Should People Believe What Scientists Say?

April 14, 2004 (Wednesday) / 5:00 pm

Dunlop Auditorium, Stemmler Hall, 3450 Hamilton Walk

Should People Believe What Scientists Say?

The Problem of Elite Knowledge in a Democratic Society

Richard C. Lewontin

Alexander Agassiz Research Professor
Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University

Many people now believe that science is the religion of the last century—that its word is gospel and the authority of its clergy/scientists inviolate.

Richard Lewontin, one of our most brilliant evolutionary biologists and a leading critic of many of his contemporary scientific popularizers, considers head on our rush to take the side of science “in spite of the patent absurdity of some its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life.”

A leader in developing the mathematical basis of population genetics and evolutionary theory, Richard Lewontin pioneered the notion of using techniques from molecular biology (such as gel electrophoresis) to apply to questions of genetic variation and evolution. In a pair of 1966 papers coauthored with J.L. Hubby in the journal Genetics, Lewontin helped set the stage for the modern field of molecular evolution.

Along with others, including his late Harvard colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewontin has been a persistent critic of the type of genetic determinism espoused by some neo-Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins. In his writings, he calls for what he considers a more nuanced view of evolution, which he claims requires a more careful understanding of the context of the whole organism as well as the environment. Such concerns about what he views as the oversimplification of genetics led Lewontin to be a frequent commentator in debates, and he has lectured widely to promote his views on evolutionary biology and science. In books such as Not in our Genes (co-authored with Steven Rose and Leon J. Kamin) and numerous articles, Lewontin has questioned much of the claimed heritability of human behavioral traits such as intelligence as measured by the IQ test, promoted by books such as The Bell Curve (RJ Hernnstein & C Murray, Free Press, 1994).