Lunch with Dr. L.

April 6, 2015 • 1:20 pm

I’m doing a bit of writing work at Harvard, and always make sure on these visits to reconnect with Dick Lewontin, my Ph.D. advisor, and perhaps the most famous evolutionary geneticist of the last generation. Although he’s retired, he still has space at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and, at age 86, he’s in very good nick. In January he (along with Tomoko Ohta) nabbed the famous Crafoord Prize, the evolution/ecology equivalent to the Nobel Prize, likewise awarded by the king of Sweden.

Today Dick, my Harvard host Andrew Berry, and I repaired to the Cambridge Commons for a bibulous lunch (well, Andrew and I had a beer) whose comestibles were okay but not worth displaying. But here’s the Great Man (also known as “Dr. L.” or, when we were his students, “The Boss”) about to dig into vegetarian spring rolls.


Dick’s office still harbors “The Moose,” an enormous mounted moose head that, when I was a graduate student in 1977, we stole from the MCZ attic and, at great labor, carried over to our lab, where one of the handier students mounted it on the wall. When Dick moved downstairs after retirement, he insisted that the moose go with him. And so it has, where it now sports a jaunty pith helmet.

Dick is pointing to a photograph of me, naked except for a cowboy hat and sneakers, climbing a small hill near Death Valley that we christened “Mount Lewontin” when I was doing field work. Since the mountain was too low to consider it an achievement to climb without oxygen, I climbed without clothing instead. I believe the inscription I wrote on it is, “To my friend and advisor Dick Lewontin, who has always climbed upwards toward the naked truth.”


I am proud to be among the mementos on Dick’s wall. The top photo is of Dick’s own advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky (sitting at his microscope where he looked at the salivary-gland chromosomes of fruit flies), below that is the Naked Picture, and at bottom right is an X-ray photo of one of my first DNA gels, done back in the days when extraction of DNA and sequencing were done completely manually, with the sequence read from bands spread across four lanes—corresponding to the four nucleotides of DNA.  I went to Princeton in 1990 on sabbatical just to learn how to do this (I produced only one paper from that work), and sent him that to show off my work to The Boss, just as a successful cat brings a mouse to its owner. The gel is also autographed, but I can’t remember what I wrote.


Andrew Berry photographed me by one of the two famous BioLab rhinos that flank the entrance to the nation’s most beautiful biology building.


Over at his website This View of Life, David Sloan Wilson has a transcript of a recent phone interview he did with Dick. It includes some choice (and not amiable) words about Steve Gould, as well as comments on their famous joint paper, “The Spandrels of San Marco,” on evolutionary psychology (not favorable!) and on niche construction.


43 thoughts on “Lunch with Dr. L.

  1. I have two degrees of separation from Theodosius Dobzhansky because I fished in the Seychelles with a Yale professor named Michael D. Coe (Breaking the Maya Code) whose father-in-law was Dobzhansky. 🙂

    1. Hmm, that gets me to thinking, but I do not think I can top that.
      My only claim to this proximity is: I was informally mentored for many years as a post-doc by Dan Lindsley, who was a student of A.H. Sturtevant (no relation), who, among many things, was a colleague & collaborator with Dobzhansky.
      Small world?

      1. I/m a direct descendant of Dick Turpin om my mother’s side and Ethelred the Redeless on dad’s side but we kinda keep quiet about it

  2. I ran the Microchemistry Facility in that beautiful, Rhino-clad building in the late 1980s, and I recruited one of Lewontin’s technician to my lab. She recalled that she once helped him recover something that had fallen on the floor of his office, and while they were searching on their hands-and-knees, she heard him mutter, “wandering Jew.”

  3. Good to see Dick looking well, and he was certainly in good form in the interview with David Sloan Wilson. (I was his second Ph.D. student, not in the BioLabs or MCZ buildings at Harvard, but in Chicago. My desk was in the same building as Jerry’s is now, even on the same floor).

  4. Will you be at Nuttall tonight? (History of the House Finch: Introductions, Novel Pathogens, and Rapid Adaptation)

  5. Reading the Wilson interview, I was shocked to see that Lewontin is not familiar with some of Tinbergen’s most famous work!

    1. I was surprised too, though it’s interesting that Lewontin falls in with many of the architects of the Modern Synthesis, who in my opinion gave short shrift to behavior. That also meant that sexual selection was neglected somewhat, at least until several decades later.

  6. These are really fun, thanks for sharing them!

    I can definitely see naked climbing in Death Valley! Just remember the sunscreen! 🙂

  7. After reading that interview,I am more impressed with Dr L. Than before. I didn’t realize he struggled that much against Gould. I am still not impressed with DSL.

    Isn’t the constructed niche they were talking about the same as Dawkins’ phenotype?

    1. One could argue that “niche construction,” which is a big fad now in evolutionary biology was introduced not by Lewontin but by Richard Dawkins in his “Extended Phenotype” book (the book he’s proudest of). The “extended” is important here.

