Richard Lewontin against the age

By Razib Khan | November 19, 2012 9:35 pm

Richard Lewontin’s fame rests in part on his pioneering role in the development of the field of molecular evolution, and secondarily due to his trenchant Left-wing politics. Several readers have already pointed me to his rather strange review of two new works in The New York Review of Books. The prose strikes me as viscous and meandering, but some of the assertions are rather peculiar. For example:

The other exception to random inheritance is not in the chromosomes, but in cellular particles called ribosomes that contain not DNA but a related molecule, RNA, which has heritable variation and is of basic importance to cell metabolism and the synthesis of proteins. Although the cells of both sexes have ribosomes, they are inherited exclusively through their incorporation in the mother’s egg cell rather than through the father’s sperm. Our ribosomes, then, provide us, both male and female, with a record of our maternal ancestry, uncontaminated by their male partners.

Harry Ostrer, who is a professor of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Raphael Falk, who is one of Israel’s most prominent geneticists, depend heavily on our ability to trace ancestry by looking at the DNA of Y chromosomes and ribosomes….

There is no mention of ribosomes in Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. I know, because I used Amazon’s ‘search inside’ feature. Rather, there’s a lot of reference to mitochondrial DNA and mtDNA, which is what Lewontin truly meant. Or at least I hope that’s what he meant. Because Lewontin is an eminent evolutionary biologist I assume they felt like they didn’t need a science editor, but perhaps they need to reconsider that.

Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of Richard Lewontin, and feel that his influence on intellectual life is generally pernicious. Though the review above is riddled with confusions, the primary aspect of Lewontin’s oeuvre since the mid-1970s that I sense is one of conscious obfuscation, not blundering delusion. Consider what L. L. Cavalli-Sforza told me 6 years ago:

7) Question #3 hinted at the powerful social impact your work has had in reshaping how we view the natural history of our species. One of the most contentious issues of the 20th, and no doubt of the unfolding 21st century, is that of race. In 1972 Richard Lewontin offered his famous observation that 85% of the variation across human populations was within populations and 15% was between them. Regardless of whether this level of substructure is of note of not, your own work on migrations, admixtures and waves of advance depicts patterns of demographic and genetic interconnectedness, and so refutes typological conceptions of race. Nevertheless, recently A.W.F. Edwards, a fellow student of R.A. Fisher, has argued that Richard Lewontin’s argument neglects the importance of differences of correlation structure across the genome between populations and focuses on variance only across a single locus. Edwards’ argument about the informativeness of correlation structure, and therefore the statistical salience of between-population differences, was echoed by Richard Dawkins in his most recent book. Considering the social import of the question of interpopulational differences as well as the esoteric nature of the mathematical arguments, what do you believe the “take home” message of this should be for the general public?

Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.

The key is “for political reasons.” The title of The New York Review of Books piece by Lewontin is “Is There a Jewish Gene?” Titles are often placed there by editors, but in this case I wouldn’t be surprised if this Lewontin was responsible for this. Much of his line of attack against modern genetics which displeases him is to construct a strawman of monogenic models, when the reality is that polygenic variation is widely acknowledged and understood, within the academy! Not so in the public and popular press, and Lewontin fans the flames of that confusion, because he knows that there isn’t a “Jewish gene,” or an “intelligence gene.”

Also, I actually saw Harry Oster speak at ASHG, and it seems likely to me that Richard Lewontin is not painting an accurate portrait of the book he is reviewing here. Oster’s view of genetics and ancestry is subtle and nuanced. In any case, of the myriad issues which Lewontin mangles, the primary one I need to point out is that the most powerful evidence for the genetic affinity of the Jewish people is not in uniparental markers, as asserted in the review, but autosomal genomic tracts which indicate descent from a relatively small number of people over and over across the past 1,000 years. This is where Lewontin’s thought experiment of dilution over the generations falters; the strong stamp of Jewishness which binds Ashkenazim in particular manifests in the fact that genealogies coalesce over and over again toward the same relatively small number of people 500-1,000 years ago. This is a major avenue of research. If Richard Lewontin had gone to ASHG 2012 he would have been treated to a lot of “Jewish genes.”

Finally, what ultimately vexes me about Richard Lewontin is that it seems clear that for him the ought has more priority than the is, insofar as is derives from the ought. I happen to agree on a normative basis with him about the low value of genetic connection being a valuable ground toward common affinity and fellow feeling. I’ve made my own personal opinion on this rather clear. But that does not mean that because I do not personally value genetic relationships much that those relationships do not exist. In other words, just because you don’t value something does not negate its existence, and just because you value something does not mean that it exists. I don’t value racial solidarity at all, but I believe human races do exist. Some of my friends value their personal relationship with God, but I don’t believe that this exists (that is, I don’t believe that God exists). Of course, there is a class of phenomenon which you can value, but doesn’t exist, but can exist. 18th century abolitionists valued a world where slavery was de jure abolished. That would not exist for centuries, but it does now exist.

It doesn’t gain us anything to assert that what is, isn’t. All that vain hope does is make the reckoning all the more shocking. I am not particular exercised by obfuscation at this point, because in the end reality wins out. Lewontin can laugh off the idea of a Jewish gene, but this isn’t 1972 anymore. People can compute exactly how Jewish they are today.

Image Credit: Wikipedia


Comments (8)

  1. Nanonymous

    A simple and sad case of senility now. A classic case of Marxist delusional liar previously. Oh well, there is always his “Biology as Ideology” series on Youtube for those who appreciate his schtick. At least it was done before he started to mix up mtDNA and rRNA…

  2. RedZenGenoist

    His naked confusion serves, by being transparent enough to have a fallacy named after him.

  3. Bolan

    And the image with the bell-bottom jeans has to do with “…this isn’t 1972 anymore.” ?

  4. Chris_T_T

    I don’t wish him ill, but it’s people like him that make me wonder about the wisdom of radical life extension.

    “Science advances one funeral at a time” indeed.

  5. dz alexander

    // Also, I actually saw Harry Oster speak at ASHG, and it seems likely to me that Richard Lewontin is not painting an accurate portrait of the book he is reviewing here //

    Are you saying you haven’t read the book?

  6. Chuck

    “I happen to agree on a normative basis with him..”

    No you don’t.

    From what I gather, you don’t personally value genetic relatedness. And maybe you feel that you personally shouldn’t. And maybe, also, you feel that it’s barbaric for others to hold such valuations. Lewontin, on the other hand, feels that it’s a moral imperative to make sure that everyone doesn’t hold these valuations. And he believes that people’s valuing is contingent on their assessment of the ontological status of these relations. It’s the difference between a heterosexual who feels mild distaste at sodomy and a biblical fundamentalist who …

  7. #6, close enough to the truth as a correction.

  8. jeff walker

    maybe Lewontin meant mitochondrial ribosomes but either forgot to limit it to this in the essay or had a genuine mental lapse and forgot about cytoplasmic ribosomes


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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