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Obituary: Professor Richard Lewontin, geneticist and evolutionary biologist

2 August 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1106

Professor Richard Lewontin, renowned geneticist and evolutionary biologist, has died at the age of 92.

Professor Lewontin's work studying genetic diversity has had a far-reaching impact on both science and culture. His work not only pioneered the application of techniques that paved the way for molecular population genetics, but also challenged assumptions of biological determinism among other academics.

'He's considered one of the evolutionary biology greats,' Dr Adriana Briscoe, an evolutionary biologist and former graduate student from Lewontin's lab, told The Scientist. 'Scientists, philosophers, and historians of science flocked to his lab to participate in the lab's lively seminars, and of course, to speak with him about ideas.'

Professor Lewontin earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1951 and then a master's in mathematical statistics in 1952 and doctorate in zoology in 1954 from Columbia University, New York. A main area of his research focused on genetic variation within populations through the study of fruit flies. During his studies of flies, he and geneticist John Hubby applied protein gel electrophoresis to study variation, introducing new ways to discover genetic variability and revolutionising the field.

He is also remembered as a principled Marxist, outspoken critic of sociobiology, and defender of civil rights. His public critiques and scholarship challenged beliefs that various social ills could be blamed on genetics, or that racist ideologies had a scientific basis. His landmark 1972 paper on human diversity, published in the journal, demonstrated that there was more genetic variation within supposedly distinct racial groups than there was between them. Evidence that humans were far more genetically similar than they were different undermined the idea that 'race' was a robust or valid scientific category.

Keen to improve public understanding of science, he is remembered not only for his research but for his books and essay writing aimed at a more general audience. The strength of his convictions about the problems associated with the emerging field of sociobiology led to a well-known feud between his laboratory and others in the same building at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, when he moved there in 1973. This was remembered by his friend, neuroscientist Professor Steven Rose, with whom he wrote his critique of sociobiology – Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature – in 1984.

'His lab was a ferment of scientific and political activism, two floors up from [outspoken evolutionary geneticist Professor Stephen Jay] Gould in the basement with the sociobiologist EO Wilson's lab sandwiched between them,' Professor Rose told the Guardian. '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".'

Professor Lewontin's death occurred three days after the death of his wife, and they are survived by their four sons, seven grandchildren and great grandchild.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin dies at 92
The Scientist |  8 July 2021
Obituary: Richard C Lewontin (1929–2021)
Nature |  13 July 2021
Professor Richard Lewontin obituary
The Times |  23 July 2021
Richard C. Lewontin, eminent geneticist with a sharp pen, dies at 92
New York Times |  7 July 2021
Richard Lewontin, a preeminent geneticist of his era, dies at 92
The Washington Post |  8 July 2021
Richard Lewontin obituary
The Guardian |  28 July 2021
The apportionment of human diversity
Evolutionary Biology |  1 January 1972
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