Daniel W. McShea
  • Daniel W. McShea

  • Associate Professor of Philosophy
  • Philosophy
  • 139 Bio Sci Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
  • Campus Box 90338
  • Phone: (919) 660-7342
  • Fax: (919) 660-7293
  • Homepage
  • Secondary web page
  • Overview

    My main research interest is hierarchy theory, especially the causal relationship between higher-level wholes and their components (Spencer, Simon, Campbell, Salthe, Wimsatt). In biology, for example, we might want to know how large-scale processes within a multicellular organism act to control the smaller-scale processes within its component cells. Or, in the area of my current research, how do the emotions in mammals (and perhaps other animals) act to initiate and control conscious thought and behavior? It seems clear from the philosophical work of Hume (A Treatise of Human Nature) that the preferencing or valuing that motivates or drives conscious thought and behavior, and in particular conscious decision-making, must arise from the emotions. This is true because the only alternative, reason (in the sense of pure rationality), is value-neutral, and utterly incapable of motivating anything. As Hume put it, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

    But what is the nature of the causal process by which emotion drives thought and behavior? I argue that it is a form of downward causation, of a sort that occurs in many hierarchical systems. Consider a neutrally buoyant balloon filled with gas and hanging in a room. If the balloon as a whole is moved -- say 2 inches to the left -- this large-scale movement causes all of the gas molecules within it (as well as the molecules in the plastic skin of the balloon) to move, on average, 2 inches to the left. A similar sort of top-down causation occurs, it seems, in the emotion-behavior and emotion-thought relationship. The evidence is that these relationships seem to follow certain key principles of hierarchy theory. 1. Rates. Lower levels move quickly relative to the higher level. The gas molecules in a balloon typically move quickly relative to the balloon as a whole. Likewise, thought and behavior are fast relative to change in emotional state. 2. Causal asymmetry. Lower-level units cannot, as individuals, much affect the higher level. A single gas molecule cannot much affect a whole balloon. Likewise, individual thoughts and behaviors ordinarily do not much affect an emotion. Rather, an emotion hovers more or less unchanging, in the background, while thoughts and behaviors aimed at satisfying that emotion play out. 3. Vagueness. Lower-level units do not directly interact with higher levels and therefore "perceive" them only "vaguely." Thus, thoughts and behaviors are clear and distinct, but we perceive our emotions only vaguely. 4. Downward causation. Higher levels exert their causal influence on lower-level units via boundary conditions, and therefore higher-level control is not precise, with the result that lower-level units have considerable freedom. Consistent with this, in two similar higher-level systems, the sequence of behaviors of lower-level units could be very different. The movements of individual gas molecules in two very similar balloons will be very different. Likewise, the same emotion, the same motivation, in two different people is consistent with their thinking and behaving very differently. (Although presumably some very general similarities can be found. To the extent that the two share the same emotion, the goals they are pursuing are similar. Analogously, the movements of the gas molecules in the balloon share a general similarity, in that they all move two inches to the left on average.)

    My past work has been mainly on large-scale evolutionary trends, that is, trends that include a number of higher taxa and that span a large portion of the history of life. Features that have been said to show such trends include complexity, size, fitness, and others. In my research, I worked mainly on developing operational measures of these features, devising methods for testing empirically whether trends have occurred, and studying the causes and correlates of trends. Most of this work so far has been on trends in complexity. In a recent book (Biology’s First Law 2010) with the philosopher Robert Brandon, we argue that complexity change in evolution is partly governed by what we call the Zero-Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL). The law says that in the absence of selection and constraint, complexity – in the sense of differentiation among parts – will tend to increase. Further, we argue, even when forces and constraints are present, a tendency for complexity to increase is always present. The rationale is simply that in the absence of selection or constraint, the parts of an organism will tend spontaneously to accumulate variation, and therefore to become more different from each other. Thus, for example, in a multicellular organism, in the absence of selection and constraint, the degree of differentiation among cells should increase, leading eventually to an increase in the number of cell types. As we argue in the book, the law applies at all hierarchical levels (molecules, organelles, cells, etc.). It also applies above the level of the organism, to differences among individuals in populations, and to differences among species and among higher taxa. In other words, the ZFEL says that diversity also tends spontaneously to increase. The ZFEL is universal, applying to all evolutionary lineages, at all times, in all places, everywhere life occurs. A consequence is that any complete evolutionary explanation for change in complexity or diversity will necessarily include the ZFEL as one component.

