Richard Lewontin, dialectical biologist and activist, dies at 92

Last week Richard Lewontin, the dialectical biologist, Marxist and militant, died at the age of 92, just three days after the death of Mary Jane, his wife for over 70 years. He was one of the founders of modern biology which brought together three different disciplines – statistics, molecular biology and evolutionary biology – which mark the discipline today. In doing so, he fought not only crass racism disguised as science, but also what science is. He is one of the few scientists who are equally at home in the laboratory, or speaking of science and ideology on a philosophical level, or as popular exponents of what science is and, more aptly, of speaking about science and ideology on a philosophical level. which it is not.

Lewontin always reminded what it means to be radical: go back to basics by clearing your point of view. This method is important, because it does a radical investigation – and not just the lazy of positions in certain class points of view – a powerful tool in science. What is the relationship between genes, race and class? Or genes and gender? Does social superiority stem from superior genes? What about biological differences between the sexes? As a Marxist and activist, Lewontin believed that we had to fight the two levelss: expose class, race and gender stereotypes as a reflection of power within society, and also at the level of radical science, i.e. from the foundations of theory and scientific data .

Lewontin and the population geneticist and ecological mathematician Richard Levins shared their passion for biology, social activism and Marxism. He is not so well known as a close friendre Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and science writer, was a Marxist comrade. All three fought a lifelong battle against the racialization of biology and, later, sociobiology, which sought to “explain” every social phenomenon as derived from our genes. EO Wilson, Richard Dawkins – and many others – thought we were programmed to make society simply express what is in our genes. That the white races are genetically superior, just like the rich. In India, we also have a “genetic theory” of castes to explain the supposed differences between caste groups. As long as there are significant differences between groups of people (class, race, sex or caste), biological accounts will be offered to “explain” the differences.

One of Lewontin’s groundbreaking work uncovered just how much genetic diversity exists within species. It was when we didn’t know how many genes we have. His inspired estimate was 20,000, much smaller than most biologists thought at the time and remarkably close to what we know today. Most biologists then believed that races had significant biological differences, one of the reasons they believed there were a much larger number of genes with 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 preferred target for testing genetic theories in the laboratory. This innovative exercise traced evolution at the species level to changes at the molecular levelI-a foundation for the field of molecular evolution– using statistical methods. Their results were surprising. Contrary to what most biologists believed, they have shown a surprising amount of genetic diversity. in a given population: evolution has led to stable and diverse populations within a species.

Lewontin later used this method on human blood groups to show that stable genetic diversity was also valid for us humans. The study of human blood groups has also shown that the diversity of a human population is greater than 90% in the “races” and only around 7% between races. They have shown that race is not a biological construct, but a social construct.

Lewontin co-wrote with Gould an article on how evolution is not about developing all of the characteristics we see in an organism, but these characteristics are also the result of accidental ramifications that accompany a specific genetic change that occurs due to evolutionary pressure. Gould and Lewontin compared it to spandrels in architecture. The spandrel is a triangular space between an arch and a rectangular wall, created when cutting out, say, a door. Spandrels also form when domes rest on rectangular structures.

Whether a spandrel is carved or decorated is not the reason it exists; once created, it can be decorative or used for other purposes. Likewise, in species, nature uses the accidental offspring of evolutionary change, just as those who have built arches or domes use spandrels.

Image caption: Dome, arch and spandrels

What distinguishes Lewontin’s popular and scientific writings is his ability to relate broader issues from science to society and his critique of the crude reductionist understanding of biology. He calls him Cartesian fallacy: that if we can decompose the whole into its constituent parts and find the laws of the parts, then we can “assemble” the whole to understand it “fully”. Of course, this Cartesian point of view 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 point of view come up again, especially in the understanding of inequalities in society? Lewontin traces repeated attempts to give biological explanations of inequality to the deep structural inequalities within society. This hydra-headed monster will return again and again as long as structural inequalities exist in society. It is a fight that he and his close colleagues waged, against racism, “IQ” and sociobiology, which sought explanations for all the social inequalities in biology, that is to say in a certain pre- programming of our genes.

This lifelong battle that Lewontin has waged not only in his specific field of biology, but also in the broader field of science. Its ideological struggle against racism, class and imperialism was not separate from its science. He saw it as an everyday fight in the sciences and outside of them, to be fought at the two levelssociety and science. He didn’t just argue that race is a bad way to look at societal differences, but he showed it to be, with solid experimental data. And he had a theoretical framework to explain the evidence. This reflects his integrity as scientist and social activist.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many progressive scientists in the United States came together to form Science for the people. (Recently this organization was revived.) They reflected the anti-racist and anti-war movements in the United States of those decades. Their discussions of science and society run parallel to what we, Indian science and socio-political activists, also discussed in those days, which led to the formation of the popular science movement and The whole network of Indian peoples’ sciences. In the United States, Science for the People decided to become more of a movement within the scientific community as we decided that it should be a broader grassroots movement, not only on science and society, but also for strengthen the scientific temperament in society.

Recently the Netflix movie, The Chicago 7 trial, brought the struggle of the 1960s against the Vietnam War to our screens. Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, was also indicted in this trial. (A much better movie is the old HBO, Plot: The Chicago Trial 8, on Youtubee.) During the trial, the Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton, an important leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago, who was helping in the defense of Bobby Seale. I will leave Lewontin and his close comrade Levins, his co-author of Biology under the influencee, tell us in their words how they relate to movements:

We have also been political activists and fellow Science for the People; Science for Vietnam; the new university conference; and fight against biological determinism and “scientific” racismm, against creationism and in support of the student movement and the anti-war movement. On the day that Chicago police murdered Black Panthers chief Fred Hampton, we went together to his still bloody room and saw the books on his nightstand: he was killed for his thoughtful and curious activism. Our activism is a constant reminder of the need to relate theory to real world problems as well as the importance of theoretical criticism. In political movements, we often have to defend the importance of theory as a safeguard against being overwhelmed by the urgency of need at the moment and at the local level, while in academia we still have to assert that for the hungry, the right to food is not a philosophical issue.

Biology under the influencee, a collection of essays by Levins and Lewontin published in 2007, was dedicated to five Cubans—the five cubans– who had infiltrated Cuban-American terrorist groups in Miami actively supported by American agencies. At the time, all five were serving long prison sentences in the United States.

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 to the philosophical questions that it raised. They dedicated their 1985 book, The dialectical biologist, to Frederick Engels, “who was wrong most of the time but who understood where it mattered. “This also applies to Lewontin, who got breed, class and genetics where it counted!


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