January 25, 1900
|Died||December 18, 1975 (aged 75)|
|Alma mater||Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv|
|Known for||Bateson-Dobzhansky-Muller model|
|Natalia Sivertzeva (m. 1924, d. 1969)|
|Fields||Evolutionary biology, genetics|
|Institutions||Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (1921-1924)|
University of Leningrad (1924-1927)
Columbia University (1927-1928, 1940-1962)
California Institute of Technology (1928-1940)
Rockefeller University (1962-1970)
University of California, Davis (1971-1975)
|Doctoral advisor||Yuri Filipchenko|
Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky (Ukrainian: ; Russian: ; January 25, 1900 - December 18, 1975) was a prominent Ukrainian-American geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology for his work in shaping the modern synthesis. Dobzhansky was born in Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, and became an immigrant to the United States in 1927, aged 27.
Dobzhansky was born on January 25, 1900 in Nemyriv, Russian Empire, currently Ukraine, an only child. He was given a rare name, Theodosius, because he was born after his middle-aged parents prayed for a child to St. Theodosius of Chernigov. His father, Grigory Dobzhansky, was a mathematics teacher, and his mother was Sophia Voinarsky. In 1910 the family moved to Kiev, Russian Empire. At high school, Dobzhansky collected butterflies and decided to become a biologist. In 1915, he met Victor Luchnik who convinced him to specialize in beetles instead. Dobzhansky attended the Kiev State University between 1917 and 1921, where he then studied until 1924 specializing in entomology. He then moved to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to study under Yuri Filipchenko, where a Drosophila melanogaster lab had been established.
On August 8, 1924, Dobzhansky married geneticist Natalia "Natasha" Sivertzeva who was working with I. I. Schmalhausen in Kiev, Ukraine. The Dobzhanskys had one daughter, Sophie, who later married the American archaeologist and anthropologist Michael D. Coe.
Before moving to the United States, Dobzhansky published 35 scientific works on entomology and genetics.
Dobzhansky immigrated to the United States in 1927 on a scholarship from the International Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation to work and study in the United States. Upon arriving in New York City on December 27, he joined the Drosophila Group at Columbia University working alongside Thomas Hunt Morgan and Alfred Sturtevant. Their work provided crucial information on Drosophila cytogenetics. Additionally, Dobzhansky and his team helped establish Drosophila subobscura, within the genus Drosophila, as a favorable model organism in evolutionary-biological studies ever since they published their influential works. Dobzhansky's original mindset (after studying alongside Yuri Filipchenko), was that there were serious doubts on using data obtained from phenomena happening in local populations (microevolution) and phenomena happening on a global scale (macroevolution). Filipchenko also believed that there were only two types of inheritance: Mendelian inheritance of variation within species, and Non-Mendelian inheritance of variation in a macroevolutionary sense. Dobzhansky later stated that Filipchenko "bet on the wrong horse".
He followed Morgan to the California Institute of Technology from 1930 to 1940. On the basis of his experiments, he articulated the idea that reproductive isolation can be caused by differences in presence of microbial symbionts between populations.
In 1937, he published one of the major works of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the synthesis of evolutionary biology with genetics, titled Genetics and the Origin of Species, which amongst other things, defined evolution as "a change in the frequency of an allele within a gene pool". Dobzhansky's work was instrumental in spreading the idea that it is through mutations in genes that natural selection takes place. Also in 1937, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. During this time, he had a very public falling out with one of his Drosophila collaborators, Alfred Sturtevant, based primarily in professional competition.
In 1941, Dobzhansky was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. In 1943, the University of Sao Paulo awarded him an honorary doctorate. He returned to Columbia University from 1940 to 1962. He was one of the signatories of the 1950 UNESCO statement The Race Question. He then moved to the Rockefeller Institute (shortly to become Rockefeller University) until his retirement in 1971. In 1972 he was elected the first president of the BGA (Behavior Genetics Association), and was recognized by the society for his role in behavior genetics, and the founding of the society by the creation of the Dobzhansky Award (for a lifetime of outstanding scholarship in behavior genetics).
Dobzhansky was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1965. In 1970, he published Genetics of the evolutionary process.
Dobzhansky was a renowned biologist having been the president of the Genetics Society of America in 1941, president of the American Society of Naturalists in 1950, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution in 1951, president of the American Society of Zoologists in 1963, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Eugenics Society in 1964, and president of the American Teilhard de Chardin Association in 1969.
Dobzhansky's research and studies allowed him to travel the world and receive honorary degrees in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.
Theodosius Dobzhansky had three editions of his book Genetics and the Origin of Species. Although his book was directed towards people with a background in biology, it was to be simply understood. In regards to the subjects of Genetics and Evolution, Dobzhansky's book is widely recognized as one of the most important books ever written. With each revision of Genetics and the Origin of Species, Dobzhansky added new material with respect to crucial, up to date topics, and removed material he deemed to be no longer crucial. His book sparked trends in genetic research and theory.
At the time, Dobzhansky first edition of Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937) tried to highlight the most recent discoveries in genetics and how they applied to the concept of evolution. The book starts by addressing the problem of evolution and how modern discoveries in genetics could help find a solution. The main topics covered in the book are on: the chromosomal basis of Mendelian Inheritance, how the effects from changes in chromosomes greater than gene mutations are common and acceptable, and how mutations form racial and specific differences. Dobzhansky explained how three levels could describe the processes of evolutionary population genetics: (1) the origin of raw materials by mutations of genes and chromosomes, (2) the changes in populations by changes in frequencies and combinations of mutations, (3) the fixation of changes by reproductive isolation. To support his writing and research, the bibliography was twenty-eight pages long with around six hundred sources.
