The obituaries for Dick Lewontin

July 23, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve been collecting links to published obituaries for Dick Lewontin, my Ph.D advisor who died on the Fourth of July this year at age 92. I wrote my own remembrances the next day, but knowing that there would be a lot of more formal pieces to come—pieces that emphasized his scientific accomplishments—I concentrated on his character, and on my relationship with him.

Sure enough, nearly all the pieces published deal mostly with his work (as they should)—almost invariably mentioning his partitioning of genetic variation between the then-recognized human “races”, his revelation of large amounts of genetic variation in natural populations of Drosophila, and his criticisms of sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, and biological determinism. A lot of them also mention his collaborations with Steve Gould, though as I learned in an interview with Dick (see below), Dick didn’t care much for Gould.

Most pieces give a nod to Dick’s character, but since the writers (with a few exceptions) didn’t know the man, his full measure requires a longer account, one that I’m probably not up for.  It would be like writing an obituary for your father.  There are too many stories and too many emotional ties.

There will be more obituaries to come (Science has not yet weighed in), but the sample below is sufficient to give you a decent overview of his life.

The New York Times

The Harvard Crimson 

The Harvard Gazette

Nature

The Times of London

The Telegraph

The Washington Post.

Santa Fe Institute

The Innocence Project (describes Dick’s work on forensic DNA)

Center for Genetics and Society

The Scientist

Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution

Because of our personal relationship, I’ve found the obituaries incomplete or insufficient, but that’s my fault, not the journalists’. Of all of them, I’ve found the best to be the new piece from the Times of London, and if you can’t access it, I’ll send you a pdf.

Here are two excerpts from it that I liked. First, a bit about Dick’s wife, Mary Jane, who wasn’t given enough space in the regular obituaries. Their relationship was perhaps the most important thing in Dick’s life, for they married at 18 and were the closest long-term couple I’ve ever known. As I wrote before, they were inseparable, and it was inconceivable to those of us who knew them that either could survive without the other. Long before Dick died, I worried about whether one of them would ever have to face life alone. It was a mercy that Mary Jane died just three days before Dick, and I can’t help but think that her passing had something to do with his own.

From the Times, some information I didn’t know about how they met at Forest Hills High School, a school for high achievers in New York:

The top-scoring student in the school, a socially conscious girl called Mary Jane Christianson, decided after hearing about the Nazi persecution of Jews that she should befriend her Jewish classmates. What began as a civic duty blossomed into romance, when she bonded with Lewontin over their shared love of the arts. She also encouraged his incipient radicalism. [JAC: So did Dick’s Chicago colleague Richard Levins, an ecologist whom Dick later brought to Harvard.]

They married at 18, and would remain together until her death, only three days before his. Their four sons survive them: Timothy, who became a librarian and novelist, David, who became an archaeologist and vintage car restorer, Stephen, who became a software engineer, and James, who leads a private life.

Here’s a photo of Dick and Mary Jane taken in Canterbury, UK, in 1971 by Stuart Newman:

About the fly kitchen, where we used to hang out and alter our consciousness in the off hours. The fly cooks (Harold Lee and Doreen in my days), were a great addition to the lab.

Yet Lewontin’s reputation was not only for acerbity in his criticism of academic rivals, but also for generosity to those he worked with. When given the chance to design an office space for himself and his students, he structured it around a large table, where everybody could debate ideas on an equal footing. He also bedecked the space with a taxidermied elk head and crocodile. At one corner of the floor was a large, airy room that he was expected to take as his own office. Instead, he gave it to the woman who washed the jars his fruit flies lived in, and took a cubby hole for himself. It was only fair, he thought, that the person with the worst job got the best office.

Here we are in the fly kitchen, probably around 1976. Top left to right: Russ Lande, Harold Lee (fly food cook, whom we all called “Swamp” for some reason), and Alex Felton (Dick’s technician). Bottom, Don Wallace (postdoc) and me:

I still have a 2 hour and 40 minute taped interview with Dick, and will try to make it available to those who are interested. It was commissioned by Current Biology, who asked for a brief interview. It took me years to even persuade Dick to let me tape him, for he spurned such efforts as aspects of a “personality cult.” I finally got the interview, and it was a great conversation. Sadly, it was way too long for Current Biology, even in condensed form.

8 thoughts on “The obituaries for Dick Lewontin

    1. I’d take very strong issue with the claim that Lewontin “demolished the modern synthesis.” He did no such thing; he only questioned the ubiquity of adaptation, a concept that he accepted in general.

      1. Counterpunch, which regularly publishes defamations of Israel that are classic expressions of left-wing anti-Semitism, with the usual ‘Anti-Zionism is not antis-Semitism’ poison-sugar coating, also exhibits a very typical Jacobin-style hostility to classical modern Darwinism, presumably because of the usual stupid conflation of biological Darwinisim with social Darwinism. To say that it’s an ideologically tainted source would be a considerable understatement. Caveat lector.

  1. If you are looking for a good home for the interview tape. Archive.org might be a good place to consider. I was also fascinated with your reference to Richard Levins who coined the term metapopulation which is today a cornerstone of conservation biology.

  2. I found your Lewontin obit especially interesting since I and my late husband Eric (who was a composer, author and critic) also were at Forest Hills High School together…..but never met! We met at Cornell when I was there and he was visiting a girl friend, and discovered our high school link (I recognized his name; at that time he was considered one of the “big men on campus”, i.e. one of the smartest and most intellectual students at the high school). He was a composer studying for his MA at Princeton University; I was the music critic for the Cornell Daily Sun, so music united us both.
    We married when I was 20 and he was just 22, and after graduation went to Rome for two years where he had a Fulbright scholarship. He died in November 2017; we had been married for 62 years. In addition to music we shared birding and collecting old master drawings. I imagine our story and that of the Lewontins is matched by many others of our time who preferred marriage to hookups.

  3. Would you ever consider putting up your interview with Lewontin on YouTube? At the very least it would act as a backup in case your original recording were to degrade or get damaged. Just a thought.

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