A visit with Dick Lewontin

July 19, 2019 • 2:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

While on the East Coast to attend the Evolution 2019 meetings in Providence, Rhode Island, I also stopped for a few days at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Jerry’s and my alma mater), and got a chance to visit with Dick Lewontin, Jerry’s Ph.D. advisor, and my de jure Ph.D. advisor (my actual advisor, E. E. Williams, was retired, and so could not officially be my advisor). WEIT readers may recall that Jerry posted greetings for Dick’s 90th birthday earlier this year. I went to see Dick with Steve Orzack, another one of Dick’s Ph.D. students, who took the two pictures below.

Visiting with Dick Lewontin, Cambridge, Mass., 21 June 2019. Picture by Steve Orzack.

We chatted for an hour or two about various things. Steve and I both had some things we wanted to ask Dick about, one of mine being whether Dick’s advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, was Russian or Ukrainian. (Wikipedia claims he’s Ukrainian, and I once had a Ukrainian complain to me about an exhibit about Dobzhansky that I curated that referred to him as Russian.) Dick was adamant that Dobzhansky was Russian, noting that he spoke Russian at home with his wife, thought of himself as Russian, and had Russians as his lab assistants and technicians. Historians, friends, and colleagues of “Dodik/Doby” have always called him Russian, so I was not surprised by Dick’s response.

Dick hams it up for the camera. Picture by Steve Orzack.

Dick also regaled us with stories of when he worked with Buckminster Fuller on geodesic domes back in the ’50s, when Dick was at North Carolina State. Bucky, he assured us, did not understand the geometry of solids! Dick mentioned that he considered leaving academia to work full time with Fuller, but was now glad he hadn’t, as Fuller’s company went under a few years later. Steve replied that if Dick had joined the company full time, Dick could have saved the company!

Dick has given up essentially all his space at the Museum, and most of his papers (correspondence, etc.) have been taken by the American Philosophical Society, (which also has a considerable trove of Dobzhansky material), and Dick has given his books to the Ernst Mayr Library– the library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This is appropriate, as Ernst Mayr, while Director of the MCZ from 1961-1970, engaged in correspondence with Dick on “genetical problems” (Haffer , 2007:265), and pushed for the building of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Laboratories, the MCZ’s lab wing, completed in 1973 (Mayr, 1973), of which Dick’s fly lab was one of the first inhabitants, arriving at Harvard in that opening year. (Dick mentioned that the proximity of the MCZ to his summer place in Vermont, which he’d had to travel to by train from Chicago, was a consideration in moving from the University of Chicago to Harvard.)

Dick’s books are being sorted, and I looked though several of them, finding a number of interesting inscriptions. First, a set of inscriptions from Mayr himself. These show that Mayr was presenting Dick with his books as early as March 1969, prior to Dick’s arrival at Harvard. I’m not sure if discussions involving Dick’s movement to the MCZ had begun this early.

To Dick Lewontin, | evolutionary geneticist, |who appreciates the importance of systematics, | in friendship | Ernst | March 1969

The ISBN stamp on the following cover page (and some further below) are from a cataloging effort in Dick’s personal library, not from the MCZ Library.

To Dick Lewontin | fellow worker in the evol. vineyard, | in the hope that he will crack | some of the nuts that were too hard for me! | With best wishes | Ernst | Christmas 1976


To Dick Lewontin | to whom I owe so much intellectual | stimulation | in friendship and admiration | Ernst


For Dick Lewontin | whose deep understanding of genetics | I admire beyond words (and song!) | in friendship | Ernst Mayr

[I am unsure of my transcription of the final word of the third line, “song”.]


For Dick Lewontin | in friendship and admiration | from the non-Marxist dialectic materialist | Ernst Mayr

The following is Dick’s MCZ bookstamp, which appears in many, though not all, of his books from his MCZ years.

The following is of interest, coming from Tom Schopf, one of the “young Turks” of paleontology in the early 1970’s, whom I mentioned in my tribute to David Raup.

To Dick Lewontin | I hope you will enjoy this effort to make invertebrate paleontology a “creative, chancy young man’s game” | As you will see from citations to your | work, you have had a large influence. | And I look forward to your continuing | analysis of problems critical to paleontologists. | Tom | December 2, 1972

The following is an inscription to Dick from a younger colleague, Jonathan Losos, on his book Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree. Note that Dick had been Jonathan’s intro bio professor!

