Dobzhansky, Theodosius, 1900-1975

Alternative names
Birth 1900-01-25
Death 1975-12-18
English, Spanish; Castilian, Russian, French

Biographical notes:


From the description of Reminiscences of Theodosius Grigorievich Dobzhansky : oral history, 1962. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 309737375

Theodosius Dobzhansky was a geneticist and a principal spokesman for Neo-Darwinism. He wrote "Genetics and the Origin of Species" (1937) and is considered one of the most influential biologists of our time.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1917-1975. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122616113

Ashley Montagu, born Israel Ehrenberg on June 28, 1905, was a British-American anthropologist, specializing in the areas of race and gender issues, as well as a prolific speaker and author, publishing over 50 books in his lifetime. The son of Jewish tailor Charles Ehrenberg and his wife, Mary Plot Ehrenberg, Montagu was born and raised in London's working class East End neighborhood. Although the reasoning behind his name change was never revealed, it may have been due to anti-Semitic prejudice faced by many East End Jews during his childhood, and Montagu might have felt the need to distance himself from his parents’ Russian and Polish backgrounds.

Montagu earned his undergraduate degree from University College London in psychology and anthropology. After studying anthropology at the London School of Economics under Bronislaw Malinowski, Montagu left England for the United States. He arrived at New York City in 1927 and began taking graduate classes at Columbia University. Montagu then traveled to Italy in 1928, where he took classes in ethnography and anthropology at the University of Florence. Upon his return to the United States in 1931, while working as an assistant professor of anthropology at New York University, Montagu married Marjorie Peakes. The couple would have two daughters, Audrey and Barbara, as well as a son, Geoffrey. In 1934 Montagu returned to Columbia University, culminating his postgraduate work at Columbia in 1936 with his dissertation, Coming into being among the Australian Aborigines: A study of the procreative beliefs of the native tribes of Australia, produced under the direction of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Based largely on his dissertation, Montagu’s first book, Coming into Being among the Australian Aborigines, was published in 1937. After he completed his education, Montagu taught anatomy at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia in 1938 and became an American citizen in 1940. It was during his time at Hahnemann that he began to produce work relating to race, resulting in his seminal work, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, published in 1942. The work controversially advanced the argument that race was a social construct imposed upon a complex biological substratum and demolished the arguments for inherent inequality between human populations. The influential nature of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth led to Montagu’s service on the 4th United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) task force, in 1949. The ten member UNESCO committee, composed of such world-renowned social scientists as Claude Levi-Strauss and E. Franklin Frazier, was created to collect information about the problem of race and to establish educational programs to disseminate its findings. The resultant document, authored by Montagu, the group’s rapporteur, was published as the “Statement on Race” in 1951. The Committee’s final statement on race asserted: 1)All mankind belong to the same species and that the differences between groups are few compared to all of the genetic similarities. 2)That Race designates a group with high frequency of physical characteristics or particular genetic trait and that these traits fluctuate or even disappear over time. 3)The way in which people are grouped does not reflect the capacity or character traits of a particular group. The differences between races are physical and have no correlation with other traits like intelligence.

Upon leaving Hahnemann Medical College in 1949, Montagu moved to Rutgers University, where he was a professor of anthropology and head of the department from 1949 to 1955. While at Rutgers, Montagu wrote perhaps his most famous work, The Natural Superiority of Women, published in 1953. Examining the differences between the sexes anthropologically, Montagu concluded that women were the superior sex because they possessed a better capability to survive both as individuals and in groups- talents necessary for an advancing society. Based on these conclusions, he suggested that women receive equal pay for equal work, a controversial stance at the time.

With his prolific writing skills to rely on financially, and facing strong backlash for his openly liberal views and anti-McCarthy public statements, Montagu accepted a forced retirement from Rutgers in 1955 at the age of 50. Though retired from academic life, he continued to lecture at such institutions as Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Santa Barbara, and New York University. Settling in Princeton, New Jersey, Montagu’s work took up a more humanist element with Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, his effort to encourage parents to take a more physical role in raising their children and especially to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies. Published during that same year, Montagu’s book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, a history of the life of disfigured Briton Joseph Merrick, inspired a Tony winning play and later a motion picture. He continued publishing through the 1980s, including The Nature of Human Aggression (1976) and Growing Young (1981), while making numerous and notable television appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as well as the Phil Donahue Show.

