Skip to main content
Log in

Venomous Dinosaurs and Rear-Fanged Snakes: Homology and Homoplasy Characterized

  • Original Article
  • Published:
Erkenntnis Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

I develop an account of homology and homoplasy drawing on their use in biological inference and explanation. Biologists call on homology and homoplasy to infer character states, support adaptationist explanations, identify evolutionary novelties and hypothesize phylogenetic relationships. In these contexts, the concepts must be understood phylogenetically and kept separate: as they play divergent roles, overlap between the two ought to be avoided. I use these considerations to criticize an otherwise attractive view defended by Gould, Hall, and Ramsey & Peterson. By this view, homology and homoplasy can only be delineated qua some level of description, and some homoplasies (parallelisms) are counted as homologous. I develop an account which retains the first, but rejects the second, aspect of that view. I then characterize parallelisms and convergences in terms of their causal role. By the Strict Continuity account, homology and homoplasy are defined phylogenetically and without overlaps, meeting my restriction. Convergence and parallelisms are defined as two types of homoplasy: convergent homoplasies are largely constrained by external factors, while parallelisms are due to internal constraints.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. To an extent I attribute this to Rosenberg & Neander because Ramsey & Peterson do. I don’t think many philosophers before Ramsey & Peterson have taken talk of homology as ‘the same’ trait, versus homology as ‘similar’ traits particularly seriously. In Rosenberg & Neander’s paper they do make some claims about similarity: “… similarity judgements, or at least specifications of the traits or characters judged to be homologous, are prior to homology claims (330).”

  2. Part of the justification of this turns on an empirical claim about the relative similarity, and level of constraint, between convergences and parallelisms. Following Gould and Griffiths, I think that functional continuities are relatively coarse, while ancestral continuities are finer grained—convergent similarities are ‘shallow’, while parallel similarities are ‘deep’. If that is right, then because developmental continuities tightly constrain the space of possible phenotype expression, I should be quite confident in inferring between model and target. Moreover, shallow similarities probably belie less constraint in phenotype expression, meaning that projectability from model to target is less secure (see Currie 2012b for discussion of the ‘shallowness problem’). This claim, then, is merely ceteris paribus and based on the empirical claim that most of the time, functional similarities are shallower than ancestral ones. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pushing me on this point.

  3. But surely a lineage’s phenotype is as it is in part due to its genotype? Why don’t phenotypic constraints collapse into developmental constraints? Here’s why: in cases of developmental constraint, the developmental system’s inability to achieve certain forms constrains morphospace. In phenotypic constraint, it is the phenotypic failings to (for instance) fly to islands which explain why certain evolutionary paths are closed. Naturally part of the proximate explanation of why any particular phenotype is as it is appeals to developmental systems, but ‘being flightless’ is multiply realizable across such systems. In cases of phenotypic constraint, it is phenotype, not development, which explains the contrast (thanks to Kim Sterelny and an anonymous referee for pressing this point).

  4. A referee points out that structural constraints (for instance, those which appeal to geometry) could, if they are classed as internal, count as parallelisms without any developmental at all. How we precisely delineate internal and external constraints, and what to say about structural constraints, is left for further investigation.

References

  • Amundson, R., & Lauder, G. (1994). Function without purpose: The uses of causal role function in evolutionary biology. Biology and Philosophy, 9(4), 443–470.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Arendt, J., & Reznick, D. (2007). Convergence and parallelism reconsidered: What have we learned about the genetics of adaptation? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(1), 26–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brigandt, I. (2007). Typology now: Homology and developmental constraints explain evolvability. Biology and Philosophy, 22, 709–725.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brigandt, I., & Griffiths, P. (2007). The importance of homology for biology and philosophy. Biology and Philosophy, 22(5), 633–641.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brigandt, I., & Love, A. (2012). Conceptualizing evolutionary novelty: Moving beyond definitional debates. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 318(6), 417–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, R. (2013). What evolvability really is. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 64(3), 1–24.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conway Morris, S. (2003). Life’s solution: Inevitable humans in a lonely universe. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Currie, A. (2012a). Convergence as evidence. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (online first).

  • Currie, A. (2012b). Convergence, contingency & morphospace. Biology and Philosophy, 27(4), 583–593.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Currie, A., & Levy, A. (forthcoming). Model species are not (theoretical) models. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

  • Gianechini, F. A., Agnolı′n F. L., & Ezcurra, M. D. (2011). A reassessment of the purportedly venom delivery system of the bird-like raptor Sinornithosaurus. Pala¨ontologische Zeitschrift , 85(1), 103–107.