Dick, | With great appreciation for the influence you have had on my | career through your writings, your teaching | of my introductory biology class) of which | I have vivid recollections) and your | helpful conversations with specific | reference to points herein. | Jonathan

And finally, some inscriptions from Dick’s Ph.D. advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky. These I got from Dick several years ago, when I visited him while preparing my exhibit on Dobzhansky. I used all three inscriptions in the exhibit. The first is on a copy of the third edition of Dobzhansky’s classic Genetics and the Origin of Species. It was published in 1951, which is about the time Dick went to Columbia to work with Dodik. (Dick was in the Harvard class of 1950, but since he had been “rusticated” for a year, he actually graduated in 1951.) The inscription isn’t dated, but it seems to be earlier than the other two, referring to Dick’s “scientific youth”, and his “coming” eminence. According to Dick, Dodik referred to finishing graduate students as “soon to be professor” (as did Dick himself), so this inscription is probably early in Dick’s grad school days.

To Dick Lewontin, the coming | eminent geneticist, in his scientific | youth, with best wishes of continued | success | Th Dobzhansky

The next inscription is on a bound set of numbers I to XX of Dobzhansky’s monumental series of paper on “The Genetics of Natural Populations”. These 20 papers were published from 1938 through 1952. It is interesting that Dodik refers to the greater success of succeeding generations; the inscription was made only 5 years before Dick published his groundbreaking papers with Jack Hubby on allozyme polymorphism, confirming Dodik’s long-argued view that genetic variation was abundant and “normal” in natural populations.

Progress of science means that | succeeding generations do better than | preceding generations— and this | is what is to happen when the | genetics of natural populations | is investigated by my old | friend and spiritual son, | Prof. R. Lewontin! | Th Dobzhansky | New York, February 4, 1961

The final inscription is on a bound set of numbers XXI-XL of “The Genetics of Natural Populations”, published from 1953 through 1968. This inscription is undated but necessarily postdates initial Dick’s work on allozymes. There were three more papers in the series to come, published from 1969 through 1976; for the last, Dobzhansky was a posthumous coauthor, having died in December,1975. (The notation “GNP | XXI-XL” was made by me on the copy I made, and is not on the original.)

These lucubrations of the | old age of Th. Dobzhansky | dedicated to the super-star | R.C. Lewontin

You can see in these inscriptions the development of Dobzhansky’s appreciation of Dick as a scientist, from promising “youth”, to “old friend and spiritual son” (Dobzahnsky had one child, a daughter), and finally to “super-star”. You can also see Dodik’s colloquial phrasing and sense of humor, also evident in his  aphorism, “Heaven is where, when the experiment is over, you don’t need statistics to figure out what happened.” (Which Dick reconfirmed, on my latest visit, was indeed Dodik’s.)

Haffer, J. 2007. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904-2005. Springer, Berlin

Hubby, J. L., and R. C. Lewontin. 1966. A molecular approach to the study of genic heterozygosity in natural populations. I. The number of alleles at different loci in Drosophila pseudoobscura. Genetics 54:577-594.

Lewontin, R. C., and J. L. Hubby. 1966. A molecular approach to the study of genic heterozygosity in natural populations. II. Amount of variation and degree of heterozygosity in natural populations of Drosophila pseudoobscura. Genetics 54:595-609.

Losos, J.B. 2009. Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Mayr, E. 1969. Principles of Systematic Zoology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Mayr, E. 1973. Museums and biological laboratories. Breviora 416, 7pp. BHL

Mayr, E. 1976. Evolution and the Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1988. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1991. One Long Argument. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1997. This is Biology: the Science of the Living World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Schopf, T.J.M., ed. 1972. Models in Paleobiology. Freeman Cooper, San Francisco.

Don’t know your past, don’t know your future

December 18, 2017 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

My friend and colleague Jon Losos has recently published a book, Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution (Riverhead Books, New York) that will be of considerable interest to WEIT readers. The main question addressed by the book is this: To what extent is the course of evolution predictable? And, in particular, what do the phenomena of convergence tell us about the answer(s) to this question.

