From a Reader:

Richard Lewontin: A Remembrance, an Appreciation, and Some Lessons for Today



On July 3, scientist Richard Lewontin died at the age of 92. Lewontin was an evolutionary biologist and population geneticist at Harvard. His work, over 50 years, made extremely important contributions to these fields.

In THE SCIENCE OF EVOLUTION AND THE MYTH OF CREATIONISM: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, Ardea Skybreak explains that biology is “the science which investigates life and living matter in all its forms and interconnecting processes” (p.302). She goes on to write about evolution: “All life evolves, and it does so through completely natural and unconscious processes, including natural selection. The evolution of all plant and animal life we see on the planet today (including people) is the result of repeated instances of 'descent with modification' through a long series of shared ancestors, starting with some simple bacteria-like organisms some 3.5 billion years ago” (p.306).

An evolutionary biologist is a scientist who studies the evolutionary processes that produce the diversity of life on Earth, and a population geneticist is someone who researches the genetic makeup and diversity of different biological populations.

Richard Lewontin’s own career in these fields began at a time when there were remarkable scientific advances being made, including in the field of molecular biology. The breakthrough discovery in the 1950s of DNA—the chain of molecules that contains the genetic information of living organisms—opened up exciting new pathways of research and understanding about the development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms, and how all this underlies the evolution of all species. At the same time, use of early computer technology was allowing for scientists to sift through, organize and analyze vast amounts of data, in ways never before imagined.

Exposing the Fallacy of “Genetic Differences” Among Supposed “Races”

Building on the foundation laid by previous generations of scientists and working with research tools and laboratory technology not previously available, Lewontin and a team of younger scientists undertook an ambitious, large-scale project to further explore a series of fundamental scientific questions: What makes people biologically different, and what makes us biologically similar? What accounts for the differences, and where does evolutionary change come from? They did this by drawing on different scientific disciplines like microbiology and mathematics to compare and contrast the molecular structure of people all around the world.

Their results, released in 1972, provided evidence that at least 85 percent of the genetic variability that exists in the entire world human population could be found in any one so-called “racial” or ethnic group, and that the variation within any specific group—whether we're talking about African people, Asian people, European people, or indigenous people in Australia or the Americas—was far greater than the variation between these groups. Human beings are one species. A dark-skinned African from Nigeria could easily have more genetic similarity with a blond Nordic European than another dark-skinned African from Somalia. Along with further scientific research and findings since then, what is clear is the following:

The main thing that evolution teaches us about race is that there is no such thing as truly distinct biological races of human beings! What we generally think of as human “races” are historically, socially and culturally defined categories; but these social categories do not actually correspond to any real “natural” divisions of the human species …

To be clear: the social concept of “race” can (and does) still have important social meaning for people’s lives … the social concept of race is still used to economically, socially, culturally, and politically oppress and discriminate against entire groupings of people. So, clearly, the struggle against racism and national oppression is far from over …

But again, all this has to do with the social reality of race. From a biological standpoint, the concept of distinct races among human beings is essentially meaningless. (“What Does the Science of Evolution Tell Us About Human ‘Races’?”, page 166, The Science of Evolution, Ardea Skybreak)

Exposing the Fallacy That Human Social Behavior is Genetically Hardwired

The research conducted by Lewontin and many others also contributed to the scientific understanding that there is no such thing as an unchanging “human nature”—and that there is no special gene (or set of genes) that is THE cause of social behaviors and capacities—including the notion of capitalism as a natural extension of our “selfish gene.”

Let's take a step back: Ever since the discovery, some 100 years ago, of the gene—a gene is a basic physical and functional unit of our heredity, sections of our DNA—there have been fundamentally unscientific efforts to prove that humans are “gene-driven” and that our social actions are predetermined by our genetic makeup. This is what is called “genetic determinism.” It refers to the widely promoted, and what we know now to be, an entirely wrong idea that most human characteristics, not just physical but also mental and behavioral, are overwhelmingly determined at birth by hereditary factors passed from our parents. Genetic determinism also asserts that our skills and capacities to learn, grow, and interact with others are “predetermined” at birth by our genes.

There is a long history of using these incorrect and unscientific “theories” to argue that different groupings of people—and specifically different “races” or ethnic groupings, as well as women—have developed distinct social characteristics because of their biological makeup over time that make them inherently “inferior.” The related notion of “sociobiology” tries to argue that the social organization of human life is determined by genetic makeup and evolutionary history. In other words, the way society is set up ... is “set” by our biology. As Skybreak described it in her review of one of Lewontin’s seminal works, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature:

Sociobiology … purports to derive the characteristics of complex social behaviors and social formations (including human societies) from the supposed properties of genes and from hare-brained speculations concerning the supposed adaptive value of different genetic configurations in the course of our species' biological evolution ….1

There has been sharp scientific and ideological battle over this. And it has tremendous implications for society as a whole. Richard Lewontin jumped into this battle as researcher, writer, and public debater. He was one of three co-authors of that 1984 book Not In Our Genes, which rigorously examined ... took apart ... and refuted the core claims of biodeterminism with all its supposed “data” and scientific trappings. The book demonstrated that biodeterminism, genetic determinism and sociobiology were at once unscientific and socially harmful.

