Developmental systems theory

The text of my original Wikipedia entry. Not sure if it stands up to scrutiny …

Developmental systems theory (DST) is a collection of models of biological development and evolution that argue that the emphasis neo-Darwinism places on genes and natural selection as explanation of living structures and processes is inadequate. DST embraces a range of positions, from the view that biological explanations need to include more elements than the genes and selection processes that neo-Darwinism emphasises to the view that neo-Darwinism profoundly misconceives the nature of living processes and should be rejected completely. However, all versions of DST espouse the view that:

  • All biological processes (including both evolution and development) operate by continually assembling new structures.
  • Each such structure transcends the structures from which it arose and has its own systematic characteristics, information, functions and laws.
  • Conversely, each such structure is ultimately irreducible to any lower (or higher) level of structure, and can be described and explained only on its own terms.
  • Furthermore, the major processes through which life as a whole operates, including evolution, heredity and the development of particular organisms, can only be accounted for by incorporating many more layers of structure and process than the conventional concepts of ‘gene’ and ‘environment’ normally allow for.

In other words, although it does not claim that all structures are equal, development systems theory is fundamentally opposed to reductionism of all kinds. In short, DST intends to ‘formulate a perspective which does not presume the causal (or ontological) priority of any particular entity and thereby maintains an explanatory openness on all empirical fronts’ (Moss in Oyama et al. 2001: 90). For example, there is vigorous resistance to the widespread assumptions that one can legitimately speak of genes ‘for’ specific phenotypic characters or that adaptation consists of evolution ‘shaping’ the more or less passive species, as opposed to adaptation consisting of organisms actively selecting, defining, shaping and often creating their niches (Lewontin 2000).

To adopt a computing metaphor, the reductionists whom DST opposes assume that causal factors can be divided into ‘processes’ and ‘data’. Data (inputs, resources, content, and so on) is required by all processes, and must often fall within certain limits if the process in question is to have its ‘normal’ outcome. However, the data alone is helpless to create this outcome, while the process may be ‘satisfied’ with a considerable range of alternative data. DST, by contrast, assumes that the process/data distinction is at best misleading and at worst completely false, and that while it may be helpful for very specific pragmatic or theoretical reasons to treat a structure now as a process and now as a datum, there is always a risk (to which reductionists routinely succumb) that this methodological convenience will be promoted into an ontological conclusion (see, for example, Oyama’s discussion of the use and misuse of norms of reaction in Oyama et al. 2001: 179-184). In fact, for the proponents of DST, either all structures are both process and data, depending on context, or even more radically, no structure is either.

In other words, for reductionists there is a fundamental asymmetry between different causal factors, whereas for DST such asymmetries can only be justified by specific purposes, and argue that many of the (generally unspoken) purposes to which such (generally exaggerated) asymmetries have been put are scientifically illegitimate. Thus, for DST, many of the most widely applied, asymmetric and entirely legitimate distinctions biologists draw (between, say, genetic factors that create potential and environmental factors that select outcomes or genetic factors of determination and environmental factors of realisation) obtain their legitimacy from the conceptual clarity and specificity with which they are applied, not from their having tapped a profound and irreducible ontological truth about biological causation (Oyama in Oyama et al. 2001: 177-184). One problem might be solved by reversing the direction of causation correctly identified in another. This parity of treatment is especially important when comparing the evolutionary and developmental explanations for one and the same character of an organism.

One upshot of this approach is that DST also argues that what is inherited from generation to generation is a good deal more than simply genes (or even the other items, such as the fertilised zygote, that are also sometimes conceded). As a result, much of the conceptual framework that justifies ‘selfish gene’ models is regarded by DST as not merely weak but actually false. Not only are major elements of the environment built and inherited as materially as any gene but active modifications to the environment by the organism (for example, a termite mound or a beaver’s dam) demonstrably become major environmental factors to which future adaptation is addressed. This, once termites have begun to built their monumental nests, it is the demands of living in those very nests to which future generations of termite must adapt.

This inheritance may take many forms and operate on many scales, with a multiplicity of systems of inheritance complementing the genes. From position and maternal effects on gene expression to epigenetic inheritance (Jablonka and Lamb 1995) to the active construction and intergenerational transmission of enduring niches (Lewontin 2000), development systems theory argues that not only inheritance but evolution as a whole can be understood only by taking into account a far wider range of ‘reproducers’ or ‘inheritance systems’ – genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and symbolic (Jablonka in Oyama et al. 2001) – than neo-Darwinism’s ‘atomic’ genes and gene-like ‘replicators’ (Dawkins 1976, 1982). DST regards every level of biological structure as susceptible to influence from all the structures by which they are surrounded, be it from above, below, or any other direction – a proposition that throws into question some of (popular and professional) biology’s most central and celebrated claims, not least the ‘central dogma’ of Mendelian genetics, any direct determination of phenotype by genotype, and the very notion that any aspect of biological (or psychological, or any other higher form) activity or experience is capable of direct or exhaustive genetic or evolutionary ‘explanation’ (Oyama 1985; Oyama et al. 2001; Lewontin 2000).

Developmental systems theory is plainly radically incompatible with both neo-Darwinism and information processing theory. Whereas neo-Darwinism defines­ evolution in terms of changes in gene distribution, the possibility that an evolutionarily significant change may arise and be sustained without any directly corresponding change in gene frequencies is an elementary assumption of DST, just as neo-Darwinism’s ‘explanation’ of phenomena in terms of reproductive fitness is regarded as fundamentally shallow. Even the widespread mechanistic equation of ‘gene’ with a specific DNA sequence has been thrown into question (Neumann-Held 1999; Moss in Oyama et al. 2001: 90-91), as have the analogous interpretations of evolution and adaptation (Levins and Lewontin 1985).

Likewise, the wholly generic, functional and anti-developmental models offered by information processing theory are comprehensively challenged by DST’s evidence that nothing is explained without an explicit structural and developmental analysis on the appropriate levels (see Oyama 2000 for a detailed critique of information processing theory from a developmental systems perspective). As a result, what qualifies as ‘information’ depends wholly on the content and context out of which that information arises, within which it is translated and to which it is applied.


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