In his lifetime, Montagu received many major awards, among them the American Association of Humanists’ 1995 Man of the Year award, the Darwin Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologist in 1994, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Anthropological Association in 1987. Montagu maintained an active schedule of lecturing and gardening around his Princeton, New Jersey, home until he was hospitalized in March 1999; he died on November 26, 1999 from heart disease, at the age of ninety-four. He was survived by his wife of sixty-eight years, Marjorie, as well as his son and two daughters.

From the guide to the Ashley Montagu papers, 1927-1999, 1927-1999, (American Philosophical Society)

Papers of James V. Neel, pioneering human population geneticist and professor in the Department of Human Genetics, University of Michigan Medical School. Curt Stern's first graduate student at the University of Rochester, and a post-doctoral student under Theodosius Dobzhansky, Neel began his career as a Drosophila geneticist, but after taking his first professional appointment as an assistant professor at Dartmouth, decided to alter his course into human genetics. Reasoning that he needed a solid medical education to complement his genetical training, he returned to Rochester in 1942 to study for an MD.

Like all medical students during the Second World War, Neel was inducted into military service. Rochester was the base for studies in radiation biology associated with the Manhattan Project, and at the end of the war, with Neel still in the military, a chance friendship with the adjutant to the head of the project resulted in Neel's appointment to help organize a genetical survey of the atomic bomb survivors. In 1946-1947, Neel lived in Hiroshima, organizing this project, part of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Committee (ABCC), and he maintained a close connection to the study until his death. His work in Japan mushroomed, too, into a series of related projects into the biology and genetics of consanguinity, among other topics.

While at Rochester, Neel also began to establish a name for himself in other areas of human genetics. As a resident at Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital, Neel encountered a case of thalassemia, and reading the medical literature, he became convinced that it was a genetic recessive disease. Over a span of five years, he delineated the genetic basis of haemoglobin diseases - first thalassemia, then sickle cell disease - in the process, helping to precipitate the revolution in biochemical genetics of the 1950s through 1970s. Neel's work also encompassed the evolutionary implications for these diseases, implanting balanced polymorphism and heterozygote advantage into the vocabularies of evolutionary biologists. Neel's studies of thalassemia and sickle cell disease were recognized with the receipt of the Lasker Award in 1955.

In the late 1950s, Neel entered into a third major set of projects, turning to extensive field studies in population genetics. Recognizing that the number of human populations isolated from modern medicines and modern technology was rapidly dwindling, Neel embarked on an ambitious genetic survey of the comparatively "primitive" Xavante of Brazil and, later, the Yanomamo of the Brazilian-Venezuelan borderlands. These studies, carried out over the course of more than a decade, and involving even longer spans of laboratory work, constitute the first and most comprehensive studies of human population and breeding structure and genetic diseases among "primitive" peoples. Dr. Neel died in February, 2000.

From the guide to the James V. Neel, papers, ca. 1939-1999, Circa 1939-1999, (American Philosophical Society)

One of the four horsemen of the evolutionary synthesis of the 1940s, Theodosius Dobzhansky played a crucial role in bridging the gap between theoretical and empirical approaches in genetics. His contributions to the biological species concept and to an understanding the evolutionary dynamics of wild populations of Drosophila were fundamental to the development of modern population genetics and evolutionary thought.

Born in Nemirov, Ukraine, on January 29, 1900, Dobzhansky came of age during the Bolshevik Revolution, but preferring the revolution in biology to the one in politics. After receiving a degree from the University of Kiev in 1921, he stayed on as an instructor in zoology, working initially on the anatomy and systematics of the coccinellid (ladybird) beetles. On a trip to Moscow in 1923 or 1924, however, he obtained stocks of Drosophila melanogaster that had been imported to the USSR by H. J. Muller and altered the taxonomic course of his research. His demonstration of pleiotropic effects in Drosophila soon brought him to the attention of Yuri A. Filipchenko, so that in 1924 -- the year in which he married the evolutionary biologist Natalia (Natasha) Sivertsev -- he was rewarded with a lectureship at the University of Leningrad.