      And yes, Lewontin,though a biological and political confrere of Gould, did not like him very much because of what Lewontin perceived as Gould’s overweening personal ambition. I have much more on this in an interview I taped with Dick several years ago (it’s three hours long), but I have yet to transcribe.

  8. “David Sloan Wilson SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo ”

    Good grief! Talk about polymaths!

  9. Thanks for these interesting and entertaining accounts. What is the significance of the rhinos flanking the BioLab entrance? I’ve seen a lot of lions playing that role, but never rhinos. Really cool life-size statue though.

  10. I read the conversation with David Sloan Wilson and was interested in the remarks on niche. Though I’m no biologist (my degree is in English Lit) it was obvious to me back in the 1970s that the concept of ecological niche was necessarily coupled to the organism occupying the niche. Yet the conversation clearly implies that many biologists are still thinking of the niche as a kind of free-standing “hole in the world”, to use a phrase from Lewontin. Is that really true? Is the idea that “there is no niche without an organism” still a new idea that biologists have a hard time wrapping their heads around?

    1. I can imagine “niches” that are without organisms. In Antarctica perhaps? And places other than this planet. Would these be niches waiting to be occupied? (And then presumably immediately changed by the occupiers)

    2. Seems to me that a food source that nobody is eating (yet) would qualify as a niche without an organism — although I don’t imagine such niches go unoccupied for long.

    3. I remember it being taught as a mutual result of the organism & its environment, too, and being admonished back then not to consider a niche as some empty space to be filled. Perhaps that message needs constant repeating, but that seems odd.

    4. I long for a world in which there is a niche for Marshmallow Peeps, where they can wander free and unafraid of being dunked in coffee or coated with chocolate.

      Well, wander as free as a conjoined quintuplet can manage.

  11. A post much appreciated by someone who remembers well the big names and various frictions of that era. Deliciously enhanced by the sense of getting a little inside dirt on the various players. 😀

  12. Gould was a stylish and prolific writer, and a shameless self promoter. May he rest in peace.

    1. He also is known for misquoting long-dead scientist just to make his points stronger. Or, at least to ignore criticisms and that once he reached a conclusion, he was unwilling to read any counterarguments.


      “I view his mistakes as deriving from his rigidly dualistic view of the world, his penchant for exaggeration, and from a dismissive personality that caused him to simply ignore people and ideas that displeased him. To justify my claims, I will rely on the historic record and my own face-to-face experience with Gould, which through this paper I am entering into the historic record.”

      “Gould was prone to disengage with people with whom he disagreed. When describing those who did not accept his theory of punctuated equilibrium, he once wrote: “When smart people don’t ‘get it,’ one must conclude that the argument lies outside whatever ‘conceptual space’ they maintain for assessing novel ideas in a given area.”[iv] In the language of rhetoric, dismissing an argument by dismissing the intellectual worthiness of the person who made it is known as the fallacy of “ad hominem.” And so, Gould used the fallacy of ad hominem to justify disengaging with his opponents, often in the form of unilaterally ending all further discussion. Once he had labeled them as having a limited conceptual space, he could ignore them”

      “In 1986, I mailed my results to Gould, who requested we meet after he gave a lecture in May at the University of Minnesota.[xl] Our meeting lasted perhaps five minutes. He told me that I “missed the point,” and abruptly ended the conversation, ignoring me and instead speaking to the man next to him. ”

  13. 86! Crimony!! There are plenty of 56y/o’s who look older than that. To what does he attribute?

    And that is one splendid moose! (I guess it oughtta be with a Harvard pedigree).

    Very cool that there’s a biological decoration in front of the bio bldg has some biological embellishment, too. W&M never grasped how cool that would be, nor did any of the other institutions I was ever affiliated with.

    1. Years ago I saw a picture of an 80-year-old Buddhist monk next to a 50-year-old Pueblo Indian woman. Thw monk had spent his entire life indoors at the monastery; his skin was baby-smooth. The woman had spent her entire life outdoors in the sun, and looked like the monk’s grandmother.

    2. “And that is one splendid moose!”

      Yes! What a gloriously impractical adornment for a small office! Love it.

    3. I once worked with a fellow who always looked 20 years younger than he was. When he announced his retirement (at about age 63 or so), I said to him, “but I thought you are only about 40!” He just smiled.

  14. I met up with my old prof about 30 years after I “granulated” and it was weird. I bought him lunch and he was, like, “so, you seem to have done well” almost oblivious of his impact on my life. Well, thanks, I said, shall we have another bottle of chardonnay?

    And we did.

  15. RE niche construction:

    When I was a graduate student working in Dick’s lab a few years after Jerry, one of the notable artifacts in the lab was a question which Jerry had written out and posed to Dick, and which had been posted and left up in the lab library: “Why are polar bears white?”

Leave a Reply