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Natural History

Modern Synthesis And Contemporary Natural History

Life scientists in the late nineteenth century were agreed that life had evolved over time, but there was considerable disagreement over how that evolution had taken place. Darwin's emphasis on natural selection was thought to be problematic, and a variety of alternatives were proposed. The research on genetics in the early decades of the twentieth century provided tools for a new examination of the subject. Starting with Theodosius Dobzhansky's (1900–1975) Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), naturalists were able to bring together several different lines of research to construct a new theory of evolution, one based on natural selection and the genetics of population change. Like Darwin's earlier theory, the modern synthesis, as the new theory is called, proved widely synthetic. Dobzhansky once wrote that nothing made sense except in the light of evolution, and this very well sums up the tremendous generalizing power of the modern theory. It has brought an evolutionary perspective on traditional subjects like the study of fossils and distribution, or the foundations of classification and nomenclature, as well as subjects like animal behavior, ecology, and conservation biology. With techniques and information from molecular biology, the theory of evolution has been extended to an understanding of evolution on the molecular level.

With contemporary interest in molecular biology, and especially the potential medical applications that it promises, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of natural history today. The unifying theory of the life sciences is still the theory of evolution that emerged from the naturalist tradition and is deeply rooted there. Contemporary naturalists like Edward O. Wilson argue that natural history still provides the vantage point from which to stand back and conceptualize the general order in nature. By studying a particular group from its molecular aspects to its widest ecological dimension, Wilson contends, we can go beyond much of the narrow research and discover general features of life. On a more practical side, natural history provides the tools for examining environmental issues and has been central in the call for preserving the bio-diversity of the planet.

Natural history has been at the heart of the life sciences for over two centuries and remains a powerful set of ideas about the study of nature and its order. It has given rise to the major unifying theory of the life sciences, and it remains the repository of what we know about natural objects on the earth.


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Paul Farber

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