OPE-L Lewontin: biology, race and gender

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Wed Nov 19 2003 - 22:21:35 EST

In the Hitchcock lecture at UC Berekeley today Richard Lewontin
returned to Darwin and argued against the idea that the principle of
natural selection operating in different ecological niches accounts
for the gross morphological differences between so called races.
Groups haven't become whiter or blacker as a result of adaptation to
varying levels of sunlight. Much more likely cause of differences in
eye shape, hair texture and color, etc--that is of features that have
little, if no, adaptive value--is Darwin's other principle, the
principle of sexual selection. Though Darwin devoted a good part of
Descent of Man to this principle, it seems not to figure much in the
popular reception of Darwin. It's obvious why this other mechanism
hasn't received the attention it deserves: Gender bias pervades the
reception, if not the doing, of science, too. (While Alchian, Nelson
and Winter have used Darwin's principle of natural selection to
understand economic evolution, I don't know of any attempt to find an
analogue to sexual selection, though  one could argue that a certain
design gets locked in because of its superficial appeal as related by
advertising, which would then 'feminize' the consumer though giving
her the power to drive evolution.)

While Lewontin's lecture was about race, I would say that most people
were already familiar  with his analytical conclusion of about 85% of
human genetic variation existing within small groups (his conclusion
is now supported by DNA sequences), about 5 % within what are counted
as races and 10% between races; and  most probably already knew that
there is not a single gene that is unique to what would be considered
a race. But that Lewontin saved for his parting point the probable
importance of sexual selection suggests that it's more likely that
the activity of females will be ignored (and thus be surprising to
his audience) than race biologically reified in polite academic
circles. Or perhaps for we "bottom-line" Americans it's astonishing
that much of the world is the result not of functional but aesthetic
value, though to frame it that way is probably already misleading.
Though  I (for one) do not underestimate the unconscious importance
of race as a structuring principle in popular and scientific thinking.

Lewontin's lecture yesterday reprised his wonderful book, The Triple
Helix. He developed his ideas about how organisms construct their own
worlds, their own environments. There is no environment without an

In the middle of his lecture he said that he would give a prize to
anyone who knew who said there is not act of production that is not
an act of consumption and vice versa. I got it right.


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