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Lessons from embryos: Haeckel's embryo drawings, evolution, and secondary biology textbooks

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In 1997, developmental biologist Michael Richardson compared his research team's embryo photographs to Ernst Haeckel's 1874 embryo drawings and called Haeckel's work noncredible.Science soon published <“>Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered,<”> and

In 1997, developmental biologist Michael Richardson compared his research team's embryo photographs to Ernst Haeckel's 1874 embryo drawings and called Haeckel's work noncredible.Science soon published <“>Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered,<”> and Richardson's comments further reinvigorated criticism of Haeckel by others with articles in The American Biology Teacher, <“>Haeckel's Embryos and Evolution: Setting the Record Straight <”> and the New York Times, <“>Biology Text Illustrations more Fiction than Fact.<”> Meanwhile, others emphatically stated that the goal of comparative embryology was not to resurrect Haeckel's work. At the center of the controversy was Haeckel's no-longer-accepted idea of recapitulation. Haeckel believed that the development of an embryo revealed the adult stages of the organism's ancestors. Haeckel represented this idea with drawings of vertebrate embryos at similar developmental stages. This is Haeckel's embryo grid, the most common of all illustrations in biology textbooks. Yet, Haeckel's embryo grids are much more complex than any textbook explanation. I examined 240 high school biology textbooks, from 1907 to 2010, for embryo grids. I coded and categorized the grids according to accompanying discussion of (a) embryonic similarities (b) recapitulation, (c) common ancestors, and (d) evolution. The textbooks show changing narratives. Embryo grids gained prominence in the 1940s, and the trend continued until criticisms of Haeckel reemerged in the late 1990s, resulting in (a) grids with fewer organisms and developmental stages or (b) no grid at all. Discussion about embryos and evolution dropped significantly.

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  • 2014

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The Aims and Structures of Research Projects That Use Gene Regulatory Information with Evolutionary Genetic Models

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At the interface of developmental biology and evolutionary biology, the very

criteria of scientific knowledge are up for grabs. A central issue is the status of evolutionary genetics models, which some

At the interface of developmental biology and evolutionary biology, the very

criteria of scientific knowledge are up for grabs. A central issue is the status of evolutionary genetics models, which some argue cannot coherently be used with complex gene regulatory network (GRN) models to explain the same evolutionary phenomena. Despite those claims, many researchers use evolutionary genetics models jointly with GRN models to study evolutionary phenomena.

How do those researchers deploy those two kinds of models so that they are consistent and compatible with each other? To address that question, this dissertation closely examines, dissects, and compares two recent research projects in which researchers jointly use the two kinds of models. To identify, select, reconstruct, describe, and compare those cases, I use methods from the empirical social sciences, such as digital corpus analysis, content analysis, and structured case analysis.

From those analyses, I infer three primary conclusions about projects of the kind studied. First, they employ an implicit concept of gene that enables the joint use of both kinds of models. Second, they pursue more epistemic aims besides mechanistic explanation of phenomena. Third, they don’t work to create and export broad synthesized theories. Rather, they focus on phenomena too complex to be understood by a common general theory, they distinguish parts of the phenomena, and they apply models from different theories to the different parts. For such projects, seemingly incompatible models are synthesized largely through mediated representations of complex phenomena.

The dissertation closes by proposing how developmental evolution, a field traditionally focused on macroevolution, might fruitfully expand its research agenda to include projects that study microevolution.

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  • 2017

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Evolution under our feet: Anthony David Bradshaw (1926-2008) and the rise of ecological genetics

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How fast is evolution? In this dissertation I document a profound change that occurred around the middle of the 20th century in the way that ecologists conceptualized the temporal and

How fast is evolution? In this dissertation I document a profound change that occurred around the middle of the 20th century in the way that ecologists conceptualized the temporal and spatial scales of adaptive evolution, through the lens of British plant ecologist Anthony David Bradshaw (1926–2008). In the early 1960s, one prominent ecologist distinguished what he called “ecological time”—around ten generations—from “evolutionary time”— around half of a million years. For most ecologists working in the first half of the 20th century, evolution by natural selection was indeed a slow and plodding process, tangible in its products but not in its processes, and inconsequential for explaining most ecological phenomena. During the 1960s, however, many ecologists began to see evolution as potentially rapid and observable. Natural selection moved from the distant past—a remote explanans for both extant biological diversity and paleontological phenomena—to a measurable, quantifiable mechanism molding populations in real time.

