Prominent sharp-pen geneticist Richard C. Lewontin dies at 92
Dr Lewontin marveled at the pernicious nature of sexism, including among his supposedly noble peers. “In speaking to an academic audience about biological determination of social status, I have repeatedly attempted the experience of asking the crowd how many think blacks are genetically inferior to whites,” he wrote in 1994.
“No one ever raises their hand,” he continued. “When I then ask how many think men are biologically superior to women in terms of analytical and mathematical abilities, there will always be a few volunteers. Publicly admitting outright biological racism is a strict taboo, but admitting biological sexism is tolerated as minor nonsense.
Dr Lewontin also criticized the adaptationist view of evolution – the idea that everything we see in nature evolved for a reason, which is for biologists to guess. He collaborated with Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould on a famous essay titled “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Agenda”.
They argued that many apparently important features could have appeared accidentally, the result of other elements they accompany – just like the spandrels, or the spaces above the arches, on the Dome of San Marco did not have been placed there to be richly decorated, but because you cannot make a dome without spandrels. Dr Lewontin eventually became disenchanted with Dr Gould, however, for what he saw as Dr Gould’s thirst for fame.
It was Dr Lewontin’s breakup with another old friend, Dr Wilson, that proved to be the most heartbreaking and enduring. Dr Lewontin in 1975 attacked Dr Wilson’s 700-page blockbuster “Sociobiology: A New Synthesis” as the work of a modern, industrial Western “ideologue”. Inspired by this criticism and others like it, a group of protesters at a 1978 science meeting threw a bucket of water over Dr Wilson’s head.
The ill will persisted for many years, but friends said the two recently reconciled with a handshake, calling each other worthy adversaries.
More recently, Dr Lewontin has entered the field of evolutionary psychology. “It’s a waste of time,” he says. “It doesn’t count as science to me.” One of the strengths of the discipline is the notion that men are naturally inclined to go astray and that they will spread their seed with as many young marriageable partners as they have. While acknowledging that this anecdote is not proof, Dr Lewontin said he certainly did not follow the male script of the EP. He married his high school girlfriend, Mary Jane Christianson, at the age of 18, had lunch with her every day, read poetry with her at night, held her hand in theaters and died just three days later.