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Professor Robert Hinde, 1923 - 2016

Robert Hinde

Professor Robert Hinde, Emeritus Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and former Master of St John's College, has died at the age of 93.

During a distinguished academic career, Professor Hinde achieved widespread recognition for his work on behavioural development in animals and on relationships within human families, publishing more than 30 books and 300 scientific papers. He was a committed humanist and member of the anti-war movement, who wrote extensively on both subjects, particularly in the hope of influencing future generations for the better. He was one of the longest-serving Fellows at St John's, and was Master from 1989 to 1994.

Robert Hinde was educated at Oundle School. When war broke out in 1939, he signed up for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves, eventually serving as a pilot in RAF Coastal Command.

After the war, he resumed his education, winning a place to study Natural Sciences at St John's. He graduated in 1948. Postgraduate studies at Oxford followed, but he returned to Cambridge in 1950, initially as Curator of the Ornithological Field Station in the Department of Zoology. He became a Fellow at St John's in 1951, and was also both Steward and a Tutor, before becoming the College's 41st Master in 1989.

Professor Hinde's academic interests focused in particular on animal behaviour and development. He studied "developmental plasticity" - the changes in neural connections that occur as a result of an animal's environmental interactions and learning experiences, focusing in particular on birds. His research also examined the same themes at a deeper and more fundamental level, investigating how information held within the genome of an individual interacts with other forces to determine its characteristics. The "forces" in question are not only biological, but to do with the individual's ecological and cultural surroundings and (particularly in humans) the historical and demographic background of the wider population.

This work won Professor Hinde numerous distinctions. He was a Commander of the British Empire, and both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Recipient of the Society's Royal Medal - as well as an Honorary Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences and an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy. Over the course of his career he was awarded seven Honorary Doctorates, including one from Oxford where he was also an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College. Other marks of recognition included, among many others, awards from the Zoological Society of London, the Primate Society of Great Britain, the Society for Research in Child Development and the International Society for the Study of Interpersonal Relationships.

Professor Hinde was also both a humanist and a pacifist - outlooks which were formed in equal measure by his scholarly and wider life experiences. His research led him to study religion from an evolutionary point of view and to attempt to explain the ubiquity of religious systems, and the similarities and differences between the moral codes of different cultures. "I am convinced that religion is helpful to some people," he once wrote. "Religious systems also do a great deal of harm. This includes not only providing a focus for conflict, but also purveying false views and concepts, such as 'original sin'. Religious faith is certainly not necessary, but religions have purveyed morality over the centuries and as religious systems lose their influence we need urgently to recognise the real roots of our moral sense."

He described his wartime service as a "boring tale" in which "I am glad to say that I did not kill anyone and no-one specifically tried to kill me"; yet the experience of the Second World War dramatically shaped his perspective on international affairs and events. The mass human suffering that the war caused, and in particular the loss of both his brother John and another close friend, made him a committed member of anti-war groups dedicated to guaranteeing peace. As well as writing extensively on the topic, notably in War No More in 2003, Professor Hinde was Chair and President of the British Pugwash Group and President of the Movement for the Abolition of War. In a memoir published shortly before his death, he stressed the importance of denouncing the notion that armed conflict might be necessary or acceptable in certain situations: "Changing the popular view of war as heroic, inevitable, or a solution to disputes, must be an important strategy for peace," he wrote.