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George C. Williams
Nationality  United States
Fields Biology
Institutions SUNY-Stony Brook
Alma mater UCLA
Known for theories of natural selection
Influences Charles Darwin
Influenced Richard Dawkins

Professor George Christopher Williams (b. May 12, 1926) is an American evolutionary biologist.

Williams is a professor emeritus of biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is best known for his vigorous critique of group selection. The work of Williams in this area, along with W. D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and others led to the development of a gene-centric view of evolution in the 1960s.

Williams' 1957 paper Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence is one of the most influential in 20th century evolutionary biology, and contains at least 3 foundational ideas[1]. The central hypothesis of antagonistic pleiotropy remains the prevailing evolutionary explanation of senescence. In this paper Williams was also the first to propose that senescence should be generally synchronized by natural selection. According to this original formulation

"if the adverse genic effects appeared earlier in one system than any other, they would be removed by selection from that system more readily than from any other. In other words, natural selection will always be in greatest opposition to the decline of the most senescence-prone system."

This important concept of synchrony of senescence was taken up a short time later by John Maynard Smith, and the origin of the idea is often misattributed to him, including in his obituary in Nature Magazine[2]. This paper also contains the first basic outline of the so-called "grandmother hypothesis", which states that natural selection might select for menopause and post-reproductive life in females, although Williams does not explicitly mention grandchildren or the inclusive fitness contribution of grandparenting.

In his first book, Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams argued that adaptation was an "onerous" concept that should only be invoked when necessary, and, that, when it is necessary, selection among genes or individuals would in general be the preferable explanation for it. He elaborated this view in later books and papers, which contributed to the development of a gene-centered view of evolution; Richard Dawkins built on Williams' ideas in this area in the book The Selfish Gene.[3].

Williams is also well known for his work on the evolution of sex, which is also informed by his interest in the unit of selection. He is also an advocate of evolutionary medicine.

Williams received a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1955. At Stony Brook he taught courses in marine vertebrate zoology, and he often uses ichthyological examples in his books.

He won the Crafoord Prize for Bioscience jointly with Ernst Mayr and John Maynard Smith in 1999. Dawkins describes Williams as "one of the most respected of American evolutionary biologists".[4]



  • Williams, G.C. 1966. Adaptation and Natural Selection Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Williams, G.C., ed. 1971. Group Selection Aldine-Atherton, Chicago.
  • Williams, G.C. 1975. Sex and Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Paradis, J. and G.C. Williams. 1989. T.H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics : with New Essays on its Victorian and Sociobiological Context. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Williams, G.C. 1992. Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Nesse, R.M. and G.C. Williams. 1994. Why We Get Sick : the New Science of Darwinian Medicine. Times Books, New York.
  • Williams, G.C. 1996. Plan and Purpose in Nature. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (published in the U.S. in 1997 as The Pony Fish’s Glow : and Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature. Basic Books, New York).

Selected papers

  • Williams, G. C. 1957. Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence. Evolution 11;4: 398-411
  • Taylor, P. O. and G. C. Williams. 1984. Demographic parameters at evolutionary equilibrium. Canadian Journal of Zoology 62: 2264-2271.
  • Williams, G. C. 1985. A defense of reductionism in evolutionary biology. Oxford Surveys in Evolutionary Biology 2: 127.
  • Williams, G. C. 1988. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics in sociobiological perspective. Zygon 23: 383-438.
  • Williams, G. C. 1995. A package of information In J. Brockman, ed., The Third Culture, New York: Touchstone, pp. 38-50.


  1. ^ Williams, G. C. (1957). "Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence". Evolution 11: 398-411.  
  2. ^ Szathmáry E, Hammerstein, P (2004). "Obituary: John Maynard Smith (1920–2004)". Nature 429: 258-259. PMID 15152239.  
  3. ^ Grafen, Alan; Ridley, Mark (2006). Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed the Way We Think. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0199291160.  
  4. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. London: Bantam Press. p. 364. ISBN 9780593061732. OCLC 390663505.  

External links

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