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:


Some thoughts on Dick Lewontin’s obituary in the New York Times

July 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

Both the online and paper editions of today’s New York Times feature fairly long obituary of The Boss: my Ph.D advisor Dick Lewontin. It was written by science correspondent Natalie Angier, and you can access it by clicking on the screenshot below.

As he headline implies, and much of the text confirms (“a gleeful gadfly”, “Not everyone was enamored of Dr. Lewontin”, etc.), the “hook” used in the piece is Lewontin’s contrarianism: his opposition to stuff like genetic determinism, IQ studies, adaptationism, and sociobiology. To my taste, it makes him seem a bit more of an academic curmudgeon than he really was, but remember that I basically lived in his lab for six years. Yes, he was captious about science, but that was great for his students, who imbibed the essentially critical attitude needed for good science. But I never saw the man get angry, nor do I think he was, as described in the first paragraph of the piece, a “caustic writer”. In my view he was not caustic, but critical. He could take you down to size, though!

But in general it’s a very good summary of his life, concentrating (as these pieces must) on his contributions to science. Angier, after all, won a Pulitzer Prize for her science reporting.  I believe some of the material came from my own more personal memorial to Dick posted the other day, like his working-class attire and his holding hands with his wife in the movies. That’s fine with me.

A few corrections and comments (quotes from the piece are indented)

Dr. Lewontin first won scientific fame in the mid-1960s for research he conducted with John Hubby at the University of Chicago that revealed far greater genetic diversity among members of the same species than anybody had suspected.

That work upended existing notions that most genetic mutations are rare, harmful and soon swept from the breeding pool. The two men’s findings showed that, to the contrary, many different forms, or alleles, of the same genes can coexist indefinitely in wild populations of organisms, be they fruit flies, zebra finches, earthworms or zebras.

It would have been useful to mention that the work with Hubby on “members of the same species” was the fruit fly species Drosophila pseudoobscura. More important, Lewontin and Hubby did experimental work only on fruit flies, and didn’t show anything about “the degree of genetic variation in zebra finches, earthworms, or zebras”. Other people did that work much later. Lewontin and Hubby’s work (and that of Harry Harris in England) did inspire that later work, though.

Going on:

He was no fan of the massive federal Human Genome Project, which set out to map the entire sequence of human DNA, and he strongly objected to the notion that DNA is the “blueprint” for a human being. He considered the perpetual debate over race, I.Q. and heritability to be an irritating scam, a recrudescence of Nazi-inflected notions of eugenics and master races.

Even to begin to figure out how big a role genes played in intellectual life, he said, would require a large number of newborn infants to be raised in tightly controlled circumstances by caretakers who had no idea where the babies came from. “We should not be surprised that such a study has not been done,” he added.

Lewontin’s opposition to the Human Genome Project was, in retrospect, a big mistake. No, it won’t answer every question we have, but already knowing the genes we have has been of immense value in medicine, in paleoanthropology, and in evolutionary genetics of humans. As for IQ (I think that’s what the article means by “how big a role genes played in intellectual life”), we now have a pretty good idea that within human populations, about 75% of the variation among adult individuals is due to variation in their genes—that is, the “heritability” of IQ within a give population is about 0.75, or 75%. We have various ways of estimating that figure and they generally are close to each other. But one shouldn’t misinterpret heritability, as I pointed out in detail in a previous post. There are a number of ways a high heritability is misused, the most invidious being to assume that high values within a population imply that difference among populations also rest on genic differences. That’s a logical and scientific error.

Lewontin’s feud with Ed Wilson over sociobiology is described in detail, and is generally accurate. Lewontin couldn’t stand Wilson. Wilson had a more charitable attitude, though he felt blindsided by Lewontin and Gould’s attacks. I lived through that period at Harvard. I was Dick’s student but also taught Ed’s Bio 1 class twice and was friends with Wilson’s collaborators, students, and postdocs. I thus shuttled between warring labs from time to time. In the end, I think, Lewontin lost that debate, as evolutionary psychology, despite some flaws, has proven to be a useful and vital field, and friendly with Wilson himself. And of course sociobiology, applied to animals in general, is well ensconced as part of organismal biology.
Part of this bit, however, seems inaccurate:

It was Dr. Lewontin’s break with another old friend, Dr. Wilson, that proved the more harrowing and long-lasting. Dr. Lewontin in 1975 attacked Dr. Wilson’s 700-page blockbuster, “Sociobiology: A New Synthesis,” as the work of a modern, industrial Western “ideologue.” Inspired by this and similar critiques, a group of demonstrators at a 1978 scientific meeting dumped a bucket of water over Dr. Wilson’s head.

