Re: Genes and Development Conference

Brian D Harper (
Tue, 30 Mar 1999 13:20:36 -0800

At 11:31 AM 3/26/99 -0800, Art wrote:

>The following is an excerpt from a posting on another listserve. The
>subject matter is of interest because of the growing recognition among
>molecular biologists that evolution is being unmasked by their research,
>particularly in the area of development.

I'm curious what you mean by "evolution is being unmasked by their
research". Can you elaborate?

In any event, thanks for this interesting info. I took an interest
in developmental and structural biology several years ago, probably
because this is (AFIK) the only evolution related field where my own
specialty (mechanics) plays an important role. There was an extensive
review on mechanics applications in this area published in <Applied
Mechanics Reviews> a few years ago (v. 48(8), August 1995). I mention
this mainly because this review contained a brief section containing
some "anti-Darwinian" comments which I found a little surprising
considering the journal.

To the point, I would like to pose two questions to the group.

The first is aimed primarily at ID'ers. I am assuming (correct me if
I'm wrong) that ID people by and large are anti-reductionists, yet
there seems to be an inconsistency in approach especially during
discussions regarding information and/or complexity. Let me give
an example. In discussions of spontaneous increase in complexity
one often sees the example given of a seed growing into a tree
without any apparent violation of natural law or intervention from
an intelligent agent. The inevitable rejoinder is that this does not
involve an increase in complexity(information) since the information
required to direct the growth is contained in the DNA. Thus the
information(complexity) remains constant. But another way of saying
the same thing is to say that the growth is directed by a genetic
programme. So, my question is whether this is a fundamental
inconsistency or am I missing something?

My second question is one I've been pondering off and on for
several years now. It resurfaced during the recent discussion
on falsification. As background, I've attached at the end of
my post an excerpt from the preface to the book <Form and
Transformation> by Webster and Goodwin. To set the tone for
my question I'll just quote the first two sentences from the

#"In a summary of his discussion of morphology in the <Origin of
#Species> Darwin concludes that "On this ... view of descent
#with modification, all the great facts in morphology become
#intelligible" (1859, p. 433). This book is a contribution to
#that tradition in biology which disputes this conclusion."
# -- Webster and Goodwin

OK, so one of the lofty goals (yet to be attained of course)
of Webster, Goodwin and many others belonging to "that tradition
in biology" is to develop a rational theory of form which would
(among other things) explain homology in terms of fundamental
theory, independent of history. My question then is, supposing
for the moment that they are wildly successful, what effect would
such a theory have upon the theory of common ancestry?

I guess I should emphasize at this point that both Webster and
Goodwin are evolutionists (immediately apparent from the
quote below) and that they would most likely not come to the
conclusion suggested by my question above. Nevertheless, the
question does seem a reasonable one if one has managed to
divorce homology from history.

[I have my own thoughts on this which I'll hold on to for the
time being :)]

=====begin quote=======================================
Webster and Brian Goodwin [Cambridge University Press, 1996]

In a summary of his discussion of morphology in the <Origin of
Species> Darwin concludes that "On this ... view of descent
with modification, all the great facts in morphology become
intelligible" (1859, p. 433). This book is a contribution to
that tradition in biology which disputes this conclusion.

We argue that the theory of evolution provides only limited
insight into the problem of form as regards both the causal
explanation of form and the relations between forms. We
suggest that what is required is the development of a specific
causal-explanatory theory of form, a theory of morphogenesis
in the most comprehensive sense, and that such a theory will
be as fundamental to biology, if not more so, at least as
the theory of evolution. We contest the current view that
such a theory is merely a supplement to the theory of
evolution and, consequently, that it should be couched in
terms of a 'genetic programme'. The end result of such a
position is the disappearance from biology of organisms,
conceived as fundamental and specific kinds of entities;
and, to a considerable extent, this is precisely the current
situation. By contrast, we argue that organisms should be
regarded as the fundamental entities of biological theory.
Following scholars such as Needham, Waddington and Woodger,
we argue that a satisfactory theory of morphogenesis cannot
be based on an atomistic and mechanistic view of the organism
but requires the development of a more adequate 'Concept of
Organism' in which organisms are treated as specific kinds of
things. We advance a field theory of morphogenesis in which
in which organisms are conceived as entities which, by
virtue of their structure, are possessed of distinctive and
specific generative powers, that is, natures.


Part II, written by Brian Goodwin, explores the structure of
a theory of biological form in terms of organisms as fields.
It begins with a critical look at current theories of
development which are based on Weismann's separation of
organisms into a genetic essence (now called a genetic
programme) and a derived soma. These are examined in relation
to experimental evidence and found to be inconsistent with
it. Treating organisms as unified, though hierarchically
complex, dynamic fields suggests a way of handling the
evidence consistently. Homology emerges from this treatment
as a crucial concept relating development to taxonomy, and
a general definition of homology based upon developmental
dynamics is proposed that has the logical structure of an
equivalence relationship as used in mathematics. This is
independent of history (genealogy) so that a purely
relational order begins to emerge from the study of
similarities and differences of organismic form at any
level of the biological hierarchy, whether between parts
of one organism or between organisms belonging to different
taxa, independently of their genealogies.


--Webster and Goodwin, <Form and Transformation>, Cambridge
University Press, 1996.

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"All kinds of private metaphysics and theology have
grown like weeds in the garden of thermodynamics"
-- E. H. Hiebert