Developmental Systems Theory


Developmental systems theory (DST) is a wholeheartedly epigenetic approach to development, inheritance and evolution. The developmental system of an organism is the entire matrix of resources that are needed to reproduce the life cycle. The range of developmental resources that are properly described as being inherited, and which are subject to natural selection, is far wider than has traditionally been allowed. Evolution acts on this extended set of developmental resources. From a developmental systems perspective, development does not proceed according to a preformed plan; what is inherited is much more than DNA; and evolution is change not only in gene frequencies, but in entire developmental systems.

Key Concepts

  • Development has no single locus of control
  • Developmental outcomes are influenced by the contexts in which development unfolds
  • The developmental system of an organism is the matrix of resources that are required to reproduce the life cycle
  • The genome is designed to function in a specific developmental niche which is itself the product of evolution
  • The impact of any given cause is contingent upon the state of the system as a whole
  • The roles played by causal factors in development do not fall neatly into two kinds, one exclusively played by genes, the other played by nongenetic causes
  • Development is a dynamic process: the products of early stages of development can become the interactants of later stages
  • The notion of the ‘genetic program’ is of little heuristic value
  • The study of heredity will benefit from a broad approach that includes features of the developmental niche which are often overlooked
  • Evolution is change in developmental systems as a whole, and not only change in gene frequencies

Keywords: development; evolution; genetics; epigenesis; information; developmental niche construction; heredity


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Further Reading

Bateson P and Gluckman P (2011) Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gissis S and Jablonka E (2011) The Transformations of Lamarckism: From Subtle Fluids to Molecular Biology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Moore DS (2003) The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of “Nature Vs. Nurture.” New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Moore DS (2015) The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Oyama S (2000c) Evolution's Eye: A Systems View of the Biology‐Culture Divide. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Robert JS (2004) Embryology, Epigenesis and Evolution: Taking Development Seriously. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Griffiths, Paul E, and Hochman, Adam(Oct 2015) Developmental Systems Theory. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003452.pub2]