The origins of modern evolutionary thinking

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”

When biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote these words in 1973, he was reflecting on the coming together of two strands of thinking: evolutionary change, kick-started by Darwin in the mid-19th century, and genetics, a subject whose origins go back to the same era (with Mendel’s studies) but that only really got going early in the 20th century. Genetics provided the mechanism by which natural selection could occur.

The general principles of Darwinian evolution have been widely accepted.

This was the famed ‘modern synthesis’. Since then, with a few refinements and many unanswered questions, the general principles of Darwinian evolution have been widely accepted. At least, they have in the scientific world. In wider society, a significant proportion of people remain sceptical.

Evolution in modern science

Today, evolution is an explicit area of study for some scientists, often exploring the interactions between species or groups of species and the environment in an ecological context. The explosive growth of DNA sequencing is providing new tools to explore corresponding genetic changes. Mathematical modelling is also widely used to develop and test theories of how organisms interact with each other and the environment and hence change over time.

This is an exciting and dynamic area of research – with plenty of healthy debate and disagreement. However, this should not be taken as evidence that evolution is in any way scientifically contested – just that the details of the theory remain to be worked out.

Evolution is thus an active area of research in its own right. But it is also a unifying principle across all biological research. When trying to understand biological systems, scientists interpret their findings in an evolutionary context – what was the evolutionary journey by which nature arrived at this solution? So researchers may not call themselves ‘evolutionary biologists’, but evolution is far from irrelevant to their work.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Careers, Genetics and genomics, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development