Richard Leakey dies at 77

January 2, 2022 • 12:22 pm

This just in: Richard Leakey, well known paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician, has died at 77.  (Two of his team’s finds are H. rudolfensis and “Turkana Boy,” placed in H. ergaster.) A brief bio from the France 24 website:

World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and politician Richard Leakey, who unearthed evidence that helped to prove humankind evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country’s president said.

“I have this afternoon… received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, Kenya‘s former Head of Public Service,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement late Sunday.

Leakey, the middle son of famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, had no formal archaeological training of his own but led expeditions in the 1970s that made groundbreaking discoveries of early hominid fossils.

His most famous find came in 1984 with the uncovering of an extraordinary, near-complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of his digs in 1984, which was nicknamed Turkana Boy.

In 1989, Leakey was tapped by then President Daniel arap Moi to lead the national Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), where he spearheaded a vigorous campaign to stamp out rampant poaching for elephant ivory.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both legs.

He also tried his hand at politics, ran civil society institutions, and briefly headed Kenya’s civil service.

In 2015, despite ailing health, he returned to the helm of the KWS for a three year term at the request of Kenyatta.

Here’s Leakey in 2010:

And Turkana boy (1.5-1.6 million years old), the most complete early hominin skeleton found to date:

E. O. Wilson died

December 27, 2021 • 6:06 am

Matthew sent me a tweet this morning saying that Edward O. Wilson, known to all of us as “Ed”, died yesterday at at 92. He died at the same age as my mentor—Ed’s nemesis Dick Lewontin—as both were born in 1929.  There’s a short obituary by Carl Zimmer that you can read at the NYT link below (click on screenshot); there will be a longer one for sure as Carl fleshes it out.

As usual, I’ll leave the details of his career and accomplishments to the formal obituaries and to Wikipedia (look at his list of books!), except to say that Ed was a polymath who was a Harvard professor for 46 years before retiring. And he was working tirelessly up to his death, just like his colleague Ernst Mayr (who died at 100).

Ed’s lab occupied the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) Laboratories at Harvard, while Lewontin’s lab, where I worked, was one floor below. But they might as well have been light years apart, for Lewontin intensely disliked Ed, and the feeling was mutual. (Ed had less rancor, he was more or less blindsided when Lewontin and Steve Gould—who worked in the adjacent main MCZ—began attacking him as a reactionary biological determinist after Ed published his landmark book, Sociobiology.)In fact, Ed originally helped recruit Dick to Harvard from the University of Chicago; but that didn’t make Lewontin temper his reaction when the Great Sociobiology Wars began.

But I did not share Dick’s dislike of Ed. If you knew Ed as a person—and I knew him as an acquaintance—you simply could not dislike him. (Dick and Steve’s animus was based purely on politics.). Ed was mild-mannered, gentle, and helpful: I’ve written before about how he got me into Harvard as a graduate student in a single day, an act of generosity I’ll never forget. I also taught two semesters of Bio 1 (introductory biology) under Ed, and was great friends with some of the people in his lab. The result was that I spent a fair amount of time on the fourth floor, but never in my six years at Harvard did I see Ed on the third floor—our floor.

Only one time I know of was he even near Lewontin. That’s when I was waiting with Dick for the elevator to the third floor, and Ed strode into the building and joined us in the elevator. The tension immediately became thick and palpable. It was a silent and uncomfortable ride up three floors; not a word was exchanged between the two Harvard professors, not even “hello”.

In his later years, Ed became wedded to the idea of group selection, and wrote several books and papers touting it as an explanation for eusociality in insects like ants and bees (communal living with a queen and sterile workers), as well as for many traits in humans. This was unfortunate, as this view was almost surely wrong, but Ed clung to it tenaciously. It was, I think, his only big misstep in a sterling career. Sadly, I had to review one of his books on group selection and panned it.

When I interviewed Dick a few years ago about his own career, he had nothing nice to say about Wilson; in fact, that was the one time he made me turn the tape off, and you can imagine what he said during the hiatus, though I’m not at liberty to divulge it. But Dick also mourned the loss of the great evolutionary biologists who reigned when he was a student: people like Ernst Mayr, Al Roemer, G. G. Simpson, and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dick said, “There are no great ones left. Where are the great ones?”

He was wrong. Ed was one of the great ones. Evolutionary biology, ant biology, and conservation biology will be poorer for his absence. And he was a terrific guy—rare for someone who was so famous. Just ask people who knew him.

Here are two photos I took of Ed at a lunch at Naomi Pierce’s and Andrew Berry’s house in Cambridge on October 5, 2007.  This was during was a symposium at Harvard, though I don’t remember what it was about.

Talking to Patty Gowaty.

A eulogy for Hitchens by Douglas Murray

December 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011—ten years from last Wednesday.  There have been a lot of pieces about Hitchens since then, as well as postmortem collections of his own writing, but I haven’t read any eulogy for Hitchens as eloquent and touching as the one below (h/t Chris). It’s from conservative Douglas Murray in the 2011 Spectator, and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot (it’s a very short piece). If the link on the screenshot is paywalled, this one is archived and free. (By the way, I did read and like Murray’s anti-woke book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity).

