Richard Lewontin: Why Knowing The Works And Legacy Of This American Evolutionary Biologist Is Important For Understanding How Left Controls The Academia

Richard Lewontin: Why Knowing The Works And Legacy Of This American Evolutionary Biologist Is Important For Understanding How Left Controls The AcademiaRichard Lewontin (Twitter)
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  • Richard Lewontin, famous evolutionary biologist, died on 4 July 2021. His legacy and contributions go beyond science.

The legacy of Richard Lewontin (1929-2021), an important biologist who died on 4 July 2021, extends beyond his substantial contributions to the field of evolution.

If one wants to understand why the Left has a strong presence and control over academia, then understanding the works and legacy of Lewontin is important. Without such an understanding, we will only be stuck with rhetoric to confront the academic Left.

Through a three-part series, we will try and examine the importance of Lewontin to the academic Left by exploring his science and his politics.

In part one, this article, we will look at how his contributions shaped our understanding of evolution.

In part two, we explore how Lewontin's work on genetic diversity weakened the case for 'race' being a biological category by itself.

In part three, we look at how, despite some brilliant scientific achievements to his name, Lewontin was an apologist for Marxism and allowed the ideology to colour his scientific views.

To begin with, Lewontin was not only a brilliant scientist but also an excellent science communicator. His writing bridged the gap between the core domain knowledge and the popular understanding of evolution. In the field of evolutionary studies, he shifted the focus to a dynamic way of looking at evolution, away from what he considered was adaptationist story-telling.

The usual understanding of evolution is that the selection pressures provided by the environment act on the organism and adaptation is that process by which the organisms become better suited to the environment.

Lewontin questioned this view of evolution. ‘The concept of adaptation’, he wrote, ‘implies a preexisting world that poses a problem to which an adaptation is the solution.’

Nevertheless, Lewontin accepted the factuality of adaptation. Pointing out how unrelated groups of animals like fish, seals, whales, penguins and sea snakes, have evolved functionally similar structures like fins, flippers, flukes, paddles and laterally flattened bodies respectively to deal with the selection pressure of moving efficiently in water, he stated that adaptation was a real phenomenon:

The problem of locomotion in an aquatic environment is a real problem that has been solved by many totally unrelated evolutionary lines in much the same way. Therefore, it must be feasible to make adaptive arguments about swimming appendages.
Richard C. Lewontin, "Adaptation', 'Scientific American', September, 1978

In 1979, Lewontin, along with another eminent evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an essay that became quite famous for caricaturing adaptationism. ‘The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme’ became a kind of rage.

Spandrels are the neat geometric spaces one finds between arches in the Gothic Cathedrals, in this case, St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The architect creates a space where religious art gets added. The art is so exquisite that it is tempting to think of the space as being made specially for the art. But the art is an addition to a structure that is an architectural imperative. To think the other way is what adaptationists like Dawkins were doing and that was the ‘Panglossian paradigm’, named after Dr. Pangloss, a character created by Voltaire in his novel Candide to caricature Leibniz, the polymath mathematician.

In reality though, the caricatured adaptationists have quite a few ground rules to identify a feature as 'adaptation'.

As early as 1966, the Princeton University evolutionary biologist, George Williams, wrote his classical tome on adaptation and natural selection. In the very introduction, the student of evolution is handed this note of caution:

Evolutionary adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should not be used unnecessarily, and an effect should not be called a function unless it is clearly produced by design and not by chance. When recognized, adaptation should be attributed to no higher a level of organization than is demanded by the evidence. Natural selection is the only acceptable explanation for the genesis and maintenance of adaptation.
Grorge C Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought, Princeton University Press, 1966:2019,p.ix
And again, inside the book, he explains in a detailed way and here are a few sample lines:
The mere fact of the effect being beneficial from one or another point of view should not be taken as evidence of adaptation. ... Parsimony demands that an effect be called a function only when chance can be ruled out as a possible explanation. ... One should postulate adaptation at no higher a level than is necessitated by the facts.
ibid. pp.261-2

Daniel Dennett crisply summarizes what he calls are the rules of thumb for identification of a biological feature as adaptation, as given by George Williams:

(1) Don't invoke adaptation when other, lower-level, explanations are available (such as physics). ... (2) Don't invoke adaptation when a feature is the outcome of some general developmental requirement. ... (3) Don't invoke adaptation when a feature is a by-product of another adaptation.
Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and Meanings of Life, Penguin Books, 1995, p.247

Richard Dawkins, in his foreword, to a later edition of George Williams' book, drew the attention to what he called the ‘overrated paper’ of Lewontin and Gould. The essay, Dawkins pointed out, because of its rhetorical nature, allowed itself to be misunderstood as a rejection of adaptation – a process well established in the field of biology.

One should note here that Dawkins did not indulge in a retaliatory caricaturing of Gould and Lewontin.

Then paraphrasing Anglican marriage service Dawkins wrote:

… any attribution of adaptation should not be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of Occam’s Razor.
Richard Dawkins, Foreword to George C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection, 2019, p.xi

Though both Lewontin and Gould were staunch evolutionists and were against creationism, this paper of theirs ended up getting awfully misquoted in creationist literature. In a way, what Gould and Lewontin did was the conventional political rhetorical strategy – to essentialize your opponent's view with the worst caricature of it possible and then dismiss it.

But there's more to Lewontin's life and work, continue to part two here.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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