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Evolution and Emergence: A Re-Evaluation of the “New Synthesis” 1

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Abstract The modern obsession with methodological reductionism in some areas of biology is arguably a product of the exquisitely precise tools now available to dissect problems. Reductionist approaches assume that an understanding of atomized parts will be sufficient to approximate an understanding of the whole. Ironically, the sheer success of this approach and the consequent volume of data generated, particularly as a result of the genome projects, has made comprehension of the larger picture problematic. Consequently, historical patterns of more phenomenologically oriented analyses are re-emerging. This impulse is not new: Gould and Lewontin (1979) argued for a less reductionist view of evolution. They argue that an intense focus upon individual traits risks confusing evolutionary selection with the indirect consequences of other architectural decisions. They also argued that the “baggage” of ancestral traits constrains future possibilities for profound change. The “New Synthesis”, a more recent convergence of paleontology, evolutionary biology, genome science, and embryology provides fertile ground for their critique. New approaches to genome analysis and gene categorization have shown that profound inter-species similarities underlie a generic and robust body plan upon which variant morphologies are built. Moreover, phenomenologically oriented approaches have recently revealed functional and organizational similarities among diverse genomes that are indicative of large and preserved gene regulatory behaviours: genomes appear to be organized into similar regulatory blocks irrespective of species. The implications of these recent discoveries suggest that emergent organizational and functional properties of genomes could impose big constraints upon morphological innovation. They might also explain some of the curious and profound examples of convergent evolution that puzzled Darwin.

Affiliations: 1: Biological Sciences, University of Windsor Windsor, Ontario, N9B 3P4 Canada


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