It’s a testimony to the expansiveness of Hitchens’s character that he and a pretty right-wing guy were friends—and according to Murray, they were pretty tight. At any rate, I’ll let you read this lovely piece for yourself—it’s ten years old and was clearly written in the moment right after Hitchens had died. I’ll give a few excerpts.

This is an excellent beginning:

Just one of Christopher Hitchens’ talents would have been enough for most people. In him those talents — like his passions — all melded into each other: as speaker, writer and thinker. Yet he was more than the sum even of these considerable parts, for he possessed another talent that was even rarer — a talent for making us, his readers, want to be better people. He used his abilities not to close down questions and ideas, but to open them up. In the process he made you, the reader, aware that you needed to do more, engage more, think more and know more. Writers often feel a need to impress their readers. Christopher made his readers want to impress the writer.

Murray describes Hitchens’s well-known capacity to travel and work at a pace that would drive others to a frazzle, and to drink Mr. Walker’s amber restorative copiously all the while. And even then, tired and besotted, Hitchens could turn out the most wonderful and thoughtful prose. Do read Murray’s account of how, after a bibulous day, Hitchens went home and wrote a brilliant piece.

One nice bit:

He was a master on the page. But on stage he perhaps excelled even further. As a mutual friend observed some years ago: ‘There is only one real rule in public speaking: never speak to an audience with, before or after Christopher Hitchens.’

That’s for sure!  And Murray has a touching ending that rings very true:

A couple of days before Christopher’s diagnosis we spent a day together at Hay. I was reading the memoir that he was promoting, Hitch-22, the opening chapters of which are among the most moving ever written. At the end of a long day he dropped me at my hotel. In the morning he would fly to the US. His schedule was always extreme but for the first time it seemed to be taking a physical toll. If we will keep on wishing that we had had another couple of decades of him, we will also have to concede that he lived his life exactly how he wished, burning bright and burning hard. That included working himself right up until the end for the things he believed in, the things he wished to fight for and — which was the same — the things he loved. As I waved him off that night I remember registering the thought that the day would come when we would have to live without Christopher. Now that day has arrived. It will be hardest of all for his wife, Carol, and for his brilliant children of whom he was so very — and justifiably — proud. But it is also something that, in an incomparably smaller way, the rest of us will have to manage too.

We have lost our sharpest wit, one of our finest writers and one of our best minds. There are no false consolations to be had. Only the truth that from now on, instead of knowing what Christopher thinks, we will have to consider what he would have thought. We will, in other words, have to think for ourselves. If we manage it then, in large part, it will be thanks to Christopher and the incomparable example — in life and work — that he provided.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. Yes, he did live the life he wished, and I doubt that he spent much time doing things he didn’t love.  Even so, many of us wish he were here now, for the follies happening in America would surely provide ample fodder for his scathing wit. As Murray says, we’ll never know what he would have thought about things like cultural appropriation, transgender activism, pronoun usage, and the racial tension that’s permeating society. But we do know three things: he would have something to say, what he’d say would be interesting and thought-provoking (and perhaps contrarian), and the prose would get us hooked.

As for thinking for ourselves, that was the point of Hitchens’s last public speech, when he received the Richard Dawkins Award less than two months before he died. While he was clearly ill, Hitchens’s words are loud and clear (his bit starts at 12:10, and if you haven’t seen this video, watch the whole thing):

Dick Lewontin’s colleagues remember him

November 30, 2021 • 11:30 am

My beloved Ph.D. advisor and role model, Dick Lewontin, died on July 4 of this year at age 92, three days after his wife had passed away. I was glad that he lived so long, for he influenced many people (see below), but of course you miss someone like that no matter how long they lived.  Shortly after his death I wrote a memorial  on this website; it was too personal to be put in a journal, and I’ve refused offers to write any further obituaries. That would be like writing an obituary for one’s parent, and the last thing I wanted to do was give a canned summary of his accomplishments.

As I said, Dick’s intelligence and work had a huge influence—not just on evolution and genetics, but on the philosophy of science. When I was in his lab, there was always a philosopher or two visiting or in residence, for Dick appreciated philosophy and was willing to host science-friendly philosophers and historians.  Now a number of them, along with a couple of scientists, have written memorials to Dick in an issue of the journal Biological Theory, and it’s free. Click on the screenshot below, or find the pdf here.

