Richard C. Lewontin is Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change and Biology as Ideology, and the co-author of The Dialectical Biologist (with Richard Levins) and Not in Our Genes (with Steven Rose and Leon Kamin).

The New Synthetic Biology: Who Gains?

Craig Venter, founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which does research in synthetic biology, at his office in La Jolla, California, March 2014
Nothing in history suggests that those who control and profit from material production can really be depended upon to devote the needed foresight, creativity, and energy to protect us from the possible negative effects of synthetic biology. In cases where there is a conflict between the immediate and the long-range consequences or between public and private good, how can that conflict be resolved?

Is There a Jewish Gene?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail), 1726–1739
The question of ancestry has been of human concern in virtually all cultures and over all times of which we have any knowledge. Whether it be a story about the origin of a particular tribe or nation and its subsequent mixture with other groups, or curiosity about a family history, there is always the implication that we understand ourselves better if we know our ancestors and that we, within ourselves, reflect properties that have come to us by an unbroken line from past generations.

Let the DNA Fit the Crime

Central Park, New York City, 1990
Hercule Poirot has an easy time of it. He needs only the logic provided by his “little gray cells” to discern, unerringly, which of the dozen or so guests at the country house or passengers in the sleeping coach have committed the crime, nor is there any doubt that those …

It’s Even Less in Your Genes

In trying to analyze the natural world, scientists are seldom aware of the degree to which their ideas are influenced both by their way of perceiving the everyday world and by the constraints that our cognitive development puts on our formulations. At every moment of perception of the world around us, we isolate objects as discrete entities with clear boundaries while we relegate the rest to a background in which the objects exist. That tendency, as Evelyn Fox Keller’s new book suggests, is one of the most powerful influences on our scientific understanding.

Not So Natural Selection

A pair of peppered moths superimposed on a photograph of Sheffield, England, after the Industrial Revolution. Since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an increase in the black-winged form of the peppered moth in England. Evolutionary biologists ha
There is an immense amount of biology missing from our modern formulation of evolution by natural selection. Why, when vertebrates evolved wings, did they have to give up their front legs to do it?  Why don’t birds that live in trees make a living by eating the leaves instead of spending so much of their energy looking for seeds or worms?  It is these considerations that lie at the heart of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s discussion of What Darwin Got Wrong.

Why Darwin?

Charles Darwin, 1868–1869; photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron
When I was a student I was enjoined to reject the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history, so called after Pascal’s remark in the Pensées : “Cleopatra’s nose: if it had been shorter, everything in the world would have changed.”[^1] The intent was not to dismiss biography as a way into …

The Triumph of Stephen Jay Gould

One of the most interesting developments of the last sixty years in the popularization of intellectual concerns and higher culture has been the appearance of “public intellectuals.” They are, for the most part, academics who use a variety of means of access to a wide audience to disseminate ideas that …

The Wars Over Evolution

The development of evolutionary biology has induced two opposite reactions, both of which threaten its legitimacy as a natural scientific explana-tion. One, based on religious convictions, rejects the science of evolution in a fit of hostility, attempting to destroy it by challenging its sufficiency as the mechanism that explains the …

Dishonesty in Science

The founders of the American state understood that the proper functioning of a democracy required an educated electorate. It is this understanding that justifies a system of public education and that led slaveholders to resist the spread of literacy among their chattels. But the meaning of “educated” has changed beyond …

Science and Simplicity

When asked to name, without reflection, the greatest scientific work that has ever been done, people who are themselves scientists will usually say “Newton’s Laws of Motion” or “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.” Such answers are revealing of the image of ideal science with which we have been brought up, an …

The Politics of Science

No one can doubt that the production and consumption of scientific knowledge are major enterprises in the operation of the modern state and in civil society. Societies too impoverished to create their own science and technology use and feel the impact of those activities in their economic and political interactions …

After the Genome, What Then?

This article will appear as the second epilogue to the chapter “The Dream of the Human Genome” in the paperback edition of Richard Lewontin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, to be published in October by New York Review of Books. On Monday, …

Genes in the Food!

If the nineteen recent books and fifteen-pound stack of articles that confront me as I write are any measure, then nothing is more productive of food for thought than thoughts about the production of food. The introduction of methods of genetic engineering into agriculture has caused a public reaction in …

Survival of the Nicest?

In Higher Superstition, a book remarkable both for its influence on the intellectual community and for its obtuse ignorance of the actual state of science, the authors told us that Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise…. Reality is the overseer at one’s shoulder, ready to rap one’s knuckles …

The Confusion over Cloning

There is nothing like sex or violence for capturing the immediate attention of the state. Only a day after Franklin Roosevelt was told in October 1939 that both German and American scientists could probably make an atom bomb, a small group met at the President’s direction to talk about the …

Billions and Billions of Demons

“But the Solar System!” I protested. “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.” —Colloquy between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes …

In the Blood

I would like to take the opportunity offered by John Weightman’s essay on Frederick Brown’s biography of Zola [New York Review, March 21] to provide a somewhat different analytical emphasis. My remarks are not made with the intention of quarreling with anything that either Weightman or Brown has written, but …

The Last of the Nasties?

According to a Haggadic legend, when God decided to create the world he said to Justice, “Go and rule the earth which I am about to create.” But it did not work. God tried seven times to create a world ruled by Justice, but they were all failures and had …