Improbable Destinies by Jonathan B. LososJon is best known for his work on the adaptive radiation of West Indian Anolis lizards, and anoles are famous for displaying convergent community structure on the islands of the Greater Antilles: the same ecologies, morphologies, and behaviors have evolved multiple times among the islands of the archipelago. On each of the Greater Antilles, a suite of sympatric lizards have evolved independently, and each island’s suite contains species of analogous morphology and behavior, each analogue associated with particular stations in the vegetation.

Anole ecomorphs, showing characteristic size, station, and morphology; each of these has evolved tow or more times independently in the Greater Antilles. From Losos, 2009, based on E.E. Williams
Anole ecomorphs, showing characteristic size, station, and morphology; each of these has evolved two or more times independently in the Greater Antilles. From Losos, 2009, based on work of E.E. Williams.

The similarities in ecological structure and function across phylogenetically independent lineages of anoles is quite striking, and has been hailed as an example of how natural selection can mold recurring adaptations. When I told my thesis advisor, Dick Lewontin, that I could predict the ecology and morphology of the next species of anole to evolve on Jamaica, Dick, who was not a fan of the supposed ubiquity of adaptation, was a combination of dismayed and mildly dubious.

So, in this book, someone who is arguably ‘Mr. Community Convergence’ takes a broader look at evolutionary convergence for a general audience. The book is written in a colloquial, conversational style, the text sprinkled with puns, alliteration, cultural allusions (e.g. the Horta), words like “bamboozled”, “glom” and “Aussie”, at least one neologism (“arboles”, for big trees, partly a borrowing from Spanish, but also undoubtedly influenced by the English word ‘anoles’, itself a borrowing from Carib through French), and, shockingly for an academic, correct use of the word “rubric”. Reading it, in fact, provides an experience very much like talking with the author. While conversational tastes may differ, I regard this as a plus for the book, and a plus for its non-scientist readers. The approach also advances one of Jon’s other goals in the book, which, as we’ll see, is to put a human face on the practice of science.

He begins by surveying the phenomena of natural history for evidence of predictability and evolutionary convergence. The phenomena are manifold: from convergent traits (long nectar sipping bills), to whole organisms (ichthyosaurs and dolphins), to whole communities (Greater Antillean anoles); and a long set of rules about how animals respond to particular environmental conditions. Rodents, for example, get big on islands, while elephants get smaller, and warm blooded animals in the arctic have short legs, and in deserts they are pale. The list goes on.

Jon recounts many such cases. In discussing the case of anoles, he includes a lot of his own experiences in growing up to be a herpetologist, and this is where we see clearly the second main theme of the book, which is to show how it is scientist’s do their work, and how they come to study the things they study. But after recounting these cases, he also devotes a chapter to evolutionary idiosyncrasy, the “one-offs” of evolution, like aye-ayes, the grub-digging primates of Madagascar, and, much though Simon Conway Morris might wish it weren’t so, that other really unique primate, Man.

Jon knows, though, as Stephen Jay Gould liked to say, that all questions in natural history are ones of relative frequency. Almost anything you can think of in natural history occurs– but does it occur very often? Jon concludes that Conway Morris has shown convergence to be more common than some have thought, but not ubiquitous.

Switching from comparative evidence to experimental evidence, the book then switches to closely observed cases of evolutionary change in the field and in the lab. Jon now becomes a journalist, visiting research sites and the scientists who work at them, going in to the details of a number of studies. He devotes a chapter each to the guppies of Trinidad, his own experimental work on Bahamian anoles, Rothamsted Experimental Station in England, sticklebacks, fruitflies, and Richard Lenski’s monumental Longterm Evolution Experiment on E. coli (which gets two chapters). A feature of each of these chapters are interviews with the scientists involved, who recount their motivations for the work, how they conducted it, and, in many cases, how their own interpretations have evolved over time.

In these chapters we see the scientists’ and the author’s views changing (evolving?), but eventually we want to know what the author, having reviewed the phenomena of convergence in extenso, finally concludes. And the last part of the book provides this for the reader. It is not the conclusion that Simon Conway Morris would prefer—we (i.e. humans) are not an inevitable consequence of evolution. As Jon succinctly puts it:

The fact is, we humans are an evolutionary singleton—nothing else like us has ever evolved on Earth anywhere, any time. The ubiquity of convergent evolution in general would seem to provide scant support for our evolutionary inevitability.