Below we have two scientists (Newman and Hartl), two historians of science (Beatty and Paul) and the rest philosophers of science, some of whom have made contributions to pure science (e.g., Kitcher and Sarkar). All of them harbored a deep appreciation and respect for Dick. What I learned from this piece was a great deal about Lewontin’s contributions to the philosophy of science, so this was a valuable read for me. And if you want to know more about Dick, read on:

I’ll give just one anecdote from Dick’s colleague Dan Hartl; it’s about Lewontin’s involvement at the onset of the government’s using forensic DNA in criminal cases, something that I was independently caught up in. Like Dick, I felt that the government often played fast and loose with the data to obtain convictions at any price. (Most of the problems have since been recitified.) Godfrey-Smith:

For some years after our meeting in Minnesota, Dick tilted at his windmills and me at mine, and we seemingly went our separate ways. But then, one day early in 1991, he called me to suggest that we should write a paper together on shortcomings of DNA typing as it was then being practiced. The story is told in detail in the New York Times of December 20, 1991 (Kolata 1991). In brief, the story is that Lewontin and I had written and submitted an article to Science disputing the notion that DNA fingerprinting could identify a suspect with only a negligible chance of error. Shortly thereafter I got a call from a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice, who told me that he felt that publication of the paper would be a disservice to the system of justice in the United States. I told Lewontin about this call, and he sent off a scathing letter to the prosecutor saying, “When someone who is an official in the Department of Justice Criminal Division Strike Force telephones a private citizen to request an action the citizen would not ordinarily take, then a form of intimidation has been used.”

The prosecutor then called me, wanting to know whether I had recorded his previous call. (I had not, as a matter of principle.) He then asked if I had felt intimidated by his earlier call. I told him that his call had stunned and chilled me, and that he certainly did make me feel intimidated.

While all this was unfolding, the Science paper had been reviewed and accepted. But then the editor interjected himself. He said he wanted us to soften our conclusions or withdraw the paper and resubmit it as a short opinion piece. Lewontin flatly refused. He later told his interviewer: “We finally did make some changes, against my better judgment” (Kolata 1991).

The man had no fear.

Here’s a picture of Dick carrying in the birthday cake at my 60th birthday celebration in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts—a suburb of Boston. It was a festive and bibulous occasion, and my cake was shaped like a cat.

Kink the Cat has gone missing

October 2, 2021 • 8:45 am

Reader Doc Bill is extraordinarily fond of his cat Kink, so named because of a bend in his tail (see last photo below). I visited Doc Bill in Houston five years ago and met this estimable cat, who sat next to me on the table at dinner (Doc Bill and his wife are great cooks!)

Now Kink has unaccountably disappeared from the front yard where he customarily sits, and it’s unexplainable. He was either kidnapped or a predator got him.  He may not come back, and that’s what Doc Bill is assuming. [He was chipped, so I am still holding out hope.]

So I am presenting Doc’s memorial for Kink below as a supplement to today’s Caturday Felid post, which will be up later. Doc’s words are indented:

Kink the Cat, so named because of the distinctive kink in his tail, was my constant companion for 15 years.  Kink was a very vocal cat with about a dozen different sounds from “hello, I’m here” to “food!” to “where are you” and more.  A very photogenic cat, Kink earned several awards from photography contests, including his most prized possession, an autographed and illustrated copy of WEiT.  Throughout his life Kink was devoted to the study of gravity.  Whether it was a bowl of food or a bottle of wine, Kink felt that not enough experimentation had been done.  The sound of things crashing to the floor was common in our house.
Kink disappeared from home last week suddenly and without a trace.  He was a homebody, not a wanderer.  He never missed breakfast.  Kink came into our lives by chance and left us with a mystery.  He will be missed greatly.
Photos:  Portrait from 2011; sitting on a sweater 2021; tail picture [showing the kink] 7-months old.

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


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.

Remembrances of Ken Miyata

July 15, 2021 • 9:15 am
Ken Miyata (photo by B. Wu)

Ken Miyata was an ecologist and herpetologist who was my best friend in graduate school. He was a student of Ernest Williams (Greg Mayer was also Willams’s student for much of his time at Harvard), and we spent tons of time together, including a month-long trip to Ecuador where I helped him collect frogs (that’s where I collected the type specimen that Ken later named Atelopus coynei). Greg and I both knew Ken very well; besides being a keen naturalist and herpetologist, Ken was one of America’s best fly fishermen as well as a fantastic photographer and a crack writer (he was co-author with Adrian Forsyth of the great popular book Tropical Nature), and he had a penchant for the bizarre and unusual aspects of life. The result was that he was a lot of fun to be with. Greg and I have written about him from time to time on this site (see posts here).

After I did my postdoc and moved to the University of Maryland, I still saw Ken from time to time, and we kept in pretty constant touch. It was thus with a sinking feeling in my stomach that I was called in 1983 and told that Ken’s car had been found, empty and parked by the Big Horn River in Montana, where he went to fish. There was no sign of Ken. He had gone out West as a sort of farewell fishing trip, for he’d just had two big advances in life: a job at The Nature Conservancy, which was his dream job, and a great girlfriend with whom he’d live in Washington, D.C., so he would have been physically close to me. He wanted a big dose of fishing (he said he wanted to fish 200 days a year) before he entered the real world.