Although his position in the troubled world of Soviet genetics was rising, Dobzhansky sought out an International Education Board fellowship in 1927 to work in the creative hothouse of T. H. Morgan's fly lab at Columbia, following Morgan to Cal Tech two years later. The years at Cal Tech were particularly exciting ones in the history of genetics, as the largely cytogenetic work of Morgan, Calvin B. Bridges, Alfred H. Sturtevant, and H. J. Muller had begun to unravel the mechanisms of inheritance through the use of cytological and developmental techniques. When Dobzhansky joined the group in 1927, its members were busy constructing linkage maps, locating specific genes on chromosomes by statistically analyzing the frequency with which certain traits are inherited together. Furthermore, only a few months before Dobzhansky's arrival, Muller (by this time at the University of Texas) had announced his discovery that x-ray exposure dramatically increased the natural rate of mutation in Drosophila . Not surprisingly, then, Dobzhansky began irradiating flies during the summer of 1928, and he spent the following winter studying the resultant chromosomal aberrations, mapping them by the use of gene markers. His long years dissecting beetles stood him well in the enterprise, for after removing, sectioning, and staining the ovaries of a young female fly, he provided the first cytological proof of the linear arrangement of genes on chromosomes: under the microscope, Dobzhansky saw a piece of the long, rod-like third chromosome attached to the tiny dot-like fourth chromosome. In the Reminiscences, he wrote: "I don't remember whether I emitted a loud yell. No question that I felt that way." Dobzhansky was promoted to full professor in 1936.

The cytological and developmental approach at Cal Tech continued to serve Dobzhansky well into the early 1930s as he worked on the analysis of translocations and the nature of sex determination, however his differences with the Morgan group soon became evident. All along, he had maintained an active field program, roaming into the California deserts, the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, and as far away as Alaska and Mexico in search of wild flies. More importantly, however, he began increasingly to conceptualize the major problems in genetics within an evolutionary and populational context. For over a decade, R. A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright had been reaching toward a quantitative methodology for uniting Mendelian and Darwinian theory by shifting the locus of study from the individual to the population. Recognizing that morphological change was the product of shifting gene frequencies, Fisher, Haldane and Wright developed sophisticated mathematical models to assess the relative effects of selectional pressure, mutation, and genetic drift on evolutionary change. What they lacked, above all, was empirical weight.

With this in mind, Dobzhansky and Sturtevant recognized that they could use chromosomal inversions in wild populations of D. pseudoobscura to construct phylogenies and to study evolutionary dynamics at a highly refined scale. Simultaneously, in 1935 Dobzhansky began the fundamental task of reformulating the taxonomic and morphological term "species" to bring it into line with evolutionary theory. Aware from his studies of variability in natural populations that morphological similarity could mask considerable genetic variability, he argued that regardless of the degree of morphological differentiation between populations, reproductive isolation was the surest and most biologically meaningful criterion for distinguishing species. The Jessup Lectures he delivered at Columbia University during the fall of 1936 provided him with a unique opportunity to synthesize the enormous amount of observational, experimental, and theoretical genetics he had acquired, interpreted in light of the emerging quantitative population genetics. These lectures were published in 1937 as Genetics and the Origin of Species, quickly becoming a classic in the emerging fields of evolution and population genetics and in the canon of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis.

In 1940 Dobzhansky accepted a professorship at Columbia University, and moved back to New York. There he became a close friend of the mouse geneticist, L.C. Dunn, collaborating with him on several books, and he developed close working relationships with George Gaylord Simpson and Ernst Mayr, among others. His growing collaboration with Sewall Wright was particularly productive, with Dobzhansky providing the critical empirical tests for Wright's mathematical insights. Together, they devised methods for measuring the forces of natural selection in the laboratory and, further, for studying the interaction of evolutionary forces in natural populations. With the help of his student Bruce Wallace and Wright, Dobzhansky worked out an elaborate theory of population structure based on inherent genetic diversity. It has been said that Dobzhansky's most significant contribution was the demonstration of vast genetic diversity within each species, a diversity that coexists with the uniformity of the molecular model of the gene and the universality of the genetic code.

Dobzhansky traveled widely during his twenty-two years at Columbia: hunting flies in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Australia, New Guinea, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and the western United States. He published prolifically on hybrid sterility, developmental rates, enzyme polymorphisms, genetic responses to environmental change, and behavioral phenomena, such as dispersion rates (how far flies actually fly). Among his more frequent collaborators were J. T. Patterson, C. Epling, C. D. Darlington, and his two research assistants, Olga Pavlovsky and Boris Spassky. He left a substantial legacy, as well, through his students, who included Bruce Wallace, R. C. Lewontin, and E. D. Spiess, as well as several colleagues and students from South America, including A. B. da Cuhna, A. R. Cordeiro, C. Malogolowkin-Cohen, and C. Pavan.