And what about life in general? Convergence does reveal that there are often similar ways of dealing with similar environments. But this doesn’t mean the ‘same’ organisms will recur. As Jon writes:

… here on Earth, species frequently do evolve similar features in response to similar environmental conditions. So, even if a humanoid or a platypusoid (or a chameleonoid or kiwioid) is unlikely to have evolved elsewhere, that’s not to say that extraterrestrials would look completely unfamiliar. An extraterrestrial might even be a mashup, platypus-style, of many different parts borrowed from different Earth inhabitants.

His conclusions are thus contra Conway Morris. There are certain principles (e.g., in hydrodynamics, a stiff surface parallel to the direction of motion can prevent roll) that are instantiated again and again, but how they play out depends on the starting point. If you are a toothed tetrapod, being a predator involves having sharp teeth, but not if you’re a cephalopod (which involves beaks, and not teeth at all). A number of mammalian lineages have become large herbivores living on prairies or savannas, but that does not require, as in horses and antelope,  hooves for running across the prairies– hopping works quite nicely as well, as kangaroos have shown us. Jon’s conclusion reminded me of W.K. Gregory’s notion of “habitus and heritage”. (Jon should like this comparison, since, as an undergraduate student of E.E. Williams, who was a student of Gregory, Jon is Gregory’s academic grandson.) According to Gregory, an organism’s habitus are those features of the organism which adapt it to its immediate conditions of existence, while it’s heritage are those features that it has inherited from its ancestors– the accumulated ‘adaptive wisdom’ of its progenitors. The habitus features must be derived from the existing heritage features, not ab initio from some engineer’s optimal solution. Thus the same conditions of existence may be adapted to very differently by different organisms with different heritages. Birds have evolved into large herbivores– geese on Hawaii, for example; and into large predators– eagles in general, and Haast’s eagle as a particularly striking example. But they don’t wind up looking like cattle or big cats. Where you go depends on where you are.

As Ziggy says, if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.

(Full disclosure: I am the unnamed graduate student on p. 58, and I am thanked in the acknowledgements. But my role in the book is minuscule, and I was thanked for providing a few minor facts,)

New books on evolution and vertebrates

November 27, 2010 • 10:29 pm

by Greg Mayer

Three new (or newish) books have come my way that may be of interest to WEIT readers.

First, my friend and colleague Jonathan Losos has edited a collection of essays entitled In the Light of Evolution: Essays from the Laboratory and Field. I’d mentioned his book about the world’s best animals, anoles, in a post last year. The new book features mostly chapters by scientists about the actual experience of carrying out research, and why they think it’s cool (NB: it doesn’t involve rock stars). Ted Daeschler and Neil Shubin, for example, relate their motivation and experiences in traveling to the Canadian Arctic in search of transitional tetrapods.  It’s aimed at a general reader or student audience, and thus might be of interest to a number of our non-specialist readers. I haven’t finished reading it yet, and hope to give a more complete report during Jerry’s next peregrination.

I’ve also just received a copy of How Vertebrates Left the Water by Michel Laurin, a famed Canadian paleontologist at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. The book is largely a translation (by Laurin himself) of his earlier Systématique, Paléontologie et Biologie Évolutive Moderne: l’exemple de la sortie des eaux chez les vertébrés (Ellipses éditions, Paris, 2008), with the text and bibliography updated. The book covers a lot of the same (muddy) ground that Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish does, although at a somewhat more technical and narrower level (sorry– couldn’t resist the allusion to coming ashore!).

And finally, not so new, is Bob Carroll‘s The Rise of the Amphibians, published in 2009, and which I got a copy of last year. Carroll is the dean of North American paleontology, and Laurin studied with him at McGill. Carroll’s book covers all of amphibian history, from their origins (the focus of Laurin’s book) to today. Although it has a predictably strong emphasis on the fossil record, he even includes a chapter on the  amphibian conservation crisis of today. Because reptiles (amniotes) descend from amphibians, this transition is covered as well. This book is the least likely of the three for casual bedtime reading, but it is well written, profusely illustrated, and has 16 attractive color plates.

Late Sunday Cephalopod

April 4, 2010 • 8:39 pm

by Greg Mayer

As a general rule, we here at WEIT eschew involvement with the more cerebral Mollusca, leaving such matters to PZ.  But the cephalopodous creations below adorn the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin, so PZ is not likely to see them, especially on the evening when Jon Losos took the photo, just prior to an 8-4 shellacking of Minnesota State-Mankato by the UW hockey Badgers.