He never completed that Big Fishing Trip. I waited for several days after that first phone call, and finally heard that they’d found Ken’s body downstream. He apparently slipped in a fast-flowing bit of water, his waders filled up with water (he was too cheap to buy new ones), and he drowned. His body was completely entangled in his fishing line. He was only 32 years old.

We had a memorial service, we all spoke, and Ken’s parents, who were still alive, told his friends to go to his apartment and take whatever possessions of his that we wanted. I took his beaten-up Levi jacket, which he wore constantly. I still have it.

Here are two memorial pieces about Ken that I’ll highlight. The first appeared in Harvard Magazine in 2000. (Click on the screenshot to read).

The second piece appeared as a supplement to a paper by Ken on Ecuadorian Anolis lizards in the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology; it comprises some remembrances of Ken written by B. Wu, Eric Larson, Ray Huey, Chuck Crumley, Greg Mayer, and me. Click on the screenshot to read:

Imagine my surprise, then, when Greg told me yesterday that he found a website,, which contains scans of many of Ken’s Kodachromes. Neither Greg nor I have any idea who put up the site, which contains hundreds of the many thousands of photographs that Ken took with his Nikon. The photos on the site are from the 1970’s. (Greg adds that “Ken’s more technical wildlife photographs are in the Smithsonian’s slide collection.”)

I’ll put up a few of the photo from that site, which include a couple of me when I was at Harvard. They sure make those memories come flooding back!

Ken in a Guatemalan shirt:

Nature photos (some of these were probably taken at a zoo):

Ken’s photographic and collecting equipment:

At work in the field:

There aren’t many photos of Ken fishing on the site, as he took most of the photos. I have a bunch in my own slides, but haven’t scanned them.

He tied all his own flies, often on the spot to “match (or mismatch) the hatch”:

Ken’s dictum was always to catch and release them, though occasionally he’d eat a few for dinner if he was camped by a stream.


Ken’s advisor Ernest Williams (on the left), with his Harvard colleagues Bryan Patterson, whom Chris Janis identified in the comments as “one of the all-time great paleomammalogists.”

Ken mugging:


I believe this is Otavalo, Ecuador:

And finally some self-aggrandizing shots on the album (Greg found these in book 4). It’s me in grad school.

Me with B. Wu, a best friend of Ken and me in grad school (she wrote part of one of the memorials above):

It was Ken who got me into photography. His best advice to me: “Look through the viewfinder!”. That meant that what you see with your eyes, however impressive, isn’t what’s captured on the slide. What’s captured is what you see in the viewfinder.

Turid Holldobler and I at a party at Burt and Turid’s house (he was a Harvard prof and buddy of Ed Wilson, she was a terrific artist who illustrated many of Ed’s books and did natural history art). Sadly, Turid is no longer alive.

God, life would have been much more fun had Ken stayed with us!

Dick Lewontin, 1929-2021

July 5, 2021 • 9:00 am

Although my Ph.D. advisor Richard Lewontin—known to everyone as “Dick” and to his students as “The Boss”—hadn’t been well lately and wasn’t receiving visitors, the news of his death yesterday at 92 was still a shock. He was without doubt the most important figure in my career as an evolutionary geneticist, helping mold me in both academic and behavioral ways. I can’t imagine a better advisor, and I loved the man. I can offer only a few words in memoriam, and forgive me if this is the only post I put up today.

Dick’s death in Cambridge, Massachusetts came only three days after that of his beloved wife, Mary Jane (below, left). They were the closest couple I knew. They had been high-school sweethearts and I believe got married when they were around 20. They were inseparable until their deaths. Dick went home to have lunch with her every day, and they read literature to each other in bed each night. Their pet names for each other were “Mr. and Mrs. Bloom”, after Joyce’s characters.  To those who knew both of them, it was inconceivable that either could live without the other. It was thus a mercy that neither had to do that that for more than a few days.

As a grad student, I once encountered Dick and Mary Jane when my partner and I were going to the movies at the Harvard Square Theater. We chatted in line, and then Dick said, “Excuse us if we don’t sit with you, but Mary Jane and I like to sit in the balcony and hold hands.” He was not making that up.

Mary Jane Lewontin (l) and Rosario Levins (wife of Dick’s close colleague Dick Levins); photo by Stuart Newman, 1973.

It’s hard to think that when I first met Dick, in 1971 at the University of Chicago, where I was accepted to be his student, he was only 42.  I was thereafter drafted as a conscientious objector, took a Wanderhalbjahr, and then, after a detour as a prospective student of Dick’s own advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, called up Dick to say I was ready to join his lab. Unfortunately, he’d taken a position at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, had forgotten about me while negotiating the transfer of his five Chicago grad students, and I was stuck. I had to wangle myself into Harvard on my own, and managed to do so with the help of E. O. Wilson, a story I told here.  I was in Dick’s lab for five years as a grad student and then, unable to find a job, I stayed on for another year as a postdoc.

