Talk about random variation and selection: they were married the next year.
At 64, Eva is attractive, with a warm, nurturing, but efficient manner; and it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that she was trained as a nurse. At Natural Selection her duties are payroll and human resources. She also serves unofficially as corporate financial officer. Her official title is “owner.”
Today she wears a flower-print dress with a black cardigan sweater. Her step is quick as she leads me from the reception area across the hall to Gary, who is waiting for me in a small conference room with two glass walls. There is a wooden box of fragrant clementines on the table.
Across the way I can see David in his office, because, like the conference room, it has glass walls. He wears a dark suit and tie with white shirt and works at his laptop. Preparing for a noontime appointment, he doesn’t look up.
Originally, Gary and I had planned, after our interview, to go to the gliderport, where he sometimes takes lunch breaks. “If I can, I take my model sailplane and off I go. I have a good half-hour flight and come back a new man.” But today’s weather isn’t cooperating. There’s no wind. We decide that we’ll try another day.
Gary has set up his laptop to project images onto the conference-room wall. He will give me a tutorial on the kind of work he does here, on biological problems. A lighter-haired, slenderer version of his older brother, he has a more sharply defined face, but the same creamy complexion. He wears a dark blue dress shirt and charcoal gray dress pants. The style is young professor, with a dash of perennial student.
In fact, Gary and David both remind me of some of my own former students; I see in them older versions of the brightest ones I taught when I was in the English department at a private boarding school in the East, beginning at about the time that Gary was at La Jolla High — he was graduated with the class of 1986.
I hope those students have grown up to be as successful as these brothers. Well spoken, always well prepared, they were too polite to fidget while their less gifted classmates struggled with the material or offered their excuses — or failed to hide their envy-laden contempt for achievement.
That last dynamic can lead some elite students to be socially isolated. David and Gary were, Eva would tell me. “I tried to get them into [a local cotillion] — dancing with girls, all dressed up.” Neither was interested. “I would say that they didn’t have a whole lot of friends. They were gifted kids, you know? Regular kids were boring. That was how it was. They were never ready to go to the parties.”
The two have done some teaching themselves. Gary won awards as a graduate-school teaching assistant at UCLA. “I enjoy teaching a lot,” he says. “And I miss it,” although when he gives potential clients the kind of presentation he’s about to give me, he realizes, he is using his teaching skills. “Later on, I hope I’ll return to teaching. But at the moment I see so many problems, like cancer diagnosis, that I’d feel bad about not making the contribution that I know I can. I think there’s a bigger calling for me right now.”
Like his sons, Larry has ventured into academia now and then. Gary ranks him as his own most important mentor. “On long car trips, my father would say, ‘So tell me something I don’t know about,’ ” he recalls. “That was a challenge to a ten-year-old, because clearly my father ‘knew everything’ already. So at first I was hesitant.” But Gary did eventually tell him about, for example, going fossil hunting up on Mount Soledad, where he would find “scallops, and snail shells, and all sorts of stuff.” He credits his father’s questions with teaching him how to articulate concepts. That experience, he says, helped when he began to face classrooms of students of his own at UCLA.
“I remember my father asking me about the difference between Darwin and Lamarck.” (French naturalist Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck formulated some of the earliest ideas about evolution and influenced Darwin’s theory.) “These things came up, because he was interested in them. In my childhood I guess I was brainwashed. I understood evolution at an early age. And so when I got up to high school biology, it was easy.”
For that class at La Jolla High, Gary had another gifted teacher, Stephen Brown. “And he’s still there — a great guy, a great man, who allowed me the privilege of doing extra credit by going and looking at fossils and then writing little papers. It was practice science — in high school.”
At UC Santa Cruz he initially pursued paleontology. The influence there was Leo Laporte, now retired. “He was in paleontology, with an eye focused on evolution. He clarified the concepts that my father had gotten wrong” — a smile — “and set me on the right course.”
But there weren’t a lot of jobs in paleontology, Gary was beginning to realize, “and there wasn’t a lot of money in it either. You have to do it for love. And a lot of people work on dinosaurs, not the shells and things that interested me. So I looked into biology and discovered that people were using biological information in the same way that paleontologists were using fossils — to figure out evolutionary history.” This biological information, which became his academic focus and which is one of the things he works on at Natural Selection, he likens to “molecular fossils.”
Later, he would go into this in detail, with many visuals projected on the conference-room wall. But more than this technical subject, Gary wants people to understand the nature of the problems, biological or otherwise, that evolutionary computation is best suited to solve.