Celebrating Dick Lewontin

April 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

by Greg Mayer

As regular readers of WEIT know, Jerry’s major professor, Dick Lewontin, died last July at the age of 92. On March 29, 2022, which would have been Dick’s 93rd birthday, a memorial event was held virtually (see website here) to celebrate his life and work. Over 150 of Dick’s family, friends, students, and colleagues attended; a video of the event has been posted on Youtube.

During the event, which was hosted by Andrew Berry, sixteen speakers, representing only a sampling of the diverse facets of Dick’s life, each gave a brief reminiscence. The speakers were Stephen Lewontin (family), Ian Franklin (CSIRO Australia), Doug Futuyma (Stonybrook U), Dan MacArthur (Marlboro, Vt), Marc Feldman (Stanford U), David and Kathy Rosner (Columbia U), Lenard Diggins (Mass. General Hospital), Deborah Gordon (Stanford U), Peter Neufeld (Innocence Project), Dan Hartl (Harvard U), Peg Riley (U Mass Amherst), Einar Árnason (U Iceland), Sally Otto (U British Columbia), Michael Dietrich (U Pittsburgh), Diane Paul (U Mass Boston), and Dan Weinreich (Brown U). Ian Franklin’s remarks, because of the time difference, were taped.

Andrew managed to get all the speakers in during the allotted two hours. (I marveled at how deftly he handled so many speakers, getting them to run smoothly and on time, later remarking to him that he would make a first class cat-wrangler! ) He also showed a few clips of interviews with Dick and a selection of photos. He also read a couple of excerpts from written remembrances, including Jerry’s account of when he ran into Dick and his wife Mary Jane at the Harvard Square Theater, and they went up to the balcony to hold hands. After the main program, attendees broke out into various subsections for continued reminiscing and virtual reunions.
Vt Christmas. Photo: Nora Lewontin-Rojas.

Among the things I learned about Dick were two that came as a bit of a surprise. First, Dick enjoyed the birds in Vermont. He always seemed fairly indifferent to natural history, so I was glad to learn that he at least appreciated it around his home. Second, he was a great devotee of full Christmas celebrations with his grandkids, including all the corny details, like leaving something out for Santa to eat, and then eating it so it would be gone when the grandkids got up in the morning. It wasn’t a surprise that he indulged his grandkids– Dick always liked kids– but rather that a secular Jewish atheist would choose a traditional Christmas as the way to do it!

The Celebrating Dick Lewontin website has quite a bit beyond the video, including pages with Stories, thoughts, memories; In print: obituaries and more; Lab (and more) photos (including albums from various time periods, with photos of Jerry and yours truly); and Photos of RCL (with various albums, including some Christmas photos).

The organizing committee consisted of Andrew Berry, Diane Paul, Hamish Spencer, Deborah Gordon, Joe Felsenstein, Mike Dietrich, Elliott Sober, Brian Charlesworth, Rama Singh, Einar Árnarson, and Dan Weinreich, with the first four forming the core committee. My thanks to Andrew and all of them for a job well done.

12 thoughts on “Celebrating Dick Lewontin

  1. I recently read Prof. Lewontin’s old Human Diversity book from 1982 or 1983. Probably didn’t notice it before reading this website regularly.

    I really liked how he used the freedom in that format to address a general audience reader who might wonder what general insights all the obscure and grueling basic research out of academia could offer us – and importantly, where there was folly and why.

    Perhaps outdated as a book at this point, but an excellent study in … perhaps … narrative scientific writing.

    I almost could say I sensed his personality! That’s exceptional writing.

  2. I just read a good book about the early human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus, called Fossil Men, in which R. Lewontin is referenced for, along with S. J. Gould, coming up with the term spandrel for a morphological feature that arose as a side effect of larger changes (that were adaptive).

    1. IIRC, from Gould, “spandrel” was a well-established term in architecture, and it was Gould who … exapted (?) it for the (bio-)morphological use.
      Checking Wiki, it seems the biological usage is from a joint publication by Gould and Lewontin in the late 1970s.

      1. This is an elegant, precise use of a word, and I clearly recall Steven Pinker writing – or, possibly speaking – the word “spandrel” as a rationalization of the human brain’s response to music – or what music does. I was quite struck by that, but I can’t recall in what book I read it. I have to explain it to people when I decide to use “spandrel”, it is so useful. Definitely not a look-I-can-use-a-thesaurus word.

        Very expressive. Amazing that only three scientific writers AFAIK used it so well.

        [ ad campaign ]
        “Spandrel” – try it today!

        BTW I think there’s more to music than that, but I digress….

  3. I got two Dick Lewontin “B’s” in the courses I took from him when I was a graduate student in the late 1970’s: biostatistics and theoretical population genetics. They were universally called Dick Lewontin “B’s” (at least in my universe) because Dick didn’t like grades. I am told that for a time he gave everyone A’s in those classes, but that some in his department or in the administration complained about his grade inflation. So, he changed his practice by awarding everyone B’s instead. (I can’t confirm this story.) When I was being considered for an award, Steve Gould was compelled to explain that the blots on my transcript were artifacts of Dick Lewontin’s grading system and not to be read literally.

    If truth be told, I was glad to get the B’s. 🙂

    1. Norm– I think it was always “B’s”. There’s an old article in the Crimson where Dick comments on his grading policy, though I can’t recall if it mentions the “B” policy. The article is online, or was a few years ago. So, taking the class sooner would not have gotten you an “A” 😉 Greg

      1. When I took Stats from him, it was a B+/fail. His logic was that the premeds wouldn’t take it if an A was not on the table. My logic was that if I passed, it’d raise my GPA. I still owe a debt to the TF’s that year, Hamish Spencer and Peter Taylor.

  4. It wasn’t a surprise that he indulged his grandkids– Dick always liked kids– but that a secular Jewish atheist would choose a traditional Christmas as the way to do it!

    Abbie Hoffman once said he could never be a fully committed Marxist until Willie Mays retired from baseball. Maybe it’s a similar sentimentality that moves a zeyde to celebrate Xmas.

  5. Greg writes that “Marc Feldman (Stanford U) could not make it at the last moment” but Marc, in fact, was there and did speak. It was Monty Slatkin (UC Berkeley) who did not make it.

  6. I interviewed Lewontin in 1980 in his office at Harvard (In his cellar-like office with a window over his desk high up). While I was talking to him he received a call from the editors at Le Monde in France. He was just interviewed and they were reading to him the French translation of his quotes.(Q&A).


    If someone subscribes to Le Monde, it would be nice to be able to see the complete interview.

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