Richard Lewontin is known within his field, evolutionary biology, as a controversial character. He is a firm opponent of genetic determinism, but he is still one of the greatest geneticists of the second half of the 20th century.

He is also a mathematician and evolutionary biologist, and has laid the foundations for the study of population genetics, as well as pioneering the application of molecular biology techniques. Let’s see more about this researcher through a brief biography of Richard Lewontin .

Biography of Richard Lewontin

The following is a summary of the life of Richard Lewontin, who has been known to study population genetics and to be critical of traditional Darwinian ideas.

First years and training

Richard Charles ‘Dick’ Lewontin was born on March 29, 1929 in New York into a family of Jewish immigrants.

He attended Forest Hills High School and the École Libre des Hautes Études in New York and in 1951 graduated from Harvard University with a degree in biology. A year later he would receive a Master’s degree in statistics, followed by a doctorate in zoology in 1945.

Professional career as a researcher

Lewontin has worked on the study of population genetics . He is known to be one of the first people to carry out a computer simulation of the locus behaviour of a gene and how this would be inherited after a few generations.

Together with Ken-Ichi Kojima in 1960, they set a very important precedent in the history of biology, by formulating equations that explained the changes in haplotype frequencies in contexts of natural selection . In 1966, together with Jack Hubby, he published a scientific article that was a real revolution in the study of population genetics. Using the genes of the fly Drosophila pseudoobscura , they saw that on average there was a 15% chance that the individual would be heterozygous, i.e. have a combination of more than one allele for the same gene.

He has also studied genetic diversity in human populations. In 1972 he published an article in which he indicated that most of the genetic variation, about 85%, is found in local groups , while the differences attributed to the traditional concept of race do not represent more than 15% of the genetic diversity in the human species. This is why Lewontin has been almost radically opposed to any genetic interpretation that ensures that ethnic, social and cultural differences are a rigid product of genetic determination.

However, this statement has not gone unnoticed and other researchers have shown different opinions. For example, in 2003 A.W.F. Edwards, a British geneticist and evolutionist, was critical of Lewontin’s statements, saying that race, for better or worse, could still be considered a valid taxonomic construct.

Vision on evolutionary biology

Richard Lewontin’s opinion regarding genetics is notable for his criticism of other evolutionary biologists . In 1975, E. O. Wilson, an American biologist, proposed in his book Sociobiology evolutionary explanations of human social behaviour. Lewontin has maintained a great controversy with sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, such as Wilson or Richard Dawkins, who propose an explanation of animal behavior and social dynamics in terms of adaptive advantage.

According to these researchers, a social behavior will be maintained if it involves some kind of advantage within the group. Lewontin is not in favour of this statement, and in several articles and one of his best known works He is not in the genes he has denounced the theoretical shortcomings of genetic reductionism .

In response to these statements, he proposed the concept of "enjuta". Within evolutionary biology, a gnarled set of features of an organism exists as a necessary consequence for other features, whether adaptive or not, to be able to occur, even though they don’t necessarily imply an improvement in its strength or survival in relation to the environment it has to live in, i.e., this set of features doesn’t necessarily have to be adaptive.

In Organism and Environment , Lewontin is critical of the traditionally Darwinian view that organisms are merely passive recipients of environmental influences . For Richard Lewontin, organisms are capable of influencing their own environment, acting as active constructors. Ecological niches are not pre-formed nor are they empty receptacles into which life forms are inserted just like that. These niches are defined and created by the life forms that inhabit them.

In the most adaptationist view of evolution, the environment is seen as autonomous and independent of the organism, without the latter influencing or shaping it. On the other hand, Lewontin maintains, from a more constructivist perspective, that the organism and the environment maintain a dialectic relationship , in which both influence each other and change at the same time. Over the generations the environment changes and individuals acquire both anatomical and behavioural changes.


Richard Lewontin has written about the economic dynamics of "agribusiness", translatable to agribusiness or agricultural business. He has argued that hybrid maize has been developed and propagated not because it is better than traditional maize , but because it has allowed agribusiness companies to force farmers to buy new seeds every year instead of planting their lifelong varieties.

This led him to testify in a trial in California, trying to change the state’s funding with respect to research into more productive seed varieties, considering that this was in the best interests of corporations and to the detriment of the average American farmer.

Bibliographic references:

  • Lewontin, R. C.; Kojima, K. (December 1960). The Evolutionary Dynamics of Complex Polymorphisms. Evolution. Society for the Study of Evolution. 14 (4): 458-472. doi:10.2307/2405995.
  • Lewontin, R. C. (January 1966). Is Nature Probable or Capricious? BioScience. University of California Press. 16 (1, Logic in Biological Investigation): 25-27. doi:10.2307/1293548.
  • Lewontin, R. C. (1970). The Units of Selection. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 1: 1-18. doi:10.1146/
  • Lewontin, R. C. 1982. Agricultural research and the penetration of capital. Science for the People 14 (1): 12-17.
  • Lewontin, R.C. 2000. The maturing of capitalist agriculture: farmer as proletarian. Pgs 93-106 in F. Magdoff, J. B. Foster, and F. H. Buttel, Eds. 2000. Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment. Monthly Review Press, NY.
  • Lewontin, R. C. (2000) It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, New York Review of Books.