We dedicate this special section to the memory of Eric H. Davidson, who died on the first of September 2015. Though he had been seriously ill for many years, his death was unexpected and a great shock for us.
We dedicate the section, first, to a great scientist who passionately pursued the idea of a mechanistic explanation of development and evolution. Eric was a pioneer in the molecular biology of development and its relationship to evolution. One of the first to suggest a model for gene regulation in higher organisms (with Roy Britten in 1969), he became the founder of the enormously successful concept of developmental gene regulatory networks. Central to his approach was the analysis of the characteristics of the shape or topology of regulatory network modules and of how they determine function, that is, the spatial patterns of regulatory gene expression in development. In a landmark discovery in recent years, Eric and colleagues put forward the theory that gene regulatory network models provide a system-level, causal explanation of the developmental process by means of a predictive, dynamic Boolean computational model. This is outlined beautifully in his last book (with Isabelle Peter), Genomic Control Process: Development and Evolution (2015). Eric showed that in order to understand evolution, one must understand the change in genomic programs that control development, and that major evolutionary changes such as that of body plans require changes in the architecture of gene networks. [End Page 141]
We dedicate the special section, second, to a colleague who was deeply involved in the interaction of scientists with historians and philosophers of science. From the beginning, he had been a source of inspiration and encouragement to the members of the Jacques Loeb Centre and the participants of its international workshops, which he helped plan in the last years. To Eric, reflections on the history and philosophy of science were not only an intellectual challenge but also highly relevant to research; he believed that “conceptual advance, and conceptual history, can never truly be separated.” To him a mechanistic approach to science was not only the only way to conduct science fruitfully, but he also considered the mechanistic understanding of development and evolution as a bulwark against an irrational view of life.
Eric was a deep and independent thinker who, in his own way, pushed his visions ahead, inciting sometimes sharp discussions. His radical search for causal explanations in science, his rejection of superficiality and vagueness, became influential not only for scientists, but also for historians and philosophers of science. His contribution to this special issue is a legacy of his vision of how 21st-century system-level causal approaches based on the genome combined with the old epistemological principle of the “inductive use of predictive hypotheses” can lead to revolutionary insights into the old questions of development and evolution. Completed only shortly before his death, this essay shows Eric’s very personal style and his passion.
We miss him greatly, as a scientist, a critical and inspirational colleague, a great personality, and a friend. [End Page 142]