Homology and Homoplasy: A Philosophical Perspective

Abstract

Homology refers to the underlying sameness of distinct body parts or other organic features. The concept became crucial to the understanding of relationships among organisms during the early nineteenth century. Its importance has vacillated during the years between the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species and recent times. For much of the twentieth century, homology was regarded as nothing more than evidence of common descent. In recent times, however, it has regained its former importance. It is regarded by advocates of evolutionary developmental biology as a source of evidence for developmental constraint, and evidence for biases in phenotypic variation and the commonalities in organic form. The recent growth in understanding of developmental genetics has made possible a new theory about the mechanical causes of homology, which was impossible under the naïve views regarding genetic causation that were available during most of the twentieth century. This new theory, proposed by Günter Wagner (2007), states that homologies of character are due to the development of a certain kind of genetic regulatory network called a character identity network.

Key Concepts:

  • For much of the twentieth century, the concept of homology was regarded as secondary in importance to adaptation, with homology regarded as merely the evidence for common ancestry.

  • Recent advances in molecular biology and developmental genetics have enhanced the importance of homology, and it has regained the importance that it had during the nineteenth century.

  • One might expect homologous characters to develop from identical embryological precursors, but this is not correct; paradoxically, homologous traits can have distinct embryological origins.

  • This ‘paradoxical’ fact about homology has led to great frustration among those who have attempted to explain the developmental basis of homology.

  • Recent developments in developmental genetics may have given us a way to explain the ‘paradoxical’ nature of homology.

Keywords: homology; homoplasy; unity of type; archetype; evolutionary developmental biology; typology; developmental constraint; character; gene regulatory network

Figure 1.

Homologous characters can have different shapes and functions. Forelimbs of seven tetrapod species show that corresponding body parts have similar designs but can serve different functions, from swimming to flying. Hence, functional necessity cannot explain the similarity of homologous characters. Reproduced from Wagner p. 475, with permission of Nature Publishing Group.

close

References

Amundson R (ed) (2005) The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought: Roots of Evo‐Devo. New York: Cambridge University Press.

De Beer GR (ed) (1971) Homology, An Unsolved Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gehring WJ and Ikeo K (1999) Pax 6: mastering eye morphogenesis and eye evolution. Trends in Genetics 15(9): 371–377.

Gould SJ and Lewontin RC (1979) The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 205: 581–598.

Mayr E (ed) (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mayr E and Provine W (eds) (1980) The Evolutionary Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Owen R (ed) (1843) Lectures on the Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Invertebrate Animals. London: Longman Brown Green and Longmans.

Roth VL (1984) On homology. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 22: 13–29.

Van Valen L (1982) Homology and causes. Journal of Morphology 17: 305–312.

Wagner GP (1989) The biological homology concept. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20: 51–69.

Wagner GP (2007) The developmental genetics of homology. Nature Reviews Genetics 8: 473–479.

Further Reading

Hall BK (ed) (1999) Homology. Novartis Foundation Symposium 222. Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons.

Russell ES (1916) Form and Function. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wagner GP (ed) (2001) The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Amundson, Ron(Oct 2012) Homology and Homoplasy: A Philosophical Perspective. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003445.pub2]