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.

Teaching Evolution: Theodosius Dobzhansky: Genetics of natural populations

February 27, 2019 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Readers may recall that last spring I began what Jerry called a “mini-MOOC” on evolutionary biology. Because I began making posts fairly late in the semester, I got to only seven installments before the semester ended. I’m teaching the same course, BIOS 314 Evolutionary Biology, this spring, and so I’d like to start up again.

In the class I have the students read a series of what I regard to be classic papers or extracts–—one each week—and these are what I want to share with WEIT readers. Each reading is accompanied by a brief biography and illustration of the author, and a small number of study questions, designed to guide the student in understanding the reading. I sometimes assign these questions as homework essays, or include them on exams. When possible, I will provide links to the readings. The installments so far have been Charles Darwin, A.W.F. Edwards, George Gaylord Simpson, Charles Lyell, Alfred Sherwood Romer, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Richard C. Lewontin. We pick up with Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dobzhansky was a key figure in the “Modern Synthesis” of evolutionary biology in the 20th century (as described below). Jerry had intended to do his doctoral work with “Doby” (as he was known later in his career; students from earlier knew him as “Dodik”), but wound up studying with Dick Lewontin, who had been a student of Doby’s, and thus Jerry is Doby’s academic grandchild.

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) was a Russian-American geneticist who was arguably the most important evolutionary biologist of the 20th century. Completing (although never formally receiving) an undergraduate degree at the University of Kiev, he began his career conducting field studies of coccinellid beetles and laboratory experiments on Drosophila. In 1927 he received a fellowship to come to America and work with T. H. Morgan at his famed “fly room” at Columbia University. As a geneticist working at the epicenter of American genetics, Dobzhansky was well aware of the important empirical and theoretical advances being made in genetics; as a field worker and experimentalist, he was able to tie these developments more closely into the phenomena of natural populations. He synthesized the theoretical, experimental, and field approaches in his classic book Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937). It was through this book, much more so than through the previous synthetic, but more theoretical, works of Fisher, Haldane and Wright, that the biological community as a whole became aware of the developments in evolutionary biology, and the book inspired an outpouring of work carried on in the same synthetic spirit. Dobzhansky is well known for his two aphorisms, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, and “Heaven is where, when the experiment is over, you don’t need statistics to figure out what happened.” His major works include Genetics and the Origin of Species (3rd ed., 1951), Mankind Evolving (1962) and Genetics of the Evolutionary Process (1970). His monumental 43-paper series on the “Genetics of Natural Populations” (1938-1975) has been reprinted, with extensive historical and biographical commentary, as Dobzhansky’s Genetics of Natural Populations I-XLIII (1981), edited by Lewontin, Wallace, Moore, and Provine.

Dobzhansky, Th.1951. Genetics and the Origin of Species. 3rd ed. Columbia University Press, New York. Excerpts from Chap. III. “Mutation in Populations” (pp. 50-55, 70-75) and Chap. V. “Adaptive Polymorphism” (pp. 108-123, 129-134).

Study Questions:

1. What is blending, as opposed to particulate, inheritance? What are the consequences of the two sorts of inheritance for the evolutionary process? What analogy does Dobzhansky use to illustrate the effect of blending inheritance?

2. How does Dobzhansky see the “stored” genetically variability of natural populations and the generally deleterious nature of mutations nonetheless leading to populations being adapted to their conditions of existence?

3. Can a phylogeny be estimated for infraspecific variants? [We usually think of phylogeny being estimated for species, so that we can say, for example, lions and tigers share a more recent common ancestor than either does with the house cat. But could we construct a phylogeny for, say breeds of house cat? Or subspecies of tiger? Or mitochondrial haplotypes of the lion? See Dobzhansky’s Fig. 4 (p. 113 in the reading) for his answer.]

4. What is balanced polymorphism? How does balanced polymorphism relate genetic variability and natural selection?


Theodosius Dobzhansky and the Origin of Species

March 14, 2011 • 10:05 am

by Greg Mayer

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) was a Russian-American geneticist who was perhaps the most important evolutionary biologist of the 20th century. Because he was Dick Lewontin’s thesis advisor, he’s Jerry’s academic grandfather. I’ve just put together a little exhibit in his honor in the Library of the University of Wiscosnsin-Parkside.

Dobzhansky exhibit at University of Wisconsin-Parkside library, March 2011.

Dobzhansky’s seminal 1937 book, Genetics and the Origin of Species, was a crucial contribution and inspiration to the “Modern Synthesis”, which demonstrated that evolutionary patterns and processes in natural populations are consistent with Darwinian natural selection, the hereditary mechanisms revealed by laboratory work in genetics, and the mathematical theories of population genetics. It was 75 years ago, in 1936, that Dobzhansky, at the time a professor at Cal Tech, delivered the series of lectures at Columbia University that were the basis for the book. It was through this book, much more so than the previous but more theoretical works of R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and S. Wright, that the biological community as a whole became aware of the developments in evolutionary biology, and it inspired an outpouring of work carried on in the same synthetic spirit, by workers such as Ernst Mayr, G.G. Simpson, and G.L. Stebbins.

The exhibit consists of books, papers, and objects by, about, or relating to Dobzhansky, including items from Dick Lewontin and Jerry.

The exhibit also includes examples of the organisms Dobzhansky spent most of his life studying: fruit flies of the genus Drosophila, and beetles of the family Coccinellidae (the latter often called ladybugs or ladybird beetles). The exhibit will be open during regular library hours till the end of the month. If you’re in the area, stop by.

Coccinellid beetles.
Live colony of Drosophila virilis.