In memoriam: Dick Lewontin and Ed Wilson

October 20, 2022 • 11:45 am

The American Naturalist has just published short “in memoriam” pieces for two Harvard professors I knew: Dick Lewontin, population geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and my Ph.D. advisor, and Ed Wilson, naturalist, ant expert, and double Pulitzer winner. I knew and liked both of them, but in the end they thoroughly disliked each other. Curiously, Ed was instrumental in bringing both Dick and me to Harvard, but after the sociobiology battles began, Ed and Dick’s friendship was replaced by animosity. But I’ve written about all this before.

The obituaries are good ones, especially that of Lewontin (it’s the best one for him that I’ve read):

Click on the screenshots to read them; access is free.  I’ll give a brief excerpt from each piece.

Many academics, and perhaps scientists in particular, consider teaching a burden—a diversion from their “real” work. Lewontin loved it. Indeed, he taught more courses than required (the old-fashioned way, with blackboards, chalk, and transparencies), and after retiring he confessed to one of the authors that he regretted the decision because he so missed the experience of teaching. (At the request of a group of graduate students, he did continue to teach gratis a seminar in biostatistics.) He was proud of the many people he had mentored. Historian Michael Dietrich (2021) records how Lewontin deflected enquiries about his own career and contributions, focusing on his mentees: “When, in 1997, I asked him how I should write about his life, he pulled out of his desk a list of every graduate student, postdoc and visitor at his laboratory—more than 100 people—and said I should write about all of them.” Lewontin’s commitment to teaching extended beyond traditional academia; he wrote frequently (and wittily) for magazines of general intellectual interest, such as the New York Review of Books, and he published a number of popular science books (e.g., Lewontin 1982, 1991b, 2000; Rose et al. 1984).

That’s absolutely true. Lewontin was the least self-aggrandizing scientist of high reputation that I ever knew. I wrote my own “in memoriam” piece on this website.

Here’s a photo (taken by Andrew Berry) of Lewontin receiving homage from moi. Cambridge, MA, 2017

Many scientists have marveled that a single person could have managed to find the time to write at least 30 books on such a diversity of subjects in addition to hundreds of research articles, even aside from his other activities. The feat becomes more astounding when one realizes that Wilson never used a word processor; he did all his writing in longhand. The accomplishment remains astounding, but a good part of the explanation is that, beginning in 1965, he had a research assistant, Kathleen Horton, who worked with him until his death and promptly typed all of his writings. She quickly assumed much responsibility for his various projects, including handling virtually all of his correspondence, scheduling, and many of the chores associated with his research activities. Several remembrances noted her importance in Wilson’s work, and Rhodes (2021) provides some details of her life and contributions. Wilson was very aware and appreciative of her lifetime of support, and this account of his scientific contributions would be incomplete without recognizing her.

Indeed, it was Kathy who, guarding Ed’s office, got me in to see him when I showed up at Harvard with my dossier, begging to be admitted. (I was supposed to go to grad school at the University of Chicago, but found out when I returned from my Wanderjahr that Lewontin, formerly at Chicago, was moving to Harvard, and didn’t remember to ask for me to be admitted as his prospective student.) I thus had to get into Harvard on my own, and Ed was instrumental in setting up appointments for me with various faculty, who then voted to admit me after I filled out an application. I could never dislike Ed after that, plus he was always very gracious to me. (I was a t.a. for him twice in Introductory Biology.)

Here’s a photo I took of Ed in 2007 at a lunch during a symposium at Harvard:

8 thoughts on “In memoriam: Dick Lewontin and Ed Wilson

  1. It would be nice to know more about the dependence of great scientists and great scholars on women. Wilson’s support from Kathleen Horton reminded me of the situation of the great scholar (of Semitic studies) Edward Ullendorff, all of whose writings were typed up by his wife Dina. She also managed all the chores that went with his being a great figure in a field. How many other women made possible the work of these great figures of science and scholarship?

    1. Oliver Sacks’ assistant Kate Edgar comes to mind, as well as astronomers William Herschel and sister Caroline.

  2. Both bios are excellent. I knew Dick better than I did Ed Wilson—whom I only knew well enough to say hello—so I can still picture Dick and the grad students around his table in the lab. I can also still conjure up the smell of Drosophila food medium wafting all around. It makes me smile.

  3. I hope I have this right. Anyway, from memory: Wilson, the expert on ants, said of socialism “great theory, wrong species.”

  4. I was curious, not that I need another book on the shelf but did Lewontin have any popular science books that a dim bulb like me could read and understand? I’ve got a great many Wilson books, but don’t know much about Lewontin’s work other than what’s been shared on WEIT before. I know so little, in fact, that I first read “mentees” as manatees and thought nothing of it. They’re a bit bigger than Drosophila though, and probably not as easy to work with.

    1. He wrote Human Diversity for a Scientific American series– for the general reader, quite good in explaining many genetic concepts; and It Ain’t Necessarily So, a collection of NYRB essays, including his epic review of a book based on self-report of sexual activities, that is aimed at the college-educated reader; I recommend both. (Biology as Ideology and The Triple Helix are also semi-popular, but a bit more of a deep dive; both, though, are not very long.)


  5. I hope Jerry’s students and postdocs remember him and write about him as fondly as Jerry writes about his professors.

  6. I had no idea that Lewontin was the scientist who introduced game theory into evolutionary biology. I just read that paper and it really is visionary. (R.C. Lewontin, 1961. Evolution and the theory of games, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1(3): 382-403)

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