Sad news. John Hawks passes along that James F. Crow has died. Further mention from the National Center For Science Education. A little over 5 years ago I sent Crow an email with only minimal expectation of response, asking about an interview. He responded in less than 24 hours! I think it says a lot about the man that he would respond to sincere questions out of the blue from basically a nobody. Here is his Wikipedia entry. And remember that Genetics has commissioned a series of retrospective essays in Crow’s honor.
At 95 James F. Crow is not only an eminent population geneticist, but he knew the figures who were responsible for the whole field. The journal Genetics has commissioned a series of essays and perspectives in his honor. The first is by Daniel Hartl. I thought this was funny:
Soon after joining the program I asked Professor Crow whether I could join his lab as a graduate student. He thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, Dan, provided you understand that population genetics is a recondite field that will never be of great interest except to a small group of specialists.” I remember this because afterward I hurried to look up “recondite” in the dictionary. His admonition made population genetics seem like some variety of monasticism, which, being an admirer of Gregor Mendel, was all right by me. Little did either of us foresee that genetics would be transformed in our lifetimes by genomic sequencing on a population scale and the development of computer technologies capable of analyzing terabytes of data and that population genetics would become a key approach for understanding human evolutionary history as well as for identifying genetic risk factors for common diseases.
I had the privilege of interviewing Crow in 2006. My email requesting an interview was sent only on the smallest probability of a reply, but he replied immediately! And when I sent my questions again the reply was nearly immediate. My favorite of Crow’s answers: “In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area — assuming it is well done — is out of order. I feel strongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.” At his age he’s seen many fashions come and go. But nature abides and persists.