Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 15: Shifting Balance and Balancing Selection: A Group Selectionist's Interpretation of Wright and Dobzhansky

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 15: Shifting Balance and Balancing Selection: A Group Selectionist's Interpretation of Wright and Dobzhansky

Article excerpt

Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.

- Darwin, On the Origin of Species

A false statement, backed by great prestige, propagates exponentially at second and third hand.

- Wright, "Genie and Organismic Selection," Evolution


In the above quotes, both Charles Darwin and Sewall Wright bemoan the power and persistence of misinterpretation. In both cases diese scientists were concerned with the treatment of their theories by the broader scientific community and die lay pubUc. Separated by more than a century, these thoughts provide a background for the discussion of the theory of group selection as it developed in die mid- to latetwentieth century in the work of the English ecologist Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards. In this chapter I examine the ways that the work of Theodosius Dobzhansky and SewaU Wright influenced Wynne-Edwards. It is well known to biologists and historians alike that Wynne-Edwards developed a dieory of group selection in the postsynthesis period that generated a heated debate. What is not so well known is diat Wynne-Edwards was consciously constructing his theory in a manner he thought consistent with Wright and Dobzhansky. Indeed, Wynne-Edwards conceived of his own work as an ecological naturalist's verification of the models of Wright, consistent with the fieldwork of Dobzhansky. Although the "hardened" form of the modern synthesis may have ultimately focused research along particular individuafist Unes, this was not the only interpretation of the canonical works that constituted the synthesis. Wynne-Edwards is almost universally presented as an outsider in evolutionary studies, as either a misguided simpleton or an outright crank. Nevertheless, WynneEdwards saw himself as part of a natural continuation of the evolutionary synthesis, and he presented his work Ui ways that stressed his association with the architects of the synthesis, particularly Theodosius Dobzhansky and SewaU Wright. These associations were more than simply rhetorical. Wynne-Edwards derived key ideas and practices from the architects. This association is far more Ultimate and extensive than the secondary literature leads us to assume. Analysis of this association raises important questions about notions like "insider" and "outsider" or continuity versus breaks in the synthesis historiography.


Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards was born in 1906 and later attended Leeds Grammar and Rugby Schools where he developed his early interest in astronomy and natural history. While at Rugby, the young Wynne-Edwards was much impressed by some visiting lecturers, including JuUan Huxley. Wynne-Edwards noted in his diary, Huxley was one visitor who lectured "awfully well" (1985, p. 488). Wynne-Edwards left Rugby in 1924 with hopes of Himalayan expeditions studying alpine fauna and flora. The headmaster and his father, however, had, perhaps not surprisingly, more practical plans. The headmaster suggested die study of medicine so diat Wynne could act as an expeditionary doctor, and his father suggested further formal study. In die end, Wynne entered New College, Oxford to read zoology in October of 1924 with Julian Huxley as his tutor. This relationship was to last only a year as Huxley accepted die chair of Zoology at King's College London before the end of 1925. Huxley's successor was Charles Elton (a former student of Huxley himself). According to Wynne-Edwards, Elton's influence was to be much more specific and enduring (1985, p. 490). A pioneer of animal ecology and the founder of the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford University in 1932, Elton is credited as having Ut, after their first tutorial, an interest in population ecology that burned for the rest of Wynne-Edwards's life. Much later, Elton became one of many biologists who dismissed Wynne-Edwards's theories.

Wynne-Edwards graduated with first-class honors in zoology in 1927 and became Senior Scholar of New College for 1927-1929. …

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