Lewontin was born in New York City. In 1951, He obtained a bachelors degree in biology from Harvard University. In 1952, he received a master's degree in mathematical statistics followed by a doctorate in zoology in 1954, both from Columbia University. Lewontin held faculty positions at North Carolina State University, the University of Rochester, and the University of Chicago. In 1973 Lewontin served as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard until 1998 and as of 2003 was the Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard.
Along with others, such as 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.
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