Richard Lewontin, an American scientist, has passed away at the age of 92. He was involved in many of the most significant discoveries and feuds in evolutionary biology over the decades that it went from discovering that genes exist to describing them in molecular terms.
His greatest contribution was in the 1960s when he proved that there is a lot of genetic variation between species. John Hubby, University of Chicago, began his research by grinding fruit flies. He then extended it to humans in 1972 in a paper that exposed the inevitability of biological notions of race.
Lewontin's work and others who followed his path showed that there is more genetic diversity between races than between them. His research was not focused on DNA but rather the analysis of proteins genes code for. This allowed him to determine the combination of four chemical bases in DNA that instruct cells to make a protein. Lewontin's conclusion was not influenced by anything that came after this simple experiment.
Although Lewontin's work on genes that are chemical sequences is uncontroversial was his view on the subject, it became increasingly difficult to see how his views on genes were a metaphor or an explanation principle with the rise of sociobiology. This discipline was promoted by people who worked in the same building he moved in 1973, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. These two groups were involved in one of most bitter and long-running academic disputes of recent history.
Lewontin was a passionate polemicist based on Marxist principles. He had always been on the right. He had resigned in 1971 from the National Academy of Sciences in protest at its cooperation with the US Defense Department during the Vietnam War.
Lewontin opposed Richard Dawkins' world view, which placed genes or DNA as the most important actors in the world.
Marxism gave him an outside perspective and a low view on his opponents' motives. He once stated that academics are supported in a very nice way by society. You can't just say you want to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. That is a form of masturbation and it doesn't justify claiming the society's resources. So you have to do politics. Science provides legitimacy in politics. You lose your credibility as a scientist and your legitimacy as an analyst.
He believed that ruthless argument was essential to science and set up his Harvard lab with individual offices around a large communal table to encourage interaction between his students. His mentor, Theodosius, a great Ukrainian-American geneticist, was described as an adversary rather than a mentor. However, he said that they had shared three years of disagreements about everything.
However, this was not true in the sociobiology battles. A number of scientists started to investigate how evolution might have shaped the brains and instincts of animals in the 1970s. Lewontin was actually the one who suggested the union of evolutionary theory and game theory, which was the basis for the new field. This was back in 1961. Lewontin was furious when his museum colleague, EO Wilson, published Sociobiology. This huge book attempted to explain humanity's evolution on the basis evolutionary biology.
He believed it was bad science that overestimated the difficulty in tracing DNA and behavior. It was also a cover for rotten politics and he attacked it in brutal personal terms. Wilson's book shows the prejudices of Wilson and his social class. Wilson is now part of a long line of biological determinists, whose work has helped to strengthen the institutions of society by exonerating them of responsibility for social issues.
This was unjust, and it remained unforgiven for many decades.
Lewontin opposed the worldview promoted by Richard Dawkins for many years. It made DNA or genes the most important players in the world. Stephen Jay Gould, his friend and colleague, launched an influential attack against the notion that all that has evolved must have been created by natural selection. He co-authored Not in Our Genes (1984) with Steven Rose, a British biologist, and Leo Kamin, a book that attacked sociobiology. His essays in The New York Review of Books discredit the idea of evolutionary psychology.
Lewontin's ferocious polemic style was countered by his remarkable kindness and honesty in professional life. He refused to accept any credit for the work of his students and they repaid him in love and admiration, even when he disagreed.
Richard Lewontin was born in New York. He was the son Lilian and Max Lewontin. Max Lewontin was a cloth broker. He met Mary Jane Christianson at Forest Hills High School. Their long and loving marriage ended three days earlier with Mary Jane's death.
Harvard University gave him a biology degree in 1951, followed by a masters program in mathematics statistics at Columbia University. He then received his PhD (1954). He was a professor at North Carolina State University, and the University of Rochester in New York before he moved to Chicago. He returned to Harvard in 1998 as a professor of biology and zoology.
His sons Timothy, David and Stephen, as well as seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, are his survivors.
Steven Rose writes: Hilary Rose, and I met Dick Lewontin during the campaign against Vietnam. We had met Dick Levins in Hanoi, Lewontin's long-time friend and collaborator, in 1969. It was only natural that Lewontin would make contact when he returned to England on sabbatical. Lewontin and Levins were both members of Science for Vietnam. This group was made up of academics and students. Science for the People became Science for the People. We had also been part of the founding team of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Penguin suggested to Lewontin that Lewontin write a critique on sociobiology, genetic reductionism. I was approached by Leo Kamin, the psychologist.
Not in Our Genes was the result. It was written in sessions in Dick's Cambridge lab and Mary Jane's cabin in upstate Vermont. His lab was a place for scientific and political activism. It was located two floors above Gould's basement lab with the sociobiologist EO. Wilsons lab between them. Wilson avoided the elevator when Lewontin and Gould were in it, hence the title of Dicks New York Review of Books essay: The Corpse in the Elvator.