Dick Lewontin, 1929-2021

July 5, 2021 • 9:00 am

Although my Ph.D. advisor Richard Lewontin—known to everyone as “Dick” and to his students as “The Boss”—hadn’t been well lately and wasn’t receiving visitors, the news of his death yesterday at 92 was still a shock. He was without doubt the most important figure in my career as an evolutionary geneticist, helping mold me in both academic and behavioral ways. I can’t imagine a better advisor, and I loved the man. I can offer only a few words in memoriam, and forgive me if this is the only post I put up today.

Dick’s death in Cambridge, Massachusetts came only three days after that of his beloved wife, Mary Jane (below, left). They were the closest couple I knew. They had been high-school sweethearts and I believe got married when they were around 20. They were inseparable until their deaths. Dick went home to have lunch with her every day, and they read literature to each other in bed each night. Their pet names for each other were “Mr. and Mrs. Bloom”, after Joyce’s characters.  To those who knew both of them, it was inconceivable that either could live without the other. It was thus a mercy that neither had to do that that for more than a few days.

As a grad student, I once encountered Dick and Mary Jane when my partner and I were going to the movies at the Harvard Square Theater. We chatted in line, and then Dick said, “Excuse us if we don’t sit with you, but Mary Jane and I like to sit in the balcony and hold hands.” He was not making that up.

Mary Jane Lewontin (l) and Rosario Levins (wife of Dick’s close colleague Dick Levins); photo by Stuart Newman, 1973.

It’s hard to think that when I first met Dick, in 1971 at the University of Chicago, where I was accepted to be his student, he was only 42.  I was thereafter drafted as a conscientious objector, took a Wanderhalbjahr, and then, after a detour as a prospective student of Dick’s own advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, called up Dick to say I was ready to join his lab. Unfortunately, he’d taken a position at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, had forgotten about me while negotiating the transfer of his five Chicago grad students, and I was stuck. I had to wangle myself into Harvard on my own, and managed to do so with the help of E. O. Wilson, a story I told here.  I was in Dick’s lab for five years as a grad student and then, unable to find a job, I stayed on for another year as a postdoc.

Here’s what Dick looked like about the time I entered his lab:

Source

Dick ran his lab as an egalitarian commune. His office was no fancier than ours, and all the offices were arrayed around a large room containing a ten-foot map table procured from the geographers at Harvard. You couldn’t get to your office without passing that table, which of course was Dick’s design to facilitate interaction. A lot of science was proposed, vetted, and criticized at that table.

Why was he such a good advisor? For one thing, his lab was always full of smart people to learn from: not just the other students, but a constant parade of visiting scholars and luminaries passing through or staying a few months. In that way you got to meet almost everyone in evolutionary genetics. You can see the breadth of Dick’s academic lineage here (note: it goes on for several pages). Dick himself was fiercely smart, a terrific writer, and ferociously eloquent, which, while giving us all a role model, made some of us discouraged, realizing we’d never even get close to his level of achievement and intelligence. For two years I thought about dropping out of Harvard, but realized that, in the end, Dick was not typical of people in the field and that, with hard work, I might accomplish something worthwhile.

As an advisor, Dick insisted that you find your own Ph.D. thesis project. As he told me, when he went to work in Theodosius Dobzhansky’s lab, and was looking for a research problem, Dobzhansky told him, in his high and nasal Russian voice, “I have my research problem. What’s yours?” And so we had to find our own. Unlike many advisors (whose proportion is increasing over time), Dick did not tell you to do research that somehow slotted into his NIH grant or his own research plan. You thought up your project, and he funded it.

The result was that every student in the lab worked on a very different problem, though the overriding theme of the lab, and of Dick’s later work, was measuring the degree of genetic variation in natural populations. Dick and Jack Hubby had pioneered the use of gel electrophoresis at Chicago: a way to visualize variant forms of enzymes produced by mutation. His goal, and the theme of his 1974 book The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, was to measure the amount of genetic variation at different loci in the genome, and then to understand why it was there. (That, too, had been a major goal of his advisor Dobzhansky.)  My own contribution was to expand electrophoresis by changing the biochemical conditions of running gels, which revealed a tremendous increase in the amount of variation at many loci. But that only increased the puzzle. Dick’s solution in his 1974 book proved unsatisfactory, and we still don’t understand the reason for so much variation, though the variants could well be selectively equivalent (“neutral”).

