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A Primer on the Tree of Life (Part 4): Homology in Crisis

Note: This is Part 4 in a 5-part series titled “A Primer on the Tree of Life.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 5 here. The full article can be found, here.

Homology in Crisis
As Mayr suggests, there are other examples where genetic similarity appears in unexpected places. Biologically functional similarity that is thought to be the result of inheritance from a common ancestor is called “homology.”

The concept of “homology” has been thrown into a crisis via observations, like those of Mayr, that the same genes control the growth of non-homologous body parts. Pax-6 is just one example. Another is the fact that the same gene controls the development of limbs in widely diverse types organisms that have wholly different types of limbs, where their common ancestor is not thought to have a common type of limb.14

The methodology used to infer homology was also challenged when it was discovered that different developmental pathways control the growth of body parts otherwise thought to be homologous. As the textbook Explore Evolution observes:

In sharks, for example, the gut develops from cells in the roof of the embryonic cavity. In lampreys, the gut develops from cells on the floor of the cavity. And in frogs, the gut develops from cells from both the roof and the floor of the embryonic cavity. This discovery–that homologous structures can be produced by different developmental pathways–contradicts what we would expect to find if all vertebrates share a common ancestor. … To summarize, biologists have made two discoveries that challenge the argument from anatomical homology. The first is that the development of homologous structures can be governed by different genes and can follow different developmental pathways. The second discovery, conversely, is that sometimes the same gene plays a role in producing different adult structures. Both of these discoveries seem to contradict neo-Darwinian expectations.15

Perhaps this evidence is just the result of what Mayr called “hidden potentials of the genotype,” or perhaps it contradicts neo-Darwinian expectations because neo-Darwinism is wrong.

References Cited:
[14.] Paul Nelson and Jonathan Wells, “Homology in Biology,” in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer eds. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003).
[15.] Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker, Paul A. Nelson, and Ralph Seelke, Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, pgs. 44-45 (Hill House, 2007).”


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Tree of Life