    Other interests include the philosophy of biology generally. (See my textbook coauthored with philosopher Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy Of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction 2009.) More specifically: 1. The connections among the various evolutionary forces acting on animal form -- functional, formal, and phylogenetic. 2. Animal psychology generally. 3. The relationship between morality and human nature.

  • Specialties

    • Philosophy of Biology
    • Cognitive Science
  • Areas of Interest

    Macroevolution, 
    Large-ScaleTrends, 
    Complexity, 
    Biological hierarchy
  • Education

      • Ph.D.,
      • University of Chicago,
      • 1990
      • M.S.,
      • University of Chicago,
      • 1987
      • B.A.,
      • Harvard University,
      • 1978
      • A.B.,
      • Biology,
      • Harvard College,
      • 1978
  • Selected Publications

      • DW McShea.
      • "Upper-directed systems: A new approach to teleology in biology."
      • Biology and Philosophy
      • 27
      • .5
      • (2012)
      • :
      • 663-684.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      How shall we understand apparently teleological systems? What explains their persistence (returning to past trajectories following errors) and their plasticity (finding the same trajectory from different starting points)? Here I argue that all seemingly goal-directed systems-e. g., a food-seeking organism, human-made devices like thermostats and torpedoes, biological development, human goal seeking, and the evolutionary process itself-share a common organization. Specifically, they consist of an entity that moves within a larger containing structure, one that directs its behavior in a general way without precisely determining it. If so, then teleology lies within the domain of the theory of compositional hierarchies. © 2012 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

      • D.W. McShea and Robert Brandon.
      • Biology's First Law.
      • University of Chicago Press,
      • 2010.
      • L Fleming and DW McShea.
      • "Drosophila mutants suggest a strong drive toward complexity in evolution.."
      • Evol Dev
      • 15
      • .1
      • (2013)
      • :
      • 53-62.
      • (Paper was written up in a Scientific American piece by Carl Zimmer. Attached)
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      The view that complexity increases in evolution is uncontroversial, yet little is known about the possible causes of such a trend. One hypothesis, the Zero Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL), predicts a strong drive toward complexity, although such a tendency can be overwhelmed by selection and constraints. In the absence of strong opposition, heritable variation accumulates and complexity increases. In order to investigate this claim, we evaluate the gross morphological complexity of laboratory mutants in Drosophila melanogaster, which represent organisms that arise in a context where selective forces are greatly reduced. Complexity was measured with respect to part types, shape, and color over two independent focal levels. Compared to the wild type, we find that D. melanogaster mutants are significantly more complex. When the parts of mutants are categorized by degree of constraint, we find that weakly constrained parts are significantly more complex than more constrained parts. These results support the ZFEL hypothesis. They also represent a first step in establishing the domain of application of the ZFEL and show one way in which a larger empirical investigation of the principle might proceed.