Besides the independence he afforded us, Dick was always available to talk or provide moral or financial support. His office door was always open, and if you needed an expensive piece of equipment, all you had to do was ask. He also kept the lab afloat in strong coffee, which was available for purchase with grant funds from the departmental stockroom. I remember that the NIH once audited the lab’s finances, and the auditor, seeing the huge budget for canned coffee, asked Dick, “What is all this coffee for?” Dick responded, “For drinking.”

Below: Lewontin in his office door labeled “Dr. O. Sophila”. You can see a bunch more pictures taken when I was in the lab at this post.  Dick’s attire was always the same: a work shirt, khaki pants, and work boots (topped with a green sweater in winter). We once found a label that had fallen out of his shirt, and it read “Brooks Brothers Gentleman’s Work Shirt”. We gave him a lot of guff about that! Some Marxist!

Perhaps most important, Dick had a strong sense of ethics which he took care to instill in all of us. If he thought a scientist was overselling their data, he would write them off—forever. (I won’t name names.) He refused to put his name on any papers from his lab in which he didn’t have a substantial role. I remember when I wrote my first paper about gel electrophoresis, I typed out a draft and put, on the author line “Jerry A. Coyne and Richard C. Lewontin.”  I put it on his desk for vetting.

The next day the paper was returned to me with, among the other comments, his name crossed out as author. He told me, “Don’t ever do that again.” It was drummed into us that adding your name to a student’s paper was bad form, which caused what he called “The Matthew Effect” (from the Biblical verse, “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) Taking credit for your students’ work, he said, was a cheap way to make a name for yourself, which should be made based on your own work and ideas. Dick didn’t count providing research advice or helping rewrite papers as a “contribution.”

When we held a celebration in his honor since he showed no signs of retiring in 1998, 150 of his colleagues showed up at “DickFest”. Here’s the gang; you may recognize some of the famous scientists in here. Andrew Berry and I organized it; it was Andrew who informed me yesterday of Dick’s death. (Andrew is in the very front of the photo below.) I’ve circled Dick:

DickFest ended with a celebratory meal in the very corridors of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. At the end, we asked Dick to say a few words, and he stood up briefly in front of a tank containing a coelacanth preserved in formalin. (He noted the irony of that.) But his brief talk had only one point: “DO NOT PUT YOUR NAME ON YOUR STUDENTS’ PAPERS”. That was the message he wanted to impart, and one he himself got from Dobzhansky, who adhered to that practice as well. And Dobzhansky got it from Thomas Hunt Morgan, the Nobel Laureate who was also generous with credit. When it came my turn to say a few words at CoyneFest five years ago, I said exactly the same thing.

Sadly, the competition for fame and, especially, jobs is such that few professors can afford to leave their names off student papers: they are mostly lab managers and do little science with their own hands.

I find it hard to recount Dick’s scientific accomplishments—not because I don’t know them, but because they’re already well known and you can read about them in many places, including here and here. He made fundamental contributions in theoretical population genetics, in experimental population genetics (out of his lab came the first assays of genetic variation at individual loci using both electrophoresis and DNA sequencing), and even in ecology. He never wrote a trivial paper. I will leave it to others, in the spate of obituaries to come, to recount his achievements in detail.

Dick was an avowed Marxist, and on this we disagreed. But he kept his lab’s science separate from his politics, and it caused no friction. It did motivate both him and Steve Gould (also at Harvard) to attack biological determinism and especially sociobiology, a fight that persisted throughout my time at Harvard. E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, had his lab only one floor up from ours. They did not speak to each other when I was there, though it was Ed who helped recruit Dick to Harvard from Chicago.

Lewontin was a prolific author of popular pieces, especially in the New York Review of Books. You can read many of those article here. He was a terrific writer, but didn’t have the ambition to be a public figure on the order of, say, Steve Gould or Carl Sagan. When he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he resigned his membership after finding out that some of the members were working for the Department of Defense.

Eventually Dick did retire, but he never seemed to age. I don’t think his hair turned gray until he was about 75. In the last decade or so his short-term memory began to fade, though he always could remember the past. In 2009 I interviewed him for several hours about his life and career for a piece for Current Biology, but it went on for so long that I couldn’t find a way to shorten or publish it. I still have a recording of the interview that I need to place somewhere, and may make it available to readers.

I’ll end by alluding to an anecdote I’ve told before, recounting how Lewontin caught me buck naked in his office one night. You can read about it here; the nudity, while embarrassing, had nothing to do with sex. It’s a tribute to Dick’s sense of humor that he accepted my explanation and then forgot about it.

Below: a few photos and a video that will give you a sense of Lewontin’s presence.

