Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 9: The "Delayed Synthesis": Paleobiology in the 1970s

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 9: The "Delayed Synthesis": Paleobiology in the 1970s

Article excerpt

In the period between 1970 and 1985, the discipline of paleontology underwent a major transformation. Despite its important role in the emergence of the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, paleontology was largely marginalized by the evolutionary community during much of the twentieth century. The reasons for this are complicated, but in general they stem from the fact that genetically minded biologists, in particular, perceived paleontology to be incapable of employing the kinds of methods and evidence necessary to contribute to evolutionary theory. As a result, genetics emerged in the mid-twentieth century as the central discipline in evolutionary studies, a transition that was cemented by the advent of the modern synthesis.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, paleontologists began to assert their independence and to make strong claims about the centrality of paleontology within evolutionary biology. Between 1970 and 1985, a number of theories were advanced that argued the fossil record - the traditional domain of paleontologists - had genuine significance for understanding the mechanisms by which evolution happens. An influential group of scientists, including Stephen Jay Gould, Thomas Schopf, and David Raup, began to agitate both for the central importance of paleontology and for paleontologists to revise the goals and agenda of their discipline. They focused particularly on developing quantitative techniques using new technologies, such as mainframe computers, in order to model macroevolutionary patterns and extinction dynamics. This drew attention to the importance of the fossil record as a source for evolutionary theory, particularly by borrowing and incorporating methods used by ecologiste and population biologists (e.g., logistic equations, biogeographical models, etc.). The name for this new subdiscipline that the architects of this transformation settled on was "paleobiology," which reflected not only their assumption that paleontology ought to be more biologically oriented but also their deliberate attempt to situate their discipline explicidy within the broader field of evolutionary biology. Many of the scientists involved in this work have labeled the period a "revolution," and indeed as early as 1971 Gould confidendy predicted "there's a revolution going on in ecology and biogeography. . . . The next great innovator in paleoecology will be the man who successfully learns to understand this revolution and transfer its insights into paleontology" (Gould to Sepkoski, April 28, 1971. Sepkoski Papers.) I argue that this recent development was, in effect, the delayed "completion" of the modern synthesis begun 40 years earlier.

Calling this transformation a "completion," rather than a "rejection," an "alternative," or a "replacement" is appropriate, because it most accurately captures the motivations of the proponents of the new paleobiology. Indeed, in looking back on this history, Gould has consistendy referred to his motivation as a desire to amplify, not replace, the synthetic view of evolution. In his final major work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Gould wrote that his lifelong goal had been "to expand and alter the premises of Darwinism, in order to build an enlarged and distinctive evolutionary theory that, while remaining in the tradition, and under the logic, of Darwinian argument, can also explain a wide range of macroevolutionary phenomena lying outside the explanatory power of extrapolated modes and mechanisms of microevolution" (Gould, 2002, p. 1339). I argue that the entire paleobiological movement was indeed "in the tradition" of synthetic evolutionary theory, despite any "alteration" of premises about the importance and roles of macroevolutionary and microevolutionary processes. The framers of the modern synthesis explicitly crafted an important role for paleontology; this was, after all, why the predecessor to the Society for the Study of Evolution was called the Committee on Common Problems in Genetics, Paleontology, and Systematics. …

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