Explaining the Origin of Evolutionary Novelty

We’ve got an interesting seminar coming to Morris next Thursday.

Thursday, February 18, 2016, 5 p.m.
Location: Imholte Hall 109
The origination of novel structures has long been an intriguing topic for biologists. Over the past few decades it has served as a central theme in evolutionary developmental biology, in part to highlight explanatory gaps in the population genetic framework of standard evolutionary theory. Yet, definitions of evolutionary innovation and novelty are frequently debated and there remains disagreement about what kinds of causal factors best explain the origin of qualitatively new variation in the history of life. I argue that instead of trying to identify a single, correct definition of evolutionary novelty, biologists should shift their attention from defining the concept to characterizing the explanatory agenda associated with the concept. The meanings of the terms “innovation” or “novelty” serve to indicate explanatory expectations for the study of diverse morphological or behavioral features. These differences in explanatory expectations or criteria of adequacy help to account for disagreements about how best to explain the origin of novelty. Thus, advancing inquiry into the developmental evolution of novel structures requires attention to three distinct dimensions—conceptual, empirical, and theoretical—and suggests that combinations of philosophical and scientific expertise harbor the most promise for increasing our understanding of the evolutionary origins of novelty.

I’m looking forward to it. We’ll see you all there, right?


  1. Le Chifforobe says

    I honestly did not know that “Philosophy of Biology” was a thing. It sounds like adjusting our expectations is a key part of it, and I approve. However, I hope the talk is light on jargon specific to philosophers; I have been part of an audience of biologists completely baffled by a bioethicist. Prominent talk, important subject, no idea what she said.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    ugh, this is where I lack wonder. To my boring self all I see in evolutionary novelty is an inevitable result of testing very many variations. Like rolling a pair of d20’s 1,000,000 times and not being surprised at a roll of {20,20} popping up in that set. Only when people start expostulating fantastical explanations for that particular instance does the mind get blown. i guess that puts me in the camp of “closed mind”ed, ho hum, *whistling*
    only thing I see (faintly) is the problem of novelty overwhelming the conventional. Tendency is to run a cost-benefit analysis. EG
    a beneficial variation occurs with 1/P, providing a survival benefit of Q. does Q*(1/P) >1, or less?? Seems to me a quite difficult question to fully analyze completely. uh
    that may be completely misguided… have fun

  3. says

    Nah, what surprises us is when some combination of alleles leads to something completely unexpected, like jiggering juvenile hormone levels in Manduca leading to completely new color morphs.

  4. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Could someone explain that abstract a bit? I can’t quite make sense of biologists should shift their attention from defining the concept [of evo. novelty] to characterizing the explanatory agenda associated with the concept.

    By [t]he meanings of the terms “innovation” or “novelty” serve to indicate explanatory expectations, does it perhaps mean — those terms are stuffed full of assumptions based in human experience, so that by using them, we confuse and mislead ourselves?

    Sounds like a reasonable premise but given the rest of the words it is not at all clear to me that I’ve parsed it correctly. And the final sentence leaves me completely fuddled as to what might be done about it.