Over tea in a New York November
seems an odd place to weep for a
straight Catholic man.
Your most honest of intellects
and most awkward of greetings—
a look up, a nod—
are needed now,
my guider and muse.
How could you bow?
I am unfit to tell
the brilliance you knew,
the clack of a 1 train your departing knell
a gesture too quick, the last words too few.
Dr. Austin L. Hughes.
—November 2, 2015
A dear atheist friend once turned to me in the middle of a Fernando Ortega concert to whisper, “that’s what holiness looks like.” Shocked by her response to this overtly Christian musician, I later asked what she meant. “I think holiness is when someone finds what they most love to do in this life. You can tell that this guy just lives to play the piano and sing about God. It feels like holiness when you watch it happen.”
The same can be said of Dr. Austin L. Hughes’s work in science. I have never met an intellectual more dedicated to an objective analysis of truth. Himself a devout Catholic and a relatively conservative man, he studied evolution with a tenacity and seriousness that surpassed that of anyone else in the field. Having studied philosophy at Georgetown and Harvard in the sixties and early seventies, he quickly grew disillusioned with the biases and agendas he encountered, and opted for a field less ideological and more humble. Although it may now stretch credulity to imagine the word ‘humble’ as an accurate descriptor of the biological discipline, it is apparently what he found in the field as he undertook his first studies in zoology. Gradually examining the behavior of several beetles, birds, and fish at Oxford, he then broke into molecular evolution as a post-doc under Masatoshi Nei at the University of Texas at Houston, where he met other evolutionary greats such as Wen-Hsiung Li. It was there too that he made one of his most influential contributions to science in 1988, producing a study comparing patterns of nonsynonymous (amino acid-altering) and synonymous (amino acid-conserving) polymorphism at the major histocompatibility (MHC) locus in order to detect a form of positive (Darwinian) natural selection. His other 300 scientific papers and 2 books were an act of worship—if not of God, at least of truth. One paper after another poured forth addressing gene duplication, natural selection, and phylogenetic relationships as he gradually documented the evolutionary history of a wide swathe of living things. It’s what he loved to do, and it earned him membership with the AAAS in 2010.
An extremely private person (we never once had dinner), Hughes’s priorities were clearly seen to be faith, family, and science. He had little time to bother with anything else, including such trivialities as pleasant greetings. When happening upon him on or off campus, at most a quick nod or grunt might issue forth as he continued on his way. We who circled around him, fueled in our orbits by the mental inspiration he gave—Bob Friedman, April South, Saravanan Rajabojan, and so many others—, learned not to confuse his brevity for anger or even disinterest. He simply had more important things to do: a paper, a class, a coffee with his wife. It was clear that his heart went deeper than a casual acquaintance might notice. Speaking of personal failings, perhaps with family or friends, he once mused that “Things might have turned out differently if I’d written a hundred less papers… ah well, it’s too late to change that now.” If his devotion to his family and church were any indication, the importance of love was a lesson he’d learned well. As was the importance of tolerance. Despite the fact that I am a relatively outspoken gay activist and Bernie Sanders supporter, both undoubtedly anathema to him, these things never once altered his respect for or treatment of me. We simply found shared holy ground in our mutual passion for good science, and happily toiled together, whatever differences we might have had.
Despite his awkwardness in social situations, he could be talkative and energetic, if not downright chipper, in lab meetings. No topic was exempt. After bringing everyone up to speed and setting direction for the week’s research, we’d often speak about politics, philosophy, and religion. Given his training in philosophy, his rich library of books in multiple languages, and his “good British education” in the humanities, his was an inexhaustibly vast knowledge. If one topic failed to stimulate, he’d find another. Once, while sitting behind him in a departmental biology lecture, I noticed him grow bored and retrieve a French philosopher from his bag, and he proceeded to read, in French, the majority of a chapter before the talk finished. When we lost him, we lost a mentor not only in science but in every subject imaginable. Despite the independence his personality demanded of others, a certain repose could always be taken in the fact that, should all else fail, one could simply ask Austin. Thus, for me, the weight of his loss was not due to emotional but rather intellectual intimacy. He’s the one person I knew would always have a better understanding than I, and so his existence gave my life a sense of intellectual security. I may never find it again.
Far from an exercise in egotism, his knowledge changed lives. For example, he advanced a clear vision for the roles of science and faith in the human experience, saving at least a handful of lives from suicidal hopelessness. This vision, informed by both his philosophical and scientific training, ultimately culminated in one of the greatest American essays ever written: “The Folly of Scientism.” Drawn from a book which the world may now never see, he uses the essay to show that science, far from being sufficient to address the broad range of questions once tasked to philosophy, is rather itself derivative of and dependent upon philosophy. Defining scientism loosely as the view that science is the only sure means of acquiring knowledge, he writes:
In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.
No one was exempt from his devastating critiques—friends, scientists, religious leaders. Jerry Coyne twice had the splendid misfortune of addressing topics better understood by Hughes, and from a conflicting point of view, resulting in chains of blogs, columns, and book reviews (for example, see “Faith, Fact, and False Dichotomies“). However, erroneous claims only seemed to bother him when tied to some metaphysical agenda, such as Coyne’s atheism. Conflict on other matters, such as hostile reviews of his work overturning well-accepted bird phylogenies, prompted easy resignation: “Oh well, I tried.”
When it came to outlandish claims about evolution, Hughes was at his best. It is a widespread falsehood that he rejected the methods he’d invented to detect natural selection. What he did do was clarify the appropriate scope of their usage in an article somewhat provocatively titled “Looking for Darwin in all the wrong places: the misguided quest for positive selection at the nucleotide sequence level.” In a time when evolution by natural selection was granted almost unlimited magical powers, he advocated Motoo Kimura (leading architect of the neutral theory of molecular evolution) as a figure more important that Darwin. Having stated so in one of his magnificent papers on Kimura’s theory, a reviewer objected (“whoa!”). It did not appear in the final publication. A 2011 review in Heredity went further, proposing a mechanism (plasticity-relaxation-mutation, or PRM) that explains a great deal of adaptive evolution without recourse to natural selection at all. Why question selection? In a podcast with the journal, he answers simply that “there really isn’t all that much evidence that it actually happens to the extent to which it would be needed to explain all of the adaptive traits of organisms.” Simple enough.
Hughes’s greatest fault was arguably his lack of patience with slower thinkers. Over his nearly forty years in biology, he took on only a handful of students, and graduated only five Ph.D.’s. Surely his impersonal tendencies had something to do with this. Neither was he exempt from his own frustration. Once, trying to work out a question I’d asked about population genetics, he placed down the pen with some force and, visibly exasperated, exclaimed: “I’m just too stupid.” This constant dissatisfaction with his own lack of understanding may be what drove his prowess as an intellectual and scientist.
It will be difficult to proceed without his surprising outbursts (“Biologists are morons!”, a fist slamming the table), or especially without the stern look on his face which would subsequently dissolve as he’d chuckle, realizing his own excess of passion. Hoping to write papers like his, I made an unexpected move from New York to South Carolina in 2011 and will be ever changed as a result—for good. Would that we could all strive to pursue our goals with a fraction of his diligence, and to form our opinions with an ounce of his objectivity. His guidance will be sorely missed, but will live on in his writings and in those whose lives he touched.