Here’s what Dick looked like about the time I entered his lab:


Dick ran his lab as an egalitarian commune. His office was no fancier than ours, and all the offices were arrayed around a large room containing a ten-foot map table procured from the geographers at Harvard. You couldn’t get to your office without passing that table, which of course was Dick’s design to facilitate interaction. A lot of science was proposed, vetted, and criticized at that table.

Why was he such a good advisor? For one thing, his lab was always full of smart people to learn from: not just the other students, but a constant parade of visiting scholars and luminaries passing through or staying a few months. In that way you got to meet almost everyone in evolutionary genetics. You can see the breadth of Dick’s academic lineage here (note: it goes on for several pages). Dick himself was fiercely smart, a terrific writer, and ferociously eloquent, which, while giving us all a role model, made some of us discouraged, realizing we’d never even get close to his level of achievement and intelligence. For two years I thought about dropping out of Harvard, but realized that, in the end, Dick was not typical of people in the field and that, with hard work, I might accomplish something worthwhile.

As an advisor, Dick insisted that you find your own Ph.D. thesis project. As he told me, when he went to work in Theodosius Dobzhansky’s lab, and was looking for a research problem, Dobzhansky told him, in his high and nasal Russian voice, “I have my research problem. What’s yours?” And so we had to find our own. Unlike many advisors (whose proportion is increasing over time), Dick did not tell you to do research that somehow slotted into his NIH grant or his own research plan. You thought up your project, and he funded it.

The result was that every student in the lab worked on a very different problem, though the overriding theme of the lab, and of Dick’s later work, was measuring the degree of genetic variation in natural populations. Dick and Jack Hubby had pioneered the use of gel electrophoresis at Chicago: a way to visualize variant forms of enzymes produced by mutation. His goal, and the theme of his 1974 book The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, was to measure the amount of genetic variation at different loci in the genome, and then to understand why it was there. (That, too, had been a major goal of his advisor Dobzhansky.)  My own contribution was to expand electrophoresis by changing the biochemical conditions of running gels, which revealed a tremendous increase in the amount of variation at many loci. But that only increased the puzzle. Dick’s solution in his 1974 book proved unsatisfactory, and we still don’t understand the reason for so much variation, though the variants could well be selectively equivalent (“neutral”).

Besides the independence he afforded us, Dick was always available to talk or provide moral or financial support. His office door was always open, and if you needed an expensive piece of equipment, all you had to do was ask. He also kept the lab afloat in strong coffee, which was available for purchase with grant funds from the departmental stockroom. I remember that the NIH once audited the lab’s finances, and the auditor, seeing the huge budget for canned coffee, asked Dick, “What is all this coffee for?” Dick responded, “For drinking.”

Below: Lewontin in his office door labeled “Dr. O. Sophila”. You can see a bunch more pictures taken when I was in the lab at this post.  Dick’s attire was always the same: a work shirt, khaki pants, and work boots (topped with a green sweater in winter). We once found a label that had fallen out of his shirt, and it read “Brooks Brothers Gentleman’s Work Shirt”. We gave him a lot of guff about that! Some Marxist!

Perhaps most important, Dick had a strong sense of ethics which he took care to instill in all of us. If he thought a scientist was overselling their data, he would write them off—forever. (I won’t name names.) He refused to put his name on any papers from his lab in which he didn’t have a substantial role. I remember when I wrote my first paper about gel electrophoresis, I typed out a draft and put, on the author line “Jerry A. Coyne and Richard C. Lewontin.”  I put it on his desk for vetting.

The next day the paper was returned to me with, among the other comments, his name crossed out as author. He told me, “Don’t ever do that again.” It was drummed into us that adding your name to a student’s paper was bad form, which caused what he called “The Matthew Effect” (from the Biblical verse, “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) Taking credit for your students’ work, he said, was a cheap way to make a name for yourself, which should be made based on your own work and ideas. Dick didn’t count providing research advice or helping rewrite papers as a “contribution.”

When we held a celebration in his honor since he showed no signs of retiring in 1998, 150 of his colleagues showed up at “DickFest”. Here’s the gang; you may recognize some of the famous scientists in here. Andrew Berry and I organized it; it was Andrew who informed me yesterday of Dick’s death. (Andrew is in the very front of the photo below.) I’ve circled Dick:

DickFest ended with a celebratory meal in the very corridors of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. At the end, we asked Dick to say a few words, and he stood up briefly in front of a tank containing a coelacanth preserved in formalin. (He noted the irony of that.) But his brief talk had only one point: “DO NOT PUT YOUR NAME ON YOUR STUDENTS’ PAPERS”. That was the message he wanted to impart, and one he himself got from Dobzhansky, who adhered to that practice as well. And Dobzhansky got it from Thomas Hunt Morgan, the Nobel Laureate who was also generous with credit. When it came my turn to say a few words at CoyneFest five years ago, I said exactly the same thing.

Sadly, the competition for fame and, especially, jobs is such that few professors can afford to leave their names off student papers: they are mostly lab managers and do little science with their own hands.

