Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins – two dialectical biologists

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Contemporary biology inspired and read through the lens of historical and dialectical materialism

A tribute to Richard Lewontin, who died July 4, 2021

“On the one hand, science is the generic development of human knowledge over millennia, but on the other hand, it is the increasingly commodified specific product of a capitalist knowledge industry” (Richard Lewontin)

Science and society have lost one of their great men. Biologist Richard Charles “Dick” Lewontin, born in New York on March 4, 92, died on July 29th in Cambridge (USA), at the age of 1929. His companion in the Marxist and dialectic struggles in the field of Biology, Richard Levins, and co-author of several scientific works of great social importance, had died, at the age of 85, a few years ago, on January 19, 2016, also in Cambridge.

Richard Lewontin was a mathematician, evolutionary biologist, professor of Zoology at Harvard University and one of the world's leading geneticists. Through his scientific work and political activity, he helped develop the mathematical foundations of population biology, evolutionary theory, and issues related to genetic variation and molecular evolution. Lewontin was opposed to genetic determinism, especially as expressed by behavioral genetics researchers. He was one of the leading voices against scientific racism.

Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins

His fellow Lewontin fighter, Richard “Dick” Levins, was a geneticist, mathematical ecologist, university professor at Harvard (John Rock Professor of Population Sciences; Head of the Human Ecology Program at the School of Public Health), and political activist. His work on evolution in changing environments was recognized through the book Evolution in Changing Environments (Princeton University Press, 1968), a work that was based on lectures given in Cuba in the 1960s. He also introduced the term and concept of metapopulations to describe a “population of populations”. The fate of such a system of local populations depends on the balance of extinctions and colonizations (Levins, R. 1969, “Some demographic and genetic consequences of environment al heterogeneity for biological control”, Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, 15:237-240; “Evolution in Communities Near Equilibrium”. In: ML Cody and JM Diamonds (Eds.) Ecology and Evolution of Communities, Harvard University Press, 1975).

Levins' studies are extremely difficult and condensed. For example, Levins introduced a model consisting of a single differential equation, known today as the Levins Model, to describe the average occupancy dynamics of patches in local population systems, where patches are populations that occupy a given habitat. Levins has also written on philosophical issues in biology and scientific modeling ("The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology", American Scientist, 54:421-431, 1966; Puccia, CJ and Levins, R. Qualitative Modeling of Complex Systems: An Introduction to Loop Analysis and Time Averaging, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986).

Both Richards, Lewontin and Levins, were Marxists and politically active. As a practical example of conscious political action, they withdrew from National Academy of Sciences because this entity supported war projects in the Vietnam War. Together they wrote a series of articles on the methodology, philosophy and social implications of biology. Part of them constituted the book The Dialectical Biologist (1985), and in 2007 they published a second thematic collection Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essayson Ecology, Agriculture, and Health (book that was translated into Portuguese by us: Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, Publisher Expressão Popular).

The origin and life trajectory of Lewontin and Levins explain to a certain extent a large part of their choices and their personal and scientific paths. Levins is of Ukrainian Jewish origin and his choice for biology came from the essays of the biologist and Marxist scholar JBS Haldane. Levins studied agriculture and mathematics at Cornell University. In 1950 he married the Puerto Rican writer Rosario Morales, whose best-known book published by her is Getting Home Alive, 1986. While still an undergraduate at Cornell, Levins was blacklisted by the FBI, which led him and his wife to move to Puerto Rico, where they worked in agriculture, organizing rural movements, the Movimento Pro -Independence of Puerto Rico and the Socialist Party of Puerto Rico. For that very reason, they remained on the FBI's watch list. They only returned to the USA in 1956, when Levins obtained his doctorate at Columbia University, in 1965. But he did not lose his connection with Puerto Rico, as he was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico between 1961 and 1967, and even less with the movement for the independence of the country where he was a prominent member, which led to his veto to be a tenured professor at the university and a new immigration to the USA in 1967.

Levins first visited Cuba in 1964, beginning a lifelong scientific and political collaboration with Cuban biologists, even though he is now in Chicago, where he went in 1967 when he left Puerto Rico with his wife and three children, Aurora ( Levins Morales, now a writer and poet, feminist movement activist), Ricardo (Levins Morales, now a plastic artist) and Alejandro (Levis Morales, now a businessman). Levins was also a professor at the University of Chicago, where he frequently interacted with the other Richard, Lewontin. Later both moved to Harvard, with the sponsorship of Edward O. Wilson, “father” of sociobiology. Lewontin was a student of celebrated biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University, where he graduated in 1954. Dobzhansky was hostile to Marxism, having fled Russia after the October Revolution of 1917, but Lewontin was not afraid to clash with it. As a result, they maintained a relationship of permanent conflict, albeit one that was mutually respectful.

Lewontin, in the 1960s, doing pioneering work with JL Hubby, studying the genetic variation in protein levels among populations of fruit flies, described enormous and unexpected genetic variations between individuals. Later, applying the same method (gel electrophoresis) they obtained similar results for human populations. Results that completely destroyed the biological justification for racism and the notion of dividing humanity into “races”. That is, there would be no scientific justification for the existence of races or for “racism”. The meaning of “race” depends purely on superficial differences, which acquired a historically localized social meaning with the rise of capitalism, and with it slavery and colonialism, which spurred the creation of a racial hierarchy.

