Richard Lewontin

Professor Richard Charles "Dick" Lewontin (born March 29, 1929) is an American evolutionary biologist, geneticist and social commentator. A leader in developing the mathematical basis of population genetics and evolutionary theory, he pioneered the notion of using techniques from molecular biology such as gel electrophoresis to apply to questions of genetic variation and evolution. In a pair of 1966 papers co-authored with J.L. Hubby in the journal Genetics, Lewontin helped set the stage for the modern field of molecular evolution.



Lewontin was born in New York City. In 1951, he obtained a bachelors degree in biology from Harvard University. In 1952, he received a master's degree in mathematical statistics followed by a doctorate in zoology in 1954, both from Columbia University. Lewontin held faculty positions at North Carolina State University, the University of Rochester, and the University of Chicago. In 1973 Lewontin served as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard until 1998 and as of 2003 was the Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard.

Lewontin and his late Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould introduced the use of the architectural word "spandrel" in an evolutionary context, in an influential 1979 paper "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossion paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme", using it to mean a feature of an organism that exists as a necessary consequence of other features and is not actually selected for. The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.

Along with others, such as Gould, Lewontin has been a persistent critic of some themes in neo-Darwinism; specifically, he has criticised sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists such as Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, who attempt to explain animal behaviour and social structures in terms of evolutionary advantage or strategy — this has been controversial when applied to humans, because some see it as genetic determinism. Lewontin, in his writing, calls for what he considers a more nuanced view of evolution, which he claims requires a more careful understanding of the context of the whole organism as well as the environment.

Such concerns about what he views as the oversimplification of genetics led Lewontin to be a frequent commentator in debates, and he has lectured widely to promote his views on evolutionary biology and science. In books such as Not in Our Genes (co-authored with Steven Rose and Leon J. Kamin) and numerous articles, Lewontin has questioned much of the claimed heritability of human behavioral traits such as intelligence as measured by the IQ test, promoted by books such as The Bell Curve.

Lewontin has been criticised by some academics for a rejection of sociobiology for non-scientific reasons, some credit this rejection to political beliefs (Wilson 1995) (Lewontin has at times identified himself as Marxist or at least left-leaning) and by others (MacDonald 1998) out of concern for that sociobiological research could lead to anti-Semitism (Lewontin is ethnically Jewish). Others (Kitcher 1985) have countered that Lewontin's criticisms of sociobiology are genuine scientific concerns about the discipline and claim that attacking Lewontin's motives amount to an ad hominem argument. Most researchers (Pinker 2002) address Lewontin's concerns in a scientific context, but nevertheless believe that Lewontin is attacking a straw man version of sociobiology (or its more modern incarnation as evolutionary psychology) and therefore claim that his arguments miss the target.

A paper titled Lewontin's Fallacy purports to debunk Lewontin's claim that race is invalid as a genetic taxonomy.



  • The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, Columbia University Press, (1974) ISBN 0-231-03392-3
  • Human Diversity, Scientific American Library, (1982)
  • Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (with Steven Rose and Leon J. Kamin) (1984)
  • The Dialectical Biologist (with Richard Levins), Harvard University Press, (1985)
  • Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (1991)
  • The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment, Harvard University Press, (2000) ISBN 0674001591
  • Template:Journal reference


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