Richard C. Lewontin ’50, renowned population geneticist and professor of organism and evolutionary biology at Harvard, died on July 4 at the age of 92. Although he retired in 2003, he remained involved with Harvard until shortly before his death.
During his scientific career, Lewontin has sought to understand patterns of genetic variation, developing new techniques for analyzing differences within populations. He was not afraid to mix politics with science, particularly criticizing the use of genetics to analyze differences between racial groups.
“He truly believed that a scientist could legitimately venture beyond the practice of pure science to analyze the social and political causes and consequences of science,” said his son Stephen P. Lewontin ’72.
“Prolific and productive”
A resident of Dunster House as an undergraduate student, Lewontin studied biology before earning his doctorate. from Columbia University in Zoology. After holding faculty positions at North Carolina State University, the University of Rochester, and the University of Chicago, he returned to Harvard in 1973.
Andrew J. Berry, lecturer in the EPO department who studied under Lewontin, described him as “one of the most prolific and productive scientists” of the 20th century.
Lewontin’s first groundbreaking work came in 1966 during his time at the University of Chicago. He and geneticist John L. Hubby published two papers that year, in which they developed a scientific technique called gel electrophoresis to show how protein differences measured genetic variance in fruit flies.
“That moment in 1966 marked the founding of the field of molecular evolution,” Berry said.
Lewontin extended his work on fruit flies to humans in a seminal 1972 article titled “The Distribution of Human Diversity,” in which he argued that racial and ethnic groups are markedly similar at the basic genetic level.
Lewontin amassed a lot of recognition for his work, even though he disliked scientific awards, said EPO professor Hopi E. Hoekstra, Lewontin’s former colleague.
“The thing I remember most is how passionate he was about science for science, not for individual self-promotion,” Hoekstra said. “He really hated things like prices. “
And despite all the recognition, Lewontin was rarely arrogant, remembers Jerry A. Coyne, a University of Chicago professor emeritus who studied under him.
“He liked to be famous, but he didn’t seek it out, and in that way he was different from many other Harvard professors,” Coyne said. “He was notably free from arrogance, and most important to his students, self-glorification.”
Lewontin has written numerous books, including “Not In Our Genes” in 1984 and “It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions” in 2000, both criticizing genetic determinism – the idea that human behavior is mainly influenced by genes.
Hoekstra said Lewontin “liked to talk about science”. He designed his lab specifically to encourage conversation, intentionally placing a long table in the central room, which everyone walked past as they walked to and from their desks.
Prominent scientists from around the world were taken to visit Lewontin’s laboratory, where they sat around the table and were greeted by a giant mounted elk head – a manifestation, according to Hoekstra, of the exchange of ideas that Lewontin fostered throughout his life.
According to Berry, Lewontin has created a community that has attracted “great people” and “fostered great science,” the collaborative table being just one example.
“If you look at the breakdown of people who do important science in our field today, almost all of them have some connection to Lewontin,” Berry said. “It was because he was a fantastic mentor. He was a great mentor. He cared.
For example, Lewontin had a policy that Berry called “revolutionary” – he would never put his name on a scientific article unless he had contributed significantly, even when research was cultivated in his lab and under his mentorship.
“He felt that if he was not contributing to science directly and in a substantial way, his name should not be on the paper,” Coyne said. “It’s absolutely unique in science, especially in large labs these days. “
“A responsibility to be engaged”
Lewontin was a “polymath,” with interests extending far beyond science, Coyne said. He spoke multiple languages, played music, was a “fabulous” public speaker, and was technically proficient beyond his research – for example, he built his own log cabin.
Stephen Lewontin said his father was deeply interested in music and the creative arts, even joining the board of directors of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont and befriending the musicians. He also joined the Vermont Volunteer Fire Department and enjoyed spending time with the other firefighters at the station.
“He really respected what other people were doing outside of science, and he understood that scientific snobbery was something he didn’t want to be a part of,” Lewontin said.
Lewontin was also a frequent contributor of scientific articles to the New York Review of Books. Berry called his former mentor a “brilliant writer, brilliant polemicist, brilliant communicator” whose writing was “lyrical and limpid.”
“He deeply believed that a scientist should not be locked in a dark laboratory corner of the Ivory Tower, a scientist has a responsibility to engage with the world, to be transparent about what he is doing.” , said Berry.
Lewontin stressed the importance of being an “ethical” scientist in his lab, according to Coyne.
“If he saw other scientists, for example, doing something he felt was unethical, like overselling their data in an article, saying things about their data that weren’t justified by the data.” , he would never talk to that person again. Coyne said. “He would cancel them completely.”
Lewontin was also a Marxist, who “ran his laboratory like a commune” and on “egalitarian principles,” Coyne said.
He has spoken openly about social and political issues, especially against using “sociobiology” – using evolutionary thinking to understand behavior – to understand the differences between races. He supported his arguments with his own scientific findings that the vast majority of genetic variation occurs within a single population, and not between two populations.
But he also spoke on a wider range of issues. For example, in an editorial published in 2002 in The Crimson, he called on then-president Lawrence H. Summers to raise the wages of Harvard workers.
Lewontin volunteered for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that uses DNA evidence to exonerate those wrongly convicted. He even testified in court on behalf of those falsely convicted.
“Obviously this has had a huge impact on the lives of a lot of people,” said Stephen Lewontin. “And it wasn’t his science per se, but he used his scientific knowledge as a way to help.”
Stephen Lewontin said he believed much of his father’s involvement in social and political issues was influenced by his wife, Mary Jane Lewontin. The two were in high school sweetheart, married from Lewontin was 18 until his death three days before hers.
Lewontin is survived by his four sons, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.