A letter to the great Dick Alexander

Left to right: Bill Hamilton, Dick Alexander, Napoleon Chagnon, Sewall Wright, George C. Williams

This is a letter that I wrote to Dick, one of my mentors in graduate school, in 2014. Characteristically, he wrote me back at length, in his usual style, full of logical surprises, and also sent me a draft of a book of poems he was working on. My god was that man brilliant, and prolific, and diverse in his interests.

February 20 (& June 6), 2014

Dear Dick,

I am writing to you from the Tiputini Biological Station, in the Ecuadoran Amazon. I sit here, a hemisphere away from you, and also from Bret and my family, night falling, sounds that I do not know how to identify crescendoing and fading nearby. I have with me 20 undergraduate students, students from Evergreen, where Bret and I both have jobs. And I think of you, and all that you did for me — for both Bret and me, but he’s not here, so I speak only for myself, although I know that he feels similarly.

I am writing to tell you how many of the things that I do, and think, and know, were directly gifted by you to me, or indirectly transferred to my world view without, perhaps, either of us knowing it at the time.

I learned from you how much fun evolutionary logic is to apply, and more importantly, how universally applicable it is. I had begun to appreciate these things before I met you, through Trivers, but Bob, while wonderful, was always intense and a little terrifying. Everything felt like a roller-coaster with him. While I was certainly intimidated by you and your vast scholarship and influence, it always seemed to me that, if I only had the courage to do, I could approach you with any question or idea that I had. I never took advantage of that as fully as I might have, but watching, especially, your and Bret’s relationship develop, I came to understand that, among your myriad skills, deep and empathic mentorship was on the list.

In large measure, I learned how to teach from you. Your approach, in Evolution and Human Behavior,that giant, amazing class that I was lucky to TA for multiple times, was awe-inspiring. You grabbed the attention of everyone in the room, and never let it go. You were surprising, flexible, brilliant. You dealt with issues in real time, riffing on ideas as they arose, letting questions from the audience, the class, drive the conversation. And you prioritized the careful crafting of ideas, in speech and in writing. You modeled that for the class, and then expected everyone else to do so as well — in seminar, in papers, so many wonderful assignments that showcased the diversity of topics which benefit from incisive evolutionary analysis. I have devoted perhaps too much of my time, these last 12 years, to becoming as pedagogically creative, and diverse in the application of evolutionary logic in a classroom, as I can be. But as a result of doing so, there are many more young people wandering the globe who have not only answers to questions they have long asked, but the ability to both ask, and answer, many more.

I wandered with intention through Ecuador, last Summer with Bret and our children, when we were on my site-scouting trip for this one now, where I wander with my students. We talk of monkeys and metamorphosis, of polyandry in callitrichids and direct development in tiny frogs. We stand in the middle of a nazca booby colony, on Isla de la Plata off the coast of Ecuador, and watch pair-bonded individuals defend their single young from an adult who has none, watch a member of a different pair shift and adjust position on her precious egg. We watch pelicans plunge dive for fish at the coast, and speak of foraging strategies; find gekkos with eggs in the Amazon, and discuss trade-offs in the various modes of parity; watch squirrel cuckoos make controlled falls through cloud forest trees, and talk about impressing one’s mate. I see all ten species of monkeys that Tiputini has to offer, and am simultaneously overwhelmed with visceral pleasure — I could watch a troop of squirrel monkeys all day, every day — and wonder why. What are they all doing that is so different from one another, that there is room here for such diversity and abundance? I generate some answers, but am always left with more questions, and that is good. I have long had this combination of scientific curiosity and aesthetic enjoyment in the natural world, but I learned, in part from you, that the combination need not be hidden.

Thank you. Thank you for all of this, and more. I am returning to this letter in June of 2014, as my study abroad program wraps up, and my students, too, both reflect and look forward. I have been lucky to have had so many extraordinary mentors, and have tried to turn around and mentor others in similar veins. I am writing, too, to Arnold Kluge and John Vandermeer, for at Michigan, while there were many more who impacted me, you three made the largest difference in how I approached science, people, life. What a diverse lot you are. What unique value, rigor and compassion you bring to the world.

With respect and gratitude,

Heather Heying / Associate Professor of Biology / Curator of Vertebrate Collections of the Evergreen Natural History Museum / Department Chair of Environmental Studies / The Evergreen State College