Theodosius Dobzhansky

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Theodosius Dobzhansky
Theodosius Dobzhansky.jpg
c. 1966
Born Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky
(1900-01-25)January 25, 1900
Russian Empire
Died December 18, 1975(1975-12-18) (aged 75)
San Jacinto, California,
United States
Alma mater Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv
Known for Bateson–Dobzhansky–Muller model
Spouse(s) Natalia Sivertzeva (m. 1924, d. 1969)
Scientific career
Fields Evolutionary biology, genetics
Institutions Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (1921-1924)[2]
University of Leningrad (1924-1927)[2]
Columbia University (1927-1928, 1940-1962)[2]
California Institute of Technology (1928-1940)[2]
Rockefeller University (1962-1970)[2]
University of California (1971-1975)[2]
Doctoral advisor Yuri Filipchenko

Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky ForMemRS[1] (Ukrainian: Теодо́сій Григо́рович Добжа́нський; Russian: Феодо́сий Григо́рьевич Добржа́нский; January 25, 1900 – December 18, 1975) was a prominent Russian-American geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology for his work in shaping the modern synthesis.[3] Dobzhansky was born in Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, and became an immigrant to the United States in 1927, aged 27 years old.[4]

His 1937 work Genetics and the Origin of Species became a major influence on the synthesis and was awarded the US National Medal of Science in 1964,[5] and the Franklin Medal in 1973.


Early life[edit]

Dobzhansky was born on January 25, 1900 [6] in Nemyriv, Russian Empire, currently Ukraine, an only child. His father, Grigory Dobzhansky, was a mathematics teacher, and his mother was Sophia Voinarsky.[7] In 1910 the family moved to Kiev, Russian Empire. At high school, Dobzhansky collected butterflies and decided to become a biologist.[8] 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. 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 USA, Dobzhansky published 35 scientific works on entomology, genetics and zootechnique.


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. Arriving in New York City on December 27, he worked with Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University, who had pioneered the use of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) in genetics experiments. 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.[9]

In 1937, he published one of the major works of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the synthesis of evolutionary biology with genetics, entitled 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.[10] 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),[11] and was recognised 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.[1] In 1970, he published Genetics of the evolutionary process.[12]

Debate on race[edit]

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".[13]

Dobzhansky had serious confidence 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).[14]

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".[3] 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."[3] Both of these are believed to have come from "biological evolution and cultural evolution".[3]

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 did not decide whether or not he would be a great man but rather that man "has the rare opportunity 'to direct his evolution'".[15]

Final illness and the "Light of Evolution"[edit]

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. He died (of heart failure) on December 18. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Californian wilderness.

Religious beliefs[edit]

Ernst Mayr stated: "On the other hand, famous evolutionists such as Dobzhansky were firm believers in a personal God."[16] Dobzhansky himself spoke of God as creating through evolution, and considered himself a communicant of the Eastern Orthodox Church.[17]


During his career, Dobzhansky published widely in books and peer reviewed scientific journals:


  • Sinnott, E.W., Dunn, L.C and Dobzhansky, Th. 1925. Principles of Genetics. McGraw-Hill. (5 editions: 1925, 1932, 1939, 1950, 1958; Dobzhansky co-editor only on 1950 & 1958 editions).
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1937. Genetics and the Origin of Species. Columbia University Press, New York. (2nd ed., 1941; 3rd ed., 1951)
  • The Biological Basis of Human Freedom (1954).
  • Dunn, L. C., & Dobzhansky, Th. 1946. Heredity, Race, and Society. The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1955. Evolution, Genetics, & Man. Wiley & Sons, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1962. Mankind Evolving. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1967. The Biology of Ultimate Concern. New American Library, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1970. Genetics of the Evolutionary Process. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1973. Genetic Diversity and Human Equality. Basic Books, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th., F.J. Ayala, G.L. Stebbins & J.W. Valentine. 1977. Evolution. W.H. Freeman, San Francisco.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1981. Dobzhansky's Genetics of Natural Populations I-XLIII. R.C. Lewontin, J.A. Moore, W.B. Provine & B. Wallace, eds. Columbia University Press, New York. (reprints the 43 papers in this series, all but two of which were authored or co-authored by Dobzhansky)
  • Dobzhansky, Th., & Boesiger, E. 1983. Human Culture, A Moment in Evolution. Columbia University Press, New York.



  • Dobzhansky, Th. Wrote a recension of "The origin of races" by the anthropologist Carleton S. Coon.[citation needed] Dobzhansky rejected Coon's theory of independent origin of identical mutations, but he did agree that selection favored a sapiens-like genotype in all proto-human populations, and expressed the theory that all sapiens-alleles existed at a low frequency in all erectus-populations, and that the statistical composition of the gene pool shifted from erectus to sapiens in multiple populations independently.


  1. ^ a b c Ford, E. B. (1977). "Theodosius Grigorievich Dobzhansky. 25 January 1900 -- 18 December 1975". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society . 23: 58–89. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1977.0004. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Theodosius Dobzhansky 1900-1975" (PDF). Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d Ayala, Francisco J. (1985). "Theodosius Dobzhansky". Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences. 55: 163–213. 
  4. ^ Adams, M. (ed) (1994). The Evolution of Theodosius Dobzhansky : essays on his life and thought in Russia and America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03479-6. 
  5. ^ National Science Foundation - The President's National Medal of Science
  6. ^ Theodosius Dobzhansky. [Internet]. 2015. The website. Available from: [Accessed 10 Mar 2015].
  7. ^ Ford, p 59.
  8. ^ Ayala, p163.
  9. ^ Acquiring genomes: a theory of the origins of species By Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Basic Books (2003) p. 94, ISBN 0-465-04392-5
  10. ^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 16 February 2011. 
  11. ^ Historical table of BGA Meetingsl
  12. ^ Genetics of the evolutionary process By Theodosius Dobzhansky, Columbia University Press (1970), ISBN 0-231-08306-8
  13. ^ Farber, Paul Lawrence (2015). ""Dobzhansky and Montagu's Debate on Race: The Aftermath"". Journal of the History of Biology: 1–15 – via JSTOR. 
  14. ^ Farber, Paul Lawrence (2011). Mixing Races: From Scientific Racism to Modern Evolutionary Ideas. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 60–68. ISBN 9780801898136. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ Shermer, M.; Sulloway, F.J. (2000). "The grand old man of evolution". Skeptic. 8 (1): 76–82. 
  17. ^ Collins, Francis S (2006). The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-8639-1. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
George B. Kistiakowsky
Recipient of the Elliott Cresson Medal
Succeeded by
Nikolai Nikolaevich Bogoliubov