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Evolution: The Modern SynthesisReview - Evolution: The Modern Synthesis
The Definitive Edition
by Julian S. Huxley
MIT Press, 2010
Review by Davide Vecchi, Ph.D.
Oct 26th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 43)

Flamingos are pink because in this way they can better avoid detection from predators at dusk: the pinker the flamingo the higher the probability of reproducing by evading the predator's dining attentions. This hypothesis strikes us as a poetic example of just-so-story. However, it was once endorsed by eminent biologists, in a period in which "evolutionary speculation" had little contact with "the concrete facts of cytology and heredity, or with actual experimentation." (p. 23). This is what Julian Huxley writes in the magnificent book Evolution: the modern synthesis, recently reprinted by MIT in a new, "definitive", edition. The edition contains a foreword by the biologists Gerd Muller and Massimo Pigliucci (authors of Evolution: the Extended Synthesis, always from MIT) that explains facets of the actuality of the book.

The book is a real classic, a compulsory read for whoever is interested in biology, evolutionary theory and its history. One interesting aspect of the book is that it is in many ways a history concerning the process that led to the Modern Synthesis. The breadth of knowledge of the author and his ability to explain clearly technical matters transpires at every page. As a consequence the book is extremely readable. Huxley's aim, succinctly expressed in the preface to the first edition, is that of developing an understanding of evolution that takes into account the data, methods and theories of a various set of disciplines that have been traditionally working in relative isolation. Huxley's emphasis is on building on the richness provided by this diverse plurality of disciplines (e.g. genetics, cytology, systematics, paleontology, ecology, biogeography etc). The main argument of the book is that all these disciplines are necessary in order to make sense of the three aspects of biological fact (section 2.6), that is, the mechanistic-physiological, the adaptive-functional and the historical aspects. The study of biology and evolution encompasses analyses at all these three levels. This means that the biological disciplines named above are all equally important for the study of evolution: "All these are necessary, but none of them alone is sufficient." (p. 42)

Huxley is also extremely open-minded as far as the evolutionary relevance of disciplines such as embryology and developmental physiology is concerned, showing none of the lack of interest towards the developmental sciences subsequently expressed by other authoritative exponents of the Modern Synthesis. It is also interesting to note that Huxley considers not only Haldane and Fisher among the architects of the synthesis, but also Goldschmidt and Waddington.

The book contains one of the clearest reconstructions of Darwin's argument in favour of the existence of the process of natural selection. This argument, argues Huxley, contains important deductive elements. In fact, the "principle" or "postulate" of natural selection is deduced by Darwin from the "fact" of variation and the existence of a competitive struggle for survival and reproduction among organisms. Nonetheless, Huxley argues, Darwin's argument is not criticisable simply because it contains such elements of deduction: "Although both the principle of differential survival and that of its evolutionary accumulation by Natural Selection were for Darwin essentially deductions, it is important to realize that, if true, they are also facts of nature capable of verification by observation and experiment." (p. 16) Reading Huxley's clear analysis of Darwin's argument and of the varieties of challenges faced by the theory of natural selection is very elucidating. On the one hand it clearly shows that some critics of the idea of natural selection get it fundamentally wrong, and that they would profit by carefully reading this book. On the other it shows that there is an intrinsic danger in adaptationism that must be counterbalanced by detailed "ecological observations". As the flamingo just-so-story testifies, the "method of deduction" used by Darwin can be dangerous if allowed "too free a rein. Speculation must be constantly checked by observation and experiment." (p. 35) This no-nonsensical approach to the evergreen issue of the nature of selection is simultaneously a sound criticism of naïve adaptationism.

One further deeply interesting aspect of the book regards its broad pluralistic outlook. Pluralism means two connected things for Huxley. First, as already noted, it means that a plurality of disciplines is necessary to understand evolution in all its complexity. Secondly, it means that a plurality of processes is responsible for the evolutionary outcomes we observe in nature. Huxley castigates biologists for extrapolating from their discipline when dealing with the totality of evolution. For instance, Huxley is particularly scathing with the palaeontologist who reckons that all evolution must be gradual because he unearths fossils showing continuous and long-range trends. This palaeontologist, continues Huxley, commits a mistake for the simple reason that the "discontinuous and abrupt formation of new species" (p. 30) is well-known, especially in plants, where, Huxley continues, we can sometimes speak of evolution per saltum (p. 34, sections 6.8 and 6.9). In the same vein Huxley also predicts, in rather prophetic fashion, that the discontinuos formation of species might be a much commoner phenomenon than supposed.  In any case, the tendency to over-interpret one's personal experience and to apply the results of one's study to the whole of evolution is faulty in two respects: because it does not take into account the necessity of methodological pluralism, and because it does not accept the crucial truth of process pluralism. While in the first case methodological pluralism is an outcome of the necessity to study biological facts in all their complexity (i.e. its three aspects), in the second case Huxley's argument can be seen as an implicit criticism of a monolithic view of the evolutionary process like, for instance, the "hardened" orthodox neo-Darwinian view of evolution dominated by the deux ex machine of natural selection. For Huxley the "multiformity" of evolution is a fact, and from this fact "the impossibility of ascribing all kinds of evolutionary change to a single mechanism" (p. 39) clearly follows. Given that "no single formula can be universally applicable" (p.46) to all evolutionary dynamics, the emerging alternative is to study evolution "…not only broadly and deductively, not only intensively and analytically, but as a comparative subject." (p. 46) I find this open-mindedness fascinating and very actual as it is at odds with both contemporary Darwinian orthodoxy as well as, rather naturally, creation-inspired fundamentalism alike.

The decision to reprint this book is commendable in many ways. Huxley's analysis is always insightful and original. The book is also an important historical document, especially given the editorial decision to reprint this "definitive" edition with the introductions to the second and third editions, which makes it a very useful tool for the historian. But above all, Huxley's book contains a very welcomed and refreshing hymn to methodological, disciplinary and process pluralism that will please many students of biology.


© 2010 Davide Vecchi


Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.


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