I find it hard to recount Dick’s scientific accomplishments—not because I don’t know them, but because they’re already well known and you can read about them in many places, including here and here. He made fundamental contributions in theoretical population genetics, in experimental population genetics (out of his lab came the first assays of genetic variation at individual loci using both electrophoresis and DNA sequencing), and even in ecology. He never wrote a trivial paper. I will leave it to others, in the spate of obituaries to come, to recount his achievements in detail.

Dick was an avowed Marxist, and on this we disagreed. But he kept his lab’s science separate from his politics, and it caused no friction. It did motivate both him and Steve Gould (also at Harvard) to attack biological determinism and especially sociobiology, a fight that persisted throughout my time at Harvard. E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, had his lab only one floor up from ours. They did not speak to each other when I was there, though it was Ed who helped recruit Dick to Harvard from Chicago.

Lewontin was a prolific author of popular pieces, especially in the New York Review of Books. You can read many of those article here. He was a terrific writer, but didn’t have the ambition to be a public figure on the order of, say, Steve Gould or Carl Sagan. When he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he resigned his membership after finding out that some of the members were working for the Department of Defense.

Eventually Dick did retire, but he never seemed to age. I don’t think his hair turned gray until he was about 75. In the last decade or so his short-term memory began to fade, though he always could remember the past. In 2009 I interviewed him for several hours about his life and career for a piece for Current Biology, but it went on for so long that I couldn’t find a way to shorten or publish it. I still have a recording of the interview that I need to place somewhere, and may make it available to readers.

I’ll end by alluding to an anecdote I’ve told before, recounting how Lewontin caught me buck naked in his office one night. You can read about it here; the nudity, while embarrassing, had nothing to do with sex. It’s a tribute to Dick’s sense of humor that he accepted my explanation and then forgot about it.

Below: a few photos and a video that will give you a sense of Lewontin’s presence.

A group of us in Dick’s lab around 1976. (More photos are here.) Top left to right: Russ Lande, Harold Lee (fly food cook), and Alex Felton (Dick’s technician). Bottom, Don Wallace (postdoc) and me:

A photo taken by Andrew Berry in Oct. 2017 when we visited Dick at his assisted living facility in Cambridge. This is where he died. I am demonstrating my fealty to the Great Man.

From a post I put up on March 30, 2019:

 Greg Mayer visiting Dick in, July 2019. Note that after he retired, Dick replaced his khakis with jeans, and donned a lumberjack shirt.

The autograph Dick put in my copy of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change:

When Dick asked me to review a paper for a journal in which he was editor, I did a good job and got this note of approbation, which still hangs on my office wall:


To give you a sense of what talking to Dick was like, here’s a video in which he discusses diverse matters with Harry Kreisler on a visit to Berkeley to give a series of lectures. Kreisler’s first question is “What drew you into the sciences?” Dick’s answer: “A charistmatic high school teacher.” Dick was one of those charismatic teachers and, along with Bruce Grant of The College of William and Mary, was one of the two teachers who drew me into evolutionary biology.

Note the work shirt, khakis, and green sweater.

And so it’s goodbye at last, Dick. It was great having you on loan from the Universe for so long.

Guardian: All statues should come down, no matter whom they depict

June 2, 2021 • 1:15 pm

In the latest “Long Read” of the Guardian (which, to be honest, could have been considerably shorter), Gary Younge defends this view: not just statues of historically nefarious people should come down, but that all statues should come down. No person should, he claims, be memorialized with an effigy, though events themselves might. But no statues of people, whoever they may have been.

Right off the bat Younge identifies himself as a “black leftwing Guardian columnist for more than two decades”. Such is how people establish their credibility these days, though, to be sure, Younge’s background shouldn’t really count one way or another. But when he argues against putting up statues of people like Rosa Parks, you can be sure that his remarks don’t stem from ideological bias.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are the reasons why Younge wants every statue toppled. Quotes from the article are indented:

a.) Status are lazy and ugly, especially when they’re of people. I don’t really agree and can think of some notable exceptions, one being the statue of Lincoln in his eponymous Washington D.C. memorial. And what about the Statue of Liberty? (Well, that’s not a real person. . . ) Do religious statues count? And what about, for example, the great statue of Augustus Prima Porta in Vatican City? But Younge thinks they’re all “poor as works of public art”. Younge doesn’t, however, think this is true of other public memorials, mentioning the lovely Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C.

b.) Times change and so do norms. Statues no longer represent a consensus view.  This is the conventional argument for removing statues of people whose morals don’t comport with modern ones. But this isn’t Younge’s main argument, for this doesn’t argue for removing statues of people who did good things and whose good deeds are being commemorated.

c.) Statues don’t erase history because they are not themselves history. They show an individual who may have helped make history, good or bad, but Younge doesn’t subscribe to the “Great Man” (and Women) theory of history as promoted by Thomas Carlyle and attacked by Tolstoy in books like War and Peace. A quote:

Statues are not history; they represent historical figures. They may have been set up to mark a person’s historical contribution, but they are not themselves history. If you take down Nelson Mandela’s bust on London’s South Bank, you do not erase the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Statues are symbols of reverence; they are not symbols of history. They elevate an individual from a historical moment and celebrate them.

