Evolution: The Modern Synthesis

Evolution: The Modern Synthesis is the title of a book by Julian Huxley which was published in 1942. It was the book which gave the modern evolutionary synthesis its name, and was one of the most important books on biology in the mid-twentieth century.

The background to the book

Huxley was one of the main architects of the new evolutionary synthesis which took place around the time of World War II.

"The most informative episode in the history of evolutionary biology was the establishment of the 'neo-Darwinian synthesis'." Berry and Bradshaw, 1992.[1] The synthesis was brought about "not by one side being proved right and the others wrong, but by the exchange of the most viable components of the previously competing research strategies". Ernst Mayr, 1980.[2]

A trial run

Huxley's first 'trial run' was the treatment of evolution in the Science of Life (1929–30), and in 1936 he published a long and significant paper for the British Association.[3] In 1938 came three lengthy reviews on major evolutionary topics.[4][5][6]

Two of these papers were on the subject of sexual selection, an idea of Darwin's whose standing has been revived in recent times.[7][8] Huxley thought that sexual selection was "...merely an aspect of natural selection". This rather grudging acceptance of sexual selection was influenced by his studies on the courtship of the Great Crested Grebe (and other birds that pair for life): the courtship takes place mostly after mate selection, not before.

The book and its reception

Now it was time for Huxley to tackle the subject of evolution at full length, in what became the defining work of his life.

His role was that of a synthesiser, and it helped that he had met many of the other participants. His book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis was written whilst he was Secretary to the Zoological Society, and made use of his remarkable collection of reprints covering the first part of the century. It was published in 1942.

Reviews of the book in learned journals were little short of ecstatic; the American Naturalist called it "The outstanding evolutionary treatise of the decade, perhaps of the century. The approach is thoroughly scientific; the command of basic information amazing".[9][10]

Others in the field

Huxley's main co-respondents in the modern evolutionary synthesis are usually listed as Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, George Gaylord Simpson, Bernhard Rensch, Ledyard Stebbins and the population geneticists J.B.S. Haldane, Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright.
However, at the time of Huxley's book several of these had yet to make their distinctive contribution. Certainly, for Huxley, E.B. Ford and his co-workers in ecological genetics were at least as important.

Key terms

It was Huxley who coined the terms the new synthesis and evolutionary synthesis;[11] he also invented the term cline in 1938 to describe species whose members fall into a series of sub-species with continuous change in characters over a geographical area.[12][13] The classic example of a cline is the circle of subspecies of the gull Larus round the Arctic zone. This cline is an example of a ring species.
Some of Huxley's last contributions to the evolutionary synthesis were on the subject of ecological genetics. He noted how surprisingly widespread polymorphism is in nature, with visible morphism much more prevalent in some groups than others. The immense diversity of colour and pattern in small bivalve molluscs, brittlestars, sea anemones, tubicular polychaetes and various grasshoppers is perhaps maintained by making recognition by predators more difficult.[14][15][16]

  • Huxley, Julian 1942. Evolution: the modern synthesis. Allen and Unwin, London. 2nd ed 1963; 3rd ed 1974. Template:Catalog lookup linkScript error: No such module "check isxn".


  1. Berry R.J. and Bradshaw A.D. 1992. Genes in the real world. In Berry R.J. et al. (eds) Genes in ecology. Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Mayr E. 1980. Some thoughts on the history of the evolutionary synthesis. In Mayr E. and Provine W.B. The evolutionary synthesis. Harvard. pp 1–80
  3. Huxley J.S. 1936. Natural selection and evolutionary progress. Proceedings of the British Association 106, 81–100.
  4. Huxley J. 1938a. Threat and warning colouration with a general discussion of the biological function of colour. Proc Eighth Int Ornithological Congress, Oxford 1934 pp 430–55
  5. Huxley J. 1938b. Darwin's theory of sexual selection and the data subsumed by it, in the light of recent research. American Naturalist 72, 416–33.
  6. Huxley J.S. 1938c. The present standing of the theory of sexual selection. In G.R. de Beer (ed) Evolution: Essays on aspects of evolutionary biology pp 11–42. Oxford.
  7. Cronin, Helena (1991). The ant and the peacock: altruism and sexual selection from Darwin to today. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Anderson M. 1994. Sexual selection. Princeton.
  9. Hubbs C.L. 1943. Evolution the new synthesis. American Naturalist 77, 365–68.
  10. Kimball R.F. 1943. The great biological generalization. Quarterly Review of Biology 18, 364–67 [another review of Ev. the modern synthesis].
  11. Huxley J. 1942. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (2nd ed 1963, 3rd ed 1974)
  12. Huxley J. 1938d. Clines: an auxiliary method in taxonomy. Bijdragen tot de Dierkunde (Leiden) 27, 491–520.
  13. Huxley J. 1938e. Clines: an auxiliary taxonomic principle. Nature 142, 219–220.
  14. Huxley J.S. 1955. Morphism and evolution. Heredity 9, 1–52.
  15. Huxley J. 1955. Morphism in birds. In Portmann A. & Sutter E. (eds) Acta XI Cong Int Ornith (Basel 1954) pp 309–328.
  16. Moment G.B. 1962. Reflexive selection: a possible answer to an old puzzle. Science 136, 262.