Evolutionary theory

The philosophy of science is central to evolutionary biology. Evolution and the natural world essentially never provide observations that unarguably support one theory over all others – there are simply too many uncontrolled variables, lacking data and elapsed time for research in the field to be considered analogous to controlled physical experiments. For this reason, theoretical frameworks are required that make sense of the enormously complex nature of the living world such that observations can be meaningfully parsed into ordered systems of thinking. Research into evolutionary theory seeks to maintain and expand on such frameworks as increasingly nuanced details emerge from our studies of evolution.

One challenge that evolutionary biologists face is the relationship between their theoretical and methodological approaches; the former limits the suitability of the latter and similarly the latter constrains the innovation of the former. In most of my work I explore and develop morphometric analyses of morphological variation precisely because they are synergistic with a more modern theoretical approach to organismal variation that conceptualizes diversity as continuous rather than discrete. Framing my paleobiological research in this context has been a requirement for my studies of speciation patterns in the heliconellid genus Davidonia as well as genetic canalization and plasticity-led evolution in the trilobite-like arthropod Agnostus.

With regards to plasticity-led evolution in particular, theoretical work holds the vital potential to guide researchers in their interpretation of evolutionary patterns relative multiple competing conceptual frameworks. I have worked towards uncovering such potential in my research project on developmental bias. Plasticity is commonly regarded as a trait in itself and an end result of evolution more than anything else; something that is the product of evolution rather than something that may play an important role in directing it. Indeed one of the challenges of providing support for a causative role of plasticity in evolution is the manner in which it is frequently idealized using more general evolutionary terms. Furthermore, the patterns predicted to arise from evolution guided by developmental bias or plasticity are essentially identical as those predicted to arise from “regular” evolution. In my papers on this topic I have worked towards distinguishing these predictions theoretically.