Let Sleeping Syntheses Lie Special Issue: Niche Construction, Plasticity, and Inclusive Inheritance: Rethinking Human Origins with the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Part 1

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Ian Tattersall


As the twentieth century neared its midpoint, paleoanthropology was in dire need of revitalization and some coherent concept of evolution.  Sadly, as introduced to paleoanthropology by Ernst Mayr in 1950, the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis proved disastrous in this role.  Far from aligning the study of human evolution with the rest of paleontology, Mayr’s reductionist intervention merely alienated paleoanthropologists of all stripes from the systematics that must underpin all evolutionary biological inquiry; and it ultimately resulted in a minimalist taxonomy that did not admit adequate taxa to express systematic diversity within the rapidly expanding hominin fossil record.  Since Mayr’s intervention, evolutionary biology has moved on, and it is clearly necessary to incorporate important subsequent advances (punctuated equilibria, genomics, epigenetics, multilevel selection, etc.) into paleoanthropological/paleontological practice.  But to do so by grafting them onto the reductionist Synthesis will simply take us farther down the blind alley in which we are already mired, while doing nothing to fix the serious systematic problem.  It is also necessary to be cautious in applying key components of the proposed Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to paleontological contexts.  Developmental plasticity is, for example, always a potential complication when determining species in the fossil record; but as applied to hominins it has been taken to preposterous extremes, for example in justifying the shoehorning of a ludicrous variety of morphologies into the catch-all “species in the middle” Homo erectus: all in obeisance to the shade of Mayr, who likely had never seen an original hominin fossil.

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