Post by Greg Mayer: More thoughts on E.O. Wilson

January 8, 2022 • 1:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

As WEIT readers well know by now, E.O. Wilson died last month at the age of 92. Jerry knew Ed better than I did, but my scientific interests were actually much closer to his than were Jerry’s. I was greatly influenced by Ed and Robert MacArthur‘s theory of island biogeography. The Harvard Gazette just republished an interview with Ed from 2014, and the interviewer asked what he thought his most important contribution was. Ed said there were several, but his work with MacArthur is the first thing he mentioned.

My well-worn copy of MacArthur and Wilson, purchased in 1977, when I was an undergraduate.

I had learned about their ideas–especially the idea that the number of species on an island was the result of a dynamic equilibrium between ongoing colonization and extinction–in my undergraduate classes. I got a copy of their book and began reading it between my sophomore and junior years of college. When I went off to graduate school to work on island lizards with Ernest Williams, I expected that I would wind up applying and exemplifying the principles of the theory.

The title page of my copy, signed by Ed, with an added sketch of an ant; inscribed on 6 October 2007, at the “Island Biogeography at 40” symposium held at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). I had brought my copy with me; Ed and I chatted, and he graciously signed it, adding the ant unbidden. The symposium resulted in a book edited by Jon Losos and Bob Ricklefs (reference below).

Ed’s work in island biogeography included theoretical formulation (though the mathematics was primarily MacArthur’s), analysis of faunal lists and distribution patterns, and, very ambitiously, experimental manipulation of species numbers on mangrove islets in Florida. One of his contributions to island biogeography that has gone largely unremarked, but which I regard as of real significance, are his studies of Cenozoic fossil ant faunas in amber from the Dominican Republic. He found that the ancient amber ant fauna was more characteristic of a continental fauna, rather than that of an oceanic island. I was very impressed by this work; at the time it was, and remains to this day, among the strongest evidence that the Greater Antilles are old continental islands– islands once attached to or closely adjacent to the mainland, from which their fauna derives.  (Several of his papers on the amber ants are open access, and are linked below.)

Ed gave a seminar about his amber fossil work while I was a grad student, and we talked afterwards, and he suggested we continue the discussion. Knowing how busy Ed was, I went to make an appointment to see him with his secretary, rather than rely on us passing in the hallway to set a time (Ed was not often in the hallway). His secretary was very suspicious about who I was and what I wanted, and said I would need to write a letter requesting a meeting. The demand seemed to me beyond the pale, considering that I was a grad student in the MCZ and that Ed wanted the meeting. I never wrote the letter, and that conversation never continued.

A few years later, in 1988, James D. ‘Skip’ Lazell and I wrote that the discovery of bolitoglossine salamanders (a mainland group, with little capacity to cross a salt water barrier) in the Dominican amber would be powerful evidence from the vertebrate fossil record for an old continental origin of the Greater Antillean fauna (Wilson’s work having provided invertebrate evidence). In 2015 George Poinar and Dave Wake reported exactly that– a well-preserved bolitoglossine salamander from the Dominican amber!

Many people (including Ed) have commented on Ed’s rather sour relationship with Dick Lewontin. What is sometimes overlooked in these discussions is that both of them were involved with a group known as the “Marlboro Circle”. This group, which sought to conceptually unify ecology and evolutionary biology, included, among others, Ed’s key collaborator, Robert MacArthur, and also Richard Levins. (Levins was a Marxist who made important contributions to island biogeography, collaborated on publications with MacArthur and Lewontin, and visited Wilson’s experimental mangrove islands.)

I find the activities of this group fascinating– in many ways they set the agenda for ecology and evolutionary biology for the second half of the 20th century. It is one of the most important episodes in the biology of that century–that the group was marked by tragedy (MacArthur’s death at 42) and a falling out among its members lends pathos as well. The episode has, unfortunately, been little studied or remarked upon by historians of science. My last communication with Ed (in 2020) was about some of the sources for the data that went into the origination of his and MacArthur’s formulation of their theory.

I mentioned above that I had expected my studies to apply and exemplify the theory of island biogeography, but as I learned more about reptile distribution and did my own studies in the West Indies, I found that species number on islands was not the result of a dynamic equilibrium between ongoing colonization and extinction. Rather medium (10^4 to 10^5 ka, especially ice age changes in sea level) and long term (10^6 to 10^7 ka; the origin and diversification of major lineages) geological and evolutionary events were much more important in shaping the fauna.

Nonetheless, MacArthur and Wilson, like Darwin in the Origin and Mendel in his seminal paper, had limned many pathways for further progress, and despite failing to find evidence of their equilibrium process, I had, and continue to have, the greatest respect for their work. For my thesis defense, I planned to bring two past members of the Marlboro Circle– Dick Lewontin, my advisor, and Ed Wilson, original island biogeographer– back together, at least briefly.

