Marine invertebrates, model organisms, and the modern synthesis: Epistemic values, evo-devo, and exclusion

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A central reason that undergirds the significance of evo-devo is the claim that development was left out of the Modern synthesis. This claim turns out to be quite complicated, both in terms of whether development was genuinely excluded and how to understand the different kinds of embryological research that might have contributed. The present paper reevaluates this central claim by focusing on the practice of model organism choice. Through a survey of examples utilized in the literature of the Modern synthesis, I identify a previously overlooked feature: exclusion of research on marine invertebrates. Understanding the import of this pattern requires interpreting it in terms of two epistemic values operating in biological research: theoretical generality and explanatory completeness. In tandem, these values clarify and enhance the significance of this exclusion. The absence of marine invertebrates implied both a lack of generality in the resulting theory and a lack of completeness with respect to particular evolutionary problems, such as evolvability and the origin of novelty. These problems were salient to embryological researchers aware of the variation and diversity of larval forms in marine invertebrates. In closing, I apply this analysis to model organism choice in evo-devo and discuss its relevance for an extended evolutionary synthesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-42
Number of pages24
JournalTheory in Biosciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009


  • Development
  • Embryology
  • Epistemic values
  • Evo-devo
  • Evolution
  • Exclusion
  • Larvae
  • Marine invertebrates
  • Model organisms
  • Modern synthesis


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