Saturday, January 25, 2020

Dobzhansky, Darwin and religion

Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian-American scientist who did much in the 20th century to marry Darwin’s biological theories with the new science of genetics, was born 110 years ago today. His papers, held by the American Philosophical Library, include over 50 notebooks and diaries, but there is very little information about their content in the public domain - except that found in a biographical essay linking Dobzhansky’s religious outlook to his scientific understanding.

Dobzhansky was born on 25 January 1900 in Nemyriv, then in the Russian Empire now in Ukraine. His father was a mathematics teacher. In 1910, the family moved to Kiev, where Dobzhansky attended secondary school and decided to become a biologist. In 1915, he met Victor Luchnik, an older college drop-out who was obsessed with beetles. Dobzhansky studied at the Kiev state university from 1917 to 1921, specialising in entomology, and stayed on teaching until 1924. Also in 1924, he married Natalia Sivertzeva; they had one daughter. He then moved to Leningrad (now St Petersburg), to study under Yuri Filipchenko, where a Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) lab had been established.

In 1927, Dobzhansky went to work at Columbia University in New York City as a Rockefeller Fellow, continuing his work on fruit flies with the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan. Subsequently, he accompanied Morgan to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and, on being offered a teaching position there, decided to remain in the US, becoming a citizen in 1937. That same year, he published the groundbreaking Genetics and the Origin of Species, which helped establish evolutionary genetics as an independent discipline. He returned to Columbia as a professor of zoology in 1940, and remained there until 1962, when he moved to Rockefeller Institute (later Rockefeller University). After his official retirement, he went, in 1971, to the University of California at Davis. Following a long battle with leukaemia, he died in late 1975.

The Understanding Evolution website has this assessment: ‘Dobzhansky’s ability to combine genetics and natural history attracted many other biologists to join him in the effort to find a unified explanation of how evolution happens. Their combined work, known as The Modern Synthesis, brought together genetics, paleontology, systematics, and many other sciences into one powerful explanation of evolution, showing how mutations and natural selection could produce large-scale evolutionary change.’ Further information can also be found online at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Genetics.

Dobzhansky left behind 54 notebooks and diaries. These are held by the American Philosophical Library which provides this information: ‘The fifty-four notebooks and diaries give a virtually uninterrupted first-hand commentary on Dobzhansky’s life and career, save for the period 1936-1941. Although the earliest dates are 1934, the first entries (sketches and data on coccinellid beetles) may have been made as early as 1917. With few exceptions, the entries are all in Russian, although two long stretches written in English occur during the late 1940s and early 1950s (presumably the years during which he felt most alienated from Russia) and from 1971 until his death. In an entry from this period, he commented that he was again writing in English so that his last thoughts would be accessible to friends and relatives unable to read Russian.’

Although none of Dobzhansky’s diaries have been published (as far as I can tell), they have been used as source material for biographical works, in particular by Jitse van der Meer in his essay on Dobzhansky for Eminent Lives in Twentieth-century Science & Religion (edited by Nicolaas A. Rupke, published by Peter Lang in 2009). Some pages can be previewed online at Googlebooks. The following paragraphs, quoted directly from the essay, are based almost entirely on information gleaned from Dobhansky’s diaries, and are referenced by van der Meer with over a dozen citations (not included here) from those diaries (held by American Philosophical Library).

‘. . . This is why he was concerned about moral and religious education. In 1969, following a conversation with his grandson Nicolai he wrote about the younger generation: “But the trouble is that they do not have moral and religious schooling, and that they grow up to be egotists and self-centred and free thinkers”.

Religious faith had existential meaning for Dobzhansky. During the height of WW II he tried to encourage his despondent colleague and friend Leslie Dunn (1893-1974), but failed. He then observed that Dunn needed religion, but that he did not have it. Dobzhansky deliberately initiated discussions about Dostoevsky, specifically of The Grand Inquisitor, to bring others such as his colleagues and friends Carl Epling (1894-1968) and Alfred Ezra Mirsky (1900-74) closer to God. He tried to be Christian and prayed almost every morning. Many notes in his diary, especially from the last years of his life, started and ended with expressions glorifying God. For instance, the entry for March 1, 1971 has the traditional ending, “but first of all God, glory to you.” He prays for strength in the face of illness, pain and death and thanks God for the grace of his blessings.

One of the most important characteristics of Russian Orthodoxy is the religious unity of believers in the practical and spiritual sense expressed in the idea of sobornost. This formed the context for Dobzhansky’s concerns about the Church. For instance, he appears hopeful about the apparently unusual presence of young people at a Russian church service. He deplores the absence of religion and the commercialization of churches in Japan and is bitterly disappointed about the rejection of his religious vision of evolutionary progress by both atheists and the Christian Church. These concerns are consistent with his own church attendance.

A further characteristic of Russian Orthodoxy is that the architecture of their church buildings reflects the universe. Dobzhansky expresses sensitivity to the spiritual symbolism of architecture after visiting the palace of Louis XIV in Versailles. Comparing it with the cathedral in Chartres he wonders how a Christian monarch could build a palace that he considers a piece of anti-Christian propaganda.’

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