Developmental push or environmental pull? The causes of macroevolutionary dynamics

  • Douglas H. ErwinEmail author
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Causality, genomic regulation, and evolution in the post-genomic era: a tribute to Eric Davidson


Have the large-scale evolutionary patterns illustrated by the fossil record been driven by fluctuations in environmental opportunity, by biotic factors, or by changes in the types of phenotypic variants available for evolutionary change? Since the Modern Synthesis most evolutionary biologists have maintained that microevolutionary processes carrying on over sufficient time will generate macroevolutionary patterns, with no need for other pattern-generating mechanisms such as punctuated equilibrium or species selection. This view was challenged by paleontologists in the 1970s with proposals that the differential sorting and selection of species and clades, and the effects of biotic crises such as mass extinctions, were important extensions to traditional evolutionary theory. More recently those interested in macroevolution have debated the relative importance of abiotic and biotic factors in driving macroevolutionary patterns and have introduced comparative phylogenetic methods to analyze the rates of change in taxonomic diversity. Applying Peter Godfrey-Smith’s distinction between distributional explanations and explanations focusing on the origin of variation, most macroevolutionary studies have provided distributional explanations of macroevolutionary patterns. Comparative studies of developmental evolution, however, have implicated the origin of variants as a driving macroevolution force. In particular, the repatterning of gene regulatory networks provides new insights into the origins of developmental novelties. This raises the question of whether macroevolution has been pulled by the generation of environmental opportunity, or pushed by the introduction of new morphologies. The contrast between distributional and origination scenarios has implications for understanding evolutionary novelty and innovation and how macroevolutionary process may have evolved over time.


Macroevolution Novelty Gene regulatory networks Innovation Disparity Evo-devo 



An earlier version of this paper was presented at a workshop on “From Genome to Gene: Causality, Synthesis and Evolution” at the Jacques Loeb Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in November 2015. I appreciate the invitation to contribute this paper from Ute Deichmann and Michel Morange. I acknowledge support of this research from the NASA National Astrobiology Institute (Grant # NNA13AA90A).


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© US Government (outside the USA) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Paleobiology, MRC-121National Museum of Natural HistoryWashingtonUSA

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