ESHS2018 session on new historiography of evolution

Synthesis or Syntheses?:
Unity and Disunity in Twentieth Century Biology

Symposium organiser: Emily Herring and Alex Aylward

Session papers

  1. Alex Aylward. Getting personal in the pre-synthesis period: R. A. Fisher, selection, and the new genetics, 1910-30
  2. Emily Herring, French Naturalists vs Darwinian Specialists: Albert Vandel and Pierre-Paul Grassé’s “True” Synthesis
  3. Joe Cain, Rethinking the Synthesis Period in Evolutionary Studies
  4. Maurizio Esposito, Synthesis, Syntheses or just bad categories: on the historical concepts and the histories of biology in the 20th century
  5. Commentator: Charlotte Sleigh

Symposium Abstract

The modern synthesis, a grandiose unification in evolutionary studies which supposedly emerged in the years 1930-1950, is currently at the centre of active debate in the biological sciences. Should we stick with the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy this synthesis yielded? Should we ‘extend’ it by incorporating epigenetic phenomena, niche construction, and other such phenomena neglected by the original synthesisers? Or perhaps we should scrap it altogether and start again. In these ways, the very foundations of the modern synthesis are presently undergoing critical examination. 

 In this symposium, we are not only concerned with critically examining the modern synthesis as a scientific achievement and organising framework for ongoing research, but also, and more particularly, with exploring its utility as a historiographic category in studying the life sciences in the twentieth century. A huge body of scholarly literature has been amassed on the guiding assumption that there was a (singular) synthesis in evolutionary biology in the early-mid twentieth-century. Historians of the life sciences purport to know when this synthesis occurred, who was involved, and which conceptual, practical and institutional resources they drew upon in unifying biology. The historiographical result is the ultimate ‘unity’ story, as competing (read mistaken) mechanisms of evolutionary change were crushed by the advances of a hard-fought and newly forged Darwin-Mendel axis.

This tapestry is ripe for unpicking. Certainly, we suspect, there persisted a great deal more disunity than the standard narratives suggest. Partly this is due to the fact that the majority of histories centre upon the Anglo-American context. Emily Herring’s paper on the French case will highlight certain disunities across national boundaries and examine different ways in which the very notion of “synthesis” was understood within different intellectual traditions. Indeed, we suspect that myriad syntheses were in fact being forged, not only amongst various disciplines and in different national contexts, but also in the ‘personal’ syntheses negotiated and achieved in the minds of individual scientists. Alex Aylward’s paper on British statistician and geneticist R. A. Fisher examines a case in which the ‘community-wide’ and the ‘personal’ conceptions of synthesis come into contact.

The remaining two papers, from Maurizio Esposito and Joe Cain, step back somewhat relative to Herring and Aylward’s fine-grain case studies. Esposito uses the themes of unity and disunity in twentieth century biology to ask what it is historians are, or indeed should be, doing when they propose labels to order and unify scientific movements, traditions or cultures. What work do categories such as ‘modern synthesis’ do for the historian, and is it good work? Cain’s paper will suggest that it is not, and that the very unit concept of the evolutionary synthesis should be abandoned. Its propensity to obscure the vibrant heterogeneity of twentieth century evolutionary studies – a heterogeneity well documented by the contributions to this symposium – render the label rather unhelpful. Parallel, then, to present debate surrounding the extension or ejection of the synthesis as scientific framework, there is much to consider regarding the synthesis as a category employed by the historian of science.

This symposium will be given at European Society for the History of Science in September 2018.