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Massimo Pigliucci

Department of Philosophy
City University of New York-Lehman College

Evolutionary theory: toward an extended synthesis?

Friday, December 4, 2009
Lecture Hall 2, 4:00 PM


Modern evolutionary biology began with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Since then, two major reassessments of the theory have taken place: the neo-Darwinian turn at the end of the 19th century (which definitely excluded Lamarckism), and the Modern Synthesis of the 1930s and ‘40s (which reconciled Mendelism, statistical genetics and Darwinism). For years now scholars have been hinting at the necessity of a new Extended Synthesis, building on the conceptual framework laid out during the middle of the 20th century while incorporating new empirical findings and theoretical advances that have occurred since. In this talk I sketch how an Extended Synthesis is beginning to shape, with contributions from fields such as evo-devo, genomics, ecology and complexity theory, and with the incorporation of new concepts like phenotypic plasticity, modularity and evolvability. This makes for much intellectual excitement, not to mention some elementary observation on the sociology and psychology of science.

Lunch Talk: What is the role of theory in evolutionary biology?

Noon on 12/4/2009, Science 3, Room 214

“Theory” means different things to different scientists, depending on the discipline and types of problems they tackle. Fundamental physics is a field were theoretical advancements are expressed in highly mathematical form and are typically far ahead of the corresponding empirical research. In the case of historical sciences like evolutionary biology, however, mathematical formulation plays a lesser and somewhat different role, and it is far less clear what the relationship between theory and empirical research is. This discussion will informally explore what biologists mean by theory, how they go about carrying out theoretical work, and how this compares to what is done in other hard and soft sciences (e.g., physics and psychology).


Prof. Pigliucci has a Doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy, 1989), a PhD in Botany from the University of Connecticut (1994), and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has carried out post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. Pigliucci’s fields of research include philosophy of biology, with particular relevance to the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the relationship between science and religion.

Pigliucci is an associate editor for Biology & Philosophy and the Editor-in-Chief of the new journal Philosophy & Theory in Biology. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and writes regularly for Philosophy Now, a magazine devoted to public understanding of philosophy. He writes a blog about philosophy, science and other topics at rationallyspeaking.org.

Pigliucci has published Making Sense of Evolution: Toward a Coherent Picture of Evolutionary Theory (with Jonathan Kaplan, University of Chicago Press). His forthcoming book is Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (co-edited with Gerd Muller, MIT Press).

More information can be found at www.platofootnote.org.


  1. The Borderlands Between Science and Philosophy: An Introduction
  2. Is evolvability evolvable?
  3. An Extended Synthesis for Evolutionary Biology
  4. Sewall Wright’s adaptive landscapes: 1932 vs. 1988
  5. What, if Anything, Is an Evolutionary Novelty?

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