Developmental biology and human evolution

  • Jeffrey H. Schwartz University of Pittsburgh
Keywords: evolutionary biology, development, genes for, the Synthesis, human paleontology


The Evolutionary or Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (here identified as the Synthesis) has been portrayed as providing the foundation for uniting a supposed disarray of biological disciplines through the lens of Darwinism fused with population genetics. Rarely acknowledged is that the Synthesis’s success was also largely due to its architects’ effectiveness in submerging British and German attempts at a synthesis by uniting the biological sciences through shared evolutionary concerns. Dobzhansky and Mayr imposed their bias toward population genetics, population (as supposedly opposed to typological) thinking, and Morgan’s conception of specific genes for specific features (here abbreviated as genes for) on human evolutionary studies. Dobzhansky declared that culture buffered humans from the whims of selection. Mayr argued that as variable as humans are now, their extinct relatives were even more variable; thus the human fossil did not present taxic diversity and all known fossils could be assembled into a gradually changing lineage of time-successive species. When Washburn centralized these biases in the new physical anthropology the fate of paleoanthropology as a non-contributor to evolutionary theory was sealed. Molecular anthropology followed suit in embracing Zuckerkandl and Pauling’s assumption that molecular change was gradual and perhaps more importantly continual. Lost in translation was and still is an appreciation of organismal development. Here I will summarize the history of these ideas and their alternatives in order to demonstrate assumptions that still need to be addressed before human evolutionary studies can more fully participate in what is a paradigm shift-in-the-making in evolutionary biology.


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Author Biography

Jeffrey H. Schwartz, University of Pittsburgh
Professor, Departments of Anthropology and History and Philosophy of Science
How to Cite
Schwartz, J. (2011). Developmental biology and human evolution. Human Origins Research, 1(1), e2.
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