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From natural histories to man-made futures: the origins and ends of R.A. Fisher's Darwinism

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The Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology (ca. 1930–1950) is supposed to have provided a unified and comprehensive approach to the study of life, its diversity, and its evolution. However, several naturalists and historians have complained that natural history has been routinely side-lined – scientifically, institutionally, and historiographically – from the story. One means of rectifying this situation is to examine the constructive and critical roles of self-describing naturalists in the making and shaping of the synthesis. Another is to examine the role(s) of natural history – its practices, insights, and style of thought – in the work of the recognised synthesis ‘architects’.

In focusing upon Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890–1962), the present paper takes the latter approach. A trained mathematician and principal founder of theoretical population genetics, his 1930 work The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is cited by many as the most important evolutionary work since Darwin’s Origin. Several commentators have puzzled over Fisher’s unwavering commitment to Darwinism, given his training in a context (pre-war Cambridge) in which the stock of the gradualist doctrine stock was low, and Mendelian-saltationist accounts of organic change held sway. Nevertheless, in comparing Fisher’s evolutionary world-view with that of the American geneticist Sewall Wright (1889–1988), historian Bill Provine influentially cites the ‘Importance of Traditions in Natural History and Taxonomy’ in understanding their differing visions of organic change. We hear that the tradition to which Fisher was a neo-Darwinian, adaptationist one, whilst Wright’s challenged such a view. This paper will explore (and ultimately contest) the historical accuracy and historiographic utility of accounting for Fisher and Wright’s theoretical divergences by reference to their immersion in opposing natural historical and taxonomic ‘traditions’. It turns out that, more than describing and accounting for life’s past and present diversity and adaptedness, Fisher’s particular reimagining of Darwinism allowed the tantalising possibility of remaking and remodelling life – and particularly human life – for the future. From this perspective, we can begin to understand the ways in which Fisher drew upon natural historical resources, material and conceptual, whilst at the same time extricating them from their bases in both ‘Nature’ and ‘History’.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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