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Novartis Found Symp. 1999;222:5-18; discussion 18-23.

Homology--history of a concept.

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Department of Marine Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.


The concept of homology is traceable to Aristotle, but Belon's comparison in 1555 of a human skeleton with that of a bird expressed it overtly. Before the late 18th century, the dominant view of the pattern of organisms was the scala naturae--even Linnaeus with his divergent hierarchical classification did not necessarily see the resulting taxonomic pattern as a natural phenomenon. The divergent hierarchy, rather than the acceptance of phylogeny, was the necessary spur to discussion of homology and the concept of analogy. Lamarck, despite his proposal of evolution, attributed homology to his escalator naturae and analogy to convergent acquired characters. Significantly, it was the concept of serial homology that emerged at the end of the 18th century, although comparison between organisms became popular soon after, and was boosted by the famous Cuvier/Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire debate of the 1830s. The concepts of homology and analogy were well understood by the pre- (or anti-) evolutionary comparative anatomists before the general acceptance of phylogeny, and they were defined by Owen in 1843. The acceptance of evolution led to the idea that homology should be defined by common ancestry, and to the confusion between definition and explanation. The term 'homoplasy', introduced by Lankester in 1870, also arose from a phylogenetic explanation of homology.

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