Tag Archives: Theodosius Dobzhansky

The Camel and Needle
Lessons from a Russian Orthodox Scientist, Part 2

by Christopher Howell | български | ქართული | ελληνικά

Read Part 1: Between Darwin and Dostoevsky

Headshot of a camel

Freedom mattered to Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was concerned to articulate a scientific worldview in which Darwin buttressed free will, and he felt it helped answer the problem of evil (offering an early version of the “free process defense” to natural evil, similar to John Polkinghorne’s). But he was also concerned to protect political freedom, both from totalitarianism and from hereditary aristocracy. Dobzhansky’s second synthesis was, then, to merge democracy with science (and religion) in order to defend all three from their conservative critics, whether of the religious, social, or economic bent.

A hierarchical, aristocratic, class-based society was, in Dobzhansky’s view, a defense mechanism designed to allay the fears of the wealthy when confronted with Jesus’ harder sayings. “Christ’s parable of the camel passing through the eye of a needle is too explicit to be easily interpreted away,” he wrote, “To assuage their consciences, the Creator is blamed for having made some people nobles and others commoners, some wise and others improvident, some talented and others incompetent. Different people are thus born to occupy different stations in life. Such, allegedly, is God’s will, and to go against it is sin” (Mankind Evolving, 1962, 52). Don’t blame us, say the rich and the powerful, it’s God’s fault for endowing us with superior genes. Wealth, power, influence, and so on, are simply inevitable under such circumstances, and no amount of political equality would change it. Such hereditarians, observed Dobzhansky, were often political conservatives who believed “genetic conditioning of human capacities would justify the setting up of rigid class barriers and a hierarchical organization of the society” (247-248).

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Between Darwin and Dostoevsky
Lessons from a Russian Orthodox Scientist, Part 1

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.

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