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The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

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 non-genetic inheritance are poorly understood and highly contested. The fundamental source of contention is if plasticity and non-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. The latter perspective is increasingly gaining popularity in different calls for ‘extending’ the evolutionary synthesis. Yet, it is unclear how a phenotypic perspective on evolution differs from the gene-centric focus that has been dominant for the last century. Whatever way this debate is headed, building a coherent alternative conceptual framework for phenotypic evolution is a big task that will require biologists with different expertise working 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. We are always looking for new ways to do so and welcome a diversity of approaches and study systems.

If you want to know more:

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

Uller, T. & Helanterä, H. Heredity in evolutionary theory. In Challenges to Evolutionary Biology: Development and Heredity (eds. P. Huneman & D. Walsh), Oxford University Press, forthcoming

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

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Contact information

Tobias Uller
Wallenberg Academy Fellow
Evolutionary ecology

Telephone: 046-222 30 94
E-mail: tobias [dot] uller [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

People involved