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, 78 (3), 409-33

Descent With Modification: The Unity Underlying Homology and Homoplasy as Seen Through an Analysis of Development and Evolution


Descent With Modification: The Unity Underlying Homology and Homoplasy as Seen Through an Analysis of Development and Evolution

Brian K Hall. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc.


Homology is at the foundation of comparative studies in biology at all levels from genes to phenotypes. Homology is similarity because of common descent and ancestry, homoplasy is similarity arrived at via independent evolution. However, given that there is but one tree of life, all organisms, and therefore all features of organisms, share some degree of relationship and similarity one to another. That sharing may be similarity or even identity of structure and the sharing of a most recent common ancestor--as in the homology of the arms of humans and apes--or it may reflect some (often small) degree of similarity, such as that between the wings of insects and the wings of birds, groups whose shared ancestor lies deep within the evolutionary history of the Metazoa. It may reflect sharing of entire developmental pathways, partial sharing, or divergent pathways. This review compares features classified as homologous with the classes of features normally grouped as homoplastic, the latter being convergence, parallelism, reversals, rudiments, vestiges, and atavisms. On the one hand, developmental mechanisms may be conserved, even when a complete structure does not form (rudiments, vestiges), or when a structure appears only in some individuals (atavisms). On the other hand, different developmental mechanisms can produce similar (homologous) features. Joint examination of nearness of relationship and degree of shared development reveals a continuum within an expanded category of homology, extending from homology --> reversals --> rudiments --> vestiges --> atavisms --> parallelism, with convergence as the only class of homoplasy, an idea that turns out to be surprisingly old. This realignment provides a glimmer of a way to bridge phylogenetic and developmental approaches to homology and homoplasy, a bridge that should provide a key pillar for evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). It will not, and in a practical sense cannot, alter how homoplastic features are identified in phylogenetic analyses. But seeing rudiments, reversals, vestiges, atavisms and parallelism as closer to homology than to homoplasy should guide us toward searching for the common elements underlying the formation of the phenotype (what some have called the deep homology of genetic and/or cellular mechanisms), rather than discussing features in terms of shared or independent evolution.

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