We all have Giants whose shoulders we’ve stood upon to get a lay of the intellectual landscape we hope to inhabit and influence one day. One of the earliest giants I had the honor and good fortune to learn from was evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson.
I met David in the summer of ‘96. A few weeks after my junior year at Binghamton University, I learned of evolutionary psychology by stumbling across The Evolution of Desire in my local library in Merrick, Long Island. When I returned to campus that summer to continue my research on classical conditioning in rats, I told my honors thesis advisor that I wanted to study evolutionary psychology. Ralph Miller looked at me sternly, and said, “You should head next door to Science III and talk to Professor Wilson right way.”
In short course, an eager and green twenty-year old psychology major knocked on David’s door and spewed forth with his aspiration to become an evolutionary psychologist. David was welcoming and encouraging. He suggested that I read The Adapted Mind, his 1992 review of it in QRB, and his insightful 1994 article in Ethology and Sociobiology on “Adaptive genetic variation and human evolutionary psychology.”
A few weeks later I dropped by his office to discuss the readings, after which he suggested a few more. This went on for most of the summer. At one point he even lent me his “Cosmides and Tooby” folder which was amazing! In a time before articles were readily available online, here I had a dozen or so foundational articles on evolutionary psychology with critical comments from one of the nascent field’s most critical proponents in the margins. I was in geek heaven!
After reading two dozen books and articles suggested by David (including his classic 1994 BBS article, “Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences”), I was super-excited to take his spring undergraduate biology course, Evolution and Human Behavior. But he told me I shouldn’t. Stunned, I asked why. He replied that having enrolled in his graduate seminar on multilevel selection (which he invited me to take that fall) and having completed all of his suggested readings, that I simply didn’t need to take the course. That I should instead TA the course for him. I was floored! I met this world renowned scholar mere months ago, and here he was suggesting that I, a lowly psychology undergraduate, agree to TA his upper-division biology course where I was expected to lead a 20-person discussion section a few hours a week. His faith in me was invigorating. During my final year of college David introduced me to both the study and teaching of evolutionary psychology—the twin passions that have most consumed my professional life ever since.
I’m forever indebted to David for shepherding me through the foundational literature in evolutionary biology and psychology back when I was a wee lad. To be invited back to Binghamton last year to give a talk to his wonderful Evolution Studies Program (EvoS) students was quite touching for this nostalgic bloke. Although EvoS wasn’t around when I was an undergraduate at Binghamton, David saw to it that I received a critical, off-the-books tutorial on exploring human behavior through multiple evolutionary lenses.
So it’s quite fitting that the first person I interviewed for “On The Origin of HBES: An Oral History Project” was David, the first person to tell me about HBES. A sense of his “love/hate relationship” with HBES and evolutionary psychology is easily seen in our interview (he refers to himself as “somewhat of an outlaw among outlaws of the HBES society” at the 0:36 mark). Notable moments include:
• His affection for George C. Williams after David marched into his office as a grad student, declared “I’m going to convince you about group selection,” and was offered a postdoc on the spot (8:40)
• How Bill Hamilton eventually came around and changed his own mind on group selection and how George Williams wrote to David that “group selection was a strong force in human evolution” (10:11-14:54)
• How he was pressured by HBES founders to disinvite Stephen Jay Gould as the keynote speaker for the 1993 HBES conference he hosted at Binghamton University (19:00 – 20:11).
• How HBES needs to be much more activist (32:17-33:41)