My thesis defense talk was entitled “A theory of island biogeography, with especial reference to the amphibians and reptiles of the West Indies”. (This was a deliberate mashup of the title of Ed’s book and the title of a monograph from 1914 by Thomas Barbour, an early curator of herpetology at the MCZ, “A contribution to the zoogeography of the West Indies, with especial reference to amphibians and reptiles“.) I gave the talk at Dick’s weekly Population Biology Seminar on the 3rd floor of the MCZ Labs, one floor below Ed’s lab.

I tried to make sure that Ed would attend, despite its location, by placing a copy of my seminar announcement in his mailbox. He did come, and sat at the middle of one side of the great table that sat in the middle of Dick’s lab (Dick was further back in the room). I argued in my talk that the equilibrium theory was a special case of a more general theory, and that the equilibrium theory per se didn’t apply very well to West Indian amphibians and reptiles.

After my talk, among the questions were one or two from Ed. He defended the applicability of his and MacArthur’s theory to broader situations than the ones where it fit best, and, indeed, I concur that they had anticipated modifications, expansions, and refinements that would improve it– that’s why I had said there was a more general theory of which theirs could be a special case. After the questions, Ed left.

Although much of Ed’s public reputation rests, rightly, on Ed’s advocacy for biodiversity, and on the controversy over sociobiology (which accounts for essentially all the negative bits), in remembering Wilson we should not lose sight of his other accomplishments.

Losos, J.B. and R.E. Ricklefs, eds. 2010. The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. publisher

MacArthur, R.H. and E.O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. publisher

Wilson, E.O. 1985. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 1. Two new myrmicine genera and an aberrant Pheidole. Psyche 92:1-9. pdf

Wilson, E.O. 1985. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 2. The first fossil army ants. Psyche 92:11-16. pdf

Wilson, E.O. 1985. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 3. The subfamily Dolichoderinae. Psyche 92:17-37. pdf

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.

Colin Powell died today

October 18, 2021 • 7:26 am

Colin Powell, America’s first black Secretary of State, who also served as a four-star general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Advisor, died this morning at age 84.  The cause: complications of Covid, even though he was fully vaccinated.

The NYT report is below, promising a full obituary later, probably because nobody prepared a draft in advance because Powell was not expected to die.  RIP, General.

Click on screenshot:

The full report from the NYT:

Colin L. Powell, who in four decades of public life served as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat and national security adviser, and whose speech at the United Nations in 2003 helped pave the way for the United States to go to war in Iraq, died on Monday. He was 84.

He died of complications from Covid-19, his family said in a statement. He was fully vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his family said.

h/t: Ken


Steven Weinberg died

July 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Reader Rick informed me of this news, summarized in the piece below from Not Even Wrong (click on screenshot):  Steven Weinberg, a physicist, writer, and popularizer of science, died yesterday at the age of 88. (In fact, his Wikipedia biography hasn’t yet been updated.) For his work on unifying two of the fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism and the weak force in nuclei, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam.

I’ve read several of his books (he was an excellent writer), and of course all of us know his most famous bon mot: “”With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”  He was a diehard atheist.

Click on the screenshot to read more about him:

As the obituary above gives you the relevant information about his career, I’ll tell just one story about him. In October, 2012, we were both participants in the small “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference organized by physicist Sean Carroll in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I sat next to Steve during the two days of the meeting, and watched as he worked out physics equations on a notepad during the talks. When he left the room, and his notes, I asked him if I could have them. He said, “sure”, but I included them as lagniappe in the autographed version of WEIT that he signed and we put up for auction.

Here’s a photo I took of Weinberg and the hard-core materialist Alex Rosenberg at the meeting:

And here’s Weinberg’s signature (circled) in my book, which was illuminated by Kelly Houle and auctioned off for charity for more than $10,000. I’m not sure what that diagram shows, but I am sure that one reader will tell us.

Although I had lunch with Weinberg one day, and remember that it was fun, I can’t recall what we talked about. My Weinberg story is this. At the meeting, Dan Dennett and I gave dueling presentations about free will, with Dan claiming, of course, that we had a form of it—a compatibilist one—while I argued not only that we had no libertarian free will, but also criticized compatibilism. (This led to Dan haranguing me for the entire three-hour drive back on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, which wasn’t covered with snow.)

At any rate, at some point after my talk, Weinberg asked me something like this: “Are you telling me that at any given point in time when I’m making a choice, I could not have chosen otherwise?” I said “Yes.” And he said he didn’t believe that. I was a bit taken aback that an atheist, determinist physicist of the stature of Weinberg could still accept what seems like libertarian free will. But we never got to discuss it further.