      • JD Marcot and DW McShea.
      • "Increasing hierarchical complexity throughout the history of life: Phylogenetic tests of trend mechanisms."
      • Paleobiology
      • 33
      • .2
      • (2007)
      • :
      • 182-200.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      The history of life is punctuated by a number of major transitions in hierarchy, defined here as the degree of nestedness of lower-level individuals within higher-level ones: the combination of single-celled prokaryotic cells to form the first eukaryotic cell, the aggregation of single eukaryotic cells to form complex multicellular organisms, and finally, the association of multicellular organisms to form complex colonial individuals. These transitions together constitute one of the most salient and certain trends in the history of life, in particular, a trend in maximum hierarchical structure, which can be understood as a trend in complexity. This trend could be produced by a biased mechanism, in which increases in hierarchy are more likely than decreases, or by an unbiased one, in which increases and decreases are about equally likely. At stake is whether or not natural selection or some other force acts powerfully over the history of life to drive complexity upward. Too few major transitions are known to permit rigorous statistical discrimination of trend mechanisms based on these transitions alone. However, the mechanism can be investigated by using "minor transitions" in hierarchy, or, in other words, changes in the degree of individuation of the upper level. This study tests the null hypothesis that the probability (or rate) of increase and decrease in individuation are equal in a phylogenetic context. We found published phylogenetic trees for clades spanning minor transitions across the tree of life and identified changes in character states associated with those minor transitions. We then used both parsimony- and maximum-likelihood-based methods to test for asymmetrical rates of character evolution. Most analyses failed to reject equal rates of hierarchical increase and decrease. In fact, a bias toward decreasing complexity was observed for several clades. These results suggest that no strong tendency exists for hierarchical complexity to increase. © 2007 The Paleontological Society. All rights reserved.

      This paper -- now in press at Paleobiology -- is the culmination of about three years of work by my (now former) postdoc, Jon Marcot, and me. The project was funded by two major (for me) grants (NASA and NSF). The results undermine one aspect of the conventional wisdom about evolutionary trends in complexity, in particular, trends in hierarchical complexity, the integration of lower-level units (e.g., cells) to form higher-level wholes (e.g., multicellular individuals). The conventional wisdom holds that the trend is driven by natural selection, so that increases are, and ought to be, more frequent than decreases. Our study examined hierarchical transitions over four levels of organization, from bacterium to colony/society, using state-of-the-art phylogenetic methods. And no upward tendency was found. Decreases in complexity -- losses of hierarchy -- abound in evolution, and on average are as common as increases! The trend would appear to be a sort that is called passive. In one version of this mechanism, the trend arises as a result of passive diffusion away from a lower bound, a lower limit on hierarchy (perhaps the bacterial level).

      • DW McShea and W Hordijk.
      • "Complexity by Subtraction."
      • Evolutionary Biology
      • 40
      • .4
      • (2013)
      • :
      • 504-520.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      The eye and brain: standard thinking is that these devices are both complex and functional. They are complex in the sense of having many different types of parts, and functional in the sense of having capacities that promote survival and reproduction. Standard thinking says that the evolution of complex functionality proceeds by the addition of new parts, and that this build-up of complexity is driven by selection, by the functional advantages of complex design. The standard thinking could be right, even in general. But alternatives have not been much discussed or investigated, and the possibility remains open that other routes may not only exist but may be the norm. Our purpose here is to introduce a new route to functional complexity, a route in which complexity starts high, rising perhaps on account of the spontaneous tendency for parts to differentiate. Then, driven by selection for effective and efficient function, complexity decreases over time. Eventually, the result is a system that is highly functional and retains considerable residual complexity, enough to impress us. We try to raise this alternative route to the level of plausibility as a general mechanism in evolution by describing two cases, one from a computational model and one from the history of life. © 2013 Springer Science+Business Media New York.

