Developmental causation and the problem of homology

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Philosophy and Theory in Biology, ISSN: 1949-0739, Vol: 5, Issue: 20170609, Page: 1-14

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Baum, David A.
University of Michigan Library; Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library
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While it is generally agreed that the concept of homology refers to individuated traits that have been inherited from common ancestry, we still lack an adequate account of trait individuation or inheritance. Here I propose that we utilize a counterfactual criterion of causation to link each trait with a developmental-causal (DC) gene. A DC gene is made up of the genetic information (which might or might not be physically contiguous in the genome) that is needed for the production of the organismic attributes that comprise the trait. I argue that individuated traits—phenes—correspond to organismic features that are caused by DC genes. Using such an approach, we can define a DC map, which shows the relations between each pair of phenes and provides a succinct summary of genotype-phenotype relationships and phenotypic complexity. Phenes in parents and offspring are judged to be homologous if their DC genes are composed of orthologous genetic factors. When comparing more distantly related organisms, traits are homologous when linked by a chain of parent-offspring homologs along the path of ancestry that links the two organisms. There are three possible ways to deal with the potential for multiple equivalent DC genes: maximal, minimal, and consensus homology. Whereas maximal homology has limited utility, the other two approaches have value and can help to guide research at the intersection of evolution and development.