Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 159–189 | Cite as

Major problems in evolutionary transitions: how a metabolic perspective can enrich our understanding of macroevolution

  • Maureen A. O’MalleyEmail author
  • Russell PowellEmail author


The model of major transitions in evolution (MTE) devised by Maynard Smith and Szathmáry has exerted tremendous influence over evolutionary theorists. Although MTE has been criticized for inconsistently combining different types of event, its ongoing appeal lies in depicting hierarchical increases in complexity by means of evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETIs). In this paper, we consider the implications of major evolutionary events overlooked by MTE and its ETI-oriented successors, specifically the biological oxygenation of Earth, and the acquisitions of mitochondria and plastids. By reflecting on these missed events, we reveal a central philosophical disagreement over the explanatory goals of major transitions theory that has yet to be made explicit in the literature. We go on to argue that this philosophical disagreement is only reinforced by Szathmáry’s recent revisions of MTE in the form of MTE 2.0. This finding motivates us to propose an alternative explanatory strategy: specifically, an interactionist metabolic perspective on major transitions. A metabolic framework not only avoids many of the criticisms that beset classic and revised MTE models, but also accommodates missing events and provides crucial explanatory components for standard major transitions. Although we do not provide a full-blown alternative theory and do not claim to achieve unity, we explain why foregrounding metabolism is crucial for any attempt to capture the major turning points in evolution, and why it does not lead to unmanageable pluralism.


Macroevolution Major transitions Metabolism 



The authors would like to thank Robert Brandon, Adrian Currie, Catherine Driscoll, Marc Ereshefsky, Doug Erwin, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Dan McShea, Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo, Nicholas Shea, members of the Duke University Philosophy of Biology reading group and Dalhousie’s Evolution Studies Group, audiences at the American Philosophical Association, Australasian Association of Philosophy, AAPNZ, and SANU Philosophy of Biology meetings, and two anonymous referees for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Maureen O’Malley acknowledges funding from the University of Sydney’s Bridging Support scheme; Russell Powell is grateful to Templeton Foundation Grant # 43160 for support of this research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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