Richard Lewontin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Politics: Conversation with Richard C. Lewontin, AlexanderAgassiz Research Professor, Harvard University, November 20, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being an Evolutionary Geneticist

Professor Lewontin, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much, Harry.

What drew you into the sciences?

A charismatic high school teacher. I was a student at a public high school in New York, a new public high school that catered to a primarily middle-class suburban community. We had there a science teacher who people idolized, and he drew a number of people -- a lot of people in the sciences, a number of people who teach here, and so on. In fact, a group of his former students is now putting together a collected remembrance and textbook on how to be a charismatic science teacher.

Moving from high school into your academic career, who were your main intellectual mentors?

Well, mentor doesn't do the job so well.

What is a better word?

Opponent.

Opponent, okay.

My professor, who supervised my Ph.D. ... again, "supervised" is not the right word. He was my professor for the Ph.D., the leading evolutionary geneticist of the time, Theodosius Dobzhansky. A very charismatic person, with a thick accent and a very lively way of dealing with people. He and I spent the three years of my Ph.D. fighting with each other about everything. He liked that, and I liked it as well.

So does that tell us something about scientists and how great work gets done? It's through the fights?

I didn't say great work was done! I just said I -- well, no, that doesn't tell us much, because in fact, most professors who have a lot of students don't like to fight with them. But some do. I think he liked it a lot, although he would make fun of it. But conflict and struggle is very common in academic life, especially between professionals. Everybody is crazy except you, of course.

You are an evolutionary geneticist, and most people in our audience probably wouldn't know what that is. What is it? What do you do?

Well, Harry, the process of evolution requires three things. It requires that there be differences among individuals within a species in various characteristics; that those differences be inherited in some way, because otherwise, every generation would go back to where things started from; and then it requires some differential rate of reproduction of the different kinds.

The evolutionary geneticist is the person who devotes him or herself to the actual mechanics of the changes and the frequencies of different kinds of genetic properties. Why is it, for example, that all human populations have blood groups A, B, and O? Why isn't everybody A? Or why isn't everybody B? So [we look at] the explanation of the genetic variation, of how that changes in time, of how natural selection changes it. We are, if you want to put it crudely, the auto mechanics of evolutionary biology. We try to work with the machinery on how it actually operates at the genetic level.

In the introduction to your Hitchcock Lecture, it was said that you introduced the study of molecular population genetics over two decades ago. So what is involved being "present at the creation"?

God, it's four decades ago.

Four decades ago.

They said two, but it's four. It was 1966.

Well, we try to cover up how old we're all getting ...

I'm afraid I am old! Well, the problem when I was a graduate student, and for many years before that, was that if you wanted to be an evolutionary geneticist, you had to be able to talk about genes, but nobody knew how to detect whether a particular gene was variable or constant in a population, because nobody had identified individual genes. Nobody's ever found the genes for skin color, for example, or the genes for height or for weight in people or in any other organism. So for years, people worried about how is it possible for us to count up the number of individuals who have this form of the gene as opposed to that form, if we can't work with the genes? This is before DNA.

I worried about that a lot when I was a graduate student, and for a few years after that, and I constructed in my head the kind of scheme you would have to have to do that. But I didn't know how to do it. Then one day I went and visited the University of Chicago, and there was a guy there, Jack Hubby, who was grinding up fruit flies and extracting their proteins, and every one of those proteins corresponded to the coding product of one gene. If two species had a different gene form, the proteins would move slightly differently in an electric field. I thought: this is the answer to my problem.

So I moved to the University of Chicago. Here was Jack with a technique, but no particular problem to apply it to. Here was me with a problem, with no technique. So we merged together and applied his technique to the problem of measuring genetic variation and diversity in populations. The beauty of that technique was you could do it with any kind of organism -- plants, animals, people. If they were little animals like insects, you'd grind them up. If they were bigger animals, you'd take some blood. If they were people, you'd take some blood. You could, then, characterize at the genetic level the genetic variation in any species in the world. And that's what we did. That's really what started molecular studies of genetic variation and evolution.

Later on, Martin Kreitman, who was a graduate student in our lab in Harvard, moved that from the protein level to the DNA level. He did the same thing at the DNA level that we had done at the protein level.

So does that experience tell us anything about the creativity in the sciences?

Yes, it tells us that not enough credit is given to the effect of talking to other people and dealing with other people. There's too much emphasis on the great creative act of the great mind. And it's not like that. I mean, I repeat: here I was with a problem looking for a solution. Here a guy was with a solution looking for a problem, and we got together. Many times, many of the things we did at our lab in Chicago arose in the course of conversation with somebody who came in. We would have weekly talks at lunch. People would come from all over the world, happen to be in town but come and give a talk about what they did, and we'd have a big conversation among the graduate students and the post-doctoral fellows, and me and other people. In the course of that, someone would say something that would trigger an idea, and someone would go off and do it. The graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows, and visitors, and I, and others ... all contributed to that in a way that is impossible for me, in retrospect, to disentangle. I can't tell you who got the idea for this, and who got the idea for that. The ideas are out there. Social interaction is really important in science, I think.

You're suggesting the importance of the community of scientists, as opposed to the superstar?

Oh, yes, but I really mean community. I don't mean the collection of scientists, because scientists, as a whole, don't form a community. When we moved to Chicago from Harvard, I came with four graduate students -- I think that was it, four graduate students -- and we had the opportunity to design our own space because it was a new building. We were given a whole floor in that building. So we designed the space in such a way that everybody's office opened out into a central room where there was a big table, and blackboards, and computers. And the labs were down the hall. You couldn't go to your office without actually walking through the laboratory -- not just past it, but through it. There were no doors. Your office had a door, but everybody had a key to it. People spent a lot of time sitting in that space shooting the bull, or in the lab, facing each other. Nobody had "private space," and that included me.

The consequence is that we had a very active community of people, and within a few years the thing grew to twenty-five people, which went on for thirty years. Everybody participated. It was a real community.

And now I want to say something scientific-political.

Okay, please.

An important part of that sense of community was -- I hope, I believe it's true -- the feeling that the professor did not have property rights over the work of the professor's students. I never in my life put my name on a paper which I didn't actually work on, in the lab, or computer analysis, or something like that. I just thought that was wrong.

Some people think it's a great thing, because it helps the student -- it brings the student's paper to the attention of other people, because a well-known person's name is on it. I think it's nonsense. It's really property rights. You can say, "Well, I published 573 papers," but you're, of course, the last author on the paper, and you didn't do anything. It's taking credit for other people's work. I think the community worked because people knew that whatever they did they would get credit for.

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