. . . in the light of . . . well?

Over a year and half ago (~1 eon in internet time) I wrote this blog entry in which I turned around the title of Dobzhansky’s famous essay “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. I didn’t think I was being all that clever when I came up with the following:


I pointed out that evolution requires heritable variation first and foremost, hence genetics lies at the center of all of evolution. I then took the opportunity to explain why Hardy and Weinberg’s derivation that random mating does not change allele frequencies was the most important discovery in evolutionary biology in the twentieth century (allowing me to exclude Darwin from consideration). For some reason, however, I left it off my list.

I told you that story so that I could tell you this one. I’m sitting in our departmental seminar this afternoon, when Mike Lynch busts this out on both his introductory slide and his conclusion slide:

Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics.

His talk was basically an extension of this paper, which I have written about briefly here. Because it’s already been published, I won’t rehash the details for you. But I got to wondering whether he nicked the quote off of me or if I took it from him.

My post is dated 28 February 2005. A google search of “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of genetics” gives four hits: to my original post, to this evolgen post on the Mount Rushmore of Biologists, to this transcript of the “Naked Science” radio show, and to the course website for Bemidji State’s introductory genetics class.

The two evolgen links don’t shed any light on the origin of the phrase, but the “Naked Science” transcript is dated 20 November 2005. During the show, Mike Majerus, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, said the following:

There’s this big feeling around the world that if the word genetics is mentioned, it’s going to be something horrible. Most of the stories about genetically modified organisms are horror stories. Or there are mice with ears on their backs if we go back a decade or so. There’s a phenomenal amount of genetics being done, but unfortunately you hardly ever hear about the good stories. There are two people I just want to mention. There’s a guy called Dobzhansky, a Russian who went to America, and he said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Then later, a couple of authors said nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of genetics. If we’re actually going to understand the world around us, we’ve got to understand genetics. It’s the sort of thing that Darren’s doing down at the Sanger Centre with his sequencing of vast amounts of DNA from different sorts of organisms that is beginning to give us a little bit of understanding of what’s really going on.
[Emphasis added.]

I wonder if I am those “couple of authors”? If so, I should really get that dissociative identity disorder checked out.

The other site that uses my quote is currently dated “28 August 2006”. Now, I realize that the dynamic nature of the internet means that this material was probably last updated at the end of August (right before the beginning of the fall semester), but may have included the quote in a previous incarnation. For that reason, we need to jump into the Wayback Machine. Said machine reveals that I was not the first one to use the quote. A page dated 19 October 2004 and archived on 11 November 2004 contains the following text:

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Similiarly, nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of genetics. Consequently, an understanding of basic principles of genetics is a necessary foundation for all areas of biology. This course will provide such an understanding.

The course is taught by Dann Siems, who, from his webpage, seems like a pretty good guy. He’s really into combating ignorance (ie, stopping intelligent design creationism), and he even has a blog (although it hasn’t been updated since December 2005). I don’t feel too bad relinquishing ownership of the quote to Dr. Siems.

So I can’t lay claim to the turn of phrase, but where else has it been written? My google search turned up only two other sources, one of which took no credit and cited a couple of authors. Dann and I are a couple of authors, so did it start with us?

In the name of thoroughness (it’s new to me, I’m still getting used to it), I ran a google search of Mike Lynch’s quote. This turned up two incarnations of Mike Lynch’s webpage in the Indiana University domain. Both of the pages feature Lynch’s quote, “nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics,” in the introductory description of his research.

I like his quote, and I like how he has used it to guide a research focus that on the surface appears quite diverse. But does he have any right to this clever spin on Dobzhansky (it’s not my baby anymore, so I’m not being vain by calling it clever)? The Wayback Machine stored a page on 9 October 2004 which contains the quote:

Evolution is a population-level process, and the underlying philosophy of our research is that “nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics.”

The previous archived update of Lynch’s homepage is dated 12 December 2002. Some time between the end of 2002 and October of 2004, Mike Lynch posted the quote. We have no way of knowing when he came up with it (the same goes for Dann Siems), but the internet record is the best we can do. The oldest records of Siems’s and Lynch’s quotes are both dated to the same month, meaning we can’t say with any certainty who came up with the original reworking of Dobzhanksy.

The one thing we can say is:

  • If nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,

  • And nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of (population) genetics,

  • Then nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of (population) genetics [based on the transitive property of quotations].


  1. #1 coturnix
    September 20, 2006

    Of course, the idea is misguided – evolution is change of development by ecology. It can work on another planet with no genes and no particulate mechanism of inheritance.

    “Development” is defined broadly as ontogeny, or life-cycle, spanning the entire life-span of the organism, to get our minds away from the usual picture of a developing multicellular embryo before birth. Bacteria have development (from one cell-division to the next) and they can also be considered in groups that develop as units, so the definition of “individual” needs to be plastic as well.

    “Ecology” is defined as selective and neutral effects of internal and external environment interacting with the development.

    In organisms that inhabit Earth, genes (as well as gene-products and molecules taken from the environment) are tools that organisms use to properly develop and function within their ecologies and are, thus, not essential for the definition of evolution.

  2. #2 RPM
    September 20, 2006

    We only know about life on earth, so I can’t say whether or not life on other planets has genetic material or not.

    An organism’s life history is determined by two things: environment and genetics. Downplaying genetics is just as ridiculous as saying genetics is the only thing that matters.

    The environment (both extra-organismal and intra-organismal), population size, and mutation rate all shape the genome. In the end, the only variation that really matters in the grand scheme of thing is that that is heritable.

  3. #3 coturnix
    September 21, 2006

    Yup, but that is book-keeping that ignores the mechanisms by which change occured as well as inheriance mechanisms that do not involve DNA sequence.

  4. #4 MissPrism
    September 22, 2006

    Maynard Smith reckoned that however heredity worked on other planets, heritable information would have to be digital. I don’t know if this is what you mean by ‘particulate’, and I haven’t actually read Maynard Smith’s argument in full, but it sounds reasonable to me that analogue decay and blending could between them prevent natural selection being effective in the long term.

    As for whether genes are just tools, I think that depends on whether you’re using a molecular definition of the gene, like “length of DNA coding for a protein”. But Johannsen’s meaning when he coined the word ‘gene’ in 1909 would have been more like “whatever causes heritable differences”. Any rigorous definition of evolution has to refer to genes in that sense.

  5. #5 oliveoyl
    September 22, 2006

    That calls on me to bring to focus this page which I guess reveals a date of updation with the quote between Feb 2004-March 2004, 2004. Slightly twisted form, maybe the webmaster didn’t want to use as harsh as “nothing” but nevertheless….


  6. #6 RPM
    September 22, 2006

    I think there is only one way to settle this: steel cage death match between Jody Hey and Mike Lynch. I’ve got the perfect venue.

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