Animal Behavior, Population Biology and the Modern Synthesis (1955–1985)

  • Jean-Baptiste GrodwohlEmail author
Original Research


This paper examines the history of animal behavior studies after the synthesis period. Three episodes are considered: the adoption of the theory of natural selection, the mathematization of ideas, and the spread of molecular methods in behavior studies. In these three episodes, students of behavior adopted practices and standards developed in population ecology and population genetics. While they borrowed tools and methods from these fields, they made distinct uses (inclusive fitness method, evolutionary theory of games, emphasis on individual selection) that set them relatively apart and led them to contribute, in their own way, to evolutionary theory. These episodes also highlight some limitations of “conjunction narratives” centered on the relation between a discipline and the modern synthesis. A trend in conjunction narratives is to interpret any development related to evolution in a discipline as an “extension,” an “integration,” or as a “delayed” synthesis. I here suggest that this can lead to underestimate discontinuities in the history of evolutionary biology.


Evolutionary biology Modern synthesis Animal behavior Population biology Behavioral ecology Sociobiology 



This work was supported by funding from the Coordenação de Aperfeicoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Brasil) and by the John Templeton Foundation Grant #60501. Unpublished materials quoted in this text were accessed thanks to the kind help of the staffs of the American Philosophy of Science Library, the British Library, the University of Bristol Library, the Library of Congress, the Stony Brook University Libraries and the Yale University Library. Geoffrey Parker has kindly allowed me to quote from his correspondence. This paper has benefitted from numerous conversations with scientists and historians, and from substantial critical comments by Andrew Buskell, David Depew, Philippe Huneman, Tim Lewens, G.A. Parker, Anya Plutynski, Alexandre Tanase and two anonymous reviewers. Rebecca Kilner and John Welch made very encouraging suggestions. All are gratefully thanked.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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