Richard Lewontin Remembered for Decommissioning Darwinian Natural Selection

RICHARD LEWONTIN (1929-2021)

The circulation of the proof copy of What Darwin Got Wrong, the product of a noted philosopher and a prominent student of linguistics and cognitive science, has resulted in a volume of critical comment from biologists and philosophers that has not been seen since 1859. . . . Not to be misunderstood, perhaps biologists should stop referring to “natural selection,” and instead talk about differential rates of survival and reproduction.”Richard Lewontin, “Not So Natural Selection,” New York Review of Books, 2010

I asked Richard Lewontin—who some consider the most important evolutionary biologist of the 20th century—during a 2008 book interview for his perspective on Darwinian natural selection.

Lewontin hesitated in dismissing natural selection at the time, telling me: “The problem for the biologist is that natural selection is not the only biological force operating on the composition of populations.” 

But by 2010, following publication of assorted evolution books (including my own) and particularly, the Jerry Fodor/Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini book, What Darwin Got Wrong and ensuing controversy “throughout the evolutionary biology community”—Richard Lewontin would finish what Steve Gould, his friend and collaborator, set out to do. Lewontin would demolish natural selection.

The tipping point for Lewontin may have been the distasteful attacks on philosopher Jerry Fodor, first for his 2007 London Review of Books article, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings”—Fodor told me jokingly following its publication that he was in the Witness Protection Program—and then overWhat Darwin Got Wrong (even though Lewontin informed me in our interview that he resented biology being “invaded by people like Jerry Fodor and others”).

In a 2010 Lewontin cover story for the New York Review of Books titled: “Not So Natural Selection”—a critique of What Darwin Got Wrong—Lewontin made the point that Darwin never intended natural selection to be taken literally by generations of scientists who followed, which further infuriated Fodor’s assailants.

Said Lewontin:

But, of course, whatever ‘nature’ may be, it is not a sentient creature with a will, and any attempt to understand the actual operation of evolutionary processes must be freed of its metaphorical baggage.”

I’d say Richard Lewontin’s courageous stand in opposing the establishment on Darwinian dogma was his most memorable contribution to science.  We are so very grateful to him.

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