Between Darwin and Dostoevsky

by Christopher Howell | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Theodosius Dobzhansky

When he was young and Russia was in the throes of revolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) felt the “urgency of finding a meaning of life…in the bloody tumult.” But he was stuck between two poles that drew him equally: religion and science. He loved Darwin and he loved Dostoevsky. “The intellectual stimulation derived from the works of Darwin and other evolutionists was pitted against that arising from reading Dostoevsky,” he wrote towards the end of his life (Dobzhansky, The Biology of Ultimate Concern, 1967, 1). Resolving this tension became one of the driving forces of his career. In the coming decades, after he fled to America and became a “nonperson” in the USSR, Dobzhansky would emerge as one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, and his work would be characterized not by conflict but by the search for syntheses. There are three that stand out as lessons to be remembered: synthesis of natural selection and genetics, of democracy and politics, and of religion and science. In this post, I want to first look at the way Dobzhansky’s Eastern Orthodox background informed his science and contributed to the history of evolutionary biology.

Theodosius Dobzhansky’s unusual name was consequence of his mother’s prayers. As recounted by Dobzhansky’s daughter Sophia, “My father’s parents were childless for quite a while after their marriage and tried to remedy their condition by prayer and pilgrimage” (S.D. Coe, “Theodosius Dobzhansky: A Family Story,” Adams 1994, 13) Their prayerful journey took the Ukrainian couple to the shrine of St. Theodosius of Chernigov, and when they soon found themselves with child, they christened him with the saint’s name. Dobzhansky was thus enmeshed in Orthodox religious culture from his birth and before. He was descended from a long line of priests on his mother’s side (something he always felt important), and his affinity for Dostoevsky was as much genetic as aesthetic, for he numbered the great novelist among his maternal ancestors as well.

In America, his home from 1927 onward, Dobzhansky’s eccentricity made him memorable. Colleagues marveled at his facility with languages (writing in fluent English despite only learning it as an adult) and were amused by his “extraordinary accent…high and staccato” (E.B. Ford, Biographical Memoirs, 60). A scientist who joined him on one of his last field trips described him as “passionate and ready to take offence, but with a deep interest in the arts” and compared him to Vladimir Nabokov’s unforgettable Timofey Pnin (a fitting comparison—Nabokov followed Dobzhansky’s scientific work with interest and the two corresponded in 1954). In true Pninian fashion, Dobzhansky endured a “series of tragi-comic rows with colleagues and officials that end[ed] up with his exile from New York and a forced move to the far west.” It was in California, however, that Dobzhansky found a home and contributed his greatest scientific achievements—in between his favorite outdoorsy hobbies of mountain climbing in the Sierras and horseback riding in Pasadena.

After shattering his knee in a horseback riding accident, Dobzhansky was bedridden and—in his own retelling—used the time to produce his most significant work: Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937). This book proved pivotal in paving the way for “the modern synthesis” of evolution, but its significance is lost now in the eighty-plus years hence, when Darwinism went from being moribund to triumphant (in no small part due to Dobzhansky). In the early twentieth century, evolutionary biology was in crisis, as the new science of genetics seemed to many observers to be incompatible with evolution by natural selection—Darwin’s main contribution. Darwin did not know by what mechanism heredity was transmitted, and he died before Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments were rediscovered in 1900. William Bateson, who coined the word “gene” and took Gregor Mendel’s ideas public, expressed public doubt about the harmony between genetics and natural selection, and the famed geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan likewise harbored skepticism about natural selection, though he softened on this a bit while Dobzhansky was a postdoc at his Columbia University lab. This period has come to be known as the “eclipse of Darwinism,” in Julian Huxley’s phrase, when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was diminishing and rival neo-Lamarckian theories such as orthogenesis were preferred by many scientists.