The ill will persisted for many years, but friends said the two men had recently reconciled with a handshake, calling each other worthy adversaries.

I’d love to hear about that handshake, as I know nothing about it. (I assume it’s true.) As for the bucket-of-water incident, though, I believe that’s inaccurate: the stories seem to have settled on one radical science person approaching Wilson, who was sitting at a dais in a lecture room, and tossing cup of water on Wilson while saying, “Wilson, you’re all wet!” The “pitcher of ice water” poured over Wilson may well be an apocryphal tale that persists widely. I cannot be sure.

UPDATE: In a comment below, Ira Flatow says he was there and it was indeed a pitcher of water. I stand corrected.

Finally, I liked the fact that Natalie emphasized Dick’s refusal to put his name on his students’ papers:

He had habits of dress: “Khaki pants, work boots, work shirt — in solidarity with workers,” Dr. Coyne said. He had habits of principle, notably of authorship: Many senior scientists are listed as authors on research reports done entirely by their students, but Dr. Lewontin would have none of it. If you didn’t do any of the work, he insisted, you don’t get to take any of the credit.

It’s telling that at his faux-retirement dinner, when asked to say a few words, Dick talked almost entirely about how none of us, his students and colleagues, should take credit for work that we didn’t do—or didn’t do much of. That came from his egalitarianism, his spirit of fairness, and his desire to see young folk get the credit they needed to advance in science. As Sara Hrdy says in the article when criticizing Dick for being “unfair” to E. O. Wilson, “Dick was a complicated man.” I’m not sure I’d use the adjective “complicated”, for while he was a polymath and multitalented, he wasn’t that hard to figure out, even if none of us could come close to him in intellect and achievement. I’d say a “great” man, but of course I’m one of those whom Angier describes in the first sentence of this paragraph:

Many of his students and colleagues regarded him with an awe that tipped toward reverence, describing him as equally gifted at abstruse quantitative research, popular writing and public speaking; a Renaissance scholar who spoke fluent French, wrote treatises in Italian, worked with Buckminster Fuller on his geodesic domes and played chamber music on the clarinet with his pianist wife, Mary Jane. He was also a volunteer firefighter and a self-described Marxist who chopped his own wood.

In the end, Angier did a very good job, and the only reason I have quibbles is because I was so close to her subject.

To close, here are three pictures that limn the man’s life. First, two photos of a very young Lewontin; these were taken at the Cold Spring Harbor population-genetics meetings in 1955, when Dick would have been 26. I never saw him wear a bowtie, and rarely a tie.

This is a picture that all his students knew about and got a huge kick from. Cold Spring Harbor labels it “Richard Lewontin; E. B. Ford (eating clams at Neptune’s Cave)”. Ford, of course, was a famous British ecological geneticist.

And a photo I’ve shown before: Lewontin on his 90th birthday in 2019. It was taken by Andrew Berry:


Harvard announces Lewontin’s death

July 6, 2021 • 10:00 am

Here’s the announcement sent to all on the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences email list (my own memorial for Dick is here).

It’s so like Harvard! What on Earth is “the fourth instant”, though? (I’m too lazy to look it up.)

And he was 92, so it is technically correct to say that he was in his 93rd year. “Your obedient servant”?   I suppose this is the boilerplate announcement for a Harvard faculty death.

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.

David B. Wake (1936-2021)

May 8, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

David B. Wake, emeritus Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator, and Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, died on April 29, 2021. Dave was a herpetologist and evolutionary morphologist who not only exerted great influence in his core disciplines, but also made notable contributions to conservation, systematics, evolutionary genetics, and paleontology. In conservation, his contributions were not just in conservation biology as an academic pursuit, but in actually conserving the world’s biodiversity, especially amphibians.