A group of us in Dick’s lab around 1976. (More photos are here.) Top left to right: Russ Lande, Harold Lee (fly food cook), and Alex Felton (Dick’s technician). Bottom, Don Wallace (postdoc) and me:

A photo taken by Andrew Berry in Oct. 2017 when we visited Dick at his assisted living facility in Cambridge. This is where he died. I am demonstrating my fealty to the Great Man.

From a post I put up on March 30, 2019:

 Greg Mayer visiting Dick in, July 2019. Note that after he retired, Dick replaced his khakis with jeans, and donned a lumberjack shirt.

The autograph Dick put in my copy of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change:

When Dick asked me to review a paper for a journal in which he was editor, I did a good job and got this note of approbation, which still hangs on my office wall:

 

To give you a sense of what talking to Dick was like, here’s a video in which he discusses diverse matters with Harry Kreisler on a visit to Berkeley to give a series of lectures. Kreisler’s first question is “What drew you into the sciences?” Dick’s answer: “A charistmatic high school teacher.” Dick was one of those charismatic teachers and, along with Bruce Grant of The College of William and Mary, was one of the two teachers who drew me into evolutionary biology.

Note the work shirt, khakis, and green sweater.

And so it’s goodbye at last, Dick. It was great having you on loan from the Universe for so long.

74 thoughts on “Dick Lewontin, 1929-2021

  1. This is particularly crushing – a happy marriage – I am glad to have learned of the science and personal sides from this website.

  2. Thanks Jerry for a lovely eulogy. Dick was never comfortable being a ‘great man’, but he was one.
    I had two great years with him, on my postdoc. As I spent my postdoc doing population genetics modelling I ended up having a lot of time with him, and not a few disagreements around natural selection and genetic drift, which I enjoyed tremendously.

    I can definitely confirm Dick’s strong views on authorship. He must have taken his name of a great many papers over the years. I only published one paper out of my postdoc, and though Dick did not do any of the work, he read it very carefully, including the math parts of the stochastic modelling. I was grateful for his time and attention and so put his name in the acknowledgements of my paper. Dick really did not want me to do that, but I insisted.

    Jody

  3. I knew Dick briefly at the tail end of his life and wish I had known him for longer. He was a uniquely lovely human. I did however have to deal with the anger of the hereptology collection folks when they discovered some forty years later the crocodile that Dick et al. had “borrowed” from the now-empty MCZ attic at the end of the Vietnam war. It was living up near the ceiling in the grad student offices of the lab that had moved into Dick’s old space.

  4. It is sad to hear of Dick and Mary Jane’s deaths. I’ll try to get something up in the next day or two at Panda’s Thumb. I note that the big symposium photo from the DickFest included not only many of Dick’s students, but many grandstudents as well. As you have made clear, Dick was a wonderful advisor, enormously stimulating, but kind and tolerant (and I needed that tolerance). An important contribution in his work that few are aware of: when he and Jack Hubby wrote the revolutionary 1966 electrophoresis paper, he wrote the section that clearly outlined the major possible explanations for the massive genetic variation that they found. They clearly explained the possibility of neutral variation. Although they did not advocate it as the leading explanation, this was the first clear exposition of neutral genetic variation (Crow and Kimura’s 1964 presentation was as a null case for multiallele overdominance). Dick doesn’t get the credit he deserves for that.

  5. I was going to come right out and tell you that you’re incredibly gifted at writing eulogies, but then I realized that you would probably dismiss that and truthfully point out that you were writing about an incredibly gifted man. But I’ll drop the hint here anyway.

    Richard Lewontin was amazing on multiple levels. My goodness. What a life.

  6. My condolences, Jerry. As a layperson, I appreciated Lewontin through his principled left wing, anti-racist, working class attitude, and the compassion he apparently had for what many liberals see as stupid “deplorables” in flyover America. Your “cobbled together” piece here was a great eulogy to the comrade, thank you.

  7. My memories from taking Dick’s class in population genetics, ~ 1974. “Harvard does not allow me to run this class on a pass/fail basis, so you will have to take an exam at the end. You will all get a “B”. If anybody here needs an “A” to get into medical school, come and see me after class”.

    I hated many things about Harvard, but Dick was one of the people who made it all worthwhile.

    I definitely inherited that frank, forthright and mocking of the official system that people like Dick promoted, much to the dismay of the students who I currently teach who are used to their professors being mealy-mouthed and PC.

    I’m not sure why Jack (Sepkoski) and I aren’t in that Dickfest photo— perhaps we’d already snuck off to the pub.

