Richard Lewontin: Biography Of This Biologist

Lewontin is one of the most controversial evolutionary biologists, a strong opponent of genetic determinism.

Richard Lewontin

Richard Lewontin is known within his field, evolutionary biology, as a controversial character. He is a staunch opponent of genetic determinism, but he is still one of the greatest geneticists of the second half of the 20th century.

He is also a mathematician and an evolutionary biologist, and has laid the foundations for the study of population genetics, as well as being a pioneer in the application of molecular biology techniques. Let’s see more about this researcher through a short biography of Richard Lewontin.

Richard Lewontin Biography

Next we will see a summary of the life of Richard Lewontin, who has been characterized by studying population genetics and being critical of traditionally Darwinian ideas.

Early years and training

Richard Charles ‘Dick’ Lewontin was born on March 29, 1929 in New York into a family of Jewish immigrants.

He attended Forest Hills High School and the École Libre des Hautes Études in New York and in 1951 graduated from Harvard University, earning his degree in biology. A year later he would receive a Master of Statistics, followed by a doctorate in zoology in 1945.

Professional career as a researcher

Lewontin has worked on the study of population genetics. He is known for being one of the first people to carry out a computer simulation of the locus behavior of a gene and how it would be inherited after a few generations.

Together with Ken-Ichi Kojima in 1960, they set a very important precedent in the history of biology, formulating equations that explained changes in haplotype frequencies in contexts of natural selection. In 1966, together with Jack Hubby, he published a scientific article that was a real revolution in the study of population genetics. Using the genes of the Drosophila pseudoobscura fly , they found that on average there was a 15% chance that the individual was heterozygous, that is, that they had a combination of more than one allele for the same gene.

He has also studied genetic diversity in the human population. In 1972 he published an article in which he indicated that most of the genetic variation, close to 85%, is found in local groups, while the differences attributed to the traditional concept of race do not represent more than 15% of the genetic diversity in the human species. That is why Lewontin has almost radically opposed any genetic interpretation that ensures that ethnic, social, and cultural differences are a rigid product of genetic determination.

However, this statement has not gone unnoticed and other researchers have expressed different opinions. For example, in 2003 AWF Edwards, a British geneticist and evolutionist, was critical of Lewontin’s statements, saying that race, for better or for worse, could still be considered a valid taxonomic construct.

Vision on Evolutionary Biology

Richard Lewontin’s views on genetics are notable for his criticisms of other evolutionary biologists. In 1975, EO Wilson, an American biologist, proposed evolutionary explanations of human social behavior in his book Sociobiology . Lewontin has maintained a great controversy with sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, such as Wilson or Richard Dawkins, who propose an explanation of animal behavior and social dynamics in terms of adaptive advantage.

According to these researchers, a social behavior will be maintained if it implies some type of advantage within the group. Lewontin is not in favor of this assertion, and in several articles and one of his best-known works It Is Not in the Genes has denounced the theoretical deficiencies of genetic reductionism.

In response to these statements, he proposed the concept of “lean.” Within evolutionary biology, a lean is the set of traits of an organism that exist as a necessary consequence so that other traits, perhaps adaptive or perhaps not, can occur, although they do not necessarily imply an improvement in its strength or survival towards it environment in which it has lived, that is, this set of traits does not necessarily have to be adaptive.

In Organism and Environment , Lewontin is critical of the traditional Darwinian view that organisms are merely passive recipients of environmental influences. For Richard Lewontin, organisms are capable of influencing their own environment, acting as active builders. Ecological niches are not preformed nor are they empty receptacles into which life forms are inserted just like that. These niches are defined and created by the life forms that inhabit them.

In the most adaptationist view of evolution, the environment is seen as something autonomous and independent of the organism, without the latter influencing or shaping the former. Instead, Lewontin argues, from a more constructivist perspective, that the organism and the environment maintain a dialectical relationship, in which both influence each other and change at the same time. Throughout the generations, the environment changes and individuals acquire both anatomical and behavioral changes.


Richard Lewontin has written about the economic dynamics of “agribusiness”, translatable to agribusiness or agriculture business. He has argued that hybrid corn has been developed and propagated not because it is better than traditional corn, but because it has allowed companies in the agricultural sector to force farmers to buy new seeds every year instead of planting their lifelong varieties. .

This led him to testify at a trial in California, trying to change state funding for research into more productive seed varieties, considering that this was of high interest to corporations and a detriment to the average North American farmer.

Bibliographic references:

  • Lewontin, RC; Kojima, K. (December 1960). “The Evolutionary Dynamics of Complex Polymorphisms”. Evolution. Society for the Study of Evolution. 14 (4): 458–472. doi: 10.2307 / 2405995.
  • Lewontin, RC (January 1966). “Is Nature Probable or Capricious?”. BioScience. University of California Press. 16 (1, Logic in Biological Investigation): 25–27. doi: 10.2307 / 1293548.
  • Lewontin, RC (1970). “The Units of Selection”. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 1: 1–18. doi: 10.1146 /
  • Lewontin, RC 1982. Agricultural research and the penetration of capital. Science for the People 14 (1): 12–17.
  • Lewontin, RC 2000. The maturing of capitalist agriculture: farmer as proletarian. Pgs 93–106 in F. Magdoff, JB Foster, and FH Buttel, Eds. 2000. Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment. Monthly Review Press, NY.
  • Lewontin, RC (2000) It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, New York Review of Books.

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