The creator of this Cthhulonic congregation seems to have awaken from some dream of dread R’lyeh, and applied the nightmare image direct to the walls of the Kohl Center, only adding diverse colors to the cuttlefish-oid creatures to relieve the horror of his vision.

Summer reading and summer vacation: anoles

August 23, 2009 • 11:19 am

by Greg Mayer

Anoles are the neatest of all animals, and if you don’t believe me, take it up with my friend here– she’ll set you right!

An agitated anole

But rather than tangle with her, you can convince yourself by reading my friend and colleague Jonathan Losos’s new book, Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles, which was published at the end of July. Anoles are a group of 300 or so species found in the southeastern US, Central and South America, and throughout the West Indies.  Although they may be fairly described as, on average, diurnal, arboreal insectivores, they exhibit a great range in behavior, structure, and ecology: some are aquatic, some terrestrial, Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, by Jon Losossome engage in carnivory and frugivory, and some live in deserts, and others in rainforests. They are perhaps most remarkable for the evolution of convergent multi-species communities on the islands of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico).  This is not just the usual (but still remarkable) convergence in features between, say sabertoothed tigers and sabertoothed marsupial tigers, or dolphins and icthyosaurs. It is convergence in the whole set of species living together in a community.  Thus each of the four Greater Antilles has a large, green anole that lives in the canopy of trees, a medium green anole with short legs that lives in the tree crown and on the trunk, a whitish, very short-legged anole which lives on twigs in the crown, and a medium brown anole with long legs that lives on the trunks and bases of trees; and there are several other inter-island correspondences among species. The corresponding species, however, are not, in general, related to one another; rather, on each island a more or less independent adaptive radiation has produced similar ecological sets of species. There are lots of other neat things about anoles, but I’ll leave you to read about them in Jon’s book, which you need to add to your summer reading lists.

Many anoles are marvelously colored, and the book is beautifully illustrated and well-produced. My pictures here are of anoles from my trip earlier this summer to Estacion Biologica La Suerte, Costa Rica, where I taught a field course in tropical herpetology.

Anolis capito, Estacion Biologica La Suerte, Costa Rica
Anolis oxylophus, Estacion Biologica La Suerte, Costa Rica

Caturday Felid: Anoles vs. Predators

May 16, 2009 • 10:31 am

by Greg Mayer

The terrifyingly threatening predator on the left (which closely resembles my first cat, Kitty Cat) appears ready to enjoy a quick snack at the expense of the anole on the right (which closely resembles my first lizards, Gilbert and Ignatius). What’s that, you say? An anole? Not a gecko?KittehGeico

(via icanhascheezburger.com)

Our endangered friend is not a gecko, a type of lizard that has been popularized by commercial ventures ranging from Hawaiian tourism to insurance, but rather an anole, a member of a quite distinct family of lizards. In particular, it is Anolis carolinensis, the green or Carolina anole. They are native to the southeastern United States, and have long been popular in the pet trade. Jamaican acquaintances have told me of how the arrival of a house cat can clear out the anoles in their garden, but I don’t greatly fear for our friend here: I’ve seen an anole on Grand Cayman, faced in a similar manner by a predatory bird, dash between the bird’s legs and make good its escape.Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, by Jon Losos

Anoles are the neatest of all lizards, with about 300 species ranging from the US to South America and all over the West Indies, and showing a great diversity of morphology, ecology, and behavior.  One of the neat things about anoles is that they are great natural colonizers.  The species group to which Anolis carolinensis belongs originated on Cuba, and has colonized the southern US, the Bahamas, Little Cayman, Navassa, and Half Moon Cay and the Bay Islands off the coast of Central America. Through human introduction, Anolis carolinensis is now widespread on islands in the Pacific, including Hawaii.  The populations on the West Indian islands are variously considered endemic species or subspecies, and are a good example of geographic speciation, discussed by Jerry in chapter 7 of WEIT.

Studies of the colonizing abilities of anoles, and many other neat things about them, were pioneered by E.E. Williams. Anole studies have been carried to new levels by my friend and colleague Jonathan Losos, and he has a book on anoles coming out this summer, which everyone should read to find out more about their evolution, ecology, and biogeography.