We’ve lost another great one—not just a scientist, but a writer, scholar, historian of science, and nice guy.

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!

More thoughts on Dick Lewontin (post by Greg Mayer)

July 10, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

I learned of Dick Lewontin’s death only Thursday morning— I had been traveling for several days with little internet access. When I checked my email upon my return, I found a message from a colleague on some other matter, and appended to his message were his condolences and an appreciation of Dick’s legacy. I knew of course what this meant, and I immediately went to WEIT, knowing Jerry would have posted a memorial.

Jerry, of course, had been Dick’s Ph.D. student, and knew him very well. I heartily commend Jerry’s memorial to Dick: I learned from it, and in all those things of which I have personal knowledge, it is true in fact and sound in judgment.

Dick, as I have mentioned before here at WEIT, was my de jure Ph.D. advisor. The person who actually advised my thesis work—my de facto adviser—was the great herpetologist Ernest E. Williams. When I was looking at graduate schools to apply to, my undergraduate advisor, Doug Futuyma, recommended working with Ernest as a possibility, and I made a visit to the Museum of Comparative Zoology in the winter of 1979. Ernest was nearing Harvard’s then mandatory retirement age, and so I would need someone to act as my official advisor after his retirement. I think it was Doug who suggested or set it up, and so I met with Dick on my visit, and he readily and generously agreed to serve as my advisor once Ernest retired.

This arrangement reflected a close relationship between the students and postdocs in the departments of population genetics and herpetology within the MCZ, one which both Dick and Ernest supported, though, as usual for faculty at Harvard, they rarely spoke to one another directly. This relationship was both social and intellectual. Jerry (as has been recounted at WEIT) was close friends with and had done tropical field work with Ken Miyata, one of Ernest’s students, and Russ Lande, another of Dick’s students had undertaken an empirical study in the herp collection with Ernest’s assistance of patterns of limb loss in lizards to complement his theoretical studies of phenotypic evolution. I joined this intellectual/social circle, so that even before Ernest retired I was an “associate” member of the Lewontin lab; and Dick’s student Ken Weber and I even worked together in Dick’s lab on one of Ken’s systems of mass selection in flies. After Ernest retired, Dick would sign whatever forms needed signing by my advisor (although if only initials were needed, Dick’s student Lisa Brooks sometimes did it, since she had perfected Dick’s initials and been delegated the task), while my base of operations remained in herpetology.

But Dick and I would discuss my thesis topic. The Anolis lizards which I studied are exquisite examples of adaptive radiation and convergent evolution, and thus not right up the alley of one of the chief critics of the “adaptationist program”. When I told Dick that I could predict the ecology and morphology of the next species of anole to evolve on the island of Jamaica, he didn’t quite wince, but he challenged the notion of pre-existing niches; he argued for “niche construction”, the idea that ecological niches are the result of a contingent interaction of organism and environment, and that the environment does not present problems to be solved. There was much merit in Dick’s view—whales didn’t evolve flippers after some even-toed hoofed mammals were stranded at sea— but we still differed. Now I would refine my predictions of anole evolution a bit, but still basically stand by them.

I also did some multivariate statistics for my thesis, using a computer in Dick’s lab (set up, in part, by one of Ernest’s students, Kurt Fristrup). Dick was dubious about much of multivariate statistics—dismissing the results as “reifications”—and he was a statistical adept; I was fortunate to learn of the power of the analysis of variance from Robert Sokal, and of its limitations from Dick. Dick lamented, in a bemused way, the computer and its ability to let me run analyses quickly as merely enabling the rapid production of conceptual confusions. It is to Dick’s credit that even though some of what I did ran counter to his own inclinations, he put what facilities he had at my disposal, stood up for me during an ugly biology department power play, and provided unintrusive support throughout.

In addition to being a good advisor, I think Dick was the smartest guy I ever met. I once attended with my infant daughter one of the regular Population Biology Seminars which Dick hosted, taking a seat in the back where I could make a quick exit if necessary. To my mortification, Dick came and picked up my daughter, carried her to near the front of the room, and played with her throughout the visitor’s seminar. When it came time for discussion, Dick’s opening question showed that, far from being distracted, he had taken in everything said, understood it, and penetrated to the heart of the matter. On another occasion, Dick once visited a former MCZ student, Bob O’Hara, and Bob was explaining some things he was working on to Dick. Bob reported to me that, in five minutes, Dick understood his ideas more clearly than Bob himself did after six months of thinking about them.