Lewontin’s work, alongside that of others, powerfully contributed to and reinforced scientific arguments that human behavior and social behavior are the result of the dynamic and complex interplay of multiple and different internal and external factors, including the genetic, the biological (all the chemical processes of life), and the overall social and environmental context that operate on different levels. Yes, our genes play an important role in this process, including setting some constraints on how much change can take place, but this is only a component and, by far, not the sole or determining cause for change.

Science as Practiced in Capitalist-Imperialist Society

Richard Lewontin was acutely aware that the pursuit of scientific knowledge does not take place in a vacuum. It is a complex process, with different levels of interpenetrating factors constantly at work. It might be the financial pressures under capitalism to produce “marketable results.” And there is the influence of the dominant social and cultural relations and values like white supremacy and patriarchy.

This complexity contributes to the possible misuse of science and what Ardea Skybreak characterizes as “bad science”2 or junk science—and underscores the need for scientists to be extremely rigorous and to repeatedly interrogate themselves and their work.  

Lewontin recognized that biodeterminism and sociobiology were examples of very bad science that could be used to justify the implementation of cruel, sometimes genocidal, policies. And he took up the emerging debate over their validity with a great deal of urgency, setting out to dismantle arguments and demolish claims purporting to prove that our social behavior was genetically predetermined as “junk science.”

Lewontin's work, which marshalled the insights and research of others, contributed to providing a scientific understanding that the way the world is today—with all its inequalities and horrors, racial hierarchy and marginalization—is not the result of any biologically predetermined “natural order.” And that this world does not have to stay this way.  

Richard Lewontin was part of a generation of scientists who were inspired by the powerful upsurges of the 1960s, especially the Black liberation struggle, and revolutionary China under the leadership of Mao Zedong. He developed a deep hatred for white supremacy and the oppression of women. He was an ardent opponent of the U.S. war in Vietnam. He resigned his membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in protest of the organization's complicity in that war.

In the preface to Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature,3 Lewontin and his co-authors Leon Kamin and Steven Rose wrote:

The need was, we felt, for a systematic exploration of the scientific and social roots of biological determinism, an analysis of its present-day social functions and an exposure of its scientific pretensions. More than that, though, it was also necessary to offer a perspective on what biology and psychology can offer as an alternative, a liberatory, view of the “nature of human nature.” Hence, Not in Our Genes.

Richard Lewontin’s own view of “the nature of human nature” was deeply rooted in the belief that a clearer understanding of the processes of life, and our own biological evolution, could lead humanity to cast aside such foolish notions as those of an unchanging and unchangeable “human nature.” And with this understanding, there is the realization that we have the capacity to consciously rise above the desperate conditions forced upon us by the bone-crushing capitalist-imperialist system to create a radically different and better world. He devoted his life to this ... and enriched the science of evolutionary biology.

There is much to celebrate and a lot that new generations of scientists and other academics (and all of us who aspire to a better world) can learn from the work and example of Richard Lewontin.

In memoriam, Richard Lewontin!


1. From “Not In Our Genes and the Waging of the Ideological Counteroffensive,” by Ardea Skybreak, REVOLUTION Magazine, Winter/Spring 1985, Issue number 53, RCP Publications.  [back]

2. In the interview SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION, On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, The New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian, Skybreak speaks to this: “Another reason people are sometimes turned off by science is because there has been bad science. There will always be ‘science’ that’s misused and misapplied, you know, but it’s bad science, OK? For instance, take examples about the way sometimes in history science has been used to promote the idea that some races are inferior to other races, are mentally inferior or something like that. Well, that’s junk science. In fact, you can use rigorous scientific methods to prove that that was all bad science. It’s not just ‘morally’ bad—it is that, but it is also scientifically bad--it’s completely false and you can use good science to prove that.”

This approach of using good science to disprove bad science is what Richard Lewontin attempted to do throughout his career. He did this for three reasons. First, bad science prevents us from developing the most accurate understanding of reality at any point, as it actually is. Second, he understood how bad science is used by the bourgeoisie to implement reactionary and often vicious attacks on the people (think of the Holocaust or the mass incarceration of Blacks and other people of color). And third, because it sows distrust among sections of the people about the importance of a scientific approach, their ability to understand this science and to act on its findings.  [back]

3. I would refer people to Ardea Skybreak’s review “Not In Our Genes and the Waging of the Ideological Counteroffensive,” REVOLUTION Magazine, Winter/Spring 1985. The review remains extremely relevant today, in exploring both the scientific content of the authors’ refutations of bio-determinism and their efforts to situate the development of bio-determinism in the context of the emergence of capitalism. Upholding Not In Our Genes as a “much needed breath of fresh air for anyone who has felt weighted down by the veritable onslaught of bio determinist theories emanating from scientific circles …,” Skybreak provides a substantive and insightful analysis and a number of important critiques of their methodology—including a tendency on the part of the authors to underestimate the continuing influence of religious-based determinism, their tendency to romanticize some of the early bourgeois principles like “equality” and (significantly) “an underlying muddle (or disagreements)” over the questions of what are “the fundamental and principal contradictions of the bourgeoise social order.” Lewontin considered this to be one of the most valuable reviews of the book he had seen and appreciated the challenge provided by the critiques.  [back]

Richard Lewontin

Richard Lewontin teaching at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, 1973.



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