NewsHonorary Degree Citation
Harvard University Alexander Agassiz
Professor of Zoology, emeritus
For more than 30 years your official title has been the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. But that title—long as it is—does little to describe your contribution to science, culture and public policy.
You began your work in the early 1950s, and in the following five decades you revolutionized population genetics and pioneered the field of molecular evolution. The brilliance of your work was recognized early and often, with multiple fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Columbia University and the Fulbright Program. But pure science has never been enough for you; as you have said, “I have to do political things.”
The 1960s and ’70s offered you ample opportunity to do political things. As an evolutionary geneticist during our nation’s struggle with racism and sexism, you were painfully aware that some were twisting genetics and evolution into a pseudoscience to be used as a weapon to hold down women and people of color.
You wouldn’t stand for it.
You helped found Science for the People, a group of scientists and students active against the use of pseudoscience to rationalize bigotry. You enlightened many, angered some and helped keep science honest and relevant. You remain ever vigilant for pseudoscience, and continue to debunk overreaching scientific claims in your many books and essays.
It is difficult to describe your contributions to science and culture without appearing to resort to hyperbole. So I will use the words of others.
Your teacher, the geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, wrote of you, “If I would not do anything else but to produce Dick Lewontin, I think my earthly existence would be justified.”
Stephen Jay Gould, a longtime friend and colleague, called you “simply the smartest man I have ever met.”
You have been called “brilliant” and “pernicious,” you have been compared to Marx and St. Augustine, you have made many friends and a few enemies. You have moved science forward in ways that will be valued for generations to come. And you have pricked our conscience, a gadfly reminding us that we must forever question science, question the motives of others, question ourselves.
And through all this you have been the good neighbor down the road. You serve on Marlboro’s Volunteer Fire Department and in the Marlboro Historical Society, and are a trustee of the Marlboro Music School and Festival. You have been a valued friend of Marlboro College, teaching here gratis, serving as an outside examiner and welcoming Marlboro students to your Harvard lab.
We have much to thank you for, Dick Lewontin, and it is our pleasure to confer upon you the degree
Doctor of Humane Letters, Honorary.