Austin L. Hughes

Austin Leland Hughes was Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, and was for several years the director of the university’s Institute for Biological Research and Technology.

Professor Hughes’s research used statistical analysis of DNA sequence data from a wide variety of systems as a means of understanding the mechanisms of adaptive evolution, with emphasis on genes of the vertebrate immune system.

Professor Hughes was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science.

He was the author of two books — Evolution and Human Kinship (Oxford, 1988) and Adaptive Evolution of Genes and Genomes (Oxford, 1999) — and of over three hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers published in Nature, Genetics, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Immunogenetics, the Journal of Molecular Evolution, and many other scientific journals.

He had an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Georgetown University (1969), an undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Maryland (1977), a master’s degree in zoology from West Virginia University (1980), and a Ph.D. in zoology from Indiana University, Bloomington (1984). His dissertation was on “Seasonal Trends in Male Life History in the Mosquitofish Gambusia affinis and Their Adaptive Significance.”

A theme in Austin Hughes’s writing was the humility of the scientific calling. His New Atlantis essay “The Folly of Scientism” begins by noting that

When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable.

His book Adaptive Evolution of Genes and Genomes ends on a similar note: “It is important to be humble about what we can and cannot know…. The molecular techniques now available to us have opened a fascinating but limited window on the mechanisms by which over millions of years life as we know it has evolved. Let us be grateful for that window, while accepting that there will always be much that is mysterious about the history of life on earth.”

In The New Atlantis