Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975) was a key author of the Synthetic Theory of Evolution, also known as the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Theory, which embodies a complex array of biological knowledge centered around Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection couched in genetic terms. The epithet ‘‘synthetic’’ primarily alludes to the artful combination of Darwin’s natural selection with Mendelian genetics, but also to the incorporation of relevant knowledge from biological disciplines. In the 1920s and 1930s several theorists had developed mathematical accounts of natural selection as a genetic process. Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species, published in 1937 (1), refashioned their formulations in language that biologists could understand, dressed the equations with natural history and experimental population genetics, and extended the synthesis to speciation and other cardinal problems omitted by the mathematicians.The important point here is that evolutionary theory is a complex synthesis of sub-theories, hypotheses, and observations. While it may be convenient to refer to this synthetic version as the "Theory of Evolution," it's also very misleading.
The current Synthetic Theory has grown around that original synthesis. It is not just one single hypothesis (or theory) with its corroborating evidence, but a multidisciplinary body of knowledge bearing on biological evolution, an amalgam of well-established theories and working hypotheses, together with the observations and experiments that support accepted hypotheses (and falsify rejected ones), which jointly seek to explain the evolutionary process and its outcomes. These hypotheses, observations, and experiments often originate in disciplines such as genetics, embryology, zoology, botany, paleontology, and molecular biology. Currently, the ‘‘synthetic’’ epithet is often omitted and the compilation of relevant knowledge is simply known as the Theory of Evolution. This is still expanding, just like one of those ‘‘holding’’ business corporations that have grown around an original enterprise, but continue incorporating new profitable enterprises and discarding unprofitable ones.
I strongly recommend that we abandon that term and use "evolutionary theory" instead. Furthermore, we should be careful about using the term "Modern Synthesis" unless we are specifically referring to the version of evolutionary theory that was popular in the 1950s.
It's true that Ayala and Fitch would like to retain the term "Synthetic Theory" to refer to the expanded version of the Modern Synthesis. They want to emphasize that there have been important extensions to the original Modern Synthesis but these are merely add-ons. Darwin's basic idea of evolution by natural selection remains at the core of their version of the "Theory of Evolution."
That seems like a very pluralistic view but I'd like to note several things about this paper.
- The word "drift" appears only once and it's in the form "neutral drift." There's no mention of random genetic drift as a mechanism evolution that's been incorporated into the synthetic version of evolutionary theory.
- The word "neutral" appears five times but "Neutral Theory" is not mentioned. The authors do concede that "the neutral-selection controversy rages on."
- There are 50 references but not a single paper by Mootoo Kimura is mentioned. They do, however, discuss molecular clocks and discuss whether amino acid substitutions are really of "no adaptive consequence."
- There's a fairly well-known paper by Gould and Lewontin that might be relevant in a discussion about the synthetic version modern evolutionary theory. They neglected to mention it.
Ayala, F.J., and Fitch, W.M. (1997) Genetics and the origin of species: an introduction. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 94:7691-7697. [PDF]
Gould, S.J., and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc. Roy. Soc. (London) Series B. Biological Sciences 205:581-598. [doi: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086]