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Richard Charles Lewontin

        Science | American Biologists

Lewontin, Richard Charles (1929-), an American evolutionary geneticist, introduced the study of molecular population genetics in the 1960's. Lewontin continues work on the mathematical theory of population genetics and on experimental determination of genetic structure of natural populations. An outspoken critic of the misuses of science in general and genetics in particular, he has written several books relating genetics and evolution to social issues.

Lewontin was born in New York City. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology at Harvard (1951), Lewontin was awarded a master's degree in statistics (1952) and a doctorate in zoology (1954) by Columbia University. In graduate school, he was a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellow (1952–1953, 1953–1954).

Lewontin began his academic career as an assistant professor of genetics at North Carolina State College (1954–1958) and then joined the faculty of the University of Rochester in 1958. Over the next six years, he advanced from assistant professor to professor of biology. He concurrently held a Fulbright fellowship and a National Science Foundation Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship (1961–1962).

In 1964, Lewontin was appointed professor of biology at the University of Chicago. The following year he became co-editor of The American Naturalist, a position he held until 1969. During his years at the university, he was awarded a second National Science Foundation Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship (1971–1972) and served as associate dean of the division of biological sciences (1966–1968) and as chairman of the program in evolutionary biology (1968–1973). In 1973, he joined the department of organismal and evolutionary biology at Harvard University as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology (1973–1999). In 1999, he was appointed Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Lewontin's early work, pioneering studies of genetic variation in fruit flies, catapulted him to scientific prominence. In addition to discovering a technique for measuring the degree of variation within the DNA of apparently homogeneous species, he was among the first to suggest the application of game theory to evolutionary problems. Along with research in humans carried out at the same time by Harry Harris, Lewontin's work demonstrated that the amount of genetic variation in nature provided “the stuff of evolution” on which natural selection could operate.

Lewontin's recent work makes use of techniques such as gel electrophoresis, immunology, protein fingerprinting, heat sensitivity, and DNA sequencing to characterize the genetic variation in natural populations of different species of organisms. Lewontin's laboratory has detected and measured the frequency of different alleles (forms of a gene that are responsible for hereditary variation) at a large number of gene loci in different organisms and is precisely characterizing the amount and kind of variation. In order to determine the forces controlling the variation, his team applies different experimental techniques both in the laboratory and in nature to measure natural selection, to determine how much migration occurs between populations, and to study the breeding structure of natural populations. Using these measurements, they hope to reconstruct the dynamics of the evolution of genetic variations. Using analytic mathematical tools, numerical methods, and computer simulation, his team also makes theoretical studies aimed at determining how various genetic systems evolve under different circumstances of natural selection and breeding structure.

Lewontin is also author or co-author of some 300 papers and articles and 17 books, many of which are for nonscientists. A founding member of Science for the People, Lewontin has made it his mission to correct popular misconceptions about genetics. In the 1982 and 1995 editions of his Human Diversity, for example, he argued that genetic differences between races are not much greater than those between randomly chosen people within a given race. The first edition relied mainly on studies of protein polymorphisms, or multiple forms of proteins, to debunk attempts to explain all animal and human behavior on evolutionary principles. The second edition included support for his argument from recent DNA analyses.

Lewontin's other books include An Introduction to Genetic Analysis (2000) and The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment (2000), whose central thesis is that genes, organisms, and environment must not be thought of as separate entities. It Ain't Necessarily So, a collection of nine essays published previously in The New York Review of Books, was also published in 2000.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1968 but resigned three years later.