Darwin was down but not out. The population geneticists J.B.S. Haldane, R.A. Fisher, and Sewall Wright would construct the mathematical theory of population genetics, and Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species (along with the work of Ernst Mayr and G. Ledyard Stebbins) would help build the edifice for the modern synthesis: the long-awaited marriage of natural selection and genetics. As Julian Huxley wrote in The Modern Synthesis, “The death of Darwinism has been proclaimed not only from the pulpit, but from the biological laboratory; but, as in the case of Mark Twain, the reports seem to have been greatly exaggerated, since to-day Darwinism is very much alive” (J. Huxley, The Modern Synthesis, 1942, 22). In all this, Dobzhansky played the role of the great synthesizer, translating the difficult mathematics of population genetics into readable language. As Peter Bowler writes, Dobzhansky “pointed the way toward a complete synthesis by presenting the mathematician’s conclusions in a form [other scientists] could understand and use” (P.J. Bowler, Evolution, 2009, 336). In harmonizing natural selection and genetics, which would have been an epochal achievement on its own, Dobzhansky concurrently helped merge the disparate scientific practices of naturalist fieldwork and experimental lab work. According to Garland Allen, in addition to genetics, “the more general fusion of the laboratory and field naturalist traditions…remains among the deepest and most lasting aspects of Dobzhansky’s legacy” (G.E. Allen “Theodosius Dobzhansky, the Morgan Lab, and the Breakdown of the Naturalist/Experimentalist Dichotomy,” Adams 1994, 87).

A historical and biographical question is, then, why was it Dobzhansky that spearheaded this synthesis? Until recently, writing on Dobzhansky and his work tended to depict him as an American, but, though he became a US citizen, to understand him—as Richard Burian argues—one needs to synthesize both the Russian and American aspects of his thought. This includes not only the Russian scientific tradition (such as Dobzhansky’s debt to Yuri Filipchenko and Sergei Chertverikov) but also the philosophical and religious traditions (R.M. Burian, “Dobzhansky on Evolutionary Dynamics: Some Questions about his Russian Background,” Adams 1994, 138). Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are important, but Vladimir Solovyov is paramount. Solovyov mediated much of Darwin’s thought into Russia (where non-Darwinist evolution was less popular than in America), and he impressed on Dobzhansky the importance of progress and development in evolutionary history, a conviction that assisted him in sorting out the tangled relationship between natural selection and genetics, and which led him to see evolution by natural selection as directional even if not “directed” (contrary to orthogenesis, which he viewed as deterministic) (J.M. Van der Meer, “Theodosius Dobzhansky,” Eminent Lives in Twentieth-Century Science and Religion, 2009, 112).

The philosopher Michael Ruse contends that, at the end of the day, it was Dobzhansky’s religious views—influenced by Solovyov and others—that informed his scientific ones, such as his faith in developmental progress and his hostility to determinism (M. Ruse, “Dobzhansky and the Problem of Progress,” Adams 1994, 239-240). Dobzhansky was vexed by the problem of evil, and he believed Darwinian evolution allowed free will, which would the rescue the Creator from responsibility for extinction. Wrote Dobzhansky, “predetermined [evolution] collides head-on with the ineluctable fact of the existence of evil…the evolution of the universe must be conceived as having been in some sense a struggle for a gradual emergence of freedom.” Darwin’s theory meant that “the history of the living world has not been wasted” (Dobzhansky, Ultimate Concern, 25, 120). As Bowler speculates, Dobzhansky’s fervor in defending a high anthropology and free will likely stemmed from his Orthodox roots (Bowler 345).

But they were more than just roots; Dobzhansky’s religious views were eccentric but real. As Jitse M. Van der Meer chronicles, he tried to pray every morning and used Dostoevsky to bring his colleagues closer to God (Van der Meer 111). Costas Krimbas recalls that Dobzhansky insisted on making a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos in order to take communion but was evasive about why; he said it reminded him of his childhood, but Krimbas surmised this was not the real reason (C.B. Krimbas “The Evolutionary Worldview of Theodosius Dobzhansky,” Adams 1994, 188). Lost in all this, then, is a significant fact: that one of the founders of modern evolutionary biology called himself an Orthodox Christian. Neither did his religious beliefs stay restricted to his science; rather, they would drive other attempts at syntheses—attempts to preserve democracy and to search for common ground between religion and science.

Christopher Howell holds a PhD from Duke University in Religion.