The idea that adaptive evolution could be rapid and highly localized was a significant enabling condition for the emergence of ecological genetics in the second half of the 20th century. Most of what historians know about that conceptual shift and the rise of ecological genetics centers on the work of Oxford zoologist E. B. Ford and his students on polymorphism in Lepidotera, especially industrial melanism in Biston betularia. I argue that ecological genetics in Britain was not the brainchild of an infamous patriarch (Ford), but rather the outgrowth of a long tradition of pastureland research at plant breeding stations in Scotland and Wales, part of a discipline known as “genecology” or “experimental taxonomy.” Bradshaw’s investigative activities between 1948 and 1968 were an outgrowth of the specific brand of plant genecology practiced at the Welsh and Scottish Plant Breeding stations. Bradshaw generated evidence that plant populations with negligible reproductive isolation—separated by just a few meters—could diverge and adapt to contrasting environmental conditions in just a few generations. In Bradshaw’s research one can observe the crystallization of a new concept of rapid adaptive evolution, and the methodological and conceptual transformation of genecology into ecological genetics.

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  • 2015

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Development, evolution, and teeth: how we came to explain the morphological evolution of the mammalian dentition

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This dissertation begins to lay out a small slice of the history of morphological research, and how it has changed, from the late 19th through the close of the 20th

This dissertation begins to lay out a small slice of the history of morphological research, and how it has changed, from the late 19th through the close of the 20th century. Investigators using different methods, addressing different questions, holding different assumptions, and coming from different research fields have pursued morphological research programs, i.e. research programs that explore the process of changing form. Subsequently, the way in which investigators have pursued and understood morphology has witnessed significant changes from the 19th century to modern day research. In order to trace this shifting history of morphology, I have selected a particular organ, teeth, and traced a tendril of research on the dentition beginning in the late 19th century and ending at the year 2000. But even focusing on teeth would be impossible; the scope of research on this organ is far too vast. Instead, I narrow this dissertation to investigation of research on a particular problem: explaining mammalian tooth morphology. How researchers have investigated mammalian tooth morphology and what counts as an explanation changed dramatically during this period.

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  • 2017

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Investigating wasp societies: a historical and epistemological study

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The study of wasp societies (family Vespidae) has played a central role in advancing our knowledge of why social life evolves and how it functions. This dissertation asks: How have

The study of wasp societies (family Vespidae) has played a central role in advancing our knowledge of why social life evolves and how it functions. This dissertation asks: How have scientists generated and evaluated new concepts and theories about social life and its evolution by investigating wasp societies? It addresses this question both from a narrative/historical and from a reflective/epistemological perspective. The historical narratives reconstruct the investigative pathways of the Italian entomologist Leo Pardi (1915-1990) and the British evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton (1936-2000). The works of these two scientists represent respectively the beginning of our current understanding of immediate and evolutionary causes of social life. Chapter 1 shows how Pardi, in the 1940s, generated a conceptual framework to explain how wasp colonies function in terms of social and reproductive dominance. Chapter 2 shows how Hamilton, in the 1960s, attempted to evaluate his own theory of inclusive fitness by investigating social wasps. The epistemological reflections revolve around the idea of investigative framework for theory evaluation. Chapter 3 draws on the analysis of important studies on social wasps from the 1960s and 1970s and provides an account of theory evaluation in the form of an investigative framework. The framework shows how inferences from empirical data (bottom-up) and inferences from the theory (top-down) inform one another in the generation of hypotheses, predictions and statements about phenomena of social evolution. It provides an alternative to existing philosophical accounts of scientific inquiry and theory evaluation, which keep a strong, hierarchical distinction between inferences from the theory and inferences from the data. The historical narratives in this dissertation show that important scientists have advanced our knowledge of complex biological phenomena by constantly interweaving empirical, conceptual, and theoretical work. The epistemological reflections argue that we need holistic frameworks that account for how multiple scientific practices synergistically contribute to advance our knowledge of complex phenomena. Both narratives and reflections aim to inspire and inform future work in social evolution capitalizing on lessons learnt from the past.

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  • 2016