prevailing evolutionary explanation of senescence. In this paper Williams was also the first to propose that senescence should be generally synchronized by natural selection. According to this original formulation

"if the adverse genic effects appeared earlier in one system than any other, they would be removed by selection from that system more readily than from any other. In other words, natural selection will always be in greatest opposition to the decline of the most senescence-prone system."

This important concept of synchrony of senescence was taken up a short time later by John Maynard Smith, and the origin of the idea is often misattributed to him, including in his obituary in the journal, Nature.[5] This paper also contains the first basic outline of the so-called "grandmother hypothesis", which states that natural selection might select for menopause and post-reproductive life in females, although Williams does not explicitly mention grandchildren or the inclusive fitness contribution of grandparenting.

In his first book, Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams advocated a "ground rule - or perhaps doctrine would be a better term - ... that adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should only be used where it is really necessary",[6] and, that, when it is necessary, selection among genes or individuals would in general be the preferable explanation for it. He elaborated this view in later books and papers, which contributed to the development of a gene-centered view of evolution; Richard Dawkins built on Williams' ideas in this area in the book The Selfish Gene.[7]

Williams was also well known for his work on the evolution of sex, and was an advocate of evolutionary medicine.

In later books, including Natural Selection: Domains, Levels and Challenges, Williams softened his views on group selection, recognizing that clade selection, trait group selection and multilevel selection did sometimes occur in nature, something he had earlier thought to be so unlikely it could be safely ignored.[8][9]

Williams became convinced that the genic neo-Darwinism of his earlier years, while essentially correct as a theory of microevolutionary change, could not account for evolutionary phenomena over longer time scales, and was thus an "utterly inadequate account of the evolution of the Earth’s biota" (1992, p. 31). In particular, he became a staunch advocate of clade selection – a generalisation of species selection to monophyletic clades of any rank – which could potentially explain phenomena such as adaptive radiations, long-term phylogenetic trends, and biases in rates of speciation/extinction. In Natural Selection (1992), Williams argued that these phenomena cannot be explained by selectively-driven allele substitutions within populations, the evolutionary mechanism he had originally championed over all others. This book thus represents a substantial departure from the position of Adaptation and Natural Selection.[10]


Williams supervised an undergraduate project in 1985 which consisted of a student, Mitchell Behm, tossing live animals into tubs with domesticated ferrets, which Behm subsequently admitted he partly did "for his own amusement." Dr. Charles Middleton, Director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Resources stated, "If animals are just going to tear each other up, the experiment would not have been approved." [11]

The supposed aim of these behaviors was to further understand predatory behavior. Many flaws have been attributed to the experiment, such as the slippery bottom of the receptacle, the breeding of docile laboratory animals involved, and the fact that ferrets are not even true predators. Two mice, one rat and one rabbit were slowly killed by individual ferrets, for a total of seven animals involved. These actions were filmed, and Williams appears himself in one of the videos.[12]

After police investigation, Williams received a formal reprimand from SUNY Stony Brook for never receiving approval because of not detailing the pain of the animals involved, and for allowing non-campus animals to participate. Because the statute of limitations had expired, Williams narrowly escaped strict disciplinary action, in addition to criminal prosecution. Dr. Mark Lerman, Medical Director of Lifeline for Wildlife said there was no justification and that the experiment was completely useless.[13] Ferrets were also illegal at the time in New York without licensing, which neither Behm nor Williams had.[14]

After Williams' supervision of his cruelty to small animals, and after Behm attempted to experiment with more animals, Mitchell Behm went on to be charged, with an accomplice, on separate counts of animal cruelty in April 2014. 18,400 rodents and 600 reptiles were euthanized after years of animals living in squalor and inhumane killing methods.[15][16]

Academic career[edit]

Williams received a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1955. At Stony Brook he taught courses in marine vertebrate zoology, and he often used ichthyological examples in his books.

In 1992 Williams was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[17] He won the Crafoord Prize for Bioscience jointly with Ernst Mayr and John Maynard Smith in 1999. Richard Dawkins describes Williams as "one of the most respected of American evolutionary biologists".[18]


  • Williams, G.C. 1966. Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Williams, G.C., ed. 1971. Group Selection. Aldine-Atherton, Chicago.
  • Williams, G.C. 1975. Sex and Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Paradis, J. and G.C. Williams. 1989. T.H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics : with New Essays on its Victorian and Sociobiological Context. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Williams, G.C. 1992. Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Nesse, R.M. and G.C. Williams. 1994. Why We Get Sick : the New Science of Darwinian Medicine. Times Books, New York.
  • Williams, G.C. 1996. Plan and Purpose in Nature. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (published in the U.S. in 1997 as The Pony Fish’s Glow : and Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature. Basic Books, New York).

Selected papers[edit]

  • Williams, G. C. 1957. Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence. Evolution 11;4: 398-411
  • Taylor, P. O. and G. C. Williams. 1984. Demographic parameters at evolutionary equilibrium. Canadian Journal of Zoology 62: 2264-2271.
  • Williams, G. C. 1985. A defense of reductionism in evolutionary biology. Oxford Surveys in Evolutionary Biology 2: 127.
  • Williams, G. C. 1988. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics in sociobiological perspective. Zygon 23: 383-438.
  • Williams, G. C. 1995. A package of information In J. Brockman, ed., The Third Culture, New York: Touchstone, pp. 38–50.


  1. ^ Dawkins, Richard. "George C. Williams (1926-2010)". Retrieved 10 September 2010. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Meyer, A. (2010). "George C. Williams (1926–2010)". Nature 467 (7317): 790. doi:10.1038/467790a. PMID 20944730. 
  4. ^ Williams, George C. (1957). "Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence". 11. Evolution (4): 398–411. doi:10.2307/2406060. JSTOR 2406060. 
  5. ^ Szathmáry, E. R.; Hammerstein, P. (2004). "Obituary: John Maynard Smith (1920–2004)". Nature 429 (6989): 258–259. doi:10.1038/429258a. PMID 15152239. 
  6. ^ Adaptation and Natural Selection p4
  7. ^ Grafen, Alan; Ridley, Mark (2006). Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed the Way We Think. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-19-929116-0. 
  8. ^ Brockman, John. "Part One: The Evolutionary Idea". Retrieved 10 September 2013. 
  9. ^ George C. Williams, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels and Challenges, (Oxford University Press, 1992), 23-55
  10. ^ Okasha, Samir. "Maynard Smith on the levels of selection question" (PDF). Retrieved 10 September 2013. 
  11. ^ ",%20V.32,%20n.28.pdf?sequence=1". 
  12. ^ "". 
  13. ^ ", V.32, n.28.pdf?sequence=5". 
  14. ^ "". 
  15. ^ "". 
  16. ^ "". 
  17. ^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 15 February 2011. 
  18. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. London: Bantam Press. p. 364. ISBN 978-0-593-06173-2. OCLC 390663505. 

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