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(2015) Handbook of Paleoanthropology, Dordrecht, Springer.

Charles Darwin, paleoanthropology, and the modern synthesis

Franz Wuketits

pp. 97-125

The present chapter focuses the role that paleoanthropology played in Charles Darwin's views of evolution and in the formation of the synthetic theory or modern synthesis. It shows the close relationship between these evolutionary conceptions and the central goals of paleontology. Darwin was among the few naturalists in the nineteenth century who fully grasped the importance of fossils for an understanding of evolution. In spite of the incompleteness of the fossil record – and despite opposing views – he referred to paleontology in order to support his theories of common descent and continuous steps in evolutionary history (gradualism) as well as his views on the roots of humans in apelike mammals. Thus, in his The Descent of Man he argued, with some optimism, that the lack of fossil human remains was merely due to the fact that they had not yet been discovered. Indeed, paleoanthropology as a discipline at the interface between paleontology and anthropology was firmly established only in the late nineteenth century. However, up to now it has played a major part in the study of human evolution, and it has also helped in establishing the synthetic theory in the 1940s and 1950s, although only few of the leading proponents of this theory were explicitly concerned with paleoanthropological issues. The synthetic theory has been extraordinary successful as a comprehensive explanation of the mechanisms of evolutionary change of species (mainly variation and natural selection), and it has offered convincing evidence that the very same mechanisms fully apply to human evolution. This chapter also includes some (historical) examples which show how paleoanthropologists were sometimes misguided by ideological questions (Weltanschauungsfragen). Moreover, it brings into the focus some methodological issues and the shift of paleoanthropology from mere narrative to a theory-guided science. These issues are serious, since after all they affect the status of a discipline that is of crucial importance for a deep understanding of past and present conditions of humankind. Finally, therefore, the chapter considers the importance of paleoanthropology as the basis for a synthesis of anthropology that is increasingly needed as the latter gets more and more split into a growing number of highly specialized subdisciplines.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-39979-4_82

Full citation:

Wuketits, F. (2015)., Charles Darwin, paleoanthropology, and the modern synthesis, in W. Henke & I. Tattersall (eds.), Handbook of Paleoanthropology, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 97-125.

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