Theodosius Dobzhansky and the Origin of Species

March 14, 2011 • 10:05 am

by Greg Mayer

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) was a Russian-American geneticist who was perhaps the most important evolutionary biologist of the 20th century. Because he was Dick Lewontin’s thesis advisor, he’s Jerry’s academic grandfather. I’ve just put together a little exhibit in his honor in the Library of the University of Wiscosnsin-Parkside.

Dobzhansky exhibit at University of Wisconsin-Parkside library, March 2011.

Dobzhansky’s seminal 1937 book, Genetics and the Origin of Species, was a crucial contribution and inspiration to the “Modern Synthesis”, which demonstrated that evolutionary patterns and processes in natural populations are consistent with Darwinian natural selection, the hereditary mechanisms revealed by laboratory work in genetics, and the mathematical theories of population genetics. It was 75 years ago, in 1936, that Dobzhansky, at the time a professor at Cal Tech, delivered the series of lectures at Columbia University that were the basis for the book. It was through this book, much more so than the previous but more theoretical works of R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and S. Wright, that the biological community as a whole became aware of the developments in evolutionary biology, and it inspired an outpouring of work carried on in the same synthetic spirit, by workers such as Ernst Mayr, G.G. Simpson, and G.L. Stebbins.

The exhibit consists of books, papers, and objects by, about, or relating to Dobzhansky, including items from Dick Lewontin and Jerry.

The exhibit also includes examples of the organisms Dobzhansky spent most of his life studying: fruit flies of the genus Drosophila, and beetles of the family Coccinellidae (the latter often called ladybugs or ladybird beetles). The exhibit will be open during regular library hours till the end of the month. If you’re in the area, stop by.

Coccinellid beetles.
Live colony of Drosophila virilis.

21 thoughts on “Theodosius Dobzhansky and the Origin of Species

    1. No, I haven’t– it looks interesting. Having a foot firmly in each of the two camps– population genetics and systematics– I’ve always thought this an especially unnecessary feud. A lot of it has to do with Mayr’s insistence that Dobzhansky began the Modern Synthesis (with Mayr following close on his heels), with the population geneticists (Fisher, Haldane, Wright) being precursors of the Modern Synthesis, and not its founders. I think Mayr is largely wrong on this. I used to think he was completely wrong, but I can now see that the great impact of Dobzhansky’s book allows one to see the Synthesis proceeding in stages, with the two most important being the works of Fisher, Haldane and Wright in 1930-32 (Haldane’s book, The Causes of Evolution, was quite broad in its approach), and then the flurry of books from Dobzhansky to Stebbins (including Mayr) published 1937-1950. It is important to note that Dobzhansky was influenced very directly by Wright, initially through Wright’s 1932 paper at the 6th International Congress of Genetics, which summarized his earlier monograph published in Genetics. Mayr was never directly influenced by the population geneticists so much (he got his theoretical population genetics filtered through Dobzhansky), and in consequence he doesn’t give them much credit. The first stage of the Synthesis (Fisher, Haldane Wright) synthesized Mendelian inheritance and Darwinian selection of intraspecific variation; the second stage (Dobzhansky, Mayr, Simpson, Stebbins) generalized this to the data of systematics, paleontology, and empirical population genetics.

      For a review of the contributions of the second stage, see anything written by Mayr (especially The Growth of Biological Thought and The Evolutionary Synthesis [both Harvard U. Press]); for the contributions of the first stage, see Will Provine’s The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics (U. Chi. Press).


