Dobzhansky to Mayr, 1935

Dear Dr. Mayr:
Many thanks for your kind letter of Nov. 7th, which is so highly flattering to me, and to which I certainly want to reply.

The need for a reconciliation of the views of taxonomists and geneticists I feel very keenly, but it seems to me that all what is to be reconciled are just the viewpoints, since I do not perceive any contradictions between the facts secured in the respective fields. Of course, this is a big “just”. So far, geneticists appear to think that they need not pay any attention to what taxonomists are doing, and vice versa. To my mind this is the root of the trouble. Probably no less than 75% of geneticists still believe that there is nothing in particular to be gained from studies on the races of wild animals as compared with races in bottles. You and myself will probably have no disagreement as to the absurdity of this view.

Sincerely yours, Th. Dobzhansky.

From: Haffer, J. 2007. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy; The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr, 1904–2005, (p. 187). Springer.

Mayr 1960Ernst Mayr in 1960 at Harvard. Image from the book.


4 thoughts on “Dobzhansky to Mayr, 1935

  1. I wonder if they had a glimmer that the reins of taxonomy would be yanked from the hands of the taxonomists and handed over to the geneticists, and that the Linnean approach would be cast aside. But I’m sure they did not anticipate that despite a revolution in taxonomy and another 50 years of research, we would still not know that much more about the main topic of this letter, which is the question of whether evolution in the real world advances by the same rules as evolution in the lab.

    • …the classic question of the linkage between micro-evolutionary mechanisms and macro-evolutionary patterns. The exponential explosion of knowledge of the former, via especially molecular genetics and proteomics, may or may not help us explain the latter, depending on specifics of the taxa involved, time frame and other variables.

  2. I think each may help the other. It is plainly obvious that more data can be accumulated in the lab – and to this point more whole genome sequencing has been done with more smaller genomes (more tractable). But as the tools become less expensive to employ, the techniques more robust, it allows more difficult questions to be entertained.

    And now that so many facilities can sequence such massive amounts of DNA, it is becoming a question of ‘what next?’. And herein the opportunity for some clever application of taxonomy and broad based field ecology.

    So I’ll suggest micro will help explain macro (all the while sound macro theory and measure helping illustrate where micro can be of use). But I imagine there may still exist many surprises for us – so we should all be on guard for results that don’t automatically fit our preconceived notions. These latter may be hints of mechanisms not yet understood. And therein too, more fun for our future in science.

    • Agreed Clem. Another point is that micro-level molecular processes can never explain stochastic selection events in the past (although molecular genetics can identify former bottleneck events and similar things).

      A truly massive whole genome of some plant was just sequenced, but I forget what it was. So yes, bigger and bigger genomes being sequenced, and I was astonished at how many species have been sequenced. It’s not just a focus on Arabidopsis any more that’s for sure.

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