Non-genetic Inheritance and Evolution

  • Tobias Uller
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 1)


Teaching evolution usually means an exclusive focus on transmission genetics as the basis for heredity. The stability of DNA sequences gives the impression that the developmental history of individuals can be set aside and evolutionary change in phenotypes can be described as change in gene frequencies. This is the textbook version of evolution and the view that the majority of evolutionary biologists subscribe to. The unique position of DNA in heredity is now being challenged, however. Mounting empirical evidence suggests that phenotypic stability within lineages and differences between lineages can originate and be maintained via epigenetic and behavioural mechanisms, even in the absence of genetic variation. This raises questions regarding the evolutionary implications of such non-genetic mechanisms of inheritance, including whether they can bias the rate and direction of evolution or allow inheritance of acquired characters. In this chapter, I outline the historical background to the development of the transmission genetics view of heredity and how recent findings in molecular, developmental, and behavioural biology challenge the textbooks. I continue by showing how the heterogeneous cluster of non-genetic mechanisms of inheritance can contribute to an expanded version of evolutionary theory. Although it turns out that the special role played by genes in evolution can also be played by other inheritance systems, the main conceptual advantage of recognizing non-genetic mechanisms of inheritance is that it stimulates an explicit consideration of developmental processes in evolutionary explanations. This helps us to connect the processes responsible for within-generation change (‘proximate questions’ or the domain of developmental biology) with among-generation change (‘ultimate question’ or the domain of evolutionary biology). Furthermore, it shows how the teaching of fundamental concepts in evolutionary biology can benefit from philosophical analysis informed by contemporary biological research.


Evolutionary Theory Evolutionary Change Adaptive Evolution Evolutionary Implication Modern Synthesis 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am grateful to Kostas Kampourakis for the invitation to contribute to this volume and Sinead English, Heikki Helanterä, Kostas Kampourakis, Eva Jablonka, and Nick Shea for comments on the chapter. My work on non-genetic inheritance is funded in part by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2011) under grant agreement n° 259679.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Edward Grey Institute, Department of ZoologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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