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A century ago, it was noted in the domain of physics that ‘concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such an authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus, they come to be stamped as “necessities of thought”, “a priori givens”, etc. The path of scientific advance is often made impassable for a long time through such errors.’ [1]. Evolutionary biology finds itself in a similar situation today. A well-established paradigm that has its roots in a major theoretical integration that took place approximately eight decades ago, traditionally labelled the modern synthesis (MS) or Synthetic Theory, still dominates evolutionary thought today. In the meantime, the biological sciences have progressed extensively. The material basis of inheritance has been unravelled and entire new fields of research have arisen, such as molecular genetics, evolutionary developmental biology and systems biology. In addition, new evolutionarily relevant factors have been described, including non-genetic inheritance, developmental bias, niche construction, genomic evolution and others. Clearly, our understanding of evolution has significantly expanded, and it would be surprising if these empirical and conceptual advances had no theoretical consequences, so that in the midst of a substantial growth of knowledge, the central theory uniting the different fields of biology remained unaltered.

In fact, our theoretical understanding of biological evolution has not remained unaltered. Slight modifications and adjustments to the received theory are recognized even in the most traditional quarters. But in the past decade, without much notice by general audiences, a more wide-ranging debate has arisen from different areas of biology as well as from history and philosophy of science, about whether and in which ways evolutionary theory is affected, challenged or changed by the advances in biology and other fields. As usual in such cases, more conservative perspectives and more progressive ones are in conflict with each other, with differences ranging from minor to intense. A rising number of publications argue for a major revision or even a replacement of the standard theory of evolution [2–14], indicating that this cannot be dismissed as a minority view but rather is a widespread feeling among scientists and philosophers alike. In the present essay, I will concentrate on the arguments and debates triggered by one particular alternative to the standard theory that has become known under the term extended evolutionary synthesis (EES).

Gerd B. Müller
Department of Theoretical Biology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
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