The American scientist Richard Lewontin, who has died aged 92, was intimately involved in some of the most important discoveries, and feuds, of evolutionary biology during the decades in which it passed from knowing that genes existed to specifying them in precise molecular terms.
His greatest contribution came in the 1960s, when he demonstrated the existence of very widespread genetic variation within species as well as between them. This research, with John Hubby at the University of Chicago, which had started with grinding up fruit flies, was extended to human beings in a paper published in 1972 that revealed the emptiness of traditional biological concepts of race.
Lewontin and those who followed his trail showed there is far more genetic diversity within “races” than between them. His work was not done directly on DNA, but by the analysis of the proteins that genes code for, establishing the combination of the four chemical bases of DNA instructing a cell to create a protein – before a single gene had been sequenced. This relatively simple experiment had far-reaching intellectual consequences, and nothing discovered subsequently has upset Lewontin’s conclusions.
However, if Lewontin’s work on genes considered as chemical sequences was uncontroversial, his views on genes as a metaphor – or an explanatory principle – became increasingly embattled with the rise of sociobiology, a discipline promoted by people working in the same building to which he had moved in 1973, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. The two groups became embroiled in one of the longest and most bitter academic feuds of the recent past.
Lewontin, a ferocious polemicist from Marxist principles, had always been on the left. In 1971 he had resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, to which he had been elected three years earlier, in protest against its cooperation with the US Defense Department in the Vietnam war.
Marxism gave him a perspective outside science, and a low view of his opponents’ motives. “As academics we are supported by society in a pretty nice way,” he once said. “To make a claim on the resources of society you have to do more than say ‘I want to satisfy my intellectual curiosity’ – that’s just a kind of masturbation that is not justified as far as I’m concerned. So you have to do politics. [And in politics,] science provides you with legitimacy. When you lose your legitimacy as a scientist, you lose your legitimacy as a commentator.”
He believed ruthless argument was central to the process of science, and arranged his lab at Harvard with individual offices set around a vast communal table so his students were forced to interact. He described his PhD supervisor, the great Ukrainian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, as an “opponent” rather than a “mentor”, but added that both parties had enjoyed three years of arguing about everything.
This was not the case in the sociobiology wars. In the early 70s, a number of scientists began to explore the ways in which evolution may have shaped the instincts and the minds of animals, as well as their bodies. In fact, Lewontin himself had been the first to suggest the marriage of game theory with evolutionary theory that was central to the new field, back in 1961. But when his colleague at the museum, the entomologist EO Wilson, published Sociobiology, a huge book attempting to frame the understanding of humanity on the basis of evolutionary biology, Lewontin reacted with passionate scorn.
He thought it was bad science, which vastly underestimated the difficulty of tracing the links between DNA and behaviour. He also believed it was a cloak for rotten politics, and attacked it in savage personal terms: “Wilson’s book illustrates … the personal and social class prejudice of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.”
This was unfair, and for decades remained unforgiven.
For many years Lewontin fought against the worldview championed by Richard Dawkins, which made either genes or DNA the most important actors in it. He and his colleague Stephen Jay Gould launched an influential attack on the idea that everything that has evolved must have been singled out by natural selection. With the British biologist Steven Rose and with his friend Leo Kamin he wrote a book attacking sociobiology, Not in Our Genes (1984). His essays in the New York Review of Books eviscerated the project of evolutionary psychology.
Lewontin’s brutal polemic manner was counterbalanced by remarkable kindness and honesty in his professional life. He refused to take any undeserved credit for his students’ work and they repaid him with love and admiration, even when they disagreed with him.
Born in New York, Richard was the son of Lilian and Max Lewontin, a cloth broker. At Forest Hills high school he met Mary Jane Christianson; and their long, devoted marriage, from the age of 18, ended only with her death, three days before his.
He gained a biology degree (1951) at Harvard, a master’s in mathematical statistics and then his PhD (1954) at Columbia University. Before going to Chicago he held faculty posts at North Carolina State University and the University of Rochester, New York state. Once back at Harvard, he remained professor of zoology and biology until 1998.
He is survived by his sons, Timothy, David, Stephen and James, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Steven Rose writes: Hilary Rose and I first met Dick Lewontin through the campaign against the Vietnam war. In 1969 we had been in Hanoi with Dick Levins, Lewontin’s longtime collaborator and friend, so when Lewontin came on sabbatical to England, it was natural he should make contact. Levins and Lewontin were members of Science for Vietnam, a group of students and academics that soon morphed into Science for the People, with its much broader critique of science under capitalism, while we had been among the founders of its close cousin, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. When Penguin proposed to Lewontin that he write a critique of sociobiology and genetic reductionism he approached me as co-author, along with the psychologist Leo Kamin.
The result was Not in Our Genes, planned and written in sessions in our Yorkshire farmhouse, Dick’s lab in Cambridge and his and Mary Jane’s cabin in upstate Vermont. His lab was a ferment of scientific and political activism, two floors up from Gould in the basement with the sociobiologist EO Wilson’s lab sandwiched between them. Wilson was said to avoid the elevator whenever Lewontin or Gould was in it – hence the title of one of Dick’s New York Review of Books essays: The Corpse in the Elevator.
• Richard Lewontin, geneticist, born 29 March 1929; died 4 July 2021