Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 42, Issue 4, pp 621–648 | Cite as

Rethinking the Synthesis Period in Evolutionary Studies

  • Joe CainEmail author


I propose we abandon the unit concept of “the evolutionary synthesis”. There was much more to evolutionary studies in the 1920s and 1930s than is suggested in our commonplace narratives of this object in history. Instead, four organising threads capture much of evolutionary studies at this time. First, the nature of species and the process of speciation were dominating, unifying subjects. Second, research into these subjects developed along four main lines, or problem complexes: variation, divergence, isolation, and selection. Some calls for ‹synthesis’ focused on these problem complexes (sometimes on one of these; other times, all). In these calls, comprehensive and pluralist compendia of plausibly relevant elements were preferred over reaching consensus about the value of particular formulae. Third, increasing confidence in the study of common problems coincided with methodological and epistemic changes associated with experimental taxonomy. Finally, the surge of interest in species problems and speciation in the 1930s is intimately tied to larger trends, especially a shifting balance in the life sciences towards process-based biologies and away from object-based naturalist disciplines. Advocates of synthesis in evolution supported, and were adapting to, these larger trends.


evolutionary synthesis evolutionary theory modern synthesis Darwinism neo-Darwinism experimental taxonomy new systematics 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Science and Technology StudiesUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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