      • DW McShea.
      • "The evolution of complexity without natural selection, a possible large-scale trend of the fourth kind."
      • Paleobiology
      • 31
      • .2 SUPPL.
      • (2005)
      • :
      • 146-156.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      A simple principle predicts a tendency, or vector, toward increasing organismal complexity in the history of life: As the parts of an organism accumulate variations in evolution, they should tend to become more different from each other. In other words, the variance among the parts, or what I call the "internal variance" of the organism, will tend to increase spontaneously. Internal variance is complexity, I argue, albeit complexity in a purely structural sense, divorced from any notion of function. If the principle is correct, this tendency should exist in all lineages, and the resulting trend (if there is one) will be driven, or more precisely, driven by constraint (as opposed to selection). The existence of a trend is uncertain, because the internal-variance principle predicts only that the range of options offered up to selection will be increasingly complex, on average. And it is unclear whether selection will enhance this vector, act neutrally, or oppose it, perhaps negating it. The vector might also be negated if variations producing certain kinds of developmental truncations are especially common in evolution. Constraint-driven trends - or what I ca ll large-scale trends of the fourth kind - have been in bad odor in evolutionary studies since the Modern Synthesis. Indeed, one such trend, orthogenesis, is famous for having been discredited. In Stephen Jay Gould's last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Thought, he tried to rehabilitate this category (although not orthogenesis), showing how constraint-driven trends could be produced by processes well within the mainstream of contemporary evolutionary theory. The internal-variance principle contributes to Gould's project by adding another candidate trend to this category. © 2005 The Paleontological Society. All rights reserved.

      • DW McShea.
      • "Machine wanting.."
      • Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci
      • 44
      • .4 Pt B
      • (2013)
      • :
      • 679-687.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      Wants, preferences, and cares are physical things or events, not ideas or propositions, and therefore no chain of pure logic can conclude with a want, preference, or care. It follows that no pure-logic machine will ever want, prefer, or care. And its behavior will never be driven in the way that deliberate human behavior is driven, in other words, it will not be motivated or goal directed. Therefore, if we want to simulate human-style interactions with the world, we will need to first understand the physical structure of goal-directed systems. I argue that all such systems share a common nested structure, consisting of a smaller entity that moves within and is driven by a larger field that contains it. In such systems, the smaller contained entity is directed by the field, but also moves to some degree independently of it, allowing the entity to deviate and return, to show the plasticity and persistence that is characteristic of goal direction. If all this is right, then human want-driven behavior probably involves a behavior-generating mechanism that is contained within a neural field of some kind. In principle, for goal directedness generally, the containment can be virtual, raising the possibility that want-driven behavior could be simulated in standard computational systems. But there are also reasons to believe that goal-direction works better when containment is also physical, suggesting that a new kind of hardware may be necessary.

      • DW McShea.
      • "A universal generative tendency toward increased organismal complexity."
      • Variation
      • .
      • Variation: A Central Concept in Biology.
      • Ed. B. Hallgrimsson and B. Hall.
      • Academic Press,
      • (2005)
      • :
      • 435-453.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      Characterizing internal variance as complexity needs justification, because in colloquial usage, complexity connotes so much more. A complex organism is ordinarily understood to be not just more internally varied, or more differentiated, but more capable as well. The human brain is thought to be complex not simply because it has many cell types, but because of its impressive functional capabilities, because of what it can do. Thus, as conventionally understood, complexity depends on both structure and function. However, in biology, a narrower view has been adopted, herein complexity refers to number of part types, or degree of differentiation among parts. Complexity has other aspects besides number of part types. For example, there is complexity of spatial arrangement of parts, a kind of second-order complexity (where number of part types is first order), and number of types of connections among parts. The chapter introduces three simple models to illustrate the internal-variance principle and also to reveal its robustness. In each successive model, the variations introduced are more finely tuned in such a way as to negate or overcome the internal-variance principle. © 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

