Dick Lewontin at 90

March 30, 2019 • 12:00 pm

My Ph.D. adviser, Dick Lewontin, turned 90 yesterday, as Grania noted in the Hili Dialogue. I couldn’t be there to fete him, but my friend Andrew Berry at Harvard went over to the facility in Cambridge where Dick lives with his beloved wife Mary Jane. Andrew carried some written wishes from Dick’s students and postdocs, and I reminded him to take a picture (below). Andrew’s report.

Dick was in a happily self-deprecating state of denial about turning 90, and appreciated receiving your messages (which I printed out to give him hard copy). It’s alway great to see them.

And here is the man we always called “The Boss”. He’s the smartest scientist I’ve ever met (yes, I know I haven’t met everyone), and the one who gets my All Around Excellence award for the high quality of his written prose, his talks, and his work. I don’t have many heroes in science, but he’s one.

Long may he run.

Addendum by Greg Mayer. My Ph.D. adviser was E.E. Williams, but because EEW was retired, my official Ph.D. adviser was Dick.  On a trip to Cambridge in January, 2017, Steve Orzack (another of Dick’s students) and I had lunch with Dick at the Town Diner in Watertown, Mass.; Steve took a picture of me and Dick outside the diner.
I’ve said before here at WEIT that Dick is the smartest guy I have ever met; I’ve also noted that Dick is very consistent in what he wears. It is not uncommon for scientists to limit their clothing choices, as a way of eliminating distraction– they’re dedicated to what’s truly important. Take a careful look at the two photos– Dick is wearing a blue work shirt, and the same red plaid lumberman’s jacket, in both! Happy Birthday, Dick!

18 thoughts on “Dick Lewontin at 90

  1. I admire about him his politics, even if I don’t always agree with every last bit (of course I also don’t know every last bit he wrote). Even when he was discussing creationism, he did have a keen eye for the “little guy”, and class issues that are involved. I also largely agree with his take on race, and found his writing immensely useful to argue for a view that puts racial conceptions at least far into the background (my understanding is he rejects it altogether, whereas I acknowledge clusters and relevance to population geneticists, but think the term should be retired, and the concept has little use outside of special areas, e.g. to discuss racism).

  2. Just about the same age of my parents. One was 1927 and the other 1930. My wife’s mother is 1919 and still alive.

  3. Happy Birthday to Professor Lewontin.
    I met Dick Lewontin while on a sabbatical in Britain long ago, and in discussions on a very agreeable voyage from Southampton back to the US by ship. Some years later, after reading an article of his about the Burgess Shale organisms, I sent him a picture of a group of extinct Renaissance wind instruments (one of which I play), and inquired whether he thought an asteroid had anything to do with their going extinct. He replied with a Marxist economic analysis of the reasons for the instruments’ extinction and replacement by successor species; I was never able to decide quite the extent to which his letter was (or wasn’t) tongue-in-cheek.

  4. I became familiar with Lewontin’s writing through the pieces he published in The New York Review of Books. I’m in no position to judge the quality of his scientific analysis, but the quality of his prose is crystalline.

  5. As his second Ph.D. student, I can also testify that he was a kind, tolerant, and supportive advisor. Even though I spent much of my time with him not working on theoretical population genetics but on some weird hobby of mine, “trees”. A good person.
    (One of the greetings Andrew carried to Dick and Mary Jane yesterday was from me).

  6. A small aside: Stephen J. Gould wrote a whole book (“The Mismeasure of Man”, I believe) arguing that there is no such thing as general intelligence but subsequently said the same as you, that Lewontin was the smartest person he ever met. Does that strike anyone besides me as inconsistent?

    1. Oh, I should add that his early work on electrophoretic polymorphisms came out just in time to influence my own PhD work.

      1. I should add that he could be pretty arrogant. Two experiences: At one point probably in the mid-70s, I wrote to him about some experiments I would like to do with some fly stocks he had published about. He never even responded. Some years later, one of my former graduate students was working as a post doc with a “Harvard Junior Fellow” working in Lewontin’s lab. I was in Boston for some meetings and my student tried to set up a meeting. Lewontin said he was not available. I visited my student anyway, and we ran into Lewontin in the elevator. So, I get it: I was beneath his notice. But still…

  7. I’m not familiar with his work or writings and only know of him through this website but many happy returns of the day!

  8. Had the pleasure of meeting him when he gave a talk at UMCP as your guest. The photo of him driving the farm tractor, as you called him a Communist, is forever in my mind. Happy Birthday Professor Lewontin.

  9. I was a graduate student of Roger Milkman, at Syracuse University,in 1967-8, when Dick spent a semester there organizing an Evolution conference. I took his course but languished as he attacked the blackboard with mind-numbing math. He showed up the last week of class and complained that the Registrar had actually asked him to assign grades. He announced that everyone would get a B (no exams, no written assignments). For an A in the course you would have to correctly demonstrate an error in any of his published work We got got B’s.
    Two years later I was an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow in Dick’s lab in Chicago.It was a truly amazing collection of very smart people. On a walk I asked him why he never flew to meetings, seminars, etc.. He said, look Ed when a boat, car or train loses power, it slows down. When a plane loses power it speeds up. Huh. Flawless logic.

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