A snippet from “Tempo and Mode in Evolution”

4 07 2007

I started in on G.G. Simpson’s Tempo and Mode in Evolution tonight (reprint of the first edition, not the revised edition [Major Features in Evolution]). While I haven’t read enough of it yet to share any detailed thoughts of the subject, I did enjoy this bit from Simpson’s original Introduction, which I have seen quoted elsewhere before;

The attempted synthesis of paleontology and genetics, an essential part of the present study, may be particularly surprising and possibly hazardous. Not long ago paleontologists felt that a geneticist was a person who shut himself in a room, pulled down the shades, watched small flies disporting themselves in milk bottles, and thought that he was studying nature. A pursuit so removed from the realities of life, they said, had no significance for the true biologist. On the other hand, the geneticists said that paleontology had no further contributions to make to biology, that its only point had been the completed demonstration of the truth of evolution, and that it was a subject too purely descriptive to merit the name “science.” The paleontologist, they believed, is like a man who undertakes to study the principles of the internal combustion engine by standing on a street corner and watching the motor cars whiz by.

Now paleontologists and geneticists are learning tolerance for each other, if not understanding. As a paleontologist, I confess to inadequate knowledge of genetics, and I have not met a geneticist who has demonstrated much grasp of my subject; but at least we have come to realize that we do have problems in common and to hope that difficulties encountered in each separate type of research may be resolved or alleviated by the discoveries of the other.

Simpson originally wrote that over 80 years ago, and we’ve still got a long way to come. Knowledge in science continues to be specialized, genetic and morphological analysis of evolutionary trees still seemingly at odds, but I honestly don’t see how we’re going to advance our understanding of evolution if scientists who study the history of life focus only on their own field and no others. I don’t know if a new synthesis would do a trick, I don’t even know if it could be done, but no matter how it’s achieved, ecology, ethology, genetics, evodevo, paleontology, anatomy, etc. must all be considered and become more familiar, otherwise each field will be cataloging the minutiae of evolution rather than revealing the “big picture.”




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