George C. Williams

(1926 - 2010)

He was a beautiful man. —Robert Trivers

Niles Eldredge: I remember the English evolutionary geneticist John Maynard Smith remarking to me that he was astonished to find out that George Williams wasn't in our National Academy. Williams finally got elected in 1993. When I visited him in Stony Brook in the mid 1980s, he told me he was having a hard time getting grant support for his research, and I couldn't believe that. The two thoughts converged, because George really is the most important thinker in evolutionary biology in the United States since the 1959 Darwin centennial. It's astonishing that he hasn't gotten more credit and acclaim. He's a shy guy, but a very nice guy, and a very deep and a very careful thinker. I admire him tremendously, even though we've been arguing back and forth for years now.

GEORGE C. WILLIAMS was an evolutionary biologist; professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; author of Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought (1966), Sex and Evolution (1975), Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges (1992), (with Randolph Nesse, M.D.) Why We Get Sick (1995), and The Ponyfish's Glow: and Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature (1997).

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Images are bouncing around my head since I learned that George Williams had passed away...

• Meeting him for the first time when with Randy Nesse, who did all the talking (i.e. never stopped talking) obout their planned book on Darwinian Medicine. Finally, I interrupted Nesse and asked the taciturn Dr. Williams, "Professor, what can I tell publishers about you?" "Well", he replied, "I once wrote a little book for a university press, but it was thirty years ago. It probably won't be of interest to them."

• The memorable mid-nineties lunch in my office. Williams and Richard Dawkins on one side of the table, Niles Eldredge sitting across. The long silences.

• Margulis v. Williams. George Williams, looking like Abraham Lincoln, and ever the gentleman, backed up against a wall being harangued by Lynn Margulis at midnight after my dinner in the 90s in Boston at AAAS.

• On the phone on separate calls: Stephen Jay Gould on line 1, George on line 2, jumping back and forth as they "talked" to each other through me.

A number of Edgies knew George Williams and many more have been influenced by his work. I am asking for your stories and recollections. It's time for an Edge conversation.

— JB]

In the meantime, in George's memory, I am pleased to reprise the Introduction ("The Evolutionary Idea"), Chapter One ("George C. Williams: A Package of Information"), and comments Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Lynn Margulis, Steven Pinker, Niles Eldredge, Daniel C. Dennett, excerpted from The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1996).


(...Continue below to George C. Williams in The Third Culture)

THE REALITY CLUB: Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Randoph Nesse, M.D., Carl Zimmer

After Brockman

A Symposium

Abyss Publications - 1974






The San Francisco Review of Books—Cover Story


by Jay Bail


There are certain writers whose thought is so important that it doesn't matter whether you agree with them or not. A verbal tension so powerful, an ascetic appetite so huge and consuming forces us both to accept the vision as a revelation and to resist it as a duty. ...

For John Brockman is the kind of writer you both agree with and don't agree with at all. Either way you must pay a pro-found attention to what he says in this remarkable book. In short, sharp strokes of words, he breaks through the very for-est of meaning by denying meaning, eschewing traditional forms of activities, thoughts and emotions. It is not what he says that is so valuable; it is his whole manner of negating what can be said. His words backtrack on themselves, stalk their own meanings, and thrash about in the underbrush of our sensibilities. There is a total devastation of language, isolating and withering the very hands our dreams are made of.  

[Continue Below]

by Heinz von Foerster


Afterwords undo themselves, including their precursors. Post-Wittgensteinean epistomologists first wrestled with, and are now slowly beginning to understand, the last proposition (No. 7) of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: "Of which we cannot speak we have to remain silent". Brockman understands. Afterwords silence themselves. His last proposition (No. 292) is: "Nobody knows, and you can't find out". ...

Afterwords takes the mystery of language and puts it right back into its own mystery; that is, Afterwords ex-plains the mystery of language by taking language out ("ex-") of the plane of its mystery, so as to become visible to all before it slips back in to its plane. This in itself is a remarkable achievement that has been denied to almost all linguists, for they stick to the description of the plane without seeing that it is the plane that holds their descriptions.

[Continue Below]

by John C. Lilly, M.D.


