Campus & Community

Richard Charles Lewontin, 92

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Feb. 6, 2024, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Richard Charles Lewontin was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

Professor Richard Charles “Dick” Lewontin was a central figure in population genetics and evolutionary biology over the second half of the 20th century.  His interests lay in characterizing patterns of genetic variation in natural populations and understanding their role in evolutionary change.  He mentored graduate students and postdoctoral fellows so successfully that, to this day, dozens of Lewontin laboratory alumni continue to exert a major influence in evolutionary biology.  A Marxist, Lewontin believed that biological discovery was facilitated by a dialectical approach.  Accordingly, the focal point of his research area was not a lab bench or fancy instrumentation but a large, rectangular table at which all comers — students, professors, and visitors — presented their ideas and benefited from the constructive criticisms of Lewontin and the other participants, all this taking place under the glassy gaze of the mounted head and imposing antlers of an enormous bull moose that had been liberated from the collections in the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Beyond scientific research and education, Lewontin was a prominent social critic and philosopher of science.  A relentless critic of those who give primacy to nature over nurture — genes over environment — he emphasized the role of culture and history in determining human behavior.  This critique lies at the heart of a famous paper he wrote in 1979 with his Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould lambasting biologists and others for resorting by default to simplistic adaptationist explanations.  His “not in our genes” preoccupation was also a perennial theme in his powerful writing for The New York Review of Books, which ensured that his influence extended far beyond academe and made him a very public intellectual.  In his personal life, he was devoted to Mary Jane Christianson, his high school sweetheart and then wife of 73 years, and to their four sons.  Lewontin lived his long and productive life with passion, energy, empathy, humor, and commitment.

Lewontin was born on March 29, 1929, in New York City.  His father was a textile broker and his mother was a homemaker.  He attended Forest Hills High School and the École Libre des Hautes Études in New York, then matriculated at Harvard University in 1951.  He moved to Columbia University to study genetics and evolutionary biology with Theodosius Dobzhansky, where he earned advanced degrees in mathematical statistics (M.S., 1952) and zoology (Ph.D., 1954).  He held faculty positions at North Carolina State University in Raleigh (1954–1958), the University of Rochester (1958–1964), and the University of Chicago (1964–1973) before joining Harvard and serving as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology and Professor of Biology until his retirement in 1999.

In the 1950s, population genetics was theory rich but data poor.  Lewontin’s earliest contributions were to theory.  While still in North Carolina, he and his graduate student Ken-ichi Kojima analyzed the impact on evolution of two genes that interact with each other.  The term they coined to describe non-random associations between variants of the two genes, “linkage disequilibrium,” became part of the bedrock of modern genetics.

Lewontin’s most notable experimental contribution was carried out in collaboration with his Chicago colleague John Lee Hubby and published in 1966.  They devised a fast and simple way to estimate the amount of genetic variation in natural populations by measuring the mobility of proteins in an electric field.  For the first time, it was possible to assay genetic variation in any species.  Within a few years, the study of protein variation came to dominate population genetics while other research agendas withered.  In 1991, marking the 25th anniversary of the original paper, in true Lewontin style, he preferred not to celebrate the paper but to condemn its detrimental impact on the diversity of empirical work in evolutionary genetics, which protein electrophoresis had displaced.

Lewontin’s second notable empirical contribution took him out of his familiar fruit fly domain and into the domain of human genetics.  On a bus trip from Chicago to lecture at a university in Southern Illinois, he analyzed patterns of genetic variation in 17 human genes to produce his 1972 paper, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity.”  He showed that about 85.4 percent of human genetic diversity is found within populations, 8.3 percent is found among populations within “races” (i.e., continental groupings), and only 6.3 percent is found between “races.”  Modern DNA sequencing studies have since confirmed these results.  Lewontin concluded that racial classification has no genetic significance and is “positively destructive of social and human relations.”

Lewontin was a superb counterexample to the assertion that brilliant scientists tend to disappoint in the classroom.  His teaching career was as distinguished as his research one, and he inspired generations of students with his courses in evolution, population genetics, and biostatistics.  His many honors included being elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1968.  (He resigned in 1971 because of the Academy’s support of secret military research.)  In 1994, he won the Sewall Wright Award from the American Society of Naturalists; in 2015, the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences (shared with theoretical geneticist Tomoko Ohta); and, in 2017, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America.

Lewontin was one of those people who demand attention.  Complex, deeply opinionated, and often loudly outspoken, he inevitably provoked strong feelings in others.  Those who had been through his lab were typically loyal devotees but others bridled at his penchant for perhaps overly acerbic criticism and at his insistence that politics and science could not (and should not) be disentangled.  Acid criticism and hardball politics were on full display when he and Stephen Jay Gould — who famously described Lewontin as “the most brilliant scientist I know” — launched a relentless and bitter campaign against their departmental colleague Edward O. Wilson, condemning the genetic determinism implicit in Wilson’s 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.”  Wilson’s conclusions were, they claimed, overly simplistic and liable to misuse in rationalizing racism, sexism, and other injustices.  For Lewontin, social justice and science were intertwined and inseparable.

Respectfully submitted,

Andrew Berry
Hopi Hoekstra
John Wakeley
Daniel L. Hartl, Chair

Portions of this Minute were previously published by Andrew Berry and Dmitri A. Petrov, “Richard C. Lewontin (1929–2021),” Science 373, no. 6556 (Aug. 13, 2021): 745.