Yet as much as Dobzhansky enjoyed the intellectual climate at Columbia, from the late 1940s on he felt underappreciated and afflicted by the grind of university politics. As a result, he abandoned Columbia in 1962 to accept a position at the Rockefeller Institute (soon to become the Rockefeller University), remaining there until his retirement in 1971. At Rockefeller he expanded the scope of his work into behavioral genetics, while continuing his analysis of enzyme polymorphisms in Drosophila willistoni . In 1966, he adopted the still novel technique of gel electrophoresis to assay individual genotypes within a population, contributing to a raging debate with Muller, James Crow, and Motoo Kimura over the amount and significance of genetic variation in natural populations.

Retiring from Rockefeller in 1971, Dobzhansky continued to remain active in the field as an adjunct professor in the department of his former student Francisco J. Ayala at the University of California, Davis. At the time of his death from lymphatic leukemia in 1975, he was actively co-editing the series Evolutionary Biology, collaborating on a textbook dealing with evolutionary topics with Ayala, G. Ledyard Stebbins, and James Valentine, and was engaged in a series of experiments on chromosomal differences between populations of Mexican Drosophila with A. L. de Garay, R. Félix Estrada, L. Levine, J. Powell, and V.M. Salceda.

Summarizing Dobzhansky's career on the basis of his scientific productivity does not quite capture its scope. From his days at Cal Tech onward, Dobzhansky regularly engaged with the philosophical and social implications of his work. His view of scientific progress was essentially Popperian -- "A scientific 'model,'" he wrote to Arthur R. Jensen in 1972, "is tested in attempts to falsify it, and the more steps it stands successfully, the more convincing it is, until finally it is taken as 'truth.'" He also situated himself within the "process" school of philosophy, although he was critical of mainstream Whiteheadian philosophers for having established "a special religion... a non-Christian religion. A sort of Unitarianism on the Whiteheadian basis" (June 15, 1974). For his own part, Dobzhansky was acutely sensitive to criticism of his philosophical (or scientific) work by other scientists, especially with respect to the reception of his popular works Mankind Evolving and The Biology of Ultimate Concern .

Deeply imbued with his faith in the Eastern Orthodox church, and steeped in an evolutionary world view, Dobzhansky held to a transcendent, cosmic evolutionism deeply influenced by the writings of the Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin. His interests drew regularly him into public debates on the intersection of religion and science, criticizing Pope Paul for his antievolutionary views in the 1960s, and assailing the growing tide of Protestant creationsim of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, he wrote J. Kunamoto, that for him "The evolution of life, and the evolutionary origin of mankind, are scientifically established as firmly and completely as any historical event not witnessed by human observers. Any concession to anti-evolutionists, suggesting that there are scientific reasons to doubt the facticity of evolution, would be propagating a plain untruth."

The great problems of the century -- totalitarianism and racism -- also weighed heavily on Dobzhansky's conscience. With L.C. Dunn, a political fellow traveler, and later with Ashley Montagu, Dobzhansky produced a number of works on the biology of race, highlighted by the book Heredity, Race, and Society (1946). Dobzhansky argued that modern genetic studies had demonstrated that eugenical claims about the biological basis of personality and behavior were at best grossly simplified, and were more likely simply wrong. A strong critic of eugenics in the interwar period, he continued to combat "scientific" efforts to establish the facticity of racial differences, participating in the debates over IQ during the 1960s and 1970s. He was particularly adamant that a scientist working on projects concerning the genetics of behavior must remain honest and committed to the logic of his discipline, and he often wrote to scientists to remind them of this fact. At the same time, his own experiences in Russia made Dobzhansky keenly aware of the problems of intellectual freedom and the necessity of supporting even unpopular modes of speech. He bore an unwavering hatred for the Soviet system and took an active role in writing about the Lysenko controversy.

From the guide to the Theodosius Dobzhansky Papers, Circa 1917-1975, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Evolution
  • Environmental health
  • Anthropology
  • Gender
  • Zoology
  • Geneticists--Interviews
  • Yanomamo Indians
  • Religion and science
  • Indians of South America--Brazil
  • Race, race relations, racism
  • Zoologists--Interviews
  • Russians--United States
  • Drosophila
  • Indians of South America--Venezuela
  • Xavante Indians
  • Genetics--Research
  • Genetics--History
  • Genetics
  • Social conditions, social advocacy, social reform
  • Hematology
  • Atmospheric radiation
  • Drosophila--Genetics
  • Race
  • Consanguinity
  • Anthropology, ethnography, fieldwork
  • Heredity
  • Biology, genetics, eugenics
  • Breeding
  • Social inequality
  • Amerindians
  • Human population genetics


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  • Soviet Union (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)