      • D.W. McShea and C. Anderson.
      • "The remodularization of the organism."
      • Modularity: Understanding the Development and Evolution of Natural Complex Systems.
      • Ed. W. Callebaut and D. Rasskin-Gutman.
      • The MIT Press,
      • 2005.
      • 185-206.
      • L Marino, DW McShea and MD Uhen.
      • "Origin and evolution of large brains in toothed whales.."
      • Anat Rec A Discov Mol Cell Evol Biol
      • 281
      • .2
      • (2004)
      • :
      • 1247-1255.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      Toothed whales (order Cetacea: suborder Odontoceti) are highly encephalized, possessing brains that are significantly larger than expected for their body sizes. In particular, the odontocete superfamily Delphinoidea (dolphins, porpoises, belugas, and narwhals) comprises numerous species with encephalization levels second only to modern humans and greater than all other mammals. Odontocetes have also demonstrated behavioral faculties previously only ascribed to humans and, to some extent, other great apes. How did the large brains of odontocetes evolve? To begin to investigate this question, we quantified and averaged estimates of brain and body size for 36 fossil cetacean species using computed tomography and analyzed these data along with those for modern odontocetes. We provide the first description and statistical tests of the pattern of change in brain size relative to body size in cetaceans over 47 million years. We show that brain size increased significantly in two critical phases in the evolution of odontocetes. The first increase occurred with the origin of odontocetes from the ancestral group Archaeoceti near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary and was accompanied by a decrease in body size. The second occurred in the origin of Delphinoidea only by 15 million years ago.

      • DW McShea and MA Changizi.
      • "Three puzzles in hierarchical evolution.."
      • Integr Comp Biol
      • 43
      • .1
      • (2003)
      • :
      • 74-81.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      The maximum degree of hierarchical structure of organisms has risen over the history of life, notably in three transitions: the origin of the eukaryotic cell from symbiotic associations of prokaryotes; the emergence of the first multicellular individuals from clones of eukaryotic cells; and the origin of the first individuated colonies from associations of multicellular organisms. The trend is obvious in the fossil record, but documenting it using a high-resolution hierarchy scale reveals three puzzles: 1) the rate of origin of new levels accelerates, at least until the early Phanerozoic; 2) after that, the trend may slow or even stop; and 3) levels may sometimes arise out of order. The three puzzles and their implications are discussed; a possible explanation is offered for the first.

      • DW McShea.
      • "A complexity drain on cells in the evolution of multicellularity.."
      • Evolution
      • 56
      • .3
      • (2002)
      • :
      • 441-452.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      A hypothesis has been advanced recently predicting that, in evolution, as higher-level entities arise from associations of lower-level organisms, and as these entities acquire the ability to feed, reproduce, defend themselves, and so on, the lower-level organisms will tend to lose much of their internal complexity (McShea 2001a). In other words, in hierarchical transitions, there is a drain on numbers of part types at the lower level. One possible rationale is that the transfer of functional demands to the higher level renders many part types at the lower level useless, and thus their loss in evolution is favored by selection for economy. Here, a test is conducted at the cell level, comparing numbers of part types in free-living eukaryotic cells (protists) and the cells of metazoans and land plants. Differences are significant and consistent with the hypothesis, suggesting that tests at other hierarchical levels may be worthwhile.

      • DW McShea and EP Venit.
      • "Testing for bias in the evolution of coloniality: A demonstration in cyclostome bryozoans."
      • Paleobiology
      • 28
      • .3
      • (2002)
      • :
      • 308-327.
      Publication Description

      Colonial organisms vary in the degree to which they are individuated at the colony level, i.e., in the degree to which the colony constitutes a unified whole, as opposed to a group of independent lower-level entities. Various arguments have been offered suggesting that evolutionary change along this continuum may be biased, that increases may be more probable than decreases. However, counterarguments can be devised, and the existing evidence is meager and inconclusive. In this paper, we demonstrate how the question can be addressed empirically by conducting a test for bias in a group of stenolaemate bryozoans, the cyclostomes. More specifically, we suggest three criteria for colony individuation: degree of connectedness among lower-level entities (in this case, zooids), degree of differentiation among lower-level entities, and number of intermediate-level parts. And we show these criteria can be used together with a phylogeny and ancestral-state reconstruction methods to test for bias. In this case, results do not unambiguously support any single interpretation but are somewhat supportive of a null hypothesis of no bias in favor of increase. As part of the demonstration, we also show how results can be transformed into a quantitative estimate of an upper limit on bias. Finally, we place the question of bias in a larger context, arguing that the same criteria and methods we employ here can be used to test for bias in other colonial taxa, and also at other hierarchical levels, for example, in the transitions from free-living eukaryotic cells to multicellular organisms.

