Richard C. Lewontin (1929-2021), pioneer of anti-racist genetics – 07/17/2021 – Marcelo Leite

A privilege of this profession is the opportunity to meet some intellectual heroes in person. During a sabbatical at Harvard in the 1990s, the evolutionary journalist could still talk to Ernst Mayr, Edward O. Wilson or Stephen Jay Gould – and be frustrated at being ignored by Richard C. Lewontin.

All but Wilson died. The last to suppress the generation of great biology thinkers with an epicenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 92 was Lewontin, Gould’s discreet partner against Wilson’s sociobiology.

The linchpin of his generous view of biology showed that it cannot and should not be used to justify social injustices and to naturalize them under the guise of scientific objectivity. One of his favorite targets was IQ tests and alleged correlations with ethnic and racial groups.

Whoever said that Jews are naturally smarter and blacks are more sporty throws the first stone. Even if such differences prevail at certain times and in certain places, looking for their basis in DNA is a futile (or suspect) endeavor.

Determinism is the childhood disease of genocentrism. As early as 1972 Lewontin showed that there are more genetic variations within each “race group” than between several socially defined contingents. There was a lack of homogeneity in speaking in separate “groups”.

Biological explanations are time stamped and say something about it. “These changes were partly a reflection of the revelation of new biological facts, but only partly,” taught Lewontin in the text “The Sharing of Human Diversity”.

The chapter is in the book “Evolutionary Biology”, edited by Dobzhansky, Hecht and Steere. Follows Lewontin: “[Tais mudanças] they also reflect general socio-political prejudices derived from human social experiences and smuggled into “scientific” areas ”.

It sounded like music to someone in the humanities who was used to questioning assumptions. Even for the admirer of natural technosciences, from genetic engineering to genomics, the imperative remains not to be carried away with enthusiasm by the novelty that promises to explain everything.

After years of reading and editing Gould’s texts on Folha, Nirvana was to sit in the auditorium of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, listening to the palaeontologist, evolutionist, and graduate student lectures.

Far more difficult was the advanced course on genetics and evolution that Lewontin taught with Gould. Despite the disgust of the journalists, the latter even agreed to arrange a meeting during the office hours of the Studierendenwerk.

De Lewontin never responded to requests to meet. He lived in Vermont and only went to Cambridge for classes, where he never missed opportunities to poke fun at Gould and only reserved time for his mentees.

Fortunately, he wrote long and well. Books like “Not in Our Genes” (not in our genes) and “The Triple Helix”. In addition to the classic essay against adaptationism, with Gould’s eardrum of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice as a metaphor for pointless results (search with “gusset”).

An era comes to an end with Lewontin’s death. For our clarification and our contradiction, just as Wilson left heirs like Steven Pinker, he and Gould also left theirs – for example Richard O. Prum, author of “The Evolution of Beauty”.

Read and reflect on naturalistic fallacies about the development of very human traits and behaviors.

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