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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“Spandrels” before “spandrels” were cool

In 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famously attacked what they called the “Adaptationist Program.” They accused evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists of concocting “just-so stories” in which scientists would claim a particular trait, an adaptation, was a result of natural selection without rigorously testing their hypotheses. If they did test the claim and it turned out the claim was false, the scientist would create another just-so story, rarely questioning whether the trait was an adaptation or possibly a byproduct or fixed by non-adaptive processes. Most readers are familiar with this argument, so I won’t expand any further.

Upon reading material for my history major paper, I came across some arguments by the biologists T.H. Morgan and William Bateson that seemed oddly familiar…

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