    Google Scholar 

  • Godfrey-Smith, P. (1996). Complexity and the function of mind in nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Gong, E., Martin, L. D., Burnham, D. A., & Falk A. R. (2011). Evidence for a venomous Sinornithosaurus. Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 85, 109–111.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gong, E., Martin, L. D., Burnham, D. A., & Falk, A. R. (2009). The birdlike raptor Sinornithosaurus was venomous. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 766–768.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: The burgess shale and the nature of history. New York: W W Norton & co.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gould, S. J. (2002). The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Griffiths, P. E. (1994). Cladistic classification and functional explanation. Philosophy of Science, 61(2), 206–227.

    Google Scholar 

  • Griffiths, P. E. (2006). Function, homology, and character individuation. Philosophy of Science, 73(1), 1–25.

    Google Scholar 

  • Griffiths, P. E. (2007). The phenomena of homology. Biology and Philosophy, 22(5), 643–658.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, B. K. (2003). Descent with modification: the unity underlying homology and homoplasy as seen through an analysis of development and evolution. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 78(3), 409–433.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, B. K. (2005). Consideration of the neural crest and its skeletal derivatives in the context of novelty/innovation. Journal of Experimental Zoology, Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution, 304(6), 548–557.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, B. K. (2007). Homoplasy and homology: Dichotomy or continuum? Journal of Human Evolution, 52(5), 473–479.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, B. K. (2012). Parallelism, deep homology, and evo-devo. Evolution & Development, 14, 33–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leander, B. (2008). Different modes of convergent evolution reflect phylogenetic distance: A reply to Arendt and Reznik. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 9, 481–482.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, D. (2000). Causation as influence. The Journal of Philosophy, 97(4), 182–197.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lockwood, C. A. (1999). Homoplasy and adaptation in the atelid postcranium. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 108, 459–482.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McGhee, G. R. (2011). Convergent evolution: Limited forms most beautiful. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Neander, K. (2002). Types of traits: The importance of functional homologues. In A. Ariew, R. Cummins, & M. Perlman (Eds.), Functions: New essays in the philosophy of psychology and biology (pp. 390–415). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pearce, T. (2011). Evolution and constraints on variation: Variant specification and range of assessment. Philosophy of Science, (78), 739–751.

  • Pearce, T. (2012). Convergence and parallelism in evolution: A Neo-Gouldian account. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 63, 429–448.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Powell, R. (2007). Is convergence more than an analogy? Homoplasy and its implications for macroevolutionary predictability. Biology and Philosophy, 22(4), 565–578.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Powell, R. (2012). Convergent evolution and the limits of natural selection. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 2(3), 355–373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ramsey, G., & Peterson, A. (2012). Sameness in biology. Philosophy of Science, 79(2), 255–275.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenberg, A. (2006). Darwinian reductionism; or, how to stop worrying and love molecular biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Rosenberg, A., & Neander, K. (2009). Are homologies (selected effect or causal role) function free? Philosophy of Science, 76(3), 307–334.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salmon, W. (1984). Scientific explanation and the causal structure of the world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sansom, R. (2003). Constraining the adaptationism debate. Biology and Philosophy, 18, 493–512.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scotland, R. W. (2011). What is parallelism? Evolution & Development, 13(2), 214–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wagner, G. P. (1994). Homology and the mechanisms of development. In B. K. Hall (Ed.), Homology: The heirarchical basis of comparative biology (pp. 273–299). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Wake, D. B., Wake, M. H., & Specht, C. D. (2011). Homoplasy: From detecting pattern to determining process and mechanism of evolution. Science, 331, 1032–1035.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waters, K. (2007). Causes that make a difference. Journal of Philosophy, 104, 551–579.

    Google Scholar 

  • West-Eberhard, M. J. (2003). Developmental plasticity and evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Woodward, J. (2010). Causation in biology: Stability, specificity, and the choice of levels of explanation. Biology and Philosophy, 25(3), 287–318.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Russell Powell and Brian Hall for comments on earlier drafts. Versions of this paper has been presented at both the ANU and Otago Philosophy departments, I am grateful for the discussion and comments I received.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrian Mitchell Currie.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Currie, A.M. Venomous Dinosaurs and Rear-Fanged Snakes: Homology and Homoplasy Characterized. Erkenn 79, 701–727 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-013-9533-5

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-013-9533-5

Keywords

Navigation