The changing role of the embryo in evolutionary thought: Roots of evo-devo

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  • Introduction: Neo-Darwinism coined a particular picture of evolution: the explanation of adaptation and speciation as the central goals of evolutionary theory, and natural selection as the only directing cause in evolution. Recently, evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) became an independent field, pointing out that that there are other important goals of evolutionary biology: the explanation of the origin of morphological novelties and body plans, and an account of evolvability. Neo-Darwinism viewed the study of development as being irrelevant to evolutionary biology, but evo-devo biologists argue that developmental and morphological features rather than natural selection are crucial causal factors in these new types of evolutionary explanations, yielding a more powerful explanatory framework and a broader understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. Apart from contemporary biology, neo-Darwinism also strongly influenced how the history of biology has been viewed by biologists, philosophers, and historians. This led to a distorted picture of 19th century biology, and during the last two decades historians of biology have started to correct this view of history. Even though the emergence of evo-devo and recent developments in historical scholarship are largely independent, philosopher of biology Ron Amundson brings these two trends together in this volume. Amundson distinguishes between functionalist and structuralist approaches in the history of biology; the former emphasize the explanation of adaptation and the organism-environment relationship, and the latter stress the explanation of form and the internal structure and development of individuals. Amundson’s central target is what he calls ‘Synthesis Historiography,’ i.e., the use of the conceptual framework of neo-Darwinism to interpret the history of biology. The first half of Amundson’s book concerns the 19th century and debunks various historical misinterpretations due to Synthesis Historiography—using a structuralist or evo-devo perspective on history to uncover important historical facts that former approaches have left out. The second half concerns the 20th century, addressing how development dropped out of evolutionary theory, how Synthesis Historiography (SH) emerged in the first place, and discusses the differences between contemporary functionalist and structuralist approaches.

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    © 2005 I. Brigandt et al. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original author(s) and source must be cited.
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    • Brigandt, I. (2005). The changing role of the embryo in evolutionary thought: Roots of evo-devo. American Journal of Human Biology, 17(5), 670-672.
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