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Evolution Unleashed

Kevin Laland: The traditional, and still dominant, view is that adaptations — from the human brain to the peacock’s tail — are fully and satisfactorily explained by natural selection (and subsequent inheritance). Yet as novel ideas flood in from genomics, epigenetics, and developmental biology, most evolutionists agree that their field is in flux. Much of the data implies that evolution is more complex than we once assumed. Some evolutionary biologists, myself included, are calling for a broader characterization of evolutionary theory, known as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). A central issue is whether what happens to organisms during their lifetime — their development — can play important and previously unanticipated roles in evolution. The orthodox view has been that developmental processes are largely irrelevant to evolution, but the EES views them as pivotal. Protagonists with authoritative credentials square up on both sides of this debate, with big-shot professors at Ivy League universities and members of national academies going head-to-head over the mechanisms of evolution.

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