Th. Dobzhansky, Dick Lewontin, Steve Bryant, and Tim Prout on a Drosophila hunting expedition in Anza Borrego State Park, CA, on April 1, 1973. Note that Dick is wearing the same sweater he wore when giving lectures. Taken from a photo given to me by Dick about 10 years ago; the photo was taken by John Moore. [This photo added after the OP went up.]
Jerry has commented on the relationship of Dick with Ed Wilson, who were once both part of a group known as the “Marlboro Circle” which sought to conceptually unify ecology and evolutionary biology, but the two later split dramatically over Wilson’s sociobiology. The general consensus is that they never spoke with one another after that. (Natalie Anger avers otherwise). My final act as a graduate student, in winter of 1989, was to bring Dick and and Ed together into the same room.

Almost every Monday at noon the Population Biology Seminar was held in the central meeting area on Dick’s 3rd floor of the MCZ Labs, with attendees gathered around the great table that he had procured for the purpose of bringing people together. The speakers could be local, or visiting luminaries from far and wide. It was there that the public defense of my thesis was held. I titled my defense talk “A theory of island biogeography, with especial reference to the amphibians and reptiles of the West Indies”. This was a deliberate mashup of the title of Wilson’s famous book with Robert MacArthur, The Theory of Island Biogeography, and the title of a monograph from 1914 by Thomas Barbour, an earlier curator of herpetology at the MCZ, “A contribution to the zoogeography of the West Indies, with especial reference to amphibians and reptiles“. The topic of my thesis was much closer to Ed’s interests than to Dick’s; I argued in my talk that MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory of island biogeography was a special case of a more general theory, and that theirs didn’t apply very well to West Indian amphibians and reptiles.

I made sure, by not just posting the seminar announcement in the usual places, but by placing a copy in his mailbox, that Ed knew about it. (We had had little contact, despite our similar interests.) He did come, and sat at the middle of one side of the great table; Dick was further back in the room. After my talk, among the questions were one or two from Ed. He defended the applicability of his and MacArthur’s theory to broader situations than the ones where it fit best, and, in fairness, one of the virtues of their theory is that they anticipated modifications, expansions, and refinements that would improve it; that’s why I had said there was a more general theory of which theirs could be a special case. After the questions, Ed left; I didn’t see him talk to Dick, but they were in the same room talking in public about the same thing, at least briefly.

The one point of Jerry’s assessment with which I might quibble is whether Dick’s writing could be “caustic”. It could be a matter of definition, but Dick’s criticism could be biting and withering, and his book reviews, in particular, were displays of rhetorical virtuosity and erudition. When he reviewed Charles J. Lumsden and Ed Wilson’s Genes, Mind, and Culture in 1983, he originally titled his review “No genes, no mind, no culture”, a sentiment clearly expressed in the review itself. The editors of The Sciences (a NY Academy of Science publication) thought that title too harsh, and it was changed to “Sleight of hand” in the published version, though this seemed scarcely less harsh. (That this was Dick’s intended title we knew at the time in the lab, and it is documented by Philip Kitcher‘s citation of the phrase as being from the review in his critique of sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition; and by the fact that the phrase is given as the title of the review in John Maynard Smith‘s papers in the British Library [Western Manuscripts Add MS 86661, p. 68 of the catalog of JMS papers]. The phrase does not occur in the published review; Kitcher and Maynard Smith had evidently been in possession of pre-publication drafts.)

Dick entitled his review of two books by his ideological ally Steven Rose for the NY Review of Books, “The corpse in the elevator.” In it, Dick chides Rose for his claim of the death of reductionism, revealing at the end that he has just seen the “corpse in the elevator”: the unnamed Ed Wilson, the living embodiment of reductionism, taking the elevator to the floor above Dick’s in the MCZ Labs.

And as a final example, Dick’s review in the NYRB of some books by a bunch of sociologists about sexual behavior, “Sex, lies, and social science” is a classic of rhetorical and logical take down. In it, he reached a higher realm of criticism to which few have aspired, let alone reached (Peter Medawar being one of those few). His accompanying exchange with the authors, which is available at the link in its entirety, is not to be missed. This brief excerpt gives some of the flavor:

The Yellow Kid, who made a living from fleecing the gullible, used to say that anyone who could not con a banker ought to go into another line of work. Maybe, but before giving up, they should try professors of sociology.

Over the last some years I’d visited Dick several times, usually in company with another of Dick’s students, Steve Orzack; and Dick provided me with materials for an exhibit at my campus library that I curated on Dick’s own graduate advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky. My last visit was in 2019, and it seemed that Dick’s vigor, as was inevitable, was declining.  Ernst Mayr, who as director of the MCZ had much to do with bringing Dick to the MCZ in 1973, rose at the end of his 100th birthday party and symposium, and told the assembled family, friends, students and colleagues, “I’ve had a good life”. Dick could say that as well.

JAC: I added this photo of Dick: