The “modern synthesis” generally refers to the early to mid-century formulation of evolutionary theory that reconciled classical Darwinian selection theory with a newer population-oriented view of Mendelian genetics that attempted to explain the origin of biological diversity. It draws on the title of zoologist Julian S. Huxley’s book of 1943 titled Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, a semi-popular account of evolution that ushered in this “modern” synthetic view of evolution. Covering an interval of time approximately between 1920–1950, it also refers to developments in understanding evolution that drew on a range of disciplines that were synthesized or brought to consensus that generally include systematics, paleontology, and botany with a populational view of evolutionary genetics. Whether or not it served to unify the study of evolution, or to unify the disparate biological sciences—and whether or not it led to the emergence of a science of evolutionary biology, as some of its proponents have claimed—remains a topic for discussion. Though they do not refer to precisely the same things or share identical meanings, the phrase “modern synthesis” has overlapped with terms such as the “evolutionary synthesis,” coined and used especially by Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, to refer to the historical event, as well as terms such as Neo-Darwinian theory or Neo-Darwinism (though criticism has been made regarding the latter term’s applicability to the mid-century developments in evolutionary theory). As Ernst Mayr noted, the term “Neo-Darwinism” was first coined and used by George John Romanes in 1895 to refer to a revision of Charles Darwin’s theory first formulated in 1859, which included Lamarckian inheritance. The extent to which the modern synthesis, and the evolutionary synthesis map with what is also called the synthetic theory, is open for discussion as is specific understanding of the term. For the most part, there is little in the way of consensus or agreement by scientists, philosophers, and historians as to what “the synthesis” (the abbreviated reference) precisely means, and what (if anything) specifically occurred of a general nature in studies of evolution, broadly construed, in the interval of time between 1920–1950.
General Overviews on the History of Modern Evolutionary Biology
Though the specific meaning of the synthesis appears elusive, it is generally considered such a pivotal moment in the history of modern evolutionary biology that there is significant coverage devoted to the topic in most general histories of evolution and in many textbooks of evolutionary biology such as Futuyma and Kirkpatrick 2017. Bowler 2009 offers the most reliable general account of the long history of evolutionary thought from Antiquity to the present, with good coverage of the modern synthesis and some of its subsequent challenges. Gayon 1998 offers a more rigorous conceptual history as understood by a philosopher. Though it is devoted to tracing out the idea of progress and how it played out in formulations of evolution, Ruse 1996 devotes appreciable space to the synthesis and to the work of some of the architects. Yet another useful resource is Gould 2002, which showcases the modern synthesis of evolution as it attempts to outline the structure of evolutionary theory. Though a bit dated, Bendall 1983 and Grene 1983 provide some important and insightful essays on modern evolutionary biology that have proven pivotal in its historical and philosophical study. To date, however, Mayr and Provine 1980 (cited under General Overviews on the Modern Synthesis of Evolution) remains the foundational work or entry point to the topic, and Smocovitis 1996 (cited under General Overviews on the Modern Synthesis of Evolution) offers the sole coherent historical account in book form (see also General Overviews on the Modern Synthesis of Evolution).
Bendall, D. S., ed. 1983. Evolution from molecules to men. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Useful overview of the history of modern evolutionary biology in the form of a collection of essays by historians, philosophers, and scientists on the occasion the anniversary of Darwin’s death and a conference organized around assessing his legacy.
Bowler, Peter. 2009. Evolution: The history of an idea. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Standard work providing general history of the idea of evolution from Antiquity to the late 20th century.
Futuyma, Douglas J., and Mark Kirkpatrick. 2017. Evolution. 4th ed. Sunderland, UK: Sinauer Press.
Major scientific textbook that provides useful historical backdrop to developments in modern evolutionary biology; now in the fourth edition.
Gayon, Jean. 1998. Darwinism’s struggle for survival. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Offers a reliable, detailed conceptual history of evolutionary theory from Darwin well into the 20th century with coverage of the modern synthesis.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Provides historical and philosophical insights into the modern synthesis as it explores the core elements of evolutionary theory by one of the major figures in modern evolutionary biology.
Grene, Marjorie, ed. 1983. Dimensions of Darwinism. Themes and counterthemes in twentieth-century evolutionary theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Important edited collection with a number of contributions by scientists, philosophers, and historians that delves into the synthesis or into modern evolutionary theory broadly construed. Includes an entire section on German view on morphology and paleontology.
Mayr, Ernst. 1982. The growth of biological thought. Diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
A synthetic work of intellectual history placing Darwin, his theory, and evolutionary biology at the center of the biological sciences by one of the major figures in the modern synthesis of evolution.
Ruse, Michael. 1996. Monad to man. The concept of progress in evolutionary biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Examines how evolutionary progress has undergirded evolutionary theory from Darwin to more recent evolutionary thinkers.
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