    2. I have the Mayr-Haldane book. I’m a Haldane junkie of sorts. The book is well written but you really have to be into the history of evolutionary biology to enjoy it. It deals with the correspondence between Mayr and Haldane (all the letters are contained as figures) pertaining to one small episode in recent evolutionary history: Mayr’s (and Waddington’s) attack on Fisher/Haldane/Wright as “beanbag” geneticists. The book is fairly even-handed, though both factually and subjectively (since the book was written by one of Haldane’s students) Haldane comes out looking better than Mayr. Mayr was good at developing trenchant criticism of the models built by Haldane et al., but as the book shows, many of his criticisms were a bit off the mark and, overall, Mayr never seemed to grasp the essence of model-building, which is to simplify. Haldane, through many letters, and his classic 1964 “defense of beanbag genetics” paper provides the counter criticisms. Their correspondence was very civil and interesting to read, despite their theoretical differences.

      1. Thanks for this brief overview of the book. I’m a Haldane fan myself, and have often said that, of all the founders of the Modern Synthesis, he’s the one you’d most want to have your back in a barroom brawl. Plus, to have a drink with afterwards. I described him in an earlier post here at WEIT as the original most interesting man in the world.

  1. “I’ve just put together a little exhibit in his honor”

    I’d say this is impressive in itself. It’s a pity most of us won’t be able to visit it.

  2. A Dobzhansky anecdote: he visited Dave Suzuki’s lab when I was there on a short sabbatical and wanted a culture of one of their fly stocks. The graduate student who handed him the vial suggested that, even though taking Drosophila into the US was not illegal, he could avoid some hassle at customs if he just kept them out of sight and didn’t say anything. Dobzhansky looked him up and down and said “You think maybe I have never smuggled any flies?”

      1. Well, it’s been 40 years and senility may be a factor but it seems to me that, around the lab, we called him Dave. If I am mistaken and this has caused profound confusion, you have my sincere apology.

  3. Here’s another Dobzhansky anecdote (well, a Dobzhansky-and-me anecdote):

    In 1972 I was accepted as a grad student at Rockefeller University in New York, where Dobzhansky was on the faculty. The first time I met him, after a chat he took me into the lab where a huge picture of Charles Darwin hung on the wall.

    Doby (his nickname) put his arm around my shoulders, pointed at the picture and said, in his high, nasal voice with a thick Russian accent:

    “There’s the old boy who started it all!”

    It flashed through my mind at that moment that Doby was Darwin’s almost-immediate successor, and that this three-man interaction was placing a huge burden on my shoulders.


    Anyway, I got drafted as a conscientious objector, worked in a hospital for 13 months, and when I was released Doby had already left Rockefeller for Davis. Given his age, I decided to apply to work with Lewontin.

  4. I love those two anecdotes! He had a sense of humour then… I am really getting interested by all this biology history. At the weekend I was lucky to find a slightly tatty 4 volume edition of Cuvier & Latreille’s Animal Kingdom from about 1832 for only £20. Beautiful.

  5. If you want more ladybugs, give me a shout…they’ll be migrating through my house any day now. (I get masses of them on the ceiling when the weather breaks, as it has in my part of the world — the next day, they’ve moved on).

  6. As an undergrad at Berkeley in 1975, I was going to try and make it to Davis and meet Dobzhansky, but alas, I found out he had passed away. “Genetics and the Origin of Species” remains one of my favorite books on evolution.

  7. Coccinellid beetles.

    Per Dr. Natalia Vandenberg, an authority on the group, the species in your photo is Harmonia axyridis. The species was introduced to the USA from the Far East and has become a nuisance here.

    1. And they are a nuisance– my colleague Scott Thomson swept these up from inside his house.


  8. I’m reading Pinker’s The Blank Slate in the moment and he has a rather unfavorable view on Lewontin’s (, Gould’s and others’) ethics when “reviewing” the works of E O Wilson and Dawkins.

    If Pinker’s account is to be trusted, I wanna ask if Lewontin has since expressed any regret for his actions? And, for Jerry, does this affair alter your opinion on Lewontin as a scientist?

  9. When I graduated high school, in 1972, my biology teacher provided me, as a gift, Dobzhansky’s Genetics of the Evolutionary Process. At the time, I had no ability to read it. Later, pursuing a career as a biologist, I marveled at his prescience.

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