Biology & Philosophy

, 34:54 | Cite as

Beyond networks: mechanism and process in evo-devo

  • James DiFrisco
  • Johannes Jaeger


Explanation in terms of gene regulatory networks (GRNs) has become standard practice in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). In this paper, we argue that GRNs fail to provide a robust, mechanistic, and dynamic understanding of the developmental processes underlying the genotype–phenotype map. Explanations based on GRNs are limited by three main problems: (1) the problem of genetic determinism, (2) the problem of correspondence between network structure and function, and (3) the problem of diachronicity, as in the unfolding of causal interactions over time. Overcoming these problems requires dynamic mechanistic explanations, which rely not only on mechanistic decomposition, but also on dynamic modeling to reconstitute the causal chain of events underlying the process of development. We illustrate the power and potential of this type of explanation with a number of biological case studies that integrate empirical investigations with mathematical modeling and analysis. We conclude with general considerations on the relation between mechanism and process in evo-devo.


Evo-devo Genotype–phenotype map Dynamical systems Mechanistic explanation Gene regulatory networks Homology 



We thank two anonymous reviewers and an editor of this journal for insightful comments. Thanks also to audiences at ISHPSSB 2019, the 2019 Venice Summer School in Evo-Devo, the 2019 Summer School in Philosophy of the Life Sciences at University of Rijeka, Institut Monod in Paris, and the EvoDevo Seminar Series in Cambridge for feedback and vigorous discussion. JD thanks the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) (Grant No. 12W1818N) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research for financial support.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PhilosophyKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Complexity Science Hub, ViennaViennaAustria

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