Dave Wake in his MVZ office (from his lab website).

Dave was born and grew up in South Dakota. He went to Pacific Lutheran College, and then down the coast to the University of Southern California for his Ph.D. with Jay Savage (another notable herpetologist), which was on the comparative osteology and evolution of salamanders of the family Plethodontidae. This species-rich family of lungless and mostly American salamanders remained the central, though not exclusive, object of his research over the whole of his long and very productive career. It was at USC that he met Marvalee, who became his wife, and who is a formidable herpetologist and morphologist (specializing in caecilians) in her own right.

After finishing his degree, Dave spent 5 years as a professor at the University of Chicago, but in 1969 he was lured back to California to Berkeley and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and he stayed there the rest of his career. He was the Director of the Museum from 1971 to 1998; he retired in 2003, but continued a rich research output: over 400 publications are listed on Dave’s website. Dave’s legacy is reflected not just in the enormous outpouring of his own work, but in the stunning roster of the undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and collaborators who have flourished under his influence. The “People” page on his lab website reads like a who’s who of herpetologically-oriented evolutionary biology. (And there are many others not listed, such as “grandstudents”, who fell within at least the edges of Dave’s penumbra.)

Berkeley has put out a fine notice, and we are fortunate that Dave himself contributed to a biographical paper published in Copeia in 2017, and a transcript of an interview he did with his longtime MVZ colleague, mammalogist Jim Patton, is available; I have drawn from these sources for some of the above account.

When I was applying to graduate schools in 1978, I applied to Berkeley, and went out to visit in the winter of 1979, where I was graciously and generously received into the home of Dave and Marvalee (and their son Tom– now a zooarcheologist at UCLA). I was enormously impressed by his overview monograph on tropical American salamanders, published a few years earlier with James Lynch, and by the MVZ and the group of students and faculty there.

I had also applied to Chicago and Harvard, and I soon realized that there were close connections among the herpetologists at all three places. I wound up going to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology to work with Ernest Williams, but one of Dave’s graduate students Pere Alberch, whom I had met on my visit to the MVZ, the next year came to the MCZ to be the curator of the herpetology department. (Pere, who died tragically young, was later Director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, and one of the founders of the modern sub-discipline of evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo”; Dave wrote his obituary for Nature.) There was an “MCZ-MVZ axis”, which passed through Chicago (including the Field Museum in Chicago). The strength of that connection was driven home by Dave himself many years later, when in 2017, he remarked that, in devoting himself to the study of plethodontid salamanders,  he had “consciously modeled his approach on Williams'” work on anoles. It is fitting that he and Marvalee both spent their last sabbatical year in 2002 at the MCZ, the long-serving director of which is Jim Hanken, yet another of Dave’s students.

Although I did not wind up in Berkeley or working with Dave, I would see him at meetings and on visits to California, and want to extend my deep condolences to Marvalee, Tom, and all their family and friends.

Dave’s major works are too numerous to mention, so I include here only the 1976 monograph that so impressed me as an undergraduate; a University of California publication on the history of the MVZ; and his obituary of Pere Alberch. I’ve also included the biography in Copeia mentioned above, and two articles analyzing Dave’s research program by James Griesemer, a philosopher of science who had been an undergraduate in Dave’s lab.

Griesemer, J. 2013. Integration of approaches in David Wake’s model-taxon research platform for evolutionary morphology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44:525-536.

Griesemer, J. 2015. What salamander biologists have taught us about evo-devo. pp. 271-301 in A.C. Love, ed. Conceptual Change in Biology: Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives on Evolution and Development. Springer Verlag, Dordrecht.

Rodriguez-Robles, J.A., D.A. Good, & D.B. Wake. 2003. Brief history of herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, with a list of type specimens of recent amphibians and reptiles. Univ. Calif. Pub. Zool. 131: xvi+119. pdf

Staub, N. and R.L. Mueller. 2017. David Burton Wake. Copeia 105(2):415-426. pdf

Wake, D.B. 1998. Pere Alberch (1954-1998): Synthesizer of evolution and development. Nature 393:632. pdf

Wake, D. B., and J. F. Lynch. 1976. The distribution, ecology, and evolutionary history of plethodontid salamanders in tropical America. Sci. Bull. Nat. Hist. Mus. Los Angeles Co. 25:1-65.

