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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 2012 > Bookshelf Detail

CLASSIC BOOK REVIEW

Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, by Julian Huxley

Kirtley F. Mather

Vol. 31, No. 2 (APRIL 1943)

EVOLUTION: The Modern Synthesis, by Julian Huxley; 645 pages; $5.00; Harper and Brothers, 1943.

In contrast to certain of his earlier and justly popular books, Julian Huxley addresses himself in this volume to professional biologists interested in the more general aspects of their subjects. Laymen, including professional scientists in other fields, will find much good reading in the first two and last two chapters, but are almost certain to bog down among the technicalities and italicized binomials of the six intervening chapters which occupy more than three-fourths of the pages of the text. Those six chapters, however, constitute an admirable digest of most of the important literature dealing with the problems of the origin of species that has appeared in Europe and America in the last twenty years. Together with the extensive bibliography and the unusually satisfactory index they provide ready access to data otherwise scattered almost hopelessly through tens of thousands of printed pages. Of general interest is Huxley’s defense of the Darwinian concept of evolution, under attack by Hogben, Bateson and other biologists, amusingly reminiscent of bygone days when another Huxley championed the cause of evolution in a wholly different battle. Just as physicists retain the atomic theory of matter despite the revolutionary changes in the concept of the atom, so “biologists may with a good heart continue to be Darwinians and to employ the term Natural Selection, even if Darwin knew nothing of mendelizing mutations, and if selection is by itself incapable of changing the constitution of a species or a line.”

Especially valuable is Huxley’s analysis of evolutionary trends and his appraisal of evolutionary progress. Progress, as he defines it, is not the same as specialization, nor does it rely upon any assumption that man is necessarily an “improvement” over earlier forms of life. Attainment of “greater control over the environment” and “greater independent of the environment [sic] . . . may provisionally be taken as the criterion of biological progress.” The latest advances in the progress of life have resulted from the attainment of conceptual thought found exclusively in man; indeed, “it would not have been evolved on earth except in man.” As a result of this new power, man substitutes for the satisfaction of a few instincts “new and more complex satisfactions, in the realm of morality, pure intellect, aesthetics, and creative activity.” The introduction of criteria based upon values alters the direction of progress, or “it might be preferable to say that it alters the level on which progress occurs. True human progress consists in increases of aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual experience and satisfaction.”

Kirtley F. Mather (1888–1978), the first editor of American Scientist's Scientists' Bookshelf, was a geologist and professor at Harvard University. He served as president of AAAS in the 1950s, during which time he also spoke out against the McCarthy-era inquisitions. This was not the first time Mather had advocated for freedom of expression: In the 1930s, he refused to take a "teachers' oath" proposed by the Massachusetts state legislature. In a 1996 biographical sketch of Mather for GSA Today, Kennard B. Bork notes, "Mather was happy to pledge allegiance to the federal government when he was inducted into the U.S. Army, but he rebelled against state fealty oaths for faculty members at private universities." Among Mather's books are The Earth Beneath Us (1964) and, with coauthor Dorothy Hewitt, Adult Education: A Dynamic for Democracy (1937). Bork's 1994 biography of Mather is titled Cracking Rocks and Defending Democracy.



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