Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 4: Biosystematics and the Origin of Species: Edgar Anderson, W. H. Camp, and the Evolutionary Synthesis

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 4: Biosystematics and the Origin of Species: Edgar Anderson, W. H. Camp, and the Evolutionary Synthesis

Article excerpt

The very process of synthesis combines disparate elements into a coherent whole, making complex phenomena more comprehensible as we understand which factors are decisive and, as importantly, which ones less so. Synthesis is a powerful intellectual tool, a beacon that illuminates a wide swath of previously unrelated facts, theories, and even disciplines. In biology in the second quarter of the twentieth century, just such a synthesis between genetics and evolutionary theory flourished through the work of K A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, and many, many others.

In addition to his crucial scientific work, Mayr made an invaluable organizational contribution through the Society for the Study of Evolution and its journal Evolution (Cain, 1993, 1994, 2000b; Smocovitis, 1992, 1994a, 1994b, 1996). As a historian, he continues to shape how we think about these developments (Mayr & Provine, 1980). As Mayr explains it,

The term "evolutionary synthesis" was introduced by Julian Huxley in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) to designate die general acceptance of two conclusions: gradual evolution can be explained in terms of small genetic changes ("mutations") and recombination, and the ordering of this generic variation by natural selection; and the observed evolutionary phenomena, particularly macroevolutionary processes and speciation, can be explained in a manner that is consistent with the known genetic mechanisms. (Mayr & Provine, 1980, p. 1)

Further, of all evolutionary theories, only neo- Darwinism or synthetic theory - as opposed to saltationism (evolution by sudden leaps), Geoffroyism (evolution under direct influence of the environment), orthogenesis (evolution by an organism's built-in tendency toward perfection or progress), or even Darwinism - combines both population thinking (an appreciation for variation as opposed to "essentialism") and a commitment to hard inheritance (Mayr 8c Provine, 1980, p. 4). Forging this synthesis required "bridge builders," geneticists who had experience with natural populations and naturalists who had absorbed the work of the geneticists.

Botany posed its own problems. Mayr identified at least two: a sharper differentiation than among zoologists between museum-herbarium workers and their counterparts doing field work and "genetic systems in plants tend to be a good deal more complicated than those of . . . animal groups," which in turn "prevented unanimity in the adoption of a uniform species concept" (Mayr 8c Provine, 1980, p. 137). The result was that "in the 1930s and 1940s no botanist published a book comparable in impact to the books of Dobzhansky, Huxley, Mayr, Rensch, Simpson, or other architects of the synthesis." It would fall to G. Ledyard Stebbins's Variation and Evolution in Plants (1950) to fill that niche. And even then, in 1963, Mayr wrote, "Each of the kingdoms has its own evolutionary peculiarities and these must be worked out separately before a balanced synthesis can be attempted" (Mayr, 1963, p. v). This comment was a partial explanation of why his book of that year was titled Animal Species and Evolution; he, at that point, had 35 years of field and laboratory experience with animal species, but "Lacking a similar familiarity with plants, I might have come up with absurd generalizations if I tried to apply my findings to plants" (Mayr, 1963, p. v).

As illuminating as Mayr's perspective on the synthesis is, it cast shadows, leaving some things less clear. The bright beacon washes out some of the nuances and subtleties of lived experience. Edgar Anderson, as an interested participant, used a review of Dobzhansky's Evolution, Genetics, and Man to keep some of those nuances, what he called "odd noises," on the table:

In personal conversation Professor Dobzhansky has sometimes chided scholars who, like this reviewer, cherish a Batesonian interest in those few significant facts which do not fit easily with today's facile exposition of basic principles. …

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