Phylogenetic Inertia and Darwin's Higher Law

Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2011 Mar;42(1):60-8. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2010.11.013. Epub 2011 Jan 22.

Abstract

The concept of 'phylogenetic inertia' is routinely deployed in evolutionary biology as an alternative to natural selection for explaining the persistence of characteristics that appear sub-optimal from an adaptationist perspective. However, in many of these contexts the precise meaning of 'phylogenetic inertia' and its relationship to selection are far from clear. After tracing the history of the concept of 'inertia' in evolutionary biology, I argue that treating phylogenetic inertia and natural selection as alternative explanations is mistaken because phylogenetic inertia is, from a Darwinian point of view, simply an expected effect of selection. Although Darwin did not discuss 'phylogenetic inertia,' he did assert the explanatory priority of selection over descent. An analysis of 'phylogenetic inertia' provides a perspective from which to assess Darwin's view.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biology / history
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Phylogeny*
  • Selection, Genetic*