Biology & Philosophy

, 35:2 | Cite as

Horizontal persistence and the complexity hypothesis

  • Aaron NovickEmail author
  • W. Ford Doolittle


This paper investigates the complexity hypothesis in microbial evolutionary genetics from a philosophical vantage. This hypothesis, in its current version, states that genes with high connectivity (more functional connections to other genes) are likely to be resistant to being horizontally transferred. We defend four claims. (1) There is an important distinction between two different ways in which a gene family can persist: vertically and horizontally. There is a trade-off between these two modes of persistence, such that a gene better at achieving one will be worse at achieving the other. (2) At least some genes are likely to experience selection favoring increased transferability. One consequence of this can be encapsulated as the “simplicity hypothesis”: horizontally persisting genes will experience selection favoring reduced connectivity. (3) In order to make sense of the simplicity hypothesis, we need to consider evolutionary populations that transcend species boundaries. Vertical and horizontal persistence are therefore not two competing ways of succeeding at the same game, but involve playing two different games altogether. (4) The complexity hypothesis can be understood in terms of two related notions: entrenchment and Cuvierian functionalism. This framing reveals previously unrecognized and philosophically interesting connections between reasoning about deep conservation and horizontal transfer.


Horizontal gene transfer Multilevel selection Complexity hypothesis Generative entrenchment Cuvierian functionalism 



The authors would like to thank Bill Wimsatt, Joe Bielawski, Fabien Denis-Cayer, Maureen O’Malley, and two anonymous referees for Biology and Philosophy for comments on the manuscript, as well as Jeremy Wideman and Chris Jones for helpful discussion. This work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Grant Number GLDSU/447989.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyDalhousie UniversityHalifaxCanada

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