Chance in the Modern Synthesis

In Grant Ramsey & Charles H. Pence (eds.), Chance in Evolution. Chicago, IL, USA: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 76-102 (2016)
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The modern synthesis in evolutionary biology is taken to be that period in which a consensus developed among biologists about the major causes of evolution, a consensus that informed research in evolutionary biology for at least a half century. As such, it is a particularly fruitful period to consider when reflecting on the meaning and role of chance in evolutionary explanation. Biologists of this period make reference to “chance” and loose cognates of “chance,” such as: “random,” “contingent,” “accidental,” “haphazard,” or “stochastic.” Of course, what an author might mean by “chance” in any specific context varies. In the following, we first offer a historiographical note on the synthesis. Second, we introduce five ways in which synthesis authors spoke about chance. We do not take these to be an exhaustive taxonomy of all possible ways in which chance meaningfully figures in explanations in evolutionary biology. These are simply five common uses of the term by biologists at this period. They will serve to organize our summary of the collected references to chance and the analysis and discussion of the following questions: • What did synthesis authors understand by chance? • How did these authors see chance operating in evolution? • Did their appeals to chance increase or decrease over time during the synthesis? That is, was there a “hardening” of the synthesis, as Gould claimed (1983)?
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