I first met Will Provine in the late 1980s. He was then a regular speaker at the Spring Systematics symposia, organized by the invertebrate paleontologist Matthew Nitecki and held at the Field Museum in Chicago. The symposia always ended with an alcohol-fueled reception in a big hall where the speakers mingled with attendees.
Will’s eyes would be twinkling with mischief as people responded to some deliberately outrageous statement he had made during his official talk. One year, I recall Will saying to the audience, “You don’t need to know anything about evolution to be an excellent biologist” — cue hundreds of exasperated sighs from the audience — but then, that was Will: a provocateur who didn’t care whom he might upset. He was going to speak his mind, come what may.
I attended the symposia in those years as a graduate student eager to meet scholars like Will. Somehow he had learned through the grapevine that I was a “creationist,” so when we began our first conversation, I expected the barely concealed impatience, or even contempt, that prominent evolutionary biologists frequently visit on dissenters from neo-Darwinian orthodoxy.
But Will was all playful smiles and scholarly encouragement. He just didn’t give a damn what my views were. Of course, he thought I was dead wrong, but then he thought most people, including most of his colleagues, were wrong in their thinking about this or that point, and he would tell them so in the bluntest possible language.
But — and this is the key point — never with any personal malice. Will had the remarkable gift of expressing disagreement in a way that left no permanent wounds. You knew exactly why he thought you were mistaken in your opinions, but then he would throw his arm around your shoulders at the end of the discussion, with his winning smile, and all was right in the world.
Years later, when Will and Phil Johnson became close friends, it made perfect sense to me that Phil would stay overnight in Will’s home on his visits to Cornell. It made perfect sense to me that Will would send me encouraging notes, or greet me with arms wide, when we would run into each other at professional meetings.
It made perfect sense because that was Will’s way. If the heart of Jesus’ message to his disciples about how they should treat others was “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35), then Will was the most Christian atheist I’ve ever known. Many Christians could learn a thing or two from his example of unfeigned affection for his enemies.
I will really miss him.