|Professor Bob Trivers|
Professor Lewontin was quite the dominant figure in the 1970’s. He strode back and forth in front of audiences, hands on his suspenders, belly pushed forward, and expounded on the importance of “dynamical equations” in evolutionary thinking. None of us knew what a dynamical equation was, but we knew we sure better find out quickly. Although apparently expert in population genetics theory, his true move to fame was to ally himself with Dr Hubby so as to give—for the first time—what appeared to be a more or less unbiased measure of the frequency of heterozygosity in nature, that is, the degree to which the two sides of an organism’s genome (maternal and paternal) are different from each other. This is an important variable that had never been measured before. Inbreeding produces similarity, outbreeding heterozygosity (vide President Obama). Hubby and Lewontin’s conclusion was that there was a lot of heterozygosity in natural populations. This was an important finding.
Professor Richard Lewontin
I first heard him talk when he visited Harvard in 1969 to lecture on the new work. He gave a masterful talk, both in content and in style, and polished off the work with a series of slides showing evidence of selection along gradients in nature, acting similarly in several Drosophila species. But within five years he turned his back on natural selection and decided to emphasize the importance of random factors, which of course produced no patterns of particular interest, nor any insight into the function of genes and traits. This I believe he did for political grounds, emasculating his own discipline in order to render it sterile regarding human behavior and genetics.
In later years, doing less and less science, he spent more of his time on politics and philosophical writing whose meaning was difficult to locate, in part because there was often no meaning there. Consider the following obscurantist thought:
“Throughout the history of modern biology there has been a confusion between two basic questions about organisms: the problem of the origin of differences and the problem of the origin of state. At first sight these seem to be the same question, and taken in the right direction, they are. After all, if we could explain why each particular organism has its particular form, then we would have explained, pari passu, the differences between them. But the reverse is not true. A sufficient explanation of why two things are different may leave out everything needed to explain their nature.”
David Haig responds by quoting Isadore Nabi (the fictional character who Lewontin and colleagues used to write anonymous criticisms of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, and others).
“If we could explain how each organism has evolved its particular form, by the selection of differences, then we would have explained, per stirpes, why it has its particular state. But the reverse is not true. A sufficient explanation of how an organism develops may tell us nothing about why it has its particular form.”
As for his political writing, nothing could beat a piece he wrote with Richard Levins stating that there was nothing in Marxist/Leninism that could be contradicted by objective reality. Wow, I thought, it is rare for people to fess up so quickly that there is no content to their enterprise, since if in principle it can’t be contradicted, it says nothing.
Lewontin’s story is that of a man with great talents who often wasted them on foolishness, on preening and showing off, on shallow political thinking and on useless philosophical rumination while limiting his genetic work by assumptions congenial to his politics. He ran a successful lab for many years, and easily raised large sums of research funds, so many U.S. geneticists remember him fondly for their time with him at Harvard, as a grad student or post-doc, but as an evolutionary thinker, never mind geneticist (beyond his early work on linkage disequilibrium), he has turned up mostly empty and the best of his ex-students concede he had done little of note for more than 20 years.
By the way, Lewontin would lie openly and admit to doing so. Lewontin would sometimes admit, in private at least, that some of his assertions were indeed fabrications, but he said the fight was ideological and political—they lied and so would he. On other matters, such as committee work, Lewontin could be rational and useful. Much less so, it was said was Stephen Gould, who was into self-promotion, self-inflation and self-deception full time. Not only was his science hopeless but so was much of his behavior in other contexts as well. I can remember him arguing against offering a full professorship to a truly excellent Colombian biologist because we would be discriminating against a third world country by depriving it of him. A heavy silence enveloped the room. Surely there was no brain/drain problem in evolutionary biology (Colombia to the United States) comparable to the one for nursing. Why not imagine the benefit he could confer on his own country sitting on a fat sum of Harvard money, linked to one of the best Museum collections in the world, with multiple opportunities to polish off his top scientists.Läs om varför Richard Lewontin får Crafoordpriset här.