I was deeply saddened to learn that Prof. Richard Lewontin, the great evolutionary biologist, humanist, prolific writer translating complex science to the general public, and one of the sharpest critics of the notion of biological race and genetic determinism more broadly, passed away yesterday. At a time in the 1970s and ‘80s when sociobiology was the popular form of genetic determinism, he was among the few prominent biologists to take a strongly critical position pushing adaptationist biologists to do more rigorous work (than telling just-so stories) that eventually led to recognizing the crucial role of the environment in an organism’s appearance, function, and behavior. As a geneticist, he repeatedly and quantitatively dispelled the notion of any strong genetic differences between “human races,” and demonstrated that it is not singular genes alone that determine how one looks or behaves, but that all of our traits (certainly the more complex ones) result from interactions between genes and the environment (from within and between cells to the whole organism and out to ecosystems around the world).
In this powerful lecture from 2003 given at Berkeley, you can see Lewontin start by acknowledging emphatically that race is a social reality, and then systematically, using an overwhelming amount of quantitative genetic data, dismantle notions of there being any genetic basis to race that goes deeper than skin deep:
Lewontin was also the rare scientist who recognized the influence of society and ideology on science and the academy. He showed not only the importance of understanding the historical and sociocultural contexts in which any particular science is conducted but also, for the field of biology, how one can enhance our understanding of nature by being explicit about these sociological and ideological influences in our work. His books Not In Our Genes (coauthored with psychologist Leon J. Kamin and neurobiologist Steven Rose), The Dialectical Biologist, and Biology Under The Influence (both coauthored with Richard Levins), and the short classic Biology as Ideology (a lecture published as a book), are ones I rank highly among those that have played a deeply formative role in my own growth as an evolutionary biologist and as a public scientist pushing for decoloniality in science.
The lecture above is one of two Lewontin gave at Berkeley in 2003. The other, more public lecture was about Genes, Organism, and Environment:
I love how simply and devastatingly effectively he shows that DNA is not a self-replicating molecule, simply because it is an essentially inert molecule that needs the complex machinery of the cell to make its copies and translate the information encoded in its sequences into other molecules that constitute the whole organism in its environment. Watch, especially where he explained the classic experimental demonstration of how clones of a single plant grew and flowered at dramatically different sizes and rates when transplanted at different elevations of a mountain, which he concludes (at the 17 min mark in the video) with the devastating question: “… how is it possible to make the statement that the organism can be computed from its DNA when the organism has failed to compute itself from its DNA?” Check, and indeed, mate, one might say (check out his classic The Triple Helix for more a comprehensive and eloquently accessible explanation), but alas too many people continue to assert that there are specific genes for this or that complex trait, pushing genetic determinism even in case of human social behaviors where the cultural environment plays a huge role. At a time when right-wing ideologues the world over have been asserting fundamental differences between us and them, Lewontin’s work remains highly relevant. We cannot afford to forget or ignore his fundamental insights into genetics, ecology, evolution, and the place of science and its relationships to power in human culture and politics.
I am sad that I never got to see or hear this great biologist and humanist, truly one of my intellectual heroes, in person. But, I also just discovered that his first faculty position was at North Carolina State University where I am a professor for public science now! He was here from 1954–1958, fresh after earning his Ph.D. from Columbia. As I look at his subsequent writings from my vantage point as a more recent (and brown immigrant) professor in this university still rooted in white supremacy, I wonder what his experiences were when he worked here a few years before the lunch counter sit-ins in nearby Greensboro that marked the civil rights movement, and what he thought of this university’s growth (or lack thereof) in more recent years. Things have changed since then, but for our university (UNC) system, it is arguable in light of the recent egregious act of denying tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, that the changes are hardly more than skin deep, if that.
We have lost one of the twentieth century’s deepest thinkers in biology, a less flashy personality than better-known names (like E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Jay Gould), but whose work and writings are more deeply significant, in my humble opinion, for biology, for science, and for humanity as a whole.
Madhu, as always you write beautifully.
I have always felt that popularizations of genetics tend to promote conceptual errors when they make too much of the information coded in the DNA. Metaphors like ‘the blueprint of a living thing’ or ‘the encyclopedia of life’, if treated natively, invariably promote various misconceptions. These misconceptions are often seized upon by non-scientists in an attempt to carry the water of some ideology for which they are in fact ill-suited.
The example you cite, where Lewontin references the different phenotypes of clones raised in different environments, is a challenge for biological determinists—but they are also a problem for probability or information theory arguments raised against the plausibility of evolution by natural selection. I have left more than one creationist in stunned silence by pointing out that tree rings contain obvious information, which any child can see, but which is most certainly not encoded in the genes. Where does the information come from? Well, the environment with all of its complexity, of course.