    1. Sorry for your loss, Jerry. Do you have the mp3 I created from the interview you did with Dick that I pulled off the recorder you loaned me? If not, I can share it with you in case you want to post it on this site.

      1. Hi David,

        Yes, I have it safe and sound; you sent it to me a while back. Nobody has asked for it, but I suppose it should eventually go with his papers, wherever they wind up. Cheers,jac

        1. Dick’s papers are at the American Philosophical Society–the last installment was delivered a couple years ago. The interview should definitely go there. I can make the arrangements if you want and have the archivist contact you for approval. I also might be able to hire a grad student to transcribe the interview. If you have any other Lewontonia you think should go in his collection (photos, letters, etc.) let me know and I can help with that.

          1. Yes, the interview should go there and should be transcribed, and perhaps part of it published as Current Bio. asked. We’ll ponder this. I also have a bunch of Lewontoniana that might belong there, too.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful remembrance and in particular providing the video of his 2003 interview with Harry Kreisler at Berkely. The interview is important viewing for any scientist or engineer…or really any informed citizen.

  9. Condolences.

    What an incredible video of Dick Lewontin. For a layperson I gained so much from watching this. Especially his ideas on politics injected into science. He was a very principled person.

    You wrote a beautiful eulogy.
    Thank you Jerry.

  10. Deepest condolences to you, Jerry, for the loss of a mentor and friend.

    It is a tribute to both of you that you have modeled in your own life Lewontin’s scientific competence and his ethics. When your own students carry on this legacy, the contribution goes out not linearly, but exponentially.

    L

  11. A wonderful and moving post.

    I don’t know if it’s possible for you but I do believe it customary that someone write up a multi page journal remembrance of great scientists after their death. You would be well- suited to the task, with your recorded interview perhaps even a full-fledged biography. But even if that never happens, your recorded interview will be valuable to history.

    Thank you for sharing your memories with us.

  12. Thanks, Jerry, for your impressive and moving eulogy of Dick Lewontin. I became slightly acquainted with Dick during British sabbatical, and then with him and Mary Jane during a very agreeable boat trip from Southampton to NYC. By the way, your account of Dick’s general refusal to put his name on his grad students’ manuscripts reminded me of a very different Harvard biologist who followed exactly the same policy, and was also a famously helpful research guide for his students: Jim Watson.

  13. Let me add my own memories related to this man, who represented an important figure for me in the years of my formation as a politically oriented scientist.
    I visited Dick’s lab at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1992 for just a couple of months, but my family and I (my wife Lucia and our sons Gianluca and Riccardo, who were of school age) have strong memories of those days. Dick picked us up at the airport and took us to our lodging house, which he himself helped find. He also managed to find a lab where Lucia, a biologist, could learn some new techniques.
    I remember that large table in the central room, and the small offices around it, and I remember Dick explaining proudly to me that it was his design. During the stay, I worked on pedigree data I brought with me from Italy, on a Mendelian age-dependent penetrance syndrome. When I showed him a paper I had drafted, he crossed out his author name, but I insisted, as I wanted to leave some sort of record of that experience, and eventually he complied (Ann.Hum.Genet., 57: 105-115, 1993).
    I haven’t met Dick since then, because I followed a different scientific path, but the memory of this very special person and scientist is simply unforgettable.

    1. Dr Coyne, I was wondering if Dr Lewontin ever gave his thoughts on Science vs Faith? I know he praised Why Evolution is True…

  14. A wonderful eulogy for an amazing human. You’re lucky to have known and been so close to him. I always get choked up when I hear about “soul mates” who die within a few days of one another; two people who are so entwined, they even die together. Love. Take care and very sorry for your loss.

  15. A very moving remembrance – and a wonderful celebration of the personal aspects of a great life and career.

  16. I was moved to tears by the story of Mary Jane and Dick. Many important points in the interview that are very relevant today.

  17. Lovely memories of clearly a wonderful man. Sometimes I feel that the greater the sorrow upon the loss the greater and more impactful the person must have been. How fantastic for you to have such marvellous memories of your time with him. Sadly I agree with you that a lot of scientists today are so busy playing the game of getting funding that they have little time for the science.

    Condolences

  18. I am sorry for the loss of your friend and mentor. Dick was a wonderful man and great scientist.

  19. My condolences too; but how deserving he was of such a beautifully written encomium. Thank you.

  20. A lovely tribute. My condolences to you and your friends.

    I note with sadness that the habit of professors being lab managers and having their students and postdocs do all the work for their publications that their names go on is also prevalent in psychology and is spreading into adjacent fields.

