John Gillespie, "the evil scientist from America"

By Razib Khan | April 20, 2011 1:35 am

I own a book of Motoo Kimura’s collected papers, and of course I have a copy of John Gillespie’s Population Genetics: A Concise Guide. But I’d forgotten the acrimony between the two men. Gillespie has been retired for half a decade now, while Kimura died in in 1994. I randomly stumbled onto an old newspaper story from 1992 covering the feud between these two eminent population geneticsts, Scientists in Open War over “Neutral Theory” of Genetics. It was in the Sacramento Bee, which is based near Gillespie’s university. The background is that both were principals in the “neutralist–selectionist” debate of the 1970s and 1980s. Kimura was one of the main theoretical architects of the neutral theory of molecular evolution, which eventually spread its influence to the point where old-line adaptationists such as Richard Dawkins had to offer up a counter-argument.

Some choice bits:

That was the beginning of John Gillespie’s problems with Kimura. He reviewed the Japanese scientist’s book for the prestigious journal Science. Gillespie was annoyed by the tone of Kimura’s book: “He devoted an entire chapter to telling us that he had saved us from ourselves.” The UC Davis scientist complained about it in the review.

“He said Kimura was a glory hog, and he scolded him for it in public,” said Cornell’s Provine. “In Japanese society, that’s very insulting.”

Even Gillespie says now that he wishes he had left that one paragraph out of the review: “If I had, my whole life would be different.”

That was brought dramatically home to him in 1988 when he attended an international genetics conference in Japan. He was barred from the Japanese National Institute of Genetics, forced instead to meet colleagues privately. “It was stupid,” Gillespie says.

To that, Kimura replies that it was time-saving: “I wouldn’t waste my time meeting with a scholar whose research is so trivial.”

Finally, I wonder what readers “in the know” think of this prediction by Gillespie:

That steady tick of variation is known as the “molecular clock.” But Gillespie says that new technology – allowing better pictures of proteins and genetic material – has shown clearly that the variation is not steady, that there are sudden rapid bursts of change. The neutral theory fails to allow, as Gillespie does in his work, for some real complications, such as a changing environment.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Population Genetics
  • Onur

    He was barred from the Japanese National Institute of Genetics, forced instead to meet colleagues privately.

    Pure nationalist nonsense. I am sure if Gillespie was Japanese he would never be subject to such ill treatment irrespective of the Japanese “sensibilities” about scolding in public.

  • Spike Gomes


    You’d be wrong in most cases. If Gillespie were Japanese and said that about Kimura, he’d be reduced to teaching biology at an agricultural college in Hokkaido or something along those lines. The Old Boy network thing is *really* strong there and there were very few who could be considered equals to him.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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