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J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol. 2012 Sep;318(6):501-17. doi: 10.1002/jez.b.22448. Epub 2012 May 30.

The generation of variation and the developmental basis for evolutionary novelty.

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Department of Cell Biology & Anatomy, McCaig Bone and Joint Institute, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.


Organisms exhibit an incredible diversity of form, a fact that makes the evolution of novelty seemingly self-evident. However, despite the "obvious" case for novelty, defining this concept in evolutionary terms is highly problematic, so much so that some have suggested discarding it altogether. Approaches to this problem tend to take either an adaptation- or development-based perspective, but we argue here that an exclusive focus on either of these misses the original intent of the novelty concept and undermines its practical utility. We propose instead that for a feature to be novel, it must have evolved both by a transition between adaptive peaks on the fitness landscape and that this transition must have overcome a previous developmental constraint. This definition focuses novelty on the explanation of apparently difficult or low-probability evolutionary transitions and highlights how the integration of developmental and functional considerations are necessary to evolutionary explanation. It further reinforces that novelty is a central concern not just of evolutionary developmental biology (i.e., "evo-devo") but of evolutionary biology more generally. We explore this definition of novelty in light of four examples that range from the obvious to subtle.

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