Lewontin was one of the most recognized Marxists within biology. In addition to contributing in a very important way to evolutionary biology. Contributing to the development of the mathematical bases of population biology and evolutionary theory, he also stood out for his great theoretical contributions in the fight against biological determinism and those who seek to use biological science to justify racism and misogyny. Lewontin's science and politics were guided by a conscious philosophical perspective, which he firmly and unapologetically defended throughout his life. Through his work he gave the world a rich possibility of applying a conscious dialectical approach to the study of nature.

Among the many important contributions of Lewontin and his friend Levins, we highlight the defense and use of dialectics as a fundamental method and instrument of and for biology. This can be seen in his works. Dialectical Biologist (1985) Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (1984) and Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (1991). In this one, in particular, he explains the impact that capitalism has had on the sciences, especially biology, which the ruling class always abuses for its own ends. Under capitalism, as a system, everyone is given “equality of opportunity” from birth – or so we are told. Our success or failure is therefore due to our own innate qualities. Nowadays, in the age of DNA, we are told that “everything is in our genes”. The direct implication is that the rich are only rich because they have the best genes. By the same logic, the poorest nations are only poor because of their “inferior” genetic material. No more need be said to understand racism and its consequent actions.

By the 1970s, well-known biologists were taking up a reductionist philosophy by increasingly “valuing” the role of genes in biological explanations. For example, Steven Pinker went on to explain human psychological states as a genetic adaptation. The introducer of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, explained all kinds of sociological phenomena through the action of our genes, drawing analogies between the evolved behavior of ants and human social phenomena (it was not gratuitous, therefore, that Lewontin and Levins, After some time, they clashed with Wilson, even though he was the one who had taken them to Harvard). Richard, another Richard, Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, considered organisms to be mere containers for the genetic replicators contained in our DNA. It is not by chance that Lewontin, at Harvard itself, joined his colleagues, also Marxists, Richard Levins and Stephen J. Gould in a tireless fight against all these prejudices, disguised as science.

Lewontin and Levins understood that it was no accident that these reactionary ideas repeatedly penetrate the sciences. It is obvious that they are based on a philosophical perspective, which derives from the vision and interests of the ruling class (in the book Dialectical Biologist they explain that they have always fought “…against the mechanistic, reductionist and positivist ideology that dominated our academic education and that permeates our intellectual environment…”.

Both, and in several works, such as articles, books, essays, criticize the belief that biology and genetics explain everything, from biological to social phenomena, and that they ignore the influence of culture on biological evolution, and of the dominant ideology in society. about science itself and scientists. Both Lewontin and Levins were revolutionaries in science, but their Marxism guided them in a consistent struggle to change society as well. “They defend the view that the scientist is a political subject, defending the need for a socialist society. Examples of their lives remain and a rich theoretical and practical differential for a science that serves the people and understands its role in the fight against oppression, capitalism and in the construction of a new society…” (Guilherme Piva, “Morre Richard Lewontin, firm combatant of racism in science”,

We believe that the dedication of the two bets on the book Biology Under the Influence, is also a coherent closing to this homage to them. The dedication was to the Miami Five (the five Cuban political prisoners held in the United States for infiltrating Miami-based Cuban-American terrorist groups). We keep the translation in Castilian in honor of them and in honor of the two Richards: “westir political activists and comrades in Science for the People; Science for Vietnam; the New University Conference, as well as in the fights waged against biological determinism and “scientific” racism, against creationism, and support the student movement and the antiwar movement. The day the Chicago police signed Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panthers, we went together to his room, still bloodied, and looked at the books that were on his night table: it was signed by his consistent and critical militancy. Our activism is a constant reminder of the need to relate theory to problems in the real world, as well as the importance of theoretical criticism”.

Lewontin, R. and Levins, R. “Biology under the influence, dialectical essays on ecology, agriculture and health”, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2007.

Levins, R. and Lewontin, R. “The dialectical biologist”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1985.

Richard Lewontin's obituary published in Science magazine on August 12, 2021:

Richard Lewontin's obituary published in Nature on July 13, 2021:

Lewontin and Levins' readings of contemporary biology are inspired by historical and dialectical materialism, which, to an uninformed public, might seem like a limitation. After all, is it possible to conceive a “Marxist” biology, a scientific knowledge laden with ideology? They teach us not only that yes, but also that much of contemporary biological knowledge is articulated with a conservative view that harbors prejudices such as racism, sexism, among many others. One of the most criticized aspects of this conservative view by Lewontin and Levins is the constant attempt to reduce phenomena to the agents involved in them, such as, for example, direct associations between genes and behavior. The dialectical view, on the other hand, invites us to value both the history and the sociocultural context within and behind knowledge in continuous transformation/renewal.

When we read articles about important discoveries in the mainstream press and even in academic publications, what is usually valued is the genius of the scientist who made the discovery – the explanation of the discoveries almost always ends in itself, thus ignoring the challenges and conflicts that are always present in the environment. academic. In our point of view, this is not about denying the discoverer's individual merit, on the contrary, placing him in the cultural context is to value both the individual and his find. Incidentally, it is precisely the cultural environment of the United States in the mid-twentieth century, in the midst of the cold war, clearly hostile to Marxism in its various expressions, which leads us to greatly value the work of Lewontin and Levins. Although these findings, always supported by solid arguments, ensured their presence in highly regarded universities.

*Nelson Marques is a retired professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo (USP).

*Luiz Menna-Barreto is a retired professor at the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities at the University of São Paulo (USP).


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