Richard C. Lewontin, evolutionary geneticist, dies at 92

The distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard C. Lewontin died on July 4, 2021, at the age of 92, according to The New York Times (July 7, 2021). "Lewontin first won scientific fame in the mid-1960s for research he conducted with John Hubby at the University of Chicago that revealed far greater genetic diversity among members of the same species than anybody had suspected," wrote the obituarist, Natalie Angier. He was a fierce critic of what he regarded as misrepresentations and misapplications of biology, including racism and sexism as well as adaptationism, which he famously attacked in "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm" (1979), coauthored with Stephen Jay Gould.

A member of NCSE's Advisory Council (discontinued in 2019), Lewontin was no less fierce about creationism, typically in reviews for The New York Review of Books, to which he was a prolific contributor. In 1983, he observed (subscription required), "When we speak of the 'theory of evolution,' a constant confusion arises between the fact of the historical transformation of organisms over the last three billion years and a detailed and coherent theory of the dynamics of that historical process. There is no disagreement in science about whether evolution has occurred. There is bloody warfare on the question of how it has occurred," adding, "It is this confusion between fact and theory that is exploited by creationists, who use the struggle among scientists about the process to claim that the phenomenon itself is in question." In 2005, although he took account of recent developments in creationism — describing (subscription required) "intelligent design" as "a transparent subterfuge" and the intelligent designer as clearly bearing the initials YWH (i.e., Yahweh) — his dismissal of creationism was basically unchanged.

Lewontin was born in New York City on March 29, 1929. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University in 1951, a master's degree in mathematical statistics from Columbia University in 1952, and a doctoral degree in zoology from Columbia University in 1954. After stints at North Carolina State University, the University of Rochester, and the University of Chicago, he served as the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University from 1973 and 1998. His honors include membership in the National Academy of Sciences (which he later resigned), the Crafoord Prize for 2015, and the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America for 2017.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

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