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The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited

edited by Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny

Publication Year: 2011

The contributors discuss different frameworks for understanding macroevolution, prokaryote evolution (the study of which has been aided by developments in molecular biology), and the complex evolution of multicellularity.

Published by: The MIT Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-vi

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Series Foreword

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pp. vii-viii

Biology is becoming the leading science in this century. As in all other sciences, progress in biology depends on interactions between empirical research, theory building, and modeling. However, whereas the techniques and methods of descriptive and experimental biology have evolved dramatically in recent years, generating a flood of highly detailed empirical data, the integration of these results into useful...

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

As with other volumes in this series, this book had its roots in a KLI workshop, one organized around themes similar to those of the volume. KLI workshops are immensely productive and enjoyable intellectual experiences, but they are also very intense. The workshop participants spend three days in sustained, focused, and cumulative discussion. Each of the participants’ talks is followed...

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Introduction: A Dynamic View of Evolution

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pp. 1-14

The Major Transitions in Evolution is part of an important tradition in evolutionary biology. This tradition attempts to identify large-scale patterns in life’s history, and to relate those patterns to evolutionary mechanisms that can be studied empirically. Here, we sketch some of this history and give our take on the importance of these projects. But we also lay out the ways in which...

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I. A Big Picture of Big Pictures of Life’s History

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pp. 15-18

In the introduction, we suggested that the single most important feature of Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s Major Transitions was its dynamic approach: The major changes are those that affect the key elements in the process of evolution itself. Even if this is right, it still does not isolate a single line of investigation about major transitions, nor a single way of understanding how and why they might occur. The chapters in this section sample a...

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1. The Miscellaneous Transitions in Evolution

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pp. 19-33

In Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, his sardonic alter ego Puddin’head Wilson reflects that if the Eiffel Tower represented the history of the world, and the skin of paint atop the knob at the pinnacle were the portion of that history in which humans have existed, “anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno...

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2. Alternative Patterns of Explanation for Major Transitions

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pp. 35-51

Two central claims in Maynard-Smith and Száthmary’s book are that (a) some events in evolutionary history are special because they changed what was subsequently possible to evolve, and (b) these events share many similar properties. The goal in this chapter is to explore this second claim, to assess what these claims of similarity amount to, and how and why we can make...

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3. Biological Ontology and Hierarchical Organization: A Defense of Rank Freedom

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pp. 53-63

This chapter deals with the ontology of biology systems, with particular reference to hierarchical organization. That biological systems exhibit hierarchical structure is a commonplace: larger biological units, such as multicelled organisms, are composed of smaller biological units (e.g., cells), which themselves contain still smaller units...

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4. Darwinian Populations and Transitions in Individuality

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pp. 65-81

John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (1995) used the phrase “major transitions” to refer to a set of evolutionary events with particular importance in the history of life. In their original count, eight such transitions were recognized. In many of their cases, though not all, the “transition” involved the appearance of a new kind of entity or biological unit, formed by the merging or combination...

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5. Evolvability Reconsidered

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pp. 83-100

The history of life is not just a history of evolution; it is a history of extraordinarily fecund evolutionary change. Many lineages have seen the evolution of complex adaptive structures, including completely novel structures: complex morphological innovations in the macrobes (sensory systems; locomotion; internal structural systems for circulation and support) and metabolic innovations...

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II. The Prokaryote’s Tale

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pp. 101-103

Microbiology played almost no role in the establishment of the synthesis consensus (O’Malley and Dupre 2007). If it had, Mayr’s biological species concept would not have dominated thinking about species and lineages for so long (Cohan 2002). The rise of molecular biology was an inestimable boon to microbiology, giving real tools through which microbial, and especially...

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6. To Be or Not To Be: Where Is Self-Preservation in Evolutionary Theory?

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pp. 105-125

Cooperation, it is commonly said, is a puzzle for evolutionary biology because of the intrinsic selfishness of living things (Queller 1997; Sachs et al. 2004). So foundational is selfishness to the contemporary theory of natural selection that the most influential account of the evolution of cooperation and altruism, kin selection, is based on it (Lehmann et al. 2007; Sober and Wilson 1998). Organisms...

