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Tributes to Richard Lewontin (1919 – 2021)


Readers may recall his words: “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.”

Now the remembrances of someone who made the stakes so clear trickle in:

One of Lewontin’s most famous contributions to science came in a 1979 paper he co-wrote with Stephen Jay Gould, titled “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme.” The paper critiqued the standard Darwinian viewpoint that every feature of life must have an adaptive benefit. They introduced the term “spandrel” into evolutionary biology — based upon the gaps between supportive arches common in medieval architecture — as a feature that is not immediately adaptive but a natural byproduct of other features (which may be adaptive). Lewontin’s article with Gould was heavily critical of the “adaptationist programme” and its credulity, the tendency to embrace weak tales to “explain” the origin of features …

Casey Luskin, “Honoring Richard Lewontin, Famed Evolutionary Biologist and Sometime Critic of His Own Field” at Evolution News and Science Today (July 6, 2021)

Sure. Rape and infanticide are “adaptive” and all that. Lewontin and Gould were right, of course.


We do have a phrase in English that captures what I’d most like to say about Lewontin’s scholarship: “He kept his own counsel.” Lewontin was an unapologetic Marxist, a philosophical and political perspective that, whatever its flaws, gave him an independent standpoint from which to critique neo-Darwinian theory. And he did: his 1978 essay on adaptation, for instance, presaged a broader critical analysis by a larger scientific community of central neo-Darwinian concepts such as “fitness.” Lewontin opposed the facile storytelling of much of sociobiology, with its invocation of hypothetical genes for equally hypothetical behavioral traits. The fact that his opposition stemmed in part from his politics is no indictment; his evidential critique holds its value, or stands on its own two legs, independently of the Marxism. Show me the actual data, he would say, or stop the storytelling. Politics count against one in science (or anywhere) when politics is all one has to bring to the table. That would never be true of Lewontin’s work, which will endure.

Paul Nelson, “Richard Lewontin (1929-2021), Mensch” at Evolution News and Science Today (July 6, 2021)

We hope so. From the UD News Coffee room, requiescat:


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