Variation is common, and often lingers in places where it is unexpected. The drawing to the left is from West-Eberhard’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and illustrates six common variations in the branching pattern of the aortic arch in humans. These are differences that have no known significance to our lives, and aren’t even visible except in the hopefully rare situations in which a surgeon opens our chests.
This is the kind of phenomenon in which I’ve become increasingly interested. I work with a model system, the zebrafish, and supposedly one of the things we model systems people pursue is the ideal of a consistent organism, in which the variables are reduced to a minimum. Variation is noise that interferes with our perception of common underlying mechanisms. I’ve been thinking more and more that variation is actually a significant phenomenon that tells us something about where the real constraints in the system are. It is also, of course, the raw material for evolution.
Unfortunately, variation is also relatively difficult to study.