The Historical Importance of Modularity

I am currently sitting in on a graduate philosophy of biology seminar and the theme of this semester’s seminar is evo-devo and we recently discussed the concept of modularity. I’m also sitting in on a history of biology course and we have talked a little about the early 19th century French scientist, Georges Cuvier. While attending the seminar, I was delighted to make a historical link between the two! (And oddly enough, one of the works we read in the seminar was a chapter from a book on modularity co-authored by Gunther Wagner which opens with the same link I had made.)

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Ants and Their Castes in the Spencer-Weismann Controversy

Wikipedia: Meat eater ant feeding on honey

Ant (Wikipedia)

Ants are evolutionarily weird and are quickly rising in my favorite organisms list.  The same evolutionary principles apply to ants as they apply to us, of course, but because ants are haplodiploid, live in large colonies, and have a caste system, biologists have to apply the same principles differently – it isn’t exactly intuitive. Ants (and other insects such as bees and termites) are frequently the subjects of hot debate when it comes to kin selection, but their role in evolutionary disputes is over a century old. Charles Darwin discussed them in The Origin of Species, but they were later the center of the controversy between Herbert Spencer and August Weismann.

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“Niche construction” before “niche construction” was cool?

One of the most useful aspects of being aware of the history of science is that much like literature and the arts, one can trace the historical origins of ideas and make connections among various thinkers who lived at different times. Last week’s post was a great example of such a connection: the arguments of Gould & Lewontin were articulated over 70 years before 1979 by TH Morgan, and more astoundingly, William Bateson (who even nailed down the idea of a “spandrel”). While there may be no link between Gould & Lewontin and Morgan & Bateson, this example shows us that biologists have had to argue against adaptationism since at least 1903. We can see a clear historical trend.

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