From Developmental Constraint to Evolvability: How Concepts Figure in Explanation and Disciplinary Identity

In Alan C. Love (ed.), Conceptual Change in Biology: Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives on Evolution and Development. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 305-325 (2015)
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Abstract

The concept of developmental constraint was at the heart of developmental approaches to evolution of the 1980s. While this idea was widely used to criticize neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, critique does not yield an alternative framework that offers evolutionary explanations. In current Evo-devo the concept of constraint is of minor importance, whereas notions as evolvability are at the center of attention. The latter clearly defines an explanatory agenda for evolutionary research, so that one could view the historical shift from ‘developmental constraint’ towards ‘evolvability’ as the move from a concept that is a mere tool of criticism to a concept that establishes a positive explanatory project. However, by taking a look at how the concept of constraint was employed in the 1980s, I argue that developmental constraint was not just seen as restricting possibilities (‘constraining’), but also as facilitating morphological change in several ways. Accounting for macroevolutionary transformation and the origin of novel form was an aim of these developmental approaches to evolution. Thus, the concept of developmental constraint was part of a positive explanatory agenda long before the advent of Evo-devo as a genuine scientific discipline. In the 1980s, despite the lack of a clear disciplinary identity, this concept coordinated research among paleontologists, morphologists, and developmentally inclined evolutionary biologists. I discuss the different functions that scientific concepts can have, highlighting that instead of classifying or explaining natural phenomena, concepts such as ‘developmental constraint’ and ‘evolvability’ are more important in setting explanatory agendas so as to provide intellectual coherence to scientific approaches. The essay concludes with a puzzle about how to conceptually distinguish evolvability and selection.

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Ingo Brigandt
University of Alberta