Richard Lewontin, who died aged 92 recently, was one of the most talented geneticists of his generation.
He was also a revolutionary socialist in both theory and practice.
As a university student in the mid 1980s, a fellow student suggested I read a new book Not In Our Genes by Lewontin, Richard Levins and Steven Rose.
It was then that I first became aware of the power of Marxist analysis. This book demolished the idea, then becoming popular through the so-called “sociobiology” movement, that human behaviour and society could be reduced to biological principles.
As Lewontin and his co-authors showed, the view of genetics put forward by sociobiologists such as Richard Dawkins and Edward Wilson was not just reactionary but bad science.
Sociobiologists put forward hypothetical “genes” for human characteristics such as selfishness, warmongering, sexism, racism, and homophobia. This displayed their ignorance of the very specific basis of such characteristics in class society.
But it also showed how little they understood about the ways in which our genomes interact with the rest of our cells and bodies.
It missed the dynamic interaction between genes and the environment.
In later books such as The Dialectical Biologist, co-written with Richard Levins, and The Triple Helix, Lewontin developed a socialist theory of biology.
But it also enriched it with new ideas based on novel insights into how DNA functions as a “blueprint”. DNA is also highly influenced by the environment of the human cell, the body, and the human society that such bodies inhabit.
Against the common idea that human behaviour is “determined” by our genes, Lewontin argued that human society evolves in a way that has to some extent superseded biology.
New technologies and social practices drive changes in society in ways that have no parallel in other species.
But the way that individual genetic differences affect human behaviour and potential are influenced by the type of society in which they arise.
It means that in general a person’s possibility of realising their potential is far more affected by their position in class society than it is by their genetic make-up.
Genetics can influence our susceptibility to illness, whether this be bodily disorders such a heart disease or diabetes, or mental conditions like depression or schizophrenia.
Additionally, the way genetic differences manifest themselves is highly dependent on our environment.
So susceptibility to heart disease and diabetes is highly influenced by bad diet and workplace stress.
And the possibility of becoming clinically depressed or schizophrenic is deeply dependent on the extreme psychological pressures people can face under capitalism.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Lewontin’s life for socialists today is the fact that he was not only a theorist, but an activist.
Showing the importance of environmental influence on the development of human consciousness, Lewontin’s ideas were fundamentally influenced by his experience.
In particular he was shaped by the movements of the 1960s and 70s against the Vietnam War and the struggle for black civil rights. The battles for women’s rights and the fight against homophobia were also important.
He in turn used scientific analysis to refute the claims of opponents of such struggles.
The scientific left may now only be a shadow of what it was in those heady days of radicalism.
But the scale of societal crisis that we now face in terms of the impact of climate change means that new radicalism of such a scale is surely only a matter of time.
And in facing the challenges of the future, Lewontin’s ideas will be a highly important resource.