Nobody thinks that when Iraqis removed statues of Saddam Hussein from around the country they wanted him to be forgotten. Quite the opposite. They wanted him, and his crimes, to be remembered. They just didn’t want him to be revered. Indeed, if the people removing a statue are trying to erase history, then they are very bad at it. For if the erection of a statue is a fact of history, then removing it is no less so. It can also do far more to raise awareness of history. More people know about Colston and what he did as a result of his statue being taken down than ever did as a result of it being put up. Indeed, the very people campaigning to take down the symbols of colonialism and slavery are the same ones who want more to be taught about colonialism and slavery in schools. The ones who want to keep them up are generally the ones who would prefer we didn’t study what these people actually did.

. . . Statues always tell us more about the values of the period when they were put up than about the story of the person depicted. Two years before Martin Luther King’s death, a poll showed that the majority of Americans viewed him unfavourably. Four decades later, when Barack Obama unveiled a memorial to King in Washington DC, 91% of Americans approved. Rather than teaching us about the past, his statue distorts history.

But isn’t remembering “values of the past” a useful exercise as well?

d.) By memorializing specific individuals, statues “erase” or “marginalize” important people involved in the same or similar  historical events. For this Younge uses the case of Rosa Parks:

Consider the statue of Rosa Parks that stands in the US Capitol. Parks was a great woman, whose refusal to give up her seat for a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama challenged local segregation laws and sparked the civil rights movement. When Parks died in 2005, her funeral was attended by thousands, and her contribution to the civil rights struggle was eulogised around the world.

But the reality is more complex. Parks was not the first to plead not guilty after resisting Montgomery’s segregation laws on its buses. Before Parks, there was a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin. Colvin was all set to be the icon of the civil rights movement until she fell pregnant. Because she was an unmarried teenager, she was dropped by the conservative elders of the local church, who were key leaders of the movement. When I interviewed Colvin 20 years ago, she was just getting by as a nurses’ aide and living in the Bronx, all but forgotten.

And while what Parks did was a catalyst for resistance, the event that forced the segregationists to climb down wasn’t the work of one individual in a single moment, but the year-longcollective efforts of African Americans in Montgomery who boycotted the buses – maids and gardeners who walked miles in sun and rain, despite intimidation, those who carpooled to get people where they needed to go, those who sacrificed their time and effort for the cause. The unknown soldiers of civil rights. These are the people who made it happen. Where is their statue? Where is their place in history? How easily and wilfully the main actors can be relegated to faceless extras.

Again, I’m not fully on board here. When I see a statue of Rosa Parks, I don’t think of her in particular, but of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in general, and of the cooperation of the black community that eventually brought the bus company to its knees and ended segregation on Montgomery buses. Where is the statue to the “unknown soldiers of civil rights”? Well, look no further than the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the new Legacy Museum in Montgomery.   There are several others as well.

I’ll ask other readers to agree or disagree with Younge’s thesis, and to name statues, if you like them, that you think should stay up. I’ll end her with Younge’s last two paragraphs:

Of course I want Parks to be remembered. Of course I want her to take her rightful place in history. All the less reason to diminish that memory by casting her in bronze and erecting her beyond memory.

So let us not burden future generations with the weight of our faulty memory and the lies of our partial mythology. Let us not put up the people we ostensibly cherish so that they can be forgotten and ignored. Let us elevate them, and others – in the curriculum, through scholarships and museums. Let us subject them to the critiques they deserve, which may convert them from inert models of their former selves to the complex, and often flawed, people that they were. Let us fight to embed the values of those we admire in our politics and our culture. Let’s cover their anniversaries in the media and set them in tests. But the last thing we should do is cover their likeness in concrete and set them in stone.

Here’s a statue of Rosa Parks erected in the U.S. Capitol n 2013 and dedicated by Barack Obama (you can see a video of his remarks here).

h/t: Jez

Jennifer A. Clack, 1947-2020

December 22, 2020 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Jennifer A. “Jenny” Clack,  Emeritus Professor and Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, died on 26 March of this year. Jenny, as she was universally known, was one of the leading paleontologists of the past half century, making fundamental discoveries about the origin of tetrapods, and training, through her students and postdocs, many of the current generation of leaders in the field. The cause of her death was cancer.

Jenny Clack in 2009, at her election to Fellow of the Royal Society. Photo by Angela Milner.

After completing her undergraduate work in zoology at the University of Newcastle in 1970, Jenny took a certificate in museum studies at the University of Leicester, and then worked for several years in local museums. It was during this time that she began studying the specimen of the Carboniferous amphibian Pholiderpeton, which led to the Ph.D. thesis for which she returned to the University of Newcastle, taking her degree in 1984 under the supervision of her old undergraduate teacher, Alec Panchen.