I am grateful to Jonathan Losos for reading a draft of this, and providing suggestions.

On celebrating Rush Limbaugh’s death

February 21, 2021 • 9:30 am

The other day, depressed with the number of people I saw expressing sheer joy at the death of Rush Limbaugh, I put up a Facebook post:

In response, people proceeded to inform me, as if I didn’t know, what Limbaugh’s odious political and personal opinions really were, with some adding me that it was really okay to celebrate. (Nobody unfriended me.) After all, his existence was a net minus for the world’s welfare—something I’m prepared to believe—so why not gambol with glee when he died? (Let me note that he died of lung cancer, and it was probably a pretty horrible way to go.)

And, as Frank Bruni notes in his New York Times op-ed below (expressing a view similar to  mine), the celebrations were not only widespread, but pretty mean-spirited:

“BIGOT, MISOGYNIST, HOMOPHOBE, CRANK: RUSH LIMBAUGH DEAD.” Those were the words, capitalized and adrenalized, that HuffPost splashed across its home page. Several other left-leaning sites took the same tack and tone.

Of course, they were positively restrained in comparison with Twitter, which is basically talk radio’s less windy bastard child. “Rest in piss” had currency there. The F word, followed immediately by Limbaugh’s name, was taken out for a spin. There was speculation that Limbaugh had gone to a very hot place reputed to have nine circles and a red, horned ruler. There was wishing that he would rot there. One tweet said that Limbaugh “brought a lot of people a lot of joy by dying.” It was liked by more than 35,000 of the morbidly contented. I don’t begrudge them their relief that he’s no longer ranting. But is that really what they want to lavish a cute little heart symbol on?

Not for me.  While I don’t mourn the absence of Limbaugh from the scene, celebrating it just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t join the chorus of glee, and yet I didn’t understand why. I didn’t feel that I was superior to those who were celebrating (yes, it was mean-spirited, but I can be, too), but something in me baulked at expressing the verbal equivalent of heart symbols.

Part of it was that Limbaugh’s wife was on the news, clearly distraught, and she loved him, as other members of his family must have. So some people are more heartbroken than we are gleeful. And I’m a conscientious objector, which I think has made me wary of celebrating anybody’s death, even an enemy’s.

But most of all, I suppose, I realize how much every human values their own lives. Evolution has instilled strong instincts for self-preservation in us, and few can face a terminal diagnosis with equanimity. Limbaugh himself must have gone through unspeakable mental and physical torments after his diagnosis and before his death. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, and it’s hard for me to look at that and laugh.

Yes, he might have had a negative effect on the world, but there are many people you can say that about. Not just Trump, but, as I think from comments by some on this site, almost every Republican, from Mitch McConnell to Ted Cruz on down, could be described as having a net negative effect on the world. Even regular people, if they engage in stuff like killing animals for fur or evicting poor people from their homes, might create, through their existence, a net loss in “well being”, however you measure that.  If having a net negative effect on the world is the criterion for celebrating someone’s death, then we should constantly be celebrating.

And yet, like Bruni, I think it erodes one’s character to engage in that kind of hate, and I think it’s eroded both Democrats and Republicans over the past four years to engage in the kind of demonization that led to the celebration of Limbaugh’s death. What doesn’t erode one’s character is a measured yet highly negative take on Limbaugh’s legacy, which both Bruni and Andrew Sullivan (below; click on screenshot) offer.

Bruni extols the New York Times‘s own obituary of Limbaugh as the way it should be done:

He earned it. If you’re going to fling your opinions at the world, you must be braced for the world to fling its reaction back at you. Those are the terms of the contract.

And it would be journalistic malpractice and morally wrong to publish obituaries about Limbaugh that merely noted his role in the rise of talk radio and his adoration by millions of listeners. Those appraisals were obliged, for the sake of history and accuracy, to note and be reasonably blunt about how he used his format, what listeners were thrilling to and what impact it had on the country’s political culture.

The Times’s obituary did precisely that. I don’t always agree with the approach and decisions of the news organization that employs me and have never felt any pressure to play cheerleader for it, but I think it handled Limbaugh’s death expertly.