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 the aftermath of erecting a metal cross to replace the flag of Europe in front of Georgia’s Parliament on July 5, my intention was to write only on the ambivalence of this cross, but things took a horrifying turn.
World media and social platforms gave an ample coverage to the events that unfolded around the days of Gay Pride, especially to the developments on the last day when Pride organizers decided to avoid clashes and canceled the March of Dignity on the 5th. This decision was a result of the unprecedented aggression against journalists and media persons on the same day. They were reporting on the counter-Pride demonstration—masterminded by anti-Western, i.e. pro-Putinist Russian forces—strongly encouraged by the Orthodox Church of Georgia. A young cameraman from one of the opposition TV channels, Lexo Lashqarava, severely beaten and injured, was found dead at home on the 11th. Thus, my original intention has been overshadowed by the tragedy of the loss of a human life.
Since the eruption of hostilities in November 2020 between federal and regional forces in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern state bordering Eritrea, two major dimensions of the crisis have been at odds with each other. There is the armed conflict and its immeasurable human cost and trauma, and there is the reporting on this conflict. I have witnessed the arguments back and forth from Ethiopians outside Ethiopia, my primary lens of observation, that focus on who is at fault, whose agenda the reporting fulfills, and scrutiny over the extent and impact of the humanitarian conditions on the ground. The story about the story has taken precedence over the undeniable fact that people are suffering and dying and side-steps the heart of the issue: we are watching a country at war with itself.
As an Ethiopian-American, I felt at times mentally and emotionally paralyzed. It is a complicated story of political fragmentation, with seemingly endless competing narratives based on scattered information. I reached a personal impasse where offering coherent interpretation and analysis felt an impossibility. The recent news of a ceasefire only offers temporary relief for the innocent and vulnerable and more fodder for conflicting narratives that prevent clear heads out of this conflict.
Russia’s constitutional amendments of 2020 augur an ever-enlarging foreign policy role for the Russian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (ROC). Constitutional entrenchment of the Kremlin’s selective understanding of state sovereignty and non-interference; a state-sanctioned vision of historical truth; the muscular protection of compatriot rights abroad; and the propagation of traditional values each tap into areas where the church has steadfastly advocated Russian civilization as a global counterweight to the West’s “ultra-liberalism.” Faced with this emerging reality, policymakers should reassess the nature and substance of their interactions with church officials and take measures to scrutinize ROC activities more closely in their respective jurisdictions.