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7. The Evolution of Restraint in Structured Populations: Setting the Stage for an Egalitarian Major Transition

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pp. 127-140

The prolific reef-building capacity of hermatypic corals depends on their association with single-celled photosynthetic endosymbionts called zooxanthellae (Knowlton 2001). One might think of the reef itself as a magnificent signature of an interspecific union. A “major transition” in evolution has transpired: Formerly independent entities have come to rely on one another...

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8. Conflicts among Levels of Selection as Fuel for the Evolution of Individuality

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pp. 141-162

A fundamental feature of contemporary biological life is its hierarchical organization. Consider just one colony of leaf-cutting ants in a South American forest. This colony is composed of multiple individual ants, differentiated for different tasks. However, each ant is also composed of a set of differentiated cells. And each cell houses a diverse array of genes. Although multiple layers...

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III. Complexity and the Developmental Cycle

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pp. 163-167

It is easy to overlook the metabolic, biochemical, and behavioral complexity of microbes, as they live and interact on a scale that makes observation challenging. Our sense of the extraordinary complexity and disparity of the multicellular world may depend, in part, on scale and perspective. Even so, understanding multicellularity is genuinely a special challenge. Multicellular organisms...

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9 Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality: Multicellularity and Sex

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pp. 169-197

The challenge of explaining evolutionary transitions (ETs) was initially posed by Maynard Smith in two papers (1988, 1991) and later in a more systematic and comprehensive way in his book with Szathmáry (1995). The list of “levels of complexity” first offered by Maynard Smith (1988, table 2) focused on the levels of selection: replicating molecules, replicators in compartments...

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10. How Many Levels Are There? How Insights from Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality Help Measure the Hierarchical Complexity of Life

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pp. 199-225

How the vast range of spatial and temporal scales on which biological processes interact and relate to each other is a fundamental problem in evolutionary biology. The standard solution was given by Darwin and formed the core of the modern synthesis. Observed processes of organisms interacting with their environment (which includes other organisms) produce all the patterns...

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11. Plant Individuality and Multilevel Selection Theory

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pp. 227-250

Gray’s statement may seem an exaggeration to the modern reader. Although philosophers of biology have become accustomed to worrying over whether genes or species are real units of selection, it is generally taken as uncontroversial that organisms, at least, are individuals. Even multilevel selection theorists, who may acknowledge the challenges presented by things...

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12. Phylogenetic, Functional, and Geological Perspectives on Complex Multicellularity

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pp. 251-270

Of all the events nominated as major transitions in evolution, none has received more attention than the rise of multicellularity. In part, this is because the subject can be approached from a number of perspectives, including systematics, developmental genetics, and the fossil record. And in part, of course, it is because multicellularity shapes our perceived biological landscape and, indeed...

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13. The Small Picture Approach to the Big Picture: Using DNA Sequences to Investigate the Diversification of Animal Body Plans

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pp. 271-298

The Metazoa (animal kingdom) is divided into approximately three dozen phyla (figure 13.1). The first undisputed fossils of around half of the animal phyla appear in the Cambrian, the geological period that runs from around 543 million years ago (Myr) to 488 Myr. At least a third of animal phyla have no fossil record to speak of (Valentine 2004), but we can infer from...

IV. Concluding Remarks

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pp. 299-311

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14. Concluding Remarks

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pp. 301-310

The book The Major Transitions in Evolution was published in 1995. In 2003 the authors were planning a major revision of the work, which sadly did not materialize due to the death of John Maynard Smith in 2004. Aside from a general update of the content, we wanted to add some brand new items, including evolvable nanotechnology, artificial cells, and the nervous and immune...


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pp. 311-312


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pp. 313-319

E-ISBN-13: 9780262295703
E-ISBN-10: 0262295709
Print-ISBN-13: 9780262015240
Print-ISBN-10: 0262015242

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 36 b&w Illus., 6 tables
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology
Series Editor Byline: Gerd B. Müller, Günter P. Wagner, and Werner Callebaut