  21. Thank you for the memoriam. You are lucky to have had a mentor who is both a great scientist and great human being. I think you share those same qualities and that is why I enjoy WEIT.

  22. My condolences. It is a great loss to lose your mentor, especially such a great one as Dick Lewontin. Thank you for giving us an idea about the greatness of the man he was.

  23. Thank you, Jerry, for this moving tribute to Dick. Many of you reading this tribute will be too young to have known Dick or to have watched him in action Please watch the interview Jerry posted with Harry Kreisler. Intellect, charm, magnetism – the entire human package – on display. Indeed, borrowed from the universe. Again, thanks.

    1. Note that Marty is not only my colleague in my department here, but overlapped with me for several years in Dick’s lab, and was the author of the first paper to survey natural populations for the degree of genetic variation in DNA sequence at a single gene.

  24. A life well-lived. Very touching that he and his wife took their leave of us more or less together.

  25. Lovely… he walks into the history of biology.

    I laughed at two or three things in your tribute – you clearly enjoyed working with him.

    Thanks for sharing your memories of your friend.

      1. Dr Coyne, I was wondering if Dr Lewontin ever gave his thoughts on Science vs Faith? I know he praised Why Evolution is True…

  26. Thanks, Jerry. A moving description of a truly great man.

    A favorite moment for me was getting into the lab at 7 am one day to find Dick at the table with my DNA sequence printout unrolled along its length. He was underlining polymorphisms. I pitched a fit and told him to at least let me have the pleasure of finding the answer first. The point – he was so excited about the science he simply couldn’t not look! I loved him for that enthusiasm and we ended up underlining together for several hours! Thanks for bringing him alive in your post. I miss him dearly….

  27. Wonderful piece, Jerry, Thank you. RIP Mr. Lewontin.

    I would be curious to hear how your Marxist/Capitalist discussions went.

    I find that Marxists are usually idealists. When I encounter a Marxist, I ask: Why would anyone work hard or defer gratification if some buro or agency is going to enforce equal outcomes? (Maybe they would [the Marxist]; but the generality of humanity certainly will not. Many do not do so even when such behavior is rewarded.)

    1. Which Marxist has ever argued in favour of ‘equal outcomes’? Here is Marx:

      ======================

      But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only – for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. *To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.*

      ======================

      From here:

      https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm

      May I respectfully suggest, therefore, that you familiarise yourself with Marxism in future before you comment?

  28. Thank you for the shared stories. Just found out about your blog. At least some good came out of Lewontin’s passing. I am a brazilian biology student, and Lewontin is a theoretical and political reference of mine. He is well known in my university, mostly thanks to our Evolution teacher. His legacy lives on.

  29. It’s perhaps worth noting that Lewontin also had great impact on the philosophy of biology through his mentorship. Several of the most important and influential philosophers of biology over the last 40 or more years spent time in his lab, and he co-authored papers with many philosophers of biology. The only time I met him personally was at a conference in honor of the philosopher of science Hugh Lacey, who was retiring from Swarthmore. Lewontin gave a very nice talk, and spent a good deal of time chatting and talking with students after the event. Meeting one’s intellectual heroes doesn’t always go well, but that was certainly an exception.

  30. My condolences, Jerry. Thanks for taking us aiong on your touching journey down memory lane. Prof. Lewontin’s life must have been full of love … love of his work, his students, his colleagues, and his family.

  31. My condolences and thanks for your moving eulogy for this great scientist, great mentor and great friend. That he was all three to you and many others wasn’t hard to tell from your many posts that mention him.
    It’s especially touching that he left only three days after his wife. I would have guessed that they had a very close and long lasting relationship if you hadn’t already mentioned it. So in this sense also my heartfelt condolences and best wishes to his family.

  32. I will remember him, fondly and gratefully, not merely for his brilliance, eloquence, and creativity but also for his intellectual courage, his generosity, and his empathy. He used humor to set others at ease. He demonstrated true interest in provocative ideas, whatever their source. He applied rigor to test even his most favored suspicions.

    Your piece rightly emphasizes, through his marriage, his bonds of affection. In this spirit, I wish to simply also appreciate the deep friendship and enduring collaboration he sustained with Dick Levins. Part Laurel and Hardy, part Lennon and McCartney. All head, and all heart.

  33. Jerry, thank you for writing this. You describe Dick well. He was simultaneously clear-sighted and compassionate, and my time in his lab was life-changing. I’ve carried so many lessons from him with me — about science, mentoring, and being a human being in the world.

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