International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-R515
Organized session / diverse format
Studies in the History of the Modern Synthesis: Molecularization and Unification

David Depew (University of Iowa, United States); Richard Burian (Virginia Tech Philosophy and Science Studies (Emeritus), United States)


Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis (University of Florida, United States)
Michel Morange (École Normale Supérieure, Centre Cavaillès, France)
Gunter Wagner (Yale University, United States)
Jean Gayon (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France)

This session deals with an important issue within a larger research program on the history of the Evolutionary Synthesis (ES) in which the participants and about twenty others are engaged. The issue is the effect of molecularization on the ideal of synthesis, integration, and unification imparted to the ES by its founders. By the 1950s the ES achieved a dominant position in evolutionary inquiry by integrating systematics, speciation, and paleontology. In a forthcoming issue of Journal of the History of Biology, members of our group examine extensions and revisions of the ES resulting from its interactions with a larger array of disciplines, e.g., ecology and ethology. Molecular genetic tools and techniques played a major role in these extensions. The session asks whether and how the overtly reductionist aims of early molecular genetics affected and remolded the ES’s aspirations to achieve the full unification of biology. Some ES adherents found reductionist ideals attractive as a way of casting evolutionary biology as mature science. But most of its founders disagreed; some sought help from philosophers to blunt reductionist claims in order to protect and consolidate ES’s gains. What conceptions of unity, we ask, emerged to support this stance? Were they theory oriented even if not reductionist, or primarily grounded in experimental practices and techniques shared between laboratories and other sites of inquiry? Paradoxes emerge when we follow this topic into the present. Evolutionary biology has successfully integrated molecular techniques and gene-sequencing data. But even though molecular findings have overturned some key commitments of the early synthesis its practitioners still resist reduction and retain the stress on phenotypes. At the same time, genetic reductionism has been undermined by the very molecular findings that this aspiration stimulated, including those bearing on developmental genetics, epigenetics, and gene networks.