D. Dwight Davis’s Legacy: A Morphological Examination of the Evolutionary Synthesis



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D. Dwight Davis was a morphologist who worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, publishing between 1932 and 1964. Best-known for an authoritative monograph on the comparative anatomy of the giant panda, Davis envisioned a field of morphology that could discern the evolutionary processes leading to animal bodies. He searched for a broad alternative to the “Modern Synthesis,” the unification of Darwinian evolution and genetics. Davis brought together the neglected work of scientists like Richard Goldschmidt, D’Arcy Thompson, and Conrad Waddington to fill in the missing links between small genetic changes and large, relatively adaptive steps. While much of Davis’s thought is unified in his work on the panda, his efforts in translating Phylogenetic Systematics, which introduced cladistics to English-speaking evolutionists, stand out. My argument is that Davis came to believe that the living history of actual organisms was the most important factor in biological systems, and the new approach of phylogenetics was an expression of the interplay of traits in the real life of an organism. Biological progress is not the design of hypothetical ancestors striving to become organisms that do not yet exist: the first insect, or amphibian, or reptile, or mammal.



history of science, morphology, D. Dwight Davis, Modern Synthesis, 20th century, giant panda, biology, evolution, phylogenetic systematics, genetics