“Nothing in biology…”: The most used and abused quotation in evolutionary biology

Quotations are everywhere. You can always pretend you know something about physics by quoting Einstein: “God does not play dice“. Or if you feel like contributing to a discussion about statistics you can assert that “all models are wrong, but some are useful. There’s a quotation for every occasion. In fact, Oxford University Press (OUP) has its own dictionary of quotations. (Although OUP has a dictionary for pretty much anything.) But if one quotation has been mercilessly abused, it has been that of Dobzhansky. You know which one, the one starting with “Nothing in biology…”.

It all began when Theodosius Dobzhansky became the president of the American Society of Zoologists. In his presidential lecture he raised some concerns on the emerging field of molecular biology, of which he said it was a ‘glamour field’. He worried that ‘[t]he notion has gained some currency that the only worthwhile biology is molecular biology. All else is […] “butterfly collecting”‘, in clear reference to Rutherford’s “stamp collecting” statement. Towards the end of his address, he concludes that molecular biologists focus more on ‘how things are’, and organismic biologists on ‘how things got to be that way’, but that both views are complementary, and a Darwinian approach is needed to understand also molecular biology. In his words: ‘nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution, sub specie evolutionis‘.

Nothing in Dobzhansky makes sense except in the light of taxonomy

Nothing in Dobzhansky makes sense except in the light of taxonomy

The ending of the sentence, ‘in the light of evolution, sub specie evolutionis‘, originally comes from Julian Huxley. He paraphrased Spinoza, who described all the things that are universal and eternally truth as sub specie aeternitatis (from the point of view of eternity). Huxley coined the concept of sub specie evolutionis and translated it as ‘in the light of evolution’. But Dobzhansky slightly modified his own version of the sentence and use it as a title of a very influential paper he published in 1973, introducing to the World what it will become his most famous statement: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution“. The nightmare began!

We find variations of all kinds. Apparently not only biology makes only sense in the light of evolution. Some authors assert that neither ethics, glycobiology, medicine, morality, biochemistry, microbiology, cancer, nor community ecology, makes sense except in the light of evolution. Some other swap the sentence around, and say that nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics, of phylogeny or even of creation! One of my favourites (which I recently discovered via Tom Cameron) is ‘Nothing in evolution or ecology makes sense except in the light of the other‘.

But that’s not all. The structure ‘Nothing in X makes sense except in the light of Y’ has been recycled over and over again. Some are clever, like ‘Nothing in genetics makes sense except in the light of genomic conflict‘. Some are not that clever, like ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of sequencing‘. And some others are, in my modest opinion, just wrong, like ‘Nothing in the genome makes sense except in the light of the transcriptome‘.

Outside the biosciences there have been many attempts to create Dobzhanski-alike sentences. ‘Nothing in linguistics makes sense except in the light of change‘, ‘Nothing in Human Behavior Makes Sense Except in the Light of Culture‘ and ‘Nothing in the universe makes sense except in the light of Big History‘ are but a few examples. One that I really support is ‘Nothing in scholarly communication makes sense except in the light of Open Access‘. On the other side are the physicists, who still struggle to find their version of Dobzhansky’s.

Some go a bit far: ‘Screw Dobzhansky, nothing in biology makes sense, period‘, or its counterpart ‘in creationism nothing makes sense, period‘.

In any case, I think we all have created a version of Dobzhansky’s ‘Nothing in X makes sense…’. I’ve seen hundreds of different versions, particularly in conferences and seminars. They all look clever to the eyes of the author, but probably not as much to the audience. Like this blog, which I always try to do my best, but I’m aware that most readers do not care much about what I write. After all, nothing in this blog makes sense except in the light of its author, sub species Antonii.

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