The Evolutionary Synthesis:
Perspectives on the Unification of Biology

Ernst Mayr + William B. Provine (editors)

Harvard University Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Modern biology was formed in the second quarter of this century, in what is known as the evolutionary (or "modern") synthesis. In this, previously separated disciplines, foremost among them genetics and systematics, came together to form a unified science. Mayr opens The Evolutionary Synthesis with a fifty page overview of the synthesis, covering its historical background, the factors contributing to its delay, the key figures and landmark publications involved, and some historical and philosophical issues. This is an excellent account, suitable for those who don't want to read a whole book on the subject.

For biologists or historians of science wanting more detail, however, the rest of The Evolutionary Synthesis contains a wealth of information. Much of it is, in fact, primary source material, since it is based on the proceedings of two 1974 conferences, the contributors to which included many of the key participants in the synthesis. Among these were Theodosius Dobzhansky, Viktor Hamburger, C.D. Darlington, Hampton Carson, G. Ledyard Stebbins, and of course Ernst Mayr himself; other contributors included such notable biologists and philosophers of science as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Michael T. Ghiselin, and Dudley Shapere.

Part one approaches the synthesis through the different disciplines that contributed to it (or in some cases were later incorporated into it): genetics, cytology, embryology, systematics, botany, paleontology, and morphology. Part two contains accounts of the differing background to and progress of the synthesis in five countries — in the Soviet Union, England, and the United States, where key contributions were made, in France, which only reluctantly accepted the synthesis, and in Germany, which took a course of its own. Part three contains two interpretive essays: an examination of the synthesis as a case study in the philosophy of science and a historiographical reflection on the conferences. The earlier sections include information about individuals such as Simpson, Chetverikov, Severtsov, and Morgan, but a final section offers additional biographical and autobiographical pieces, on Mayr, Morgan, Haldane, Fisher, Bateson, Stern, and Simpson.

July 1998

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%T The Evolutionary Synthesis
%S Perspectives on the Unification of Biology
%E Mayr, Ernst
%E Provine, William B.
%I Harvard University Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0674272269
%P xvii,487pp