My debt to John Brockman is great: he taught me the essential non-existence of the screen of words. By defining, with words, the non-existence of definitions, the experience without words becomes the highest value in the hierarchy. The injunctive use of words (as in a cookbook) pointing to experience yet to be had is the only worthwhile residuum of "filmiest of screens separating ordinary reality from the non-ordinary realities inside one's inner spaces.

[Continue Below]

by Richard Kostelanetz


What distinguishes this trilogy is not their informing hypotheses, which are familiar to various degrees, but the author's unfettered exploration of their implications.

[Continue Below]

by Hugh Fox


    Brockman's Afterwords is the first comprehensive post-modern Primer, the only book to date which extends a guiding hand back through Modernism to the Pre-Modern where most "intellectuals" still live. Afterwords represents a practical mode of updating into the NOW. It is a book for meditation, carrying back into the cloisters and chewing on them until the cloisters themselves disappear.

[Continue Below]

by Bern Porter


     Are not we physicists still bombarding the spaces between the subdivisions of identifiable matter with gigantic electron accelerators? Hoping to get through?...

     Brockman, alone on the other side, in that quiet there, quiet because he is the only one there, can hope the rest of us may yet make it.

[Continue Below] 

by Alan Sondheim


   John Brockman's work is the newspaper of consciousness. It is frankly, enormously important on a number of different levels. I shall try to make some of these clear in this article.

[Continue Below] 

by Michael Perkins


[Brockman] is fact's razor, cutting away everything — everything — knowledge, meaning, emotion, that we have let grow around us to keep out the cold of nothingness. If he follows his own lines, there is nothing left for him to say, but like Beckett, I suppose he will go on writing. Ideally, as in Zen, his ideas would be demonstrated, but unspoken. It won't be difficult for future critics to find his weak spots- the attention-getting anger, the simplistic generalizations which sometimes dominate a page—but I doubt that anyone who reads him with understanding will be able to escape his thinking.

[Continue Below] 

Molly Crockett: "The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making"


  • Conversations

Imagine we could develop a precise drug that amplifies people's aversion to harming others; on this drug you won't hurt a fly, everyone taking it becomes like Buddhist monks. Who should take this drug? Only convicted criminals—people who have committed violent crimes? Should we put it in the water supply? These are normative questions. These are questions about what should be done. I feel grossly unprepared to answer these questions with the training that I have, but these are important conversations to have between disciplines.

L.A. Paul: "The Transformative Experience"


  • Conversations

We're going to pretend that modern-day vampires don't drink the blood of humans; they're vegetarian vampires, which means they only drink the blood of humanely farmed animals. You have a one-time-only chance to become a modern-day vampire. You think, "This is a pretty amazing opportunity, do I want to gain immortality, amazing speed, strength, and power? But do I want to become undead, become an immortal monster and have to drink blood?

David Rand: "How Do You Change People's Minds About What Is Right And Wrong?"


  • Conversations

There are often future consequences for your current behavior. You can't just do whatever you want because if you are selfish now, it'll come back to bite you. In order for any of that to work, though, it relies on people caring about you being cooperative. There has to be a norm of cooperation. The important question then, in terms of trying to understand how we get people to cooperate and how we increase social welfare, is this: Where do these norms come from and how can they be changed?

Hugo Mercier: "Toward The Seamless Integration Of The Sciences"


  • Conversations

One of the great things about cognitive science is that it allowed us to continue that seamless integration of the sciences, from physics, to chemistry, to biology, and then to the mind sciences, and it's been quite successful at doing this in a relatively short time. But on the whole, I feel there's still a failure to continue this thing towards some of the social sciences such as, anthropology, to some extent, and sociology or history that still remain very much shut off from what some would see as progress, and as further integration. 

The Myth Of AI


  • Conversations

The idea that computers are people has a long and storied history. It goes back to the very origins of computers, and even from before. There's always been a question about whether a program is something alive or not since it intrinsically has some kind of autonomy at the very least, or it wouldn't be a program.

Entwined Fates


  • Conversations

It's a very interdisciplinary subject, there's no question about that. As I've said, a community of fate is about evoking norms and beliefs about the way in which the world works. That was part of what the great capacity of the leadership was—to change people's beliefs about whether they could do something and change something. The notion of beliefs of that sort comes from economics, comes from Bayesianism, comes from philosophy, comes from psychology.

