In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Evolutionary Thought Since 1930

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Evolutionary Biology History of Evolutionary Thought Since 1930
Roberta Millstein, Michael Dietrich, Robert A. Skipper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0118


Evolutionary biology underwent several significant transformations in the period after 1930. While mid-century was dominated by the evolutionary synthesis and the professionalization of evolutionary biology, the second half of the 20th century saw evolutionary research diversifying and the domain of evolutionary phenomena expanded, especially in response to the rise of molecular biology. While what happened in 1950 may seem ancient to a contemporary evolutionary biologist, to a historian of biology the last half of the 20th century is recent history. Where the literature on Darwin could fill a bibliography by itself, the history of modern evolutionary biology is neither as extensive nor as comprehensive. Some topics such as the evolutionary synthesis and molecular evolution have a rich historical literature. Others such as cultural evolution or quantitative genetics still await further historical analysis: not because they are undeserving, but because they are just now becoming ripe for historical investigation. For the purposes of this article, we selected significant pieces of historical and some philosophical scholarship that address major developments in the history of evolutionary biology. We did not select so-called classic papers by evolutionary biologists or review papers written by biologists. Instead our focus was on evolutionary biology as it has been contextualized and discussed by historians who have often been seeking to address a range of non-biological issues regarding the nature and practice of science, and how different aspects of evolutionary biology reflect the time and place of their development.

General Overviews

Only a few works of historical analysis are either comprehensive in their scope or develop themes that are central to all of evolutionary biology after 1930. Smocovitis 1996 offers an important overview of the history of the evolutionary synthesis period at mid-century and its continuing impact. Bowler 2009 and Gayon 1998 both begin in the Darwinian era and extend into the mid-20th century. The collections from Ruse and Travis 2009 and Ruse 2013 cover a wider array of topics in evolutionary biology from Darwin to the present with entries by historians, philosophers, and biologists.

  • Bowler, Peter. 2009. Evolution: The history of an idea. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    First published in 1989, this new edition provides an accessible overview of evolutionary thought from the 19th century to the end of the 20th.

  • Gayon, Jean. 1998. Darwinism’s struggle for survival: Heredity and the hypothesis of natural selection. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Gayon provides a focused narrative that traces the history of selectionist explanations from Darwin through the Mendelian-Biometrician controversies to the evolutionary synthesis and the challenge of the neutral theory of molecular evolution.

  • Ruse, Michael, ed. 2013. The Cambridge encyclopedia of Darwin and evolutionary thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This historically structured volume provides a detailed and informative survey of the history of evolutionary thought from ancient to modern times.

  • Ruse, Michael, and Joe Travis, eds. 2009. Evolution: The first four billion years. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This comprehensive introduction to evolutionary biology includes essays from historians, philosophers, and biologists on the many different dimensions of the study of evolutionary biology and its wider impact.

  • Smocovitis, V. B. 1996. Unifying biology: The evolutionary synthesis and evolutionary biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    The evolutionary synthesis continues to be an enigmatic historical entity. Unifying Biology offers an important analysis of the multifaceted nature of the synthesis and its impact on modern evolutionary thought.

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