Will Provine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Will Provine
William B. Provine, HSS 2008.jpg
William B. Provine in 2008
Born (1942-02-19)February 19, 1942
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Died September 1, 2015(2015-09-01) (aged 73)
Horseheads, New York, U.S.

William Ball Provine (February 19, 1942 – September 1, 2015) was an American historian of science and of evolutionary biology and population genetics. He was the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University and was a professor in the Departments of History, Science and Technology Studies, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.


Provine was born in Tennessee. He held a B.S. in Mathematics (1962), and an M.A. (1965) and Ph.D (1970) in History of Science from the University of Chicago.[1] He joined the Cornell faculty in 1969. He suffered seizures in 1995, due to the growth of a brain tumour.[2] Provine died in 2015 from complications of the brain tumor.[3]

History of theoretical population genetics[edit]

Provine's Ph.D. thesis, later published as a book,[4] documented the early origins of theoretical population genetics in the conflicts between the biometry and Mendelian schools of thought. He documented later developments in theoretical population genetics via a biography of Sewall Wright,[5] who was still alive and available for interviews. In this book, Provine criticizes Sewall Wright for confounding three different concepts of adaptive landscape: genotype to fitness landscapes, allele frequency to fitness landscapes, and phenotype to fitness landscapes. Provine later grew critical of Wright's views on genetic drift, instead attributing observed effects to the consequences of inbreeding and consequent selection at linked sites. In his Acknowledgements, John H. Gillespie credits Provine with stimulating his interest in the topic of hitchhiking or "genetic draft" as an alternative to genetic drift.[6] Provine later published his critique of genetic drift as a book.[7] Provine defended the importance of the contribution of mathematics to the modern evolutionary synthesis.[8]

Education reform[edit]

In 1970, Provine was instrumental in the founding of Cornell's Risley Residential College. He was the first faculty member in residence.


Provine was an atheist, philosopher, and critic of intelligent design. He engaged in prominent debates with theist philosophers and scientists about the existence of God and the viability of intelligent design. He debated the founder of the intelligent design movement Phillip E. Johnson and the two had a friendly relationship. Provine stated that he started his course on evolutionary biology by having his students read Johnson's book Darwin on Trial.[9]

Provine was a determinist in biology, but not a determinist in physics or chemistry, thus rejecting the idea of free will in humans.[10][11] Provine believed that there is no evidence for God, there is no life after death, there is no absolute foundation for right and wrong, there is no ultimate meaning for life, and that humans do not have free will.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

Professor Provine appeared in Ben Stein's movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Provine supervised the thesis written by Bad Religion member Greg Graffin. Graffin was a student of paleobiology at Cornell. Provine also supervised the sociology thesis of Steve Leveen in 1982.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, 1971, ISBN 0-226-68465-2
  • Mayr, E. and W. B. Provine, eds. The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology, 1980 ISBN 0-674-27225-0
  • Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology, 1986, ISBN 0-226-68473-3
  • Provine, W. B., ed. Evolution: Selected papers by Sewall Wright, 1986, ISBN 0-226-91053-9
  • "Geneticists and race", 1986, American Zoologist 26:857-887.
  • "Progress in evolution and meaning in life", 1989, In: M. Nitecki, ed., Evolutionary Progress, ISBN 0-226-58692-8
  • Cain, A. J. and W. B. Provine "Genes and ecology in history" in Berry, R. J., T. J. Crawford, G. M. Hewitt, eds. Genes in Ecology: 33rd Symposium of the British Ecological Society, 1992 ISBN 0-521-54936-1
  • The "Random Genetic Drift" Fallacy, 2014, ISBN 9781500924126.


  1. ^ http://vivo.cornell.edu/display/individual5223
  2. ^ Provine, W. 1999. No free Will. Isis 90: S117-S132
  3. ^ http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/09/william-provine-history-science-scholar-dies-73
  4. ^ Provine, William B. (1971). The origins of theoretical population genetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-68465-2. 
  5. ^ Provine, William B. (1989). Sewall Wright and evolutionary biology (Pbk. ed.). Chicago [Ill.]: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-68473-3. 
  6. ^ Gillespie, JH (11 November 2001). "Is the population size of a species relevant to its evolution?". Evolution; international journal of organic evolution 55 (11): 2161–9. PMID 11794777. 
  7. ^ Provine, William B. The "Random Genetic Drift" Fallacy. CreateSpace. 
  8. ^ Provine, William B. (1978). "The role of mathematical population geneticists in the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s". Studies in the History of Biology 2: 167–192. 
  9. ^ http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/pjlect.htm
  10. ^ Provine, William (12 February 1998). "Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  11. ^ Provine, W. 1999. No free Will. Isis 90: S117-S132
  12. ^ http://www.cjas.org/~leng/provine.txt

External links[edit]