Ten Years in the Rearview Mirror

By Jim Hunt, Fellow 2003-2004

Wiko – easy to remember, hard to forget. My Wiko year shaped the rest of my career, and I couldn’t forget it if I tried – and I would never try. No other experience left such a lasting imprint. Standing now at the brink of retirement, I look back ten years and see the most successful decade of my forty years in academia.
The proposal for my Wiko year was to write a book on the evolution of social wasps. I succeeded in meeting that challenge, and both the exhilaration of the writing itself and the feelings of pride and satisfaction when the book was completed have had no equal, before or since. I wrote the book in a single pass in eight months: preface, acknowledgements, text. Yes, I wrote the acknowledgements before writing a word of the text. When the book was complete I contacted the U.S. editor for Oxford University Press.

“I have a book I’d like to submit to OUP.”
“You mean you have a proposal?”
“No, I have a book.”
“You mean you have a complete manuscript???”

Apparently this doesn’t happen all that often. Reviewers said that parts one and two were excellent overviews of social wasp biology and evolution. Part three, however, was problematic. In the foreword to the book, Raghavendra Gadagkar wrote, “[Hunt] ends the book with a scathing attack on kin selection; inclusive fitness theory; sex ratio theory; behavioral ecology; the use of potentially loaded terms such as selfishness, altruism, worker policing, and even eusociality; and he questions the very validity of asking “why” questions in evolutionary biology.” I didn’t pull any punches. The book was tentatively accepted, but the editor wanted to meet me. Within five minutes of settling down to dinner he had ascertained that I wasn’t a kook, and the book went to press. The response to the book was satisfying, especially due to a surprising twist. At professional meetings a few grad students and young professors early in their careers asked me to step to one side of the room where they’d look around to be sure no one “important” was listening, and quietly say “I really like part three of your book.” They were my target audience. If the book has lasting impact on them, that alone will have made the enterprise worthwhile.

Impact of the Wiko year on my standing in my home department was strong. Among my colleagues, a long-running nemesis commented, “You’re almost as good as our endowed professors.” Given its source, this was high praise. Two years later I was elected chair of the department. However, in the summer of 2007, mid-way through my term as chair and after thirty-three years at the institution, I burned out and took early retirement. Without doubt, having been a Wiko Fellow and written the book during that year contributed to my ability to quickly secure a faculty appointment on a handshake at another university, without hesitation on the part of the department head who hired me. I was designated a “Visiting Professor” with all faculty privileges, the nicest office of my career, and a 40% salary until I reached full retirement age. Since then I have continued to be a “Visiting Professor” with no responsibilities (and no salary). My appointment lasts until 2015, and I was told that if I wanted more I need only ask to have it extended.  I integrated smoothly into two departments and a center, in all of which I am accorded a great deal of respect. Moving in 2007 was the beginning of my second career, albeit while continuing in the same path of research and writing, and that second career has been far better than the first.

Events during my Wiko year stand out in terms of their research importance. Rob Page, a friend of long standing and later a Wiko Fellow, introduced me to Gro Amdam, who also later became a Wiko Fellow. On a piece of notebook paper that I believe I still have, she sketched a graph of physiological variables in honey bees and her interpretation of what was going on. I was somewhat dumbfounded – my wasps did the same things, except I had never thought about them from her perspective. Then and there she and I sketched out a research collaboration on wasps. The next day I said to Page, “You two planned this, right?” He said no, he could see what was happening and just leaned back and watched. Amdam sent me an in-press manuscript, and as luck would have it her perspectives on reproductive physiology fit directly into the portion of the book I was writing at the time. Two weeks later, in a flash of insight I realized that wasps called “sterile workers” were in a state of active reproductive physiology, and those of the same generation called “reproductives” had their reproductive physiology turned off.  I walked to Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus’ office and said that I’d had an insight that would forever change the way we think about social wasps. I asked if he would invite Amdam for a week, saying that we would co-author a paper on the idea and publish it in Science. We did. It’s perhaps my favorite paper – it contains no data. Amdam and I subsequently collaborated with other scientists to publish research papers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and PLoS One that are based on the idea. During my Wiko spring I also came to know a grad student, Amy Toth, who, together with Amdam, became one of the two most important collaborators of my career. Toth and I were co-authors together with other scientists on a Science publication plus one in a specialty journal. Two more collaborative efforts with Toth will soon be published. All of this and more has taken place since moving to my second career.

In 2009-2010 I spent a sabbatical year at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (a sabbatical from retirement!). During that year I realized that my having focused attention on “non-reproductive reproductives” distracted me from the truly important point, which is that “sterile workers” have active reproductive physiology. From that realization onward the independent pieces of my previous research, extending back to my first professorial year, fell quickly into synthesis. At long last I fully understood how wasp sociality began and subsequently evolved. With the publication of that synthesis in 2012 I reached the end of a quest that began in 1974. I had set out to learn the evolution of social wasps, and in 2012 I published the answer.

Few scientists have been able to solve a mystery that was posed by Charles Darwin. The synthesis of knowledge gained while writing my book, the insight that struck me that spring, and research conducted with scientists I met during my Wiko year enabled me to become one of those fortunate few. I have told my children that if I die tomorrow I will die a contented scientist.