Evolution is the control of development by ecology

Today is my actual first day of classes. We had MLK Day off, and I have no classes on Tuesday, and today I get to meet the 12 students in my Ecological Developmental Biology course. It should be fun. I plan to present that famous aphorism by Van Valen, “Evolution is the control of development by ecology,” and then I’m done for the entire semester — once they’ve grasped that, there is nothing else left to teach, so we can just coast through February, March, April, and May.

OK, so maybe we should also think about the details. We’re going to spend the first two weeks diving into Lewontin’s The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. It’s short but clears the stage beautifully of any vestige of genetic determinism and primes us with an introduction to some fundamental concepts. Everyone ought to read it!

The rest of the semester we’ll work through Gilbert and Epel’s Ecological Developmental Biology. We’re going to talk about plasticity, epigenetics, symbiosis, developmental physiology, and the book has lots of material on teratogenesis, cancer, and aging (those are all developmental concerns, you know — we’re doing all the interesting and important stuff).

We’re also going to dig into the primary literature. This week, we’re reading a review by Sultan, “Development in context: the timely
emergence of eco-devo”
to get everyone filled in with the background, but subsequent weeks will be mainly about primary research papers. There’s going to be a fair amount of reading in this class!

I’ve also made the radical decision to abolish all exams: about 60% of the grade is derived from just showing up, alert and ready to contribute. We’ll see how well that flies.

I’ll let you know. I’m thinking I’ll try to post a weekly wrap-up here, so that if I fail it’ll be visible.


  1. robro says

    Get a jump on reimagining higher education and make it easy on yourself, PZ. Tell them “god done it” and then have a prayer session. For an extra challenge you could read together from Genesis 1. You’ll win kudos from the preachers and some state legislators.

  2. Jean says

    I don’t know the details of how you’re going to evaluate on participation/contribution but I know that when I was in university (in the 1980’s) I would have been terrified to have that instead of exams. I assume you have an idea on how to deal with very introverted and shy students.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    “very introverted and shy students”.
    Hey, stop talking about me! I loved the written exams but not getting up in front of the class to show something.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … “Evolution is the control of development by ecology” …

    G.E. Hutchinson put it even more pithily in the title of a 1965 book: The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play.

  5. nomdeplume says

    Sounds like a great course PZ – if only I was 60 years younger and starting over again! In my day tye evolution books were by Mayr and Dobzhansky – pretty good but not as exciting as your books sound.

  6. says

    This is a wonderful post, for all the usual reasons, but also because it contains a hyperlink to an introductory-level paper for The Interested Reader. My knowledge of evo-devo is completely driven by having read your blog — I even had to derive the meaning of “evo-devo” myself, over the years — and it’s great to have more context. My own Ph.D. in Computer Science qualifies me to guess the workings of almost anything in the world, but my guesses in biology are often far more precise than accurate.

  7. says

    This week, we’re reading a review by Sultan, “Development in context: the timely
    emergence of eco-devo” to get everyone filled in with the background

    I was delighted to see a citation of Rick Relyea. I remember linking to his articles years ago during arguments about [evil corporation I’ll leave unnamed].