Even before finishing her degree, Jenny took a position in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, where she remained until her death, eventually rising to Professor and Curator. At Cambridge, she found unstudied material of the ‘co-first’ tetrapod, Acanthostega, collected by a Cambridge expedition to Greenland in 1970. It was study of these important specimens that led to Jenny’s most important and influential work, on the origin of tetrapods from their piscine (fish) ancestors. Jenny led two expeditions to collect more material in Greenland, in 1987 and 1998, revisiting the sites at which earlier specimens had been collected, and gathering new material not just of Acanthostega, but of the other ‘co-first’ tetrapod, Ichthyostega, which prior to Jenny’s work had been the better known of the two. Jenny and her colleagues, in addition to the material at Cambridge or newly collected, were able to study Erik Jarvik‘s Ichthyostega material in Stockholm.

“Grace”, an Acanthostega specimen studied by Jenny Clack and her colleagues.

Along with work by others on other forms (such as Tiktaalik and Panderichthys), Jenny’s work on these earliest tetrapods has made the fish-amphibian transition one of the best understood of all transitions between higher taxa (although much is still to be learned!). Jenny summarized the work of her and her colleagues in Gaining Ground: the Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002; 2nd edition 2012). Jenny also worked on a number of other related issues in vertebrate evolution–including the evolution of the ear, faunistic works, and Carboniferous fishes, to name a few–but she will be best remembered for her work on the transition from water to land, and especially the transition from fin to limb.

In addition to her scientific work, Jenny was actively involved in outreach to the general public, in which she conveyed the wonder, interest, and importance of her discoveries. She appeared in numerous video and television programs, including Nova’s The Missing Link (2002), in which she was referred to as the “Diva of the Devonian”; was a featured scientist in the PBS program based on Neil Shubin’s work, Your Inner Fish (2014); and was the subject of an episode of Beautiful Minds (2012) on the BBC. Here’s a short video from Cambridge University (which I could embed; another nice, short, video, The First Vertebrate Walks on Land (2001), which I could not embed, can be seen on Shape of Life, an educational website).

Jenny received many honors in her lifetime, including being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (2009), the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Science (USA 2008), membership in the National Academy of Sciences (USA 2009) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (2014), honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago (2013) and the University of Leicester (2014), and an ScD from Cambridge (a “higher” doctorate, not an honorary degree).

Last year, Jenny was honored by her colleagues, students, and collaborators with a festschrift, “Fossils, Function and Phylogeny: Papers on Early Vertebrate Evolution in Honour of Professor Jennifer A. Clack”, published in the Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Memorial notices and recollections have appeared by Tim Smithson in the Guardian, Per Ahlberg in Nature, Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology, and from her colleagues in the Cambridge Department of Zoology. I have drawn from these sources, Jenny’s own website, and the paper by Marcello Ruta, Per Ahlberg, and Tim Smithson in the Edinburgh festschrift for many of the facts above.

I found out about her death only about a month ago (perhaps part of my pandemic disconnect from the wider world–I spent most of three months at a poorly lit table in my basement). While reading her latest paper (published in November), I was shocked to notice the notation “Deceased” among the authors’ addresses. I could not think of who it could be. Two of the other authors were known to me–Tim Smithson, Jenny’s long-time colleague, and Stephanie Pierce, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology; the senior author turned out to be a recently minted Ph.D. student of Pierce’s–and, looking more closely, I saw that it was Jenny. A Harvard Gazette article provides a layman’s account of that latest paper, a functional analysis of the humeri (upper arm bones) of early tetrapods and close relatives. (The tetrapods’ piscine ancestors already had humeri.)

Jerry and I both followed her work. I taught a special topics seminar on her book, Gaining Ground, when the second edition came out in 2012, and I attended a symposium on “The Origin and Diversification of Stem Tetrapods” she organized at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings hosted by the Field Museum in 1997. I don’t think we ever met, either then or at some other meeting we might both have attended, but she was such a lively personality on the Your Inner Fish documentary series on PBS that I feel that I know what it would have been like to meet her.

Clack, J. A. 1987. Pholiderpeton scutigerum, an amphibian from the Yorkshire Coal Measures. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society of London B 318:1–107. pdf (Her Ph.D. work.)

Clack, J.A. 2012. Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods. 2nd ed. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. (First edition published in 2002.)

Dickson, B.V., J.A. Clack, T.R. Smithson, and S.E. Pierce. 2020. Functional adaptive landscapes predict terrestrial capacity at the origin of limbs. Nature in press. pdf

Royal Society of Edinburgh. 2019. Fossils, function and phylogeny: Papers on early vertebrate evolution in honour of Professor Jennifer A. Clack. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 109(1-2):1–369.

Ruta, M., P.E. Ahlberg, and T.R. Smithson. 2019. Fossils, function and phylogeny: Papers on early vertebrate evolution in honour of Professor Jennifer A. Clack – Introduction. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 109:1–14. pdf