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Richard Lewontin: Race as a Biological Illusion

Lawrence Bush
March 28, 2018

Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, an opponent of sociobiology and biological determinism and a strong advocate of defining race strictly as a socially but not biologically meaningful category, was born in New York on this date in 1929. In 1972, Lewontin identified that most of the genetic variation within human populations is found within local geographic groups, and that differences among so-called “racial” groups are a minor element within human genetic variability. He has been a strong critic of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, as advocated by Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, who explain animal behaviors and social structures in terms of evolutionary advantage; Lewontin believes this approach, applied to human beings, amounts to genetic determinism and inadequately deals with the complex interaction of genes and environment. Lewontin identifies as a Marxist and has been criticized for allowing his political beliefs to inform his scientific views. From 1973 until 1998, Lewontin was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University.

“The vulgarization of Darwinism that sees the ‘struggle for existence’ as nothing but the competition for some environmental resource in short supply ignores the large body of evidence about the actual complexity of the relationship between organisms and their resources.” —Richard Lewontin

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.