In Dobzhansky's second edition of Genetics and the Origin of Species (1941), four years had gone by and he was able to add more research and advancements made in genetics. Around half of the new research he found was added to the last two chapters in his book: Patterns of Evolution, and Species as Natural Units. In the second to last chapter, Patterns of Evolution, Dobzhansky explained how on the path to a new adaptation, a method could be used to where a species could go through a less adaptive stage. The last chapter, Species as Natural Units, Dobzhansky explained some of the contributions made in genetics to what was called "the new systematics." Dobzhansky's second edition of the book also had twice as many sources in the bibliography than the first edition.
In Dobzhansky's third revision of Genetics and the Origin of Species (1951), he rewrote all ten chapters on: Isolating Mechanisms, Mutation in Populations, Organic Diversity, Heredity and Mutation, Race Formation, Selection, Adaptive Polymorphism, Hybrid Sterility, Species as Natural Units, and Patterns of Evolution. Dobzhansky decided to remove the chapter on Polyploidy in his third edition of the book. The new chapter on Adaptive Polymorphism highlighted Dobzhansky's research focus since the second edition. Dobzhansky included precise, quantitative evidence on effective natural selection in laboratory and free populations.
Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ashley Montagu debated the use and validity of the term "race" over a period of many years without reaching an agreement, and the debate has continued to the present day. Montagu argued that "race" was so laden with toxic associations that it was a word best eliminated from science completely, whereas Dobzhansky strongly disagreed. He argued that science should not give in to the misuses to which it had been subjected. The two men never reached an agreement, which led Dobzhansky to say in 1961, while commenting on Montagu's autobiography, "The chapter on 'Ethnic group and race' is, of course, deplorable, but let us say that it is good that in a democratic country any opinion, no matter how deplorable, can be published" (Farber 2015 p. 3). The concept of "race" has been important in many life science disciplines; the modern synthesis revolutionized the concept of race, moving it from a strictly morphological definition based on "racial types" in humans, to a definition focused on populations differing in gene frequencies. This was done in hopes that its foundation in population genetics would undermine the deeply ingrained social prejudices associated with "race".
Dobzhansky was confident that mixing races created no serious medical issues. Dobzhansky's experience with breeding fruit flies came into play when he made this conclusion. The only medical issue Dobzhansky found in this breeding was when certain crosses could lead to having infertile offspring. However, Dobzhansky noticed no such problems when humans from different populations reproduced. When anthropologists at the time were trying to compare the means of physical measurements of people from different races Dobzhansky argued that these means had no value because there was more variation between the individuals of each population than there was among the groups (Farber 2011 p. 63). However, Dobzhansky's work and beliefs on genetics and evolution created opposition with his views on race mixing. First, that race has to do with groups and not individuals and so in this instance it is not races that mix, it is individuals. Second, if races do not mix then they will become different species, so therefore they have to mix. All of the races that currently exist are products of past mixed races, so according to Dobzhansky there is no pure race. Third, when race had been discussed in the past it was all about comparing means of trait to which this made no sense to Dobzhansky (Farber 2011 p. 65-67).
His concern with the interface between humans and biology may have come from different factors. The main factor would be the race prejudice that contributed in Europe that triggered WWII. His concern also dealt with religion in human life which he speaks about in his book The Biology of Ultimate Concern in 1967. "The pervasiveness of genetic variation provides the biological foundation of human individuality". Dobzhansky talks about in great detail that "human nature has 2 dimensions: the biological, which mankind shares with the rest of life, and the cultural, which is exclusive to humans." Both of these are believed to have come from "biological evolution and cultural evolution".
Dobzhansky sought to put an end to the so-called science that purports one's genetic makeup determines their race and furthermore, their rank in society. Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in a New York Times article regarding his book Heredity and the Future of Man that Dobzhansky could not, alongside other scientists, agree upon what defines a race. Dobzhansky stated that a true bloodline for man could not be identified. He did not believe that a man's genetic makeup decided whether or not he would be a great man but rather that man "has the rare opportunity 'to direct his evolution'".
Dobzhansky's wife Natasha died of coronary thrombosis on February 22, 1969. Earlier (on June 1, 1968) Theodosius had been diagnosed with lymphocytic leukemia (a chronic form of leukemia), and had been given a few months to a few years to live. He retired in 1971, moving to the University of California, Davis where his student Francisco J. Ayala had been made assistant professor, and where he continued working as an emeritus professor. He published one of his most famous essays "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" at this time, influenced by the paleontologist and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
By 1975, his leukemia had become more severe, and on November 11 he traveled to San Jacinto, California for treatment and care. Working till his last day as a Professor of Genetics, Dobzhansky died (from heart failure) on December 18, 1975 in Davis, California. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Californian wilderness.
Ernst Mayr stated: "On the other hand, famous evolutionists such as Dobzhansky were firm believers in a personal God." Dobzhansky himself spoke of God as creating through evolution, and considered himself a communicant of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Although Dobzhansky came from a long line of Eastern Orthodox priests, later in life, he had his doubts on a conventional afterlife. He stated that if a Heaven did exist, it would not be a place where one could find all the answers about life in an instant. It would rather be a place where performing experiments would give rise to precise and explicit results.