, Volume 91, Issue 6, pp 255-276
Date: 17 Mar 2004

The modern theory of biological evolution: an expanded synthesis

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Abstract

In 1858, two naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, independently proposed natural selection as the basic mechanism responsible for the origin of new phenotypic variants and, ultimately, new species. A large body of evidence for this hypothesis was published in Darwin’s Origin of Species one year later, the appearance of which provoked other leading scientists like August Weismann to adopt and amplify Darwin’s perspective. Weismann’s neo-Darwinian theory of evolution was further elaborated, most notably in a series of books by Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, Julian Huxley and others. In this article we first summarize the history of life on Earth and provide recent evidence demonstrating that Darwin’s dilemma (the apparent missing Precambrian record of life) has been resolved. Next, the historical development and structure of the “modern synthesis” is described within the context of the following topics: paleobiology and rates of evolution, mass extinctions and species selection, macroevolution and punctuated equilibrium, sexual reproduction and recombination, sexual selection and altruism, endosymbiosis and eukaryotic cell evolution, evolutionary developmental biology, phenotypic plasticity, epigenetic inheritance and molecular evolution, experimental bacterial evolution, and computer simulations (in silico evolution of digital organisms). In addition, we discuss the expansion of the modern synthesis, embracing all branches of scientific disciplines. It is concluded that the basic tenets of the synthetic theory have survived, but in modified form. These sub-theories require continued elaboration, particularly in light of molecular biology, to answer open-ended questions concerning the mechanisms of evolution in all five kingdoms of life.

Dedicated to Prof. Dr. Dr. hc mult. Ernst Mayr on the occasion of his 100th birthday
This revised version was published online in March 2004, with corrections to the caption of Figure 6.