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Individuals, Hierarchies and Processes: Towards a More Complete Evolutionary Theory

Elisabeth S. Vrba and Niles Eldredge
Paleobiology
Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring, 1984), pp. 146-171
Published by: Paleontological Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2400395
Page Count: 26
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Individuals, Hierarchies and Processes: Towards a More Complete Evolutionary Theory
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Abstract

Hierarchy is a central phenomenon of life. Yet it does not feature as such in traditional biological theory. The genealogical hierarchy is a nested organization of entities at ascending levels. There are phenomena common to all levels: (1) Entities such as genomic constituents, organisms, demes, and species are individuals. (2) They have aggregate characters (statistics of characters of subparts), but also emergent characters (arising from organization among subparts). Character variation changes by (3) introduction of novelty and (4) sorting by differential birth and death. Causation of introduction and sorting of variation at each level may be (5) upward from lower levels, (6) downward from higher levels, or (7) lodged at the focal level. The term "selection" applies to only one of the possible processes which cause sorting at a focal level. Neo-Darwinian explanations are too narrow, both in the levels (of genotypes and phenotypes) and in the directive process (selection) which are stressed. The acknowledgment of additional, hierarchical phenomena does not usually extend beyond lip service. We urge that interlevel causation should feature centrally in explanatory hypotheses of evolution. For instance, a ready explanation for divergence in populations is "selection of random mutants." But upward causation from genome dynamics (or downward causation from the hierarchical organism) to the directed introduction of mutants may be more important in a given case. Similarly, a long-term trend is traditionally explained as additive evolution in populations. But sorting among species may be the cardinal factor, and the cause may not be species selection but upward causation from lower levels. A general theory of biology is a theory of hierarchical levels-how they arise and interact. This is a preliminary contribution mainly to the latter question.

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