Some thoughts on Dick Lewontin’s obituary in the New York Times

July 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

Both the online and paper editions of today’s New York Times feature fairly long obituary of The Boss: my Ph.D advisor Dick Lewontin. It was written by science correspondent Natalie Angier, and you can access it by clicking on the screenshot below.

As he headline implies, and much of the text confirms (“a gleeful gadfly”, “Not everyone was enamored of Dr. Lewontin”, etc.), the “hook” used in the piece is Lewontin’s contrarianism: his opposition to stuff like genetic determinism, IQ studies, adaptationism, and sociobiology. To my taste, it makes him seem a bit more of an academic curmudgeon than he really was, but remember that I basically lived in his lab for six years. Yes, he was captious about science, but that was great for his students, who imbibed the essentially critical attitude needed for good science. But I never saw the man get angry, nor do I think he was, as described in the first paragraph of the piece, a “caustic writer”. In my view he was not caustic, but critical. He could take you down to size, though!

But in general it’s a very good summary of his life, concentrating (as these pieces must) on his contributions to science. Angier, after all, won a Pulitzer Prize for her science reporting.  I believe some of the material came from my own more personal memorial to Dick posted the other day, like his working-class attire and his holding hands with his wife in the movies. That’s fine with me.

A few corrections and comments (quotes from the piece are indented)

Dr. Lewontin first won scientific fame in the mid-1960s for research he conducted with John Hubby at the University of Chicago that revealed far greater genetic diversity among members of the same species than anybody had suspected.

That work upended existing notions that most genetic mutations are rare, harmful and soon swept from the breeding pool. The two men’s findings showed that, to the contrary, many different forms, or alleles, of the same genes can coexist indefinitely in wild populations of organisms, be they fruit flies, zebra finches, earthworms or zebras.

It would have been useful to mention that the work with Hubby on “members of the same species” was the fruit fly species Drosophila pseudoobscura. More important, Lewontin and Hubby did experimental work only on fruit flies, and didn’t show anything about “the degree of genetic variation in zebra finches, earthworms, or zebras”. Other people did that work much later. Lewontin and Hubby’s work (and that of Harry Harris in England) did inspire that later work, though.

Going on:

He was no fan of the massive federal Human Genome Project, which set out to map the entire sequence of human DNA, and he strongly objected to the notion that DNA is the “blueprint” for a human being. He considered the perpetual debate over race, I.Q. and heritability to be an irritating scam, a recrudescence of Nazi-inflected notions of eugenics and master races.

Even to begin to figure out how big a role genes played in intellectual life, he said, would require a large number of newborn infants to be raised in tightly controlled circumstances by caretakers who had no idea where the babies came from. “We should not be surprised that such a study has not been done,” he added.

Lewontin’s opposition to the Human Genome Project was, in retrospect, a big mistake. No, it won’t answer every question we have, but already knowing the genes we have has been of immense value in medicine, in paleoanthropology, and in evolutionary genetics of humans. As for IQ (I think that’s what the article means by “how big a role genes played in intellectual life”), we now have a pretty good idea that within human populations, about 75% of the variation among adult individuals is due to variation in their genes—that is, the “heritability” of IQ within a give population is about 0.75, or 75%. We have various ways of estimating that figure and they generally are close to each other. But one shouldn’t misinterpret heritability, as I pointed out in detail in a previous post. There are a number of ways a high heritability is misused, the most invidious being to assume that high values within a population imply that difference among populations also rest on genic differences. That’s a logical and scientific error.

Lewontin’s feud with Ed Wilson over sociobiology is described in detail, and is generally accurate. Lewontin couldn’t stand Wilson. Wilson had a more charitable attitude, though he felt blindsided by Lewontin and Gould’s attacks. I lived through that period at Harvard. I was Dick’s student but also taught Ed’s Bio 1 class twice and was friends with Wilson’s collaborators, students, and postdocs. I thus shuttled between warring labs from time to time. In the end, I think, Lewontin lost that debate, as evolutionary psychology, despite some flaws, has proven to be a useful and vital field, and friendly with Wilson himself. And of course sociobiology, applied to animals in general, is well ensconced as part of organismal biology.
Part of this bit, however, seems inaccurate:

It was Dr. Lewontin’s break with another old friend, Dr. Wilson, that proved the more harrowing and long-lasting. Dr. Lewontin in 1975 attacked Dr. Wilson’s 700-page blockbuster, “Sociobiology: A New Synthesis,” as the work of a modern, industrial Western “ideologue.” Inspired by this and similar critiques, a group of demonstrators at a 1978 scientific meeting dumped a bucket of water over Dr. Wilson’s head.

The ill will persisted for many years, but friends said the two men had recently reconciled with a handshake, calling each other worthy adversaries.

