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Integrating Evolution and DevelopmentReview - Integrating Evolution and Development
From Theory to Practice
by Roger Sansom and Robert N. Brandon (Editors)
MIT Press, 2007
Review by Matt Gers
Oct 7th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 41)

Integrating Evolution and Development attempts to provide a collection of independent perspectives on the relationships between evolutionary processes and developmental processes. Recent advances in evolutionary theory have challenged the traditional 'black-boxing' of development in discussions of evolution. It has become more and more apparent that both processes feed into and, indeed, off of each other. Genes as the units of selection may have had their day in the sun. Now whole epigenetic and developmental systems vie for status as units of selection. Though there is much of interest here for those working in theoretical biology, psychology and studies of cultural evolution, this book straddles an uneasy fence between excellence and mediocrity. After a somewhat cursory dawdle through the history of evo-devo, the six central chapters range from an outstanding discussion and truly deep analysis of developmental themes in cultural evolution by William Wimsatt and James Griesemer, which really deserves a volume of its own, through to somewhat disappointing and hand waving accounts of systems approaches to evo-devo. One chapter dealing with life-cycle evolution constraints is overly dense and overly long. I will therefore focus my discussion on the three stand-out essays.

Genomes certainly evolve, but not much has been written about the mechanisms driving the nature of genetic evolution. Roger Sansom approaches evo-devo by noting the importance of certain meta-evolutionary processes, the evolution of development, and selection for gradual mutation. Gradual mutation he argues is the only way that adaptations can be preserved. This is because high-mutation rate strategies which generate 'hopeful monsters' (p. 184) cannot protect such variants from further mutation. However, if species evolve mechanisms for varying the accuracy of heredity only when the environment is stressful, then they can generate adaptation when it is needed. This is the evolution of evolvability.

Several of the early essays in this volume focus on the biological domain, but of most interest to psychologists is Paul Griffiths' chapter on developmental evolutionary psychology. Griffiths has two key points. First is a contribution to the ongoing debate over what a module is, and second he argues for the relevance of interspecies research in psychology. Griffiths notes that we must be careful, when deciding whether the mind is modular or not, that disparate research programs are talking about the same modules. He distinguishes developmental, functional and mental modules and notes that, 'neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology may not recognize the same list of modules' (p. 216). More importantly, Griffiths dispels the idea that studies of other species' cognition are not relevant to the human case. The 'argument from causal depth' (p. 213) gives us good reason to prefer homology to analogy for the purposes of studying psychology. If we are interested in mechanisms underlying functions then analogous structures (those with similar evolved function but no common ancestry) fail to provide much insight. Homologous structures (those with common ancestry) give us actual insight into how the homologous mechanisms work, even if function has changed somewhat over evolutionary time. Therefore, primate studies in neuropsychology are likely to be productive. Inferences to shared mechanism based on analogy cannot perform this move.

The best comes last and Wimsatt and Griesemer justifiably earn the most space in this volume to put their case. They apply developmental theory to cultural evolutionary phenomena and argue for a 'medium viscosity theory of culture and cultural evolution' (p. 227). They reject 'thin' models such as memetics, which ignore human development, and 'thick' models common in the social sciences, which assume such a rich social milieu that culture must be restricted to humans (such approaches beg the question of how culture evolved in the first place). There is much to be commended in this approach that many social scientists may find attractive. Contemporary humanities have resisted evolutionary explanation of cultural change. But, by giving a developmental account this essay opens the door to evolutionary explanation of cultural phenomena at a grain of complexity nearer that proposed by social science. Wimsatt and Griesemer emphasize the role of scaffolding in cultural inheritance and change. A cultural trait (meme) usually cannot be transmitted without a lot of external scaffolding of institutions, artifacts, contextual beliefs and so forth. All this plays a similar role to that of epigenetic scaffolding of genome inheritance. Further to this thesis, we are given several richly illustrated case studies of the role of evolutionary and cultural developmental mechanisms at work in human culture. It is possible to understand the rise of the tutorial system at Cambridge during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the dominance of Sears' mail order catalogues in the United States in the early twentieth century using the tools of evo-devo, suitably modified. Furthermore, Wimsatt and Griesemer's analysis of culture as exemplifying an integrated evolutionary and developmental process may surprisingly inform future work in theoretical biology. Richard Dawkins and other gene-centrists are criticized for ignoring development in their evolutionary theories, but this essay demonstrates what is needed in a good developmental account. Cross fertilization to the biological domain may be possible if we can understand cultural developmental processes. After all, it is contingent that we discovered how biological evolution works before we began to appreciate evo-devo processes in culture. Only minor criticisms can be leveled at Wimsatt and Griesemer. They sometimes slide into straw-manning the so-called 'thin' cultural theories of which recent accounts are more sophisticated. Also, one question left unanswered is how culture and cultural evolution affects cognitive development, not merely the development of cultural traits. Given the story in this volume this is something that is certain to occur.

© 2008 Matt Gers

Matt Gers is based in the department of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include the philosophy of biology and psychology, including explanations of human cultural evolution and the relationship between human technologies and psychological development. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis.  http://www.victoria.ac.nz/phil/about/Postgrads/MattGers.aspx


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