Richard C. Lewontin, Eminent Geneticist With a Sharp Pen, Dies at 92


Dr. Lewontin also criticized the adaptationist view of evolution — the idea that everything we see in nature has evolved for a reason, which it behooves biologists to divine. He collaborated with a Harvard colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, on a famous essay called “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Program.”

They argued that many seemingly important traits might have arisen incidentally, the tag-along result of other features they accompany — just as the spandrels, or spaces above arches, on the dome of San Marco were not put there to be richly decorated, but because you can’t make a dome without spandrels. Dr. Lewontin eventually grew disenchanted with Dr. Gould, however, for what he saw as Dr. Gould’s thirst for celebrity.

It was Dr. Lewontin’s break with another old friend, Dr. Wilson, that proved the more harrowing and long-lasting. 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 and similar critiques, a group of demonstrators at a 1978 scientific meeting dumped a bucket of water over Dr. Wilson’s head.

The ill will persisted for many years, but friends said the two men had recently reconciled with a handshake, calling each other worthy adversaries.

More recently, Dr. Lewontin took on the field of evolutionary psychology. “It’s a waste of time,” he said. “It doesn’t count as science to me.” One of the chestnuts of the discipline is the notion that men are innately prone to straying, and will spread their seed with as many nubile young partners as will have them. While recognizing that anecdote isn’t evidence, Dr. Lewontin said, he certainly didn’t follow the E.P. male script. He married his high school sweetheart, Mary Jane Christianson, at age 18, ate lunch with her every day, read poetry with her at night, held hands with her in movie theaters and died just three days after she did.

In addition to his son Timothy, Dr. Lewontin is survived by three other sons, David, Stephen and James; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

“I want to make clear my own attitude,” Dr. Lewontin said in 2009. “I think most of the interesting questions about human individual and social behavior will never be answered. The human species will be extinct before they are.”



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