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.
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.
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 a 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: