Pearls from Lewontin

In a review in the NYRoB, Richard Lewontin says

“The other exception to random inheritance is not in the chromosomes, but in cellular particles called ribosomes that contain not DNA but a related molecule, RNA, which has heritable variation and is of  basic importance to cell metabolism and the synthesis of proteins. Although the cells of both sexes have ribosomes, they are inherited exclusively through their incorporation in the mother’s egg cell  rather than through the father’s sperm. Our ribosomes, then, provide us, both male and female, with a record of our maternal ancestry, uncontaminated by their male partners. ”

I didn’t know that.

He also says: ” The Y chromosome carries very few genes. We know this to be true because, very rarely, an individual is born having received, as usual, one X chromosome from the female parent but, abnormally, neither  an additional X chromosome nor a Y chromosome from the male parent. This individual, called an “XO” type, is a sterile female but otherwise is normal. ”

I grew up with a class mate who had Turner syndrome, XO. That’s not the impression I got, but people at Harvard evidently know a lot of things that I don’t.




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36 Responses to Pearls from Lewontin

  1. squiggler says:

    “Common symptoms of Turner syndrome include:
    Short stature
    Lymphedema (swelling) of the hands and feet
    Broad chest (shield chest) and widely spaced nipples
    Low hairline
    Low-set ears
    Reproductive sterility
    Rudimentary ovaries gonadal streak (underdeveloped gonadal structures that later become fibrosed)
    Amenorrhoea, or the absence of a menstrual period
    Increased weight, obesity
    Shield shaped thorax of heart
    Shortened metacarpal IV
    Small fingernails
    Characteristic facial features
    Webbed neck from cystic hygroma in infancy
    Coarctation of the aorta
    Bicuspid aortic valve
    Poor breast development
    Horseshoe kidney
    Visual impairments sclera, cornea, glaucoma, etc.
    Ear infections and hearing loss
    High waist-to-hip ratio (the hips are not much bigger than the waist)
    Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD (problems with concentration, memory, attention with hyperactivity seen mostly in childhood and adolescence)
    Nonverbal Learning Disability (problems with math, social skills and spatial relations)
    Other features may include a small lower jaw (micrognathia), cubitus valgus[8] (turned-in elbows), soft upturned nails, palmar crease, and drooping eyelids. Less common are pigmented moles, hearing loss, and a high-arch palate (narrow maxilla). Turner syndrome manifests itself differently in each female affected by the condition, and no two individuals will share the same features.”

    “otherwise normal”

    If you are capable of ignoring the contradictory evidence and convincing yourself that genetics has no influence on intelligence, etc., then you are also capable of believing that a missing chromosome has no impact (beyond sterility), no matter how well-documented the impact may be. I suppose the idea that genetic factors affect anything is too painful a thought for some people. Whenever this thought (and others) starts to hurt too much, I look at stock photos of racially balanced teams of white-collar professionals and tell myself that they are representative of our world. I wonder what Lewontin’s coping strategy is.

  2. bob sykes says:

    It is true that sperm have no ribosomes, however ribosomal RNA is encoded in chromosomal DNA. So, for Lewontin’s claim to be true, he would have to show that sperm chromosomes do not contain any DNA encoding the ribosomal RNA. And that is false.

    Yet another Lewontin fallacy.

    • Paatrick Cassidy says:

      Later in the article Lewontin dicusses “mitochondrial RNA we have derived in an unbroken chain from our line of female progenitors”, so he does not seem to actually confuse mitochondria with ribosomes. Maybe a typo mistake of search-and-replace varriety? In any case, this is pretty irrelevant to the main theme of his article, that ancestry tells us just about nothing about ourselves, though we are fascinated with ancestry. Still, a surprising failure of proof-reading.

      • gcochran9 says:

        It’s a total hash. It’s not just a substitution of ‘ribosomes’ for ‘mitochondria’. The essential catalytic activity of ribosomes is indeed mediated by RNA (augmented by proteins) – but that RNA is coded by DNA in the autosomal chromosomes, Except that mitochondria have their own, different ribosomes, which are more like bacterial ribosomes, undoubtedly dating back to the symbiosis event that introduced mitochondria (originally something like Rickettsia) and are coded in the DNA of the mitochondria.

        You are what you are, but often the reason you’re different from someone else has to do with the selective pressures experienced by your ancestors, as compared to those experienced by his ancestors.

        You know, I have no idea why Lewontin ever went into genetics. The most basic genetic facts offend him.

  3. praguestepchild says:

    Didn’t you know that ribosomes are the new cultural Marxist matrilineal genetic descent blank slate paradigm? It’s all in the science.

  4. Jan Verbeeren says:

    Lewonting mixing up ribosomes and mitochondria?

  5. dearieme says:

    It must be a bugger to become famous in your old age for a Fallacy.

  6. Nanonymous says:

    It’s just a clear sign of senility, nothing else. Wonder how his editors missed such an incredible mistake. Also wonder if they will now go and fix the paragraph about ribosomes.

  7. FredR says:

    It would be fun (for me) for Cochran and Harpending to get in one of those famous NYRB backpage letter battles over this article.

  8. j says:

    Harvard’s ranking as a top university reflects its achievements a generation ago. Lewontin and the ribosomes reflect present state.

  9. Goya O'Boya says:

    Wait, even if he was right about Turner syndrome, why should the phenotype of a woman missing one of two X chromosomes tell us anything about the Y chromosome?

  10. Jason Malloy says:

    ” Indeed, we know nothing about the genetics of nonpathological variation in the cognitive capacities of the brain. An attempt to determine whether intellectual life is genetically heritable would require a large adoption study in which infants would be reared in a controlled environment in circumstances that prevented their caretakers from knowing their family or social origins”

    I can’t believe this crass ideologue is still awarded a platform to lie to the public. Especially given last week’s NYRoB article on the mass murders of Lewontin’s guru and schoolgirl crush, Mao Zedong.

    • Jason Malloy says:

      Last week’s article. The Maoist institutionalization of lies under the rubric of “anti-Rightism” parallels Lewontin’s 1973 “Resolution Against Racism” urging Universities to purge behavioral geneticists and journals to blacklist them.

  11. Jason Malloy says:

    Lewontin’s insights about ribosomes represent the greater usefulness of Marxist Biology over the traditional reactionary forms..

    • Toddy cat says:

      Your attitude has been noted, Comrade. How dare you make snarky remarks about our greatest biologist, Comrade Lysenko, er Lewontin…

      • Nanonymous says:

        In late 1960s – early 1970s, Lewontin’s electrophoretic izozyme analysis was pretty impressive and powerful. At least it is credited to him.

  12. Toddy Cat says:

    “In late 1960s – early 1970s, Lewontin’s electrophoretic izozyme analysis was pretty impressive and powerful. At least it is credited to him”

    Yeah, I have no doubt that he did some good work in his time, but that was a long time ago, and Lewontin was always unreliable on anything that threatened his beloved Marxism, just like Stephen Jay Gould, and it would seem that he has not improved with age. If Lewontin wants to misrepresent the science, it’s time he passed the torch to a new generation of liars. Lord knows that they’re out there.

  13. rob says:

    Even if sperm cells do contain ribosomes, and they might not cuz they’re pretty stripped-down for movement, they wouldn’t have many compared to eggs. Higher eukaryotes don’t code for any RNA replicases that we know of. If the single-cell embryo is going to make new ribosomes it has to transcribe the rRNA from DNA, that will ridiculously attenuate any maternal effect.

    ‘Course if Lewontin doesn’t know a ribosome from a mitochondrion from his ass, that would explain quite a lot.

  14. Insightful says:

    I was going to say something harsh about Richard Lewontin until I looked at his biography on wikipedia. This man is 83 years old. I would feel uncomfortable picking on an elderly man who is not as elastic physically and mentally as he once was. I’d bet he doesn’t even use the Internet much..

    • drphysics says:

      I took a class from him at Chicago as an undergraduate. He wasn’t any more ‘elastic’ back then either. On the contrary, he was as rigidly ideological as ever.

  15. Pingback: Lewontin against the age | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine

  16. Pingback: Richard Lewontin against the age | Gene Expression | My Blog

  17. Parallel Lives says:

    Science is: What? How?
    Lewontin is: Who? Whom?

    Suppose there are parallel universes and it one day becomes possible to observe them and see how history takes different turns. It will be interesting to see how many deaths parallel Goulds, Roses, Lewontins, Diamonds et al are responsible for, in universes in which their thirst for equality, freedom and justice gets rather more chance for expression than it has in our own. Or has so far.

  18. MikeP says:


  19. In looking for citations against the Lewontin article I found — Finely Orchestrated Movements: Evolution of the Ribosomal RNA Genes, Thomas H. Eickbush 1 and Danna G. Eickbush, in Genetics 2007 .. the url I am interspersing here with spaces, as I recall some blogs prefer not to have links in comments as it eats up bandwidth.. http:// www. genetics. org/content/175/2/477.full (I’ve only skimmed it so far.) I recall in longevity research (SENS?) something about some organisms have mitochondrial DNA that have migrated to the chromosomes whereas others have not. Suspect this might be part of Lewontin’s confusion.

  20. Searching on cytoplasmic inheritance and ribosomes,
    “Mammalian mtDNA codes for 13 enzymes used in the mitochondrial energy-generating pathway, oxidative phosphorylation, 22 tRNAs and two rRNAs.” 1993.
    http:// www. ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/pubmed/8145213 (Perhaps this is that to which Lewontin refers?) (By the way, I am certainly no fan of Lewontin, .. which is putting it very mildly, but I generally find that understanding the arguments of those you disagree with is usually the best path to overcoming them.)

  21. teageegeepea says:

    Wikipedia has a claim (noted to be missing a citation) that “Turner syndrome accounts for about 10 percent of the total number of spontaneous abortions in the United States.” Does that sound right? I remember Greg mentioning the strangely high number of spontaneous abortions in humans relative to other species at GNXP, but haven’t been able to find that particular post again.

  22. Don says:

    Geeze. The first thing that came to mind as I carried The NYRB back to the house was the desire to see the West Hunter boys in a back and forth with L in the letters in coming editions. Will I be disappointed?

  23. Anonimous says:

    The New York Review of Books is presented in full text on
    Supposedly, including letters to Editor.

  24. Jason Malloy says:

    Good news! Lewontin’s “senior moment” has been airbrushed out like Nikolai Yezhov.

    “The version of this article published in the Review ’s December 6 issue contained several errors in my references to the use of RNA found in ribosomes and mitochondria to trace female ancestral lines. The standard method at present is to use so-called mitochondrial DNA, as the mitochondria are essentially excluded from the mature sperm and are thus inherited only through the female line. The text above has been revised to reflect this”

    • Nanonymous says:

      God, even in in the face of the most obvious screw up, the guy doesn’t have the guts to own it in full. “In my references to the use of RNA found in ribosomes and mitochondria to trace female ancestral lines”. Is this hoping that a casual reader won’t notice that the word mitochondria hasn’t been even used in the original? A lie to cover up a mistake?

      A minor, but still inexcusable error persists. The amended fragment reads:
      “The other exception to random inheritance is not in the chromosomes, but in the DNA of cellular organelles called mitochondria. Although the cells of both sexes generally contain mitochondria, these organelles are excluded from the bodies of mature sperm and so are never passed into the fertilized egg, which has its own maternally derived mitochondria. Our mitochondria, then, provide us, both male and female, with a record of our maternal ancestry, uncontaminated by their male partners.

      Richard, please do keep up! In humans, male mitochondria are excluded from zygote, not from “the bodies of mature sperm”.

  25. Pingback: Arguing with Corn | West Hunter

  26. George says:

    Nice sleuthing! I’m sure the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences would be embarrassed to hear they awarded the prestigious Crafoord Prize to such a bad scientist. While you’re at it, you should contact the National Academy of Sciences and let them know that they elected such a charlatan as a member! Thank god there are pop-sci writers/part-time bloggers (you go girls!) at the ready to catch the mistakes of the world’s leading scientific committees!

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