Richard Lewontin, Dialectical Biologist and Activist, Dies at 92

Last week, Richard Lewontin, the dialectical biologist, Marxist and activist, died at the age of 92, just three days after Mary Jane, his wife of more than 70 years, had passed away. He was one of the founders of modern biology who brought together three different disciplines—statistics, molecular biology and evolutionary biology—that mark the discipline today. In doing so, he battled not only crude racism masquerading as science but also what science is. He belongs among the rare scientists who are equally at home in the laboratory, or while talking about science and ideology at a philosophical level, or as popular exponents of what science is, and, more pertinently, what it is not.

Lewontin always harked back to what being radical means: going back to fundamentals in deriving your viewpoint. This method is important, as it makes radical enquiry—and not just the lazy relating of positions to certain class viewpoints—a powerful tool in science. What is the relation between genes, race and class? Or genes and gender? Does social superiority spring from superior genes? What about biological differences between the sexes? As a Marxist and activist, Lewontin believed we need to fight at both levels: to expose class, race and gender stereotypes as a reflection of power within society, and also at the level of radical science, which means, from the fundamentals of scientific theory and data.

Lewontin and the population geneticist and mathematical ecologist Richard Levins shared their passion for biology, social activism and Marxism. It is not so well-known that close friend Stephen Jay Gould, the palaeontologist and science writer, was a fellow Marxist. All three fought a lifelong battle against the racialising of biology and, later, sociobiology, which sought to “explain” every social phenomenon as derived from our genes. EO Wilson, Richard Dawkins—and many others—believed we are programmed so that society merely expresses what is embedded in our genes. That white races are genetically superior, as are the rich. In India, we also have a “genetic theory” of caste to explain the supposed differences between caste groups. As long as there are significant differences between groups of people—class, race, gender or caste—biological accounts will be offered to “explain” differences.

One of Lewontin’s path-breaking works found out how much genetic diversity exists within species. It was when we did not know how many genes we have. His inspired guess was 20,000, far smaller than most biologists thought then and remarkably close to what we know today. Most biologists believed then that races had significant biological differences, one reason why they thought there was a much larger number of genes carrying different traits. Lewontin and John Hubby used a technique, protein gel electrophoresis, developed by Hubby, to quantify the genetic diversity in fruit flies. At the time, fruit flies were the favourite target to test genetic theories in the laboratory. This path-breaking exercise traced evolution at the species level to changes at the molecular level—a foundation for the field of molecular evolution—using statistical methods. Their results were startling. Contrary to what most biologists believed, they showed a surprising amount of genetic diversity within a given population: evolution led to stable and diverse populations within a species.

Later, Lewontin used this method on human blood groups to show that a stable genetic diversity held true for us humans, too. The human blood group study also showed that the diversity of a human population was more than 90% within “races” and only about 7% between races. They showed that race is not a biological construct but a social one.

Lewontin co-authored with Gould a paper on how evolution is not directed to develop every feature we see in an organism, but that features are also the result of accidental off-shoots which accompany a specific genetic change that occurs due to evolutionary pressure. Gould and Lewontin likened it to spandrels in architecture. The spandrel is a triangular space between an arch and a rectangular wall, created when carving out, say, a door. Spandrels also form when domes rest on rectangular structures.

That a spandrel is carved on or decorated is not why it exists; once created, it can be decorative or used for another purpose. Similarly, in species, nature uses the accidental off-shoots of an evolutionary change, just as those who built arches or domes use spandrels.

Image caption: Dome, Arch and Spandrels

What distinguishes Lewontin’s popular and scientific writings is his ability to connect the larger issues of science to society and his critique of the crude reductionist understanding of biology. He calls it the Cartesian fallacy: that if we can break the whole into its constituent parts and find the laws of the parts, then we can then “assemble” the whole to understand it “fully”. Of course, this Cartesian viewpoint is no longer viable even in physics, let alone to explain chemistry from physics, biology from (organic) chemistry or society from biology.

Why, then, does this view recur, particularly in understanding inequalities in society? Lewontin traces the repeated attempts to give biological explanations for inequality to the deep structural inequalities within society. This hydra-headed monster will rear new heads again and again as long as structural inequalities exist in society. It is a battle he and his close colleagues fought, against racism, “IQ” and sociobiology, which sought explanations for all social inequalities in biology, i.e., in some pre-programming of our genes.

This lifelong battle Lewontin carried not only to his specific field of biology but also to the larger domain of the sciences. His ideological struggle against racism, class and imperialism was not separate from his science. He saw it as an everyday struggle within the sciences and outside them, to be fought at both levelssociety and science. He did not simply argue that race is a wrong way to look at societal differences but showed it was so, with hard experimental data. And he had a theoretical framework to explain the evidence. It reflects his integrity as a scientist and social activist.

In the late 60s and early 70s, many progressive scientists in the US came together to form Science for the People. (Recently, this organisation got revived.) They reflected the anti-race and anti-war movements in the US of those decades. Their discussions on science and society parallel what we, science and socio-political activists in India, also discussed those days, which led to forming the peoples’ science movement and All India Peoples Science Network. In the US, Science for the People decided to become more of a movement within the scientific community while we decided it should be a larger peoples’ movement, not only on science and society but also to build the scientific temper in society.

Recently, the Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, brought the 60s struggle against the Vietnam War on our screens. Also charged in that trial was Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers. (A much better film is the older HBO one, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, on YouTube.) During the trial, the Chicago police assassinated Fred Hampton, an important Black Panther leader in Chicago, who was helping with the defence of Bobby Seale. I will let Lewontin and his close comrade Levins, his co-author of Biology Under The Influence, tell us in their words how they related to movements:

“We have also been political activists and comrades in Science for the People; Science for Vietnam; the New University Conference; and struggles against biological determinism and ‘scientific’ racism, against creationism and in support for the student movement and antiwar movement. On the day that Chicago police murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, we went together to his still bloody bedroom and saw the books on his night table: he was killed because of his thoughtful, inquiring militancy. Our activism is a constant reminder of the need to relate theory to real-world problems as well as the importance of theoretical critique. In political movements, we often have to defend the importance of theory as a protection against being overwhelmed by the urgency of need in the momentary and the local, while in academia, we still have to argue that for the hungry, the right to food is not a philosophical problem.”

Biology Under The Influence, a collection of essays by Levins and Lewontin published in 2007, was dedicated to five Cubans—the Cuban Five—who had infiltrated Cuban-American terrorist groups in Miami actively supported by US agencies. At the time, all five were serving long prison sentences in the US.

Lewontin and Levins were Marxists and activists who fought a lifelong battle against racism, imperialism, and capitalist oppression. It is their Marxism that they brought to biology and the philosophical issues it raised. They dedicated their 1985 book, The Dialectical Biologist, to Frederick Engels, “who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted.” This applies also to Lewontin, who got race, class and genetics right where it counted!