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Extending the Evolutionary Synthesis

Evolutionary Biology
The 20th century became known as the century of the gene. The overwhelming focus on genes makes it easy to forget that what is outside of the genome is not only permissive for development, but also instructive. Organisms are inherently flexible and respond to environmental challenges by changing their shape, size, or behaviour. Sometimes such responses can even affect the next generation. The evolutionary implications of developmental plasticity and extra-genetic inheritance are poorly understood and highly contested. The fundamental source of contention is if plasticity and extra-genetic inheritance are best viewed as adaptive features under genetic control, or if there is value in considering the processes of development and heredity to play a more active role in the origin, spread, and maintenance of adaptations.

Books about evolution on a book shelf.

The latter perspective is not new (in fact, it is as old as evolutionary biology itself), but it is gaining popularity through what has become calls for ‘extending’ the evolutionary synthesis. Yet, it is unclear how these perspectives on evolution differs from the gene-centric focus that has been dominant for the last century. To bring clarity to these issues – and perhaps ultimately bring about conceptual change – biologists with different expertise need to work together with philosophers and historians of biology.

Ultimately, conceptual frameworks should be evaluated on the basis of their ability to generate useful research. Much of the work in our group is therefore motivated by putting our ‘work-in-progress’ version view of an extended evolutionary synthesis to the test. This includes a large international effort coordinated by Tobias Uller and Kevin Laland. The initiative, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, include 22 projects and over 50 scientists, philosophers and historians centered at eight institutions, including Lund, St Andrews, Cambridge and Stanford.

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If you want to know more

Uller, T. & Helanterä, H. Niche construction and conceptual change in evolutionary biology. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, in press,

Uller, T. & Helanterä, H. 2017. Heredity in evolutionary theory. In Challenging the Modern Synthesis: Adaptation, Development and Heredity (eds. P. Huneman & D. Walsh), Oxford University Press.

Laland, K.L., Uller, T, Feldman, M., Sterelny, K., Müller, G.B., Moczek, A., Jablonka, E. & Odling-Smee, J. The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, core assumptions, and predictions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 282: 20151019

Laland, K.N., Uller, T., Feldman, M.W., Sterelny, K., Müller, G.B., Moczek, A., Jablonka, E. & Odling-Smee, J. 2014. Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature 514: 162-165

Laland, K.N., Sterelny, K., Odling-Smee, J., Hoppitt, W. & Uller, T. 2011. Cause and effect in biology revisited: Is Mayr’s proximate-ultimate distinction still useful? Science 334:1512-1516