Hope and the Ultimate Synthesis
In two previous posts, I covered the scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s scientific and political views. The third area I would like to focus on is religion, where we are on less stable ground. Dobzhansky’s views on religion were idiosyncratic and highly personal, and the extent to which he held to specific Orthodox doctrines is unclear. Although he was open about his sympathy for religion and his interest in philosophical issues, he kept much to himself, praying in a language his colleagues could not understand.
This has made his beliefs hard to parse. In “The Grand Old Man of Evolution,” Ernst Mayr remarked that Dobzhansky believed in a personal God, whereas Francisco Ayala (present with Dobzhansky when he died) maintained in his memoir that Dobzhansky did not. For his own part, Dobzhansky at times softened traditional dogmas, but he also wrote in Ultimate Concern that it was “no use” to pray to a “deistic clockmaker God.” Dobzhansky prayed often. So, how does one sort all this out?
Belief is only one part of religious life. While Dobzhansky’s beliefs were sometimes inscrutable, his practice was more overt. In an excellent essay on Dobzhansky included in Eminent Lives in Twentieth Century Science and Religion, Jitse M. Van der Meer chronicles the way Dobzhansky was influenced by Solovyov but also includes a deep dive into his diaries and journals to show that religion was a preoccupation throughout his life, not just as he approached death (as was sometimes thought). Dobzhansky did go to confession, although he did not appear to regard sin as significant as his colleagues would have expected (influenced as they were, even if they rejected it, by a more Protestant emphasis on depravity). As a consequence, he did not believe sin made it impossible to do good, maintaining his defense of human agency and freedom in the face of determinism (either scientific or theological).
In fact, as Van der Meer shows, Dobzhansky’s diary entries were saturated with religion. He often began and ended with glorifications of God. He was bothered by the lack of religious education in America, writing that “the trouble is that they do not have moral and religious schooling, and that they grow up to be egoists and self-centered and freethinkers.” He was disappointed with American Easter, penning a 1927 entry in his diary that could contend for the most Orthodox sentence ever constructed: “Easter is not interesting here; they buy special lilies or in general flowers and that is all. There is not even gourmet food, perhaps only two chocolate eggs. It has no meaning.” Michael Ruse, likewise, contends in The Evolution of Theodosius Dobzhansky that Dobzhansky’s faith in God and hope for salvation was “nigh overwhelming.”
Hope was at the center of Dobzhansky’s religious worldview, and both Christianity and evolution offered it to him. Because evolution by natural selection allowed for a developmental process in history, and therefore made room for human freedom, it offered hope. As Dobzhansky states in Mankind Evolving, the idea that humanity is not evolved but is, rather, evolving (much as, in Orthodox thought, humanity is not “once saved, always saved,” but is, rather, always being saved), means humanity “is not the center of the universe physically, but…may be the spiritual center.” A developmental view of salvation and history could thus be merged between Christianity and science. “If there is no evolution, then all is futility,” he writes in Genetic Diversity; “If the world evolves, then hope is possible.” A fluid world is a redeemable world, one that may be on the way to deification.
But Dobzhansky needed more. He desired a synthesis, and this explains his turn to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for whose work Dobzhansky evinced genuine enthusiasm, even as most scientists followed Peter Medawar’s scathing review and dismissed Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man out of hand (Medawar termed it “anti-scientific,” “unintelligible,” and reading it occasioned “real distress, even…despair”).
Nevertheless, Dobzhansky was a devoted proponent, to the point that he became president of the Teilhard Association in 1969. Teilhard offered Dobzhansky the framework of a synthesis. In Mankind Evolving, Dobzhansky writes that humanity needed a faith, a hope—“nothing less than a religious synthesis . . . grounded in one of the world’s great religions, or in all of them together.” He was attracted to Teilhard’s developmental and progressive view of history, praising him in Genetic Diversity as “the evolutionist who had the courage to predict future transcendences, mankind moving toward what he called the megasynthesis and toward Point Omega, this last being a symbol for God.” In Mankind Evolving, Dobzhansky maintained that Christianity was “basically evolutionistic,” and necessitated a progressive, linear history rather than a cyclical one (“Creation, through Redemption, to the City of God”). The mythology of an eternal return is a cry for stability, but Christianity’s affirmation of time and history meant it could harmonize with evolution. Both Christianity and evolution showed that creation “is an ongoing process, not an event of a distant past.” Teilhard showed a possible way this synthetic evolution might happen, and Dobzhansky tried to rescue him on orthogenesis, arguing that Teilhard did not really believe in that form of evolution, as his critics maintained.
Naturally, traditionalist critics have not taken too kindly to Dobzhansky’s views. Seraphim Rose, in his posthumous Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, attacked Dobzhansky not only for his beliefs but also his practice. He condemned him for not often going to church, and for cremating his wife’s body and scattering her ashes in the Sierras. Rose noted with alarm that Dobzhansky gave the commencement at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1972, and that the seminary had conferred upon him an honorary doctorate. Rose stated Dobzhansky’s beliefs were “the usually liberal Christian ideas that Genesis is symbolical” and that humanity could “cooperate with the enterprise of creation.”
Dobzhansky never corresponded with Rose, but he likely would have replied, as he stated in The Biology of Ultimate Concern, that the “Fathers of the Church did not always hold views which would at present be described as fundamentalist.” And perhaps he would have noted that Rose’s scientific views were as modern as his were, as Rose’s were derived almost entirely from the work of Henry Morris and the Protestant fundamentalist world of the Institute for Creation Research.
“I am a creationist and an evolutionist,” wrote Dobzhansky in what is arguably his most synthetic statement. It is included in his classic essay whose title mirrors its thesis: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” Throughout his life and work, Dobzhansky was the great synthesizer, one who sought to merge the disparate strands of his interests and life to combine natural selection and genetics, democracy with genetics and ethics, and religion with science. Whether or not he was successful is beyond the scope of this analysis, but his work is nevertheless to be admired for its earnestness and ambition. And it must be recalled that the man whom Stephen Jay Gould called “the greatest evolutionist of our century” was an Orthodox Christian, albeit of a rather peculiar style.
In all these realms, it was synthesis that was Dobzhansky’s greatest legacy. He worried in Mankind Evolving, along with Albert Schweitzer, that “our age has discovered how to divorce knowledge from thought,” and he hoped to find ways to mend the breach, stating “attempts to synthesize knowledge are indispensable.” To fight against the balkanization of education, against the splitting of philosophy and science, and the hermetic sealing of spirituality from biology, Dobzhansky hoped to find the middle ways. The clearest summation of these attempts came a mere two years before his death, when Dobzhansky wished to remind everyone, in “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” that “Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s, method of Creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.”
Christopher Howell holds a PhD from Duke University in Religion.