Edgies on Extinction

Part II: Edge, Live in London 2014


Molly Crockett introduces and moderates an event of four 10-minute talks by Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, followed by a discussion joined by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and John Brockman. 


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When we spoke with John Brockman about the Extinction Marathon he suggested, as a second part—as I mentioned in previous marathons we got the Edge community to realize maps and different formulas, and John thought today it would be wonderful to do a panel with UK based scientists who are part of the Edge community. We are extremely delighted that we now will have four presentations by Helena Cronin, by Chiara Marletto, by Jennifer Jacquet, and by Steve Jones. We welcome Steve Jones back to the Serpentine because he was part of the 2007 Experiment Marathon with Olafur Eliasson. The entire panel will be introduced by Molly Crockett. Molly is an associate professor for experimental psychology and fellow of Jesus college at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Cambridge and a B.S. in neuroscience from UCLA. Dr. Crockett studies the neuroscience and psychology of altruism, of morality, and self-control. Her work has been published in many top academic journals including Science, PNAS, and also Neuron. Molly Crockett will now introduce Helena, Chiara, Jennifer, and Steve. We then, together with Molly and all the speakers and John, give a panel after that.

MOLLY CROCKETT:  I'm very, very pleased to introduce Helena Cronin. She's the co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the director of Darwin at LSE at the London School of Economics. She has many notable publications including the edited series, Darwinism Today, and the award winning, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, that has been featured in the New York Times' Best Books and Nature's Best Science Books of the Year. Her current research interests focus on the evolutionary understanding of sex differences. Let's give a very warm welcome to Helena and welcome her to the stage. ...

... A strange thing happened on the way to a better world in pursuit of an admirable quest, that is, a world free of sex discrimination where you’re judged on your own qualities and not your sex. Truth and falsity went topsy-turvy. The truth—the silence of sex differences—became dangerous, unmentionable, and in its place the conventional wisdom, which is a ragbag of ideas that have long been extinct but are kept ghoulishly alive by popularity, became the entrenched orthodoxy influencing public thinking, agendas and policy-making, and completely crowding out science and sense.

My aim is to show you why the current orthodoxy should be abandoned and why, if you really care about a fairer world, the science does matter. It matters profoundly. I’m going to take two examples, both about the professions, because they very well epitomize the orthodox litany: how society systematically discriminates against women, and how at work they are victims of pervasive sexism. ...

HELENA CRONIN is the Co-Director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today.  Helena Cronin's Edge Bio Page

There is a new fundamental theory of physics that's called constructor theory, and was proposed by David Deutsch who pioneered the theory of the universe of quantum computer. David and I are working this theory together. The fundamental idea in this theory is that we forumlate all laws of physics in terms of what tasks are possible, what are impossible, and why. In this theory we have an exact physical characterization of an object that has those properties, and we call that knowledge. Note that knowledge here means knowledge without knowing the subject, as in the thoery of knowledge of the philosopher, Karl Popper.

We’ve just come to the conclusion that the fact that extinction is possible means that knowledge can be instantiated in our physical world. In fact, extinction is the very process by which that knowledge is disabled in its ability to remain instantiated in physical systems because there are problems that it cannot solve. With any luck that bit of knowledge can be replaced with a better one. ... 

CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Materials Department, University of Oxford.  Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page

I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.
He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction. ...

JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page

What I wanted to talk about is somewhat of a parallel of that in human populations. If you were to go to a textbook on human biology from the time of Darwin or a bit later, you would certainly get an image that looked a bit like this. This is an image of the so-called races of humankind—racial types, as they called them. I’m not going to go into the question of whether there are real races of humankind because there aren’t. It’s interesting to note that until quite recently people assumed, and scientists assumed too, that the human species was divided into distinct groups that were biologically different from each other and had been isolated from each other for a long, long time.

Well, to some extent that was true. Until quite recently, human populations were isolated from each other. That’s changing quite quickly. ...

STEVE JONES is an Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London.  Steve Jones's Edge Bio Page

MOLLY CROCKETT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.

Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page


HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London; Author, Ways of Curating. Hans Ulrich Obrist's Edge Bio Page

JOHN BROCKMAN is the Editor and Publisher of; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture. John Brockman's Edge Bio Page

[Return to "Edge: Live, in London 2014"]


Subscribe to RSS - Conversations