How the Modern Synthesis Came to Ecology

  • Philippe HunemanEmail author
Original Research


Ecology in principle is tied to evolution, since communities and ecosystems result from evolution and ecological conditions determine fitness values (and ultimately evolution by natural selection). Yet the two disciplines of evolution and ecology were not unified in the twentieth-century. The architects of the Modern Synthesis, and especially Julian Huxley, constantly pushed for such integration, but the major ideas of the Synthesis—namely, the privileged role of selection and the key role of gene frequencies in evolution—did not directly or immediately translate into ecological science. In this paper I consider five stages through which the Synthesis was integrated into ecology and distinguish between various ways in which a possible integration was gained. I start with Elton’s animal ecology (1927), then consider successively Ford’s ecological genetics in the 1940s, the major textbook Principles of animal ecology edited by Allee et al. (1949), and the debates over the role of competition in population regulation in the 1950s, ending with Hutchinson’s niche concept (1959) and McArthur and Wilson’s Principles of Island Biogeography (1967) viewed as a formal transposition of Modern Synthesis explanatory schemes. I will emphasize the key role of founders of the Synthesis at each stage of this very nonlinear history.


Modern Synthesis Ecology Coexistence question Population regulation Elton Hutchinson Lack Competition Ecological community Population biology 



The author is grateful to the group of historians and philosophers committed since 2014 to the projet ‘Revisiting the Modern Synthesis’, especially Jean Gayon, Dick Burian, Edna Suarez and the audiences at the workshop organised by the group and the HSS conference in Chicago 2014. He warmly thanks Antoine Dussault, Sébastien Dutreuil, Jean Baptiste Grodwohl, John Huss, and Sophie Rousseau Mermans for their insightful comments and criticisms. He is greatly indebted to Chris Donohue for a thorough language checking, and a careful reading. He is extremely thankful to two anonymous reviewers whose criticisms helped to significantly improve the manuscript, as well as the JHB editors, whose remarks and copyediting crucially helped the paper. Je also thanks Jean-Baptiste Grodwohl for providing materials from the archives. This work has been supported by the GDR CNRS 3770 Sapienv, and the LIA CNRS Paris-Montréal ECIEB. The author and his paper are especially indebted to Jean Gayon.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des sciences et des techniques (CNRS/Université Paris I Panthéon Sorbonnne)ParisFrance

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