Development Genes and Evolution

, Volume 216, Issue 7–8, pp 385–394 | Cite as

Unburdening evo-devo: ancestral attractions, model organisms, and basal baloney

  • Ronald A. JennerEmail author


Although flourishing, I argue that evo-devo is not yet a mature scientific discipline. Its philosophical foundation exhibits an internal inconsistency that results from a metaphysical confusion. In modern evolutionary biology, species and other taxa are most commonly considered as individuals. I accept this thesis to be the best available foundation for modern evolutionary biology. However, evo-devo is characterized by a remarkable degree of typological thinking, which instead treats taxa as classes. This metaphysical incompatibility causes much distorted thinking. In this paper, I will discuss the logical implications of accepting the individuality thesis for evo-devo. First, I will illustrate the degree to which typological thinking pervades evo-devo. This ranges from the relatively innocent use of typologically tainted language to the more serious misuse of differences between taxa as evidence against homology and monophyly, and the logically flawed concept of partial homology. Second, I will illustrate how, in a context of typological thinking, evo-devo's harmless preoccupation with distant ancestors has become transformed into a pernicious problem afflicting the choice of model organisms. I will expose the logical flaws underlying the common assumption that model organisms can be expected to represent the clades they are a part of in an unambiguous way. I will expose the logical flaws underlying the general assumption that basal taxa are the best available stand-ins for ancestors and that they best represent the clade of which they are a part, while also allowing for optimal extrapolation of results.


Metaphysics Model organisms Basal taxa Evo-devo Individuality thesis 



I thank Jean Deutsch for his kind invitation to participate in the symposium on Development and Evolution of Arthropods in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. I thank Matthew Wills and Gerhard Scholtz for discussion, and Alessandro Minelli for his perceptive comments on the manuscript. Professor Rudolf Nieuwenhuys triggered my thinking about model organisms with his deceptively simple question “What exactly are model systems a model of?” Special thanks to Michael Ghiselin, who kindly sent me a copy of his book Metaphysics and the origin of species. I gratefully acknowledge financial support from the BBSRC on project number BB/COO6682/1.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biology and BiochemistryUniversity of BathBathUK

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