Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 637–682 | Cite as

A Particular Synthesis: Aleksandr Promptov and Speciation in Birds

  • Nikolai Krementsov


During the 1930s, Aleksandr Promptov—a student of the founder of Russian population genetics Sergei Chetverikov—developed an elaborate concept of speciation in birds. He conducted field investigations aimed at giving a naturalistic content to the theoretical formulations and laboratory models of evolutionary processes advanced within the framework of population genetics, placing particular emphasis on the evolutionary role of bird behavior. Yet, although highly synthetic in combining biogeographical, taxonomic, genetic, ecological, and behavioral studies, Promptov’s speciation concept was ignored by the architects of the 1930s and 1940s evolutionary synthesis, including Theodosius Dobzhnasky, Ernst Mayr, and Julian Huxley. In this article, I argue that the story of Promptov’s concept and its reception by other evolutionists challenges the traditional presentation of the synthesis as a singular, international process of the unification of biology, which led to the creation of a universal synthetic theory of evolution. It suggests that during the same time period, within largely the same theoretical framework, there were multiple, intrinsically local, attempts at creating synthetic evolutionary concepts. These concepts were often quite particular—in their taxonomic applicability, in their explanations of various evolutionary factors, and in the range of disciplines unified in the synthesis. Apparently, these concepts ran contrary to the universal aspirations of the synthesis architects, and as a result, they were disregarded, first by the architects and later by historians of the evolutionary synthesis.


Aleksandr Promptov evolutionary synthesis speciation animal behavior ornithology 


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I am indebted to many people for their help in my search for relevant materials, particularly, Promptov’s sister, Liubov Promptova, his wife, Elizaveta Lukina, and his nephew, Aleksandr Formozov, who generously shared with me family documents and personal memories. I am profoundly grateful to Mark B. Adams for numerous discussions of Soviet evolutionary studies and an opportunity to read some of his manuscripts on the subject, which helped clarify many issues addressed in this work. I am also grateful to Joe Cain for inviting me to a conference on evolutionary synthesis, which provided a necessary incentive to revisit Promptov’s story and a stimulating environment to rethink some of my earlier interpretations. My thanks also go to Paul Faber and anonymous reviewers for the Journal of the History of Biology, for their encouragement and valuable criticisms.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and TechnologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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