I’d love to hear about that handshake, as I know nothing about it. (I assume it’s true.) As for the bucket-of-water incident, though, I believe that’s inaccurate: the stories seem to have settled on one radical science person approaching Wilson, who was sitting at a dais in a lecture room, and tossing cup of water on Wilson while saying, “Wilson, you’re all wet!” The “pitcher of ice water” poured over Wilson may well be an apocryphal tale that persists widely. I cannot be sure.

UPDATE: In a comment below, Ira Flatow says he was there and it was indeed a pitcher of water. I stand corrected.

Finally, I liked the fact that Natalie emphasized Dick’s refusal to put his name on his students’ papers:

He had habits of dress: “Khaki pants, work boots, work shirt — in solidarity with workers,” Dr. Coyne said. He had habits of principle, notably of authorship: Many senior scientists are listed as authors on research reports done entirely by their students, but Dr. Lewontin would have none of it. If you didn’t do any of the work, he insisted, you don’t get to take any of the credit.

It’s telling that at his faux-retirement dinner, when asked to say a few words, Dick talked almost entirely about how none of us, his students and colleagues, should take credit for work that we didn’t do—or didn’t do much of. That came from his egalitarianism, his spirit of fairness, and his desire to see young folk get the credit they needed to advance in science. As Sara Hrdy says in the article when criticizing Dick for being “unfair” to E. O. Wilson, “Dick was a complicated man.” I’m not sure I’d use the adjective “complicated”, for while he was a polymath and multitalented, he wasn’t that hard to figure out, even if none of us could come close to him in intellect and achievement. I’d say a “great” man, but of course I’m one of those whom Angier describes in the first sentence of this paragraph:

Many of his students and colleagues regarded him with an awe that tipped toward reverence, describing him as equally gifted at abstruse quantitative research, popular writing and public speaking; a Renaissance scholar who spoke fluent French, wrote treatises in Italian, worked with Buckminster Fuller on his geodesic domes and played chamber music on the clarinet with his pianist wife, Mary Jane. He was also a volunteer firefighter and a self-described Marxist who chopped his own wood.

In the end, Angier did a very good job, and the only reason I have quibbles is because I was so close to her subject.

To close, here are three pictures that limn the man’s life. First, two photos of a very young Lewontin; these were taken at the Cold Spring Harbor population-genetics meetings in 1955, when Dick would have been 26. I never saw him wear a bowtie, and rarely a tie.

This is a picture that all his students knew about and got a huge kick from. Cold Spring Harbor labels it “Richard Lewontin; E. B. Ford (eating clams at Neptune’s Cave)”. Ford, of course, was a famous British ecological geneticist.

And a photo I’ve shown before: Lewontin on his 90th birthday in 2019. It was taken by Andrew Berry:


30 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Dick Lewontin’s obituary in the New York Times

  1. RIP Prof Lewontin. I recently ordered his BIOLOGY AND IDEOLOGY and THE TRIPLE HELIX. Great communicator of science and society.

    And thanks Prof Lewontin for plugging Prof Coyne’s book WHY EVOLUTION IS TRUE.

  2. The Times has the name of E.O. Wilson’s 1975 book wrong; it’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (emphasis added). I recall there being some speculation at the time that Wilson’s use of the definite article in his title — suggesting that his was the only “new synthesis” — may have raised some hackles.

  3. Richard Lewontin was of my parent’s generation. It is good to have known as many from this generation and even earlier if you can. That he chopped his own wood is a phrase that tells. My grandfather had a similar saying – chop your own wood and you get warm twice.

  4. Regarding those elevator trips involving Lewontin and Wilson, I’ve heard an anecdote (though, of course, I can’t vouch for its authenticity) that, when Wilson got back to his myrmecological roots in 1990 by publishing his tome The Ants, Lewontin made a single comment to him to him in the lift to the effect that “It’s nice to see you’re doing science again, Ed.” Then it was back to additional years of silence.

  5. It seems as if Lewontin would have been in the uber woke crowd if he were active now. Would you agree with this?

    1. This question seems to be in poor taste. Whether or not he identified as ‘uber woke’ seems to be something he could have let us know if he wanted.

    2. That seems extremely unlikely. The myth of woke Marxists seems to come up every other day. In brief, the woke are a histrionic, neo-liberal, moderate to right wing Democratic faction with a hyperfocus on Democrat, “minority” identity politics. They were against Bernie Sanders, whom they prevented, and who was the old style, social democratic, class-aware candidate. Because of the woke’s focus on identity at the expense of virtually everything else, they have had strong critics from actual leftists, socialists and Marxists. With that established, here is an excerpt from Lewontin, reviewing Carl Sagan’s famous “A Demon-Haunted World”

      The most widely circulated American socialist journal of the time (The Appeal to Reason!) was published not in New York, but in Girard, Kansas, and in the presidential election of 1912 Eugene Debs got more votes in the poorest rural counties of Texas and Oklahoma than he did in the industrial wards of northern cities. Sentiment was extremely strong against the banks and corporations that held the mortgages and sweated the labor of the rural poor, who felt their lives to be in the power of a distant eastern elite. The only spheres of control that seemed to remain to them were family life, a fundamentalist religion, and local education.

