Unburdening evo-devo: ancestral attractions, model organisms, and basal baloney
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- Jenner, R.A. Dev Genes Evol (2006) 216: 385. doi:10.1007/s00427-006-0084-5
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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.