The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwins Dilemma

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Gerhart, Author, John Norton, Illustrator. Yale Univ. Buy this book.

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Zeebra Books. Show other formats. Discover what to read next. Thus it is hard to evaluate it as an original contribution to science, because many of the arguments are not sufficiently developed or are not substantiated by a thorough analysis of the literature.


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This is an interesting trend that seems to have taken hold in recent years Evolution in Four Dimensions is another example , and it is hard to know what to make of it. On the one hand, we are witnessing a welcome return to the idea that cutting-edge science is for everybody. Darwin's On the Origin of Species, after all, sold out on its first day and was purchased by laypeople as well as academics of which there were few at the time anyway. On the other hand, with trade books one can get away with speculations and generalizations that would be harder to pass through the rigorous process of peer review that technical books usually undergo.

Be that as it may, Kirschner and Gerhart's main idea is that the missing piece in the edifice of the Modern Synthesis is what they call "facilitated variation.

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This ability to accommodate is in turn made possible by the modular structure of the genetic-developmental system itself, which allows organisms to evolve new phenotypes by rearranging existing components. A splendid example of this evolutionary and developmental flexibility is provided by the homeobox genes that preside over the spatial differentiation of embryos, from fruit flies to humans.

Ernst Haeckel has been accused of overstating in his drawings the anatomical similarities between various vertebrate embryos. Nevertheless, the four phylotypic-stage embryos shown here do have obvious anatomic similarities, despite their different shapes. In addition, they have the same map of compartments of selector-gene expression, as the gene names above the drawings indicate.

From The Plausibility of Life. Facilitated variation is indeed one of the empirical as well as conceptual developments that have marked evolutionary biology during the past decade or so. However, it is not the stunningly new insight that Kirschner and Gerhart imply it to be.

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Kirschner and Gerhart's effort is a valuable update of some of these ideas, but it hardly constitutes "a new theory" to complement the Modern Synthesis. Kirschner and Gerhart also peculiarly ignore or downplay at least two other major pieces of the evolutionary puzzle that have been brought forth recently as crucial to the development of a new synthesis.

The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma

One is the inherent capacity of organisms to accommodate phenotypic plasticity—environmentally or genetically induced changes. Plasticity has been studied for more than a century, but it has come of age in the past two decades as a central characteristic of living organisms, one that has been implicated in speciation, adaptation and the origin of phenotypic novelties.

Although Kirschner and Gerhart do mention phenotypic plasticity, they confine it to a secondary role the term doesn't even make it into the index. They apparently do not realize that it is a crucial component of what they call facilitated variation. The second crucial piece, entirely missing from The Plausibility of Life, is the very recent resurgence of the concept of inherited epigenetic variation. Customer Reviews.

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