      This sense of an embattled culture was carried from the southwest to California by the migrations of the Okies and Arkies dispossessed from their ruined farms in the 1930s. There was no serious public threat to their religious and family values until well after the Second World War. Evolution, for example, was not part of the regular biology curriculum when I was a student in 1946 in the New York City high schools, nor was it discussed in school textbooks. In consequence there was no organized creationist movement. Then, in the late 1950s, a national project was begun to bring school science curricula up to date. A group of biologists from elite universities together with science teachers from urban schools produced a new uniform set of biology textbooks, whose publication and dissemination were underwritten by the National Science Foundation. An extensive and successful public relations campaign was undertaken to have these books adopted, and suddenly Darwinian evolution was being taught to children everywhere. The elite culture was now extending its domination by attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children.

      The result was a fundamentalist revolt, the invention of “Creation Science,” and successful popular pressure on local school boards and state textbook purchasing agencies to revise subversive curricula and boycott blasphemous textbooks.
      source: “Billions of Billions of Demons” by Richard Lewontin

      That’s showing understanding of the “deplorables”, and is a position today carried by a few independent left personalities, say Noam Chomsky, Adolph Reed, Thomas Frank, etc, and a few independent podcasts and media. They are opposite to wokeness.

      1. Interesting, thanks for the excerpt. I had no idea he reviewed that work of Sagan’s. I’ll have to pick that up. And you make a good case that Prof. Lewontin wouldn’t have been a wokester.

        1. The Varieties of Scientific Experience is one of my favorite atheist books.

          Demon-Haunted World is good too; but not nearly as good, IMO.

          I think Varieties is better because it is the transcripts of a series of lectures, which kept the content tightly focused.

        1. Marx didn’t want equality of outcome. Most people know the quote mine, and think he wanted it, but behold what the context says that ends with the famous phrase. Emphasis added by me.

          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.“Critique of the Gotha Programme”, Karl Marx, 1875

          In other words, Marx did not envision a Harrison Bergeron style dystopia. It’s unwarranted to assume Lewontin did, or that he didn’t know Marx’ ideas, to which he subscribed to.

  6. I am totally guessing here but perhaps Lewontin’s objection to the Human Genome Project was more a reaction to the hype surrounding it rather than the science itself. I remember lots of articles about how it would revolutionize medicine and such. Of course that’s true but not immediately and it’s not the whole answer. Perhaps his rejection of Wilson’s sociobiology was a similar overreaction to the surrounding hype. Ok, I’m getting off the limb now.

  7. The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has a very dark view of Lewontin, describing him as a brilliant man who, for entirely political reasons,

    “turned his back on natural selection and decided to emphasize the importance of random factors, which of course produced no patterns of particular interest, nor any insight into the function of genes and traits. This I believe he did for political grounds, emasculating his own discipline in order to render it sterile regarding human behavior and genetics.”

    Trivers describes Lewontin as dishonest. “Lewontin would sometimes admit, in private at least, that some of his assertions were indeed fabrications, but he said the fight was ideological and political—they lied and so would he.”

    I don’t have any idea if Trivers, although clearly a brilliant man, is reliable in his assessments. But I do get the sense that Professor Coyne, though revering Lewontin, acknowledged that he sometimes took positions for political rather than scientific reasons.

    1. Dick’s views were clearly influenced by politics, as in his revulsion toward biological determinism. But never, in all the years I knew him, did I hear him say that he was pushing fabrications for political reasons. And I knew Dick far better than Trivers did.

  8. I have followed your “website” for some time and have read your many references to Prof. Lewontin, but I have to confess I don’t know how to pronounce his last name!

      1. For some reason, I’ve been pronouncing it Loon-tin. Two-syllables. Ack. I’m glad to know the correct pronunciation.

    1. Before Prof. Lewontin was at Chicago, he worked at Rochester. The wise old staff member in charge of keeping the UofR Biology Department’s teaching labs running continued to refer to him as “Louie” for at least two or three decades.

  9. It was a pitcher of water, where E.O. Wilson was giving a talk, dumped on his head. I was in the room where it happened. (And not a “bucket”.) The “Science For the People” movement was protesting various presentations.

  10. I’ve been wondering if Dick and Mary Jane had children…

    And thanks for highlighting and commenting on Angier’s obit.

    1. Doesn’t seem like it. From the Wiki:

      Personal life

      As of 2003, Lewontin was the Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard. He has worked with and had great influence on many philosophers of biology, including William C. Wimsatt, Elliott Sober, Philip Kitcher, Elisabeth Lloyd, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Sahotra Sarkar, and Robert Brandon, often inviting them to work in his lab.

      Since 2013, Lewontin has been listed on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Science Education.[25]

      As of mid-2015, Lewontin and his wife Mary Jane lived on a farm in Brattleboro, Vermont. He was an atheist.[26]

      Lewontin died on July 4, 2021, at the age of 92.[3][27]

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