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The Molecular Basis of Evolution


Dr. Christian Anfinsen published The Basis of Evolution, in 1959. It was partly a basic primer on genetics and evolution for

chemists, and partly a manifesto for the importance of chemistry to molecular biology, genetics, and evolutionary theory. The book was Anfinsen’s statement of belief and motivation, and through it he inspired many younger scientists. Anfinsen summarized what genes are and how they make proteins, and the role that proteins play in almost every facet of life. He then described how proteins can be synthesized in the laboratory so that their function, both chemically and genetically, can be more easily studied.

image of amino acid chain that was marked up to show RNase-S and Pepsin cleavage sites

This illustration from the book was marked up by Dr Anfinsen.

image of open book with DNA image The Basis of Evolution was published by Christian Anfinsen in 1959.

And finally, Anfinsen tied protein chemistry, genetics, and evolution together. He wrote, “The principle aim of this book has been to examine the basic principles underlying another possible method for the study of evolution (instead of fossils or comparative anatomy). This method is based on the hypothesis that the individual proteins which characterize a particular species are a unique reflection of the genes which control their synthesis….The structure of proteins may be a relatively direct expression of gene structure and…comparative protein chemistry may furnish a qualitative view of genotypic differences and similarities.”


How thrilled Anfinsen would be to know that researchers are now using protein chemistry and genetics in their study of the evolution of various organisms and even of human migration.

You can download and read The Molecular Basis of Evolution through NLM KKBBLS.pdf pdf (18.2mb)

image of open book with molecular sculpture image

The Basis of Evolution was published by Christian Anfinsen in 1959.


Additional Images

figure of phylogenic tree Figure 2. Relationships of the phyla of the animal kingdom. The arrangement here is based on the scheme given by L. H. Hyman in The Invertebrates volume 1, McGraw-Hill Book Company, p. 38, 1940.


image depicting horse evolution The evolution of the horses. The diagram shows the geographic distribution of the various forms and indicates their manner of securing food by browsing or by grazing. Redrawn from G. G. Simpson, Horses, 1951, by permission of Oxford University Press.



Illustrations of cells at various stages of development Figure 11. Mitotic cell division in the common onion: A, interphase; B, prophase; C, metaphase; D anaphase; E telophase; F daughter cells. From T. Dobzhansky, Evolution, Genetics, and Man, John Wiley & Sons, 1955.