      • DW McShea.
      • "The minor transitions in hierarchical evolution and the question of a directional bias."
      • Journal of Evolutionary Biology
      • 14
      • .3
      • (2001)
      • :
      • 502-518.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      The history of life shows a clear trend in hierarchical organization, revealed by the successive emergence of organisms with ever greater numbers of levels of nestedness and greater development, or 'individuation', of the highest level. Various arguments have been offered which suggest that the trend is the result of a directional bias, or tendency, meaning that hierarchical increases are more probable than decreases among lineages, perhaps because hierarchical increases are favoured, on average, by natural selection. Further, what little evidence exists seems to point to a bias: some major increases are known-including the origin of the eukaryotic cell from prokaryotic cells and of animals, fungi and land plants from solitary eukaryotic cells - but no major decreases (except in parasitic and commensal organisms), at least at the cellular and multicellular levels. The fact of a trend, combined with the arguments and evidence, might make a bias seem beyond doubt, but here I argue that its existence is an open empirical question. Further, I show how testing is possible.

      • DW McShea.
      • "The hierarchical structure of organisms: A scale and documentation of a trend in the maximum."
      • Paleobiology
      • 27
      • .2
      • (2001)
      • :
      • 405-423.
      Publication Description

      The degree of hierarchical structure of organisms-the number of levels of nesting of lower-level entities within higher-level individuals-has apparently increased a number of times in the history of life, notably in the origin of the eukaryotic cell from an association of prokaryotic cells, of multicellular organisms from clones of eukaryotic cells, and of intergrated colonies from aggregates of multicellular individuals. Arranged in order of first occurrence, these three transitions suggest a trend, in particular a trend in the maximum, or an increase in the degree of hierarchical structure present in the hierarchically deepest organism on Earth. However, no rigorous documentation of such a trend-based on operational and consistent criteria for hierarchical levels-has been attempted. Also, the trajectory of increase has not been examined in any detail. One limitation is that no hierarchy scale has been developed with sufficient resolution to document more than these three major increases. Here, a higher-resolution scale is proposed in which hierarchical structure is decomposed into levels and sublevels, with levels reflecting number of layers of nestedness, and sublevels reflecting degree of individuation at the highest level. The scale is then used, together with the body-fossil record, to plot the trajectory of the maximum. Two alternative interpretations of the record are considered, and both reveal a long-term trend extending from the Archean through the early Phanerozoic. In one, the pattern of increase was incremental, with almost all sublevels arising precisely in order. The data also raise the possibility that waiting times for transitions between sublevels may have decreased with increasing hierarchical level (and with time). These last two findings-incremental increase in level and decreasing waiting times-are tentative, pending a study of possible biases in the fossil record.

      • C Anderson and DW McShea.
      • "Individual versus social complexity, with particular reference to ant colonies.."
      • Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc
      • 76
      • .2
      • (2001)
      • :
      • 211-237.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      Insect societies colonies of ants, bees, wasps and termites--vary enormously in their social complexity. Social complexity is a broadly used term that encompasses many individual and colony-level traits and characteristics such as colony size, polymorphism and foraging strategy. A number of earlier studies have considered the relationships among various correlates of social complexity in insect societies; in this review, we build upon those studies by proposing additional correlates and show how all correlates can be integrated in a common explanatory framework. The various correlates are divided among four broad categories (sections). Under 'polyphenism' we consider the differences among individuals, in particular focusing upon 'caste' and specialization of individuals. This is followed by a section on 'totipotency' in which we consider the autonomy and subjugation of individuals. Under this heading we consider various aspects such as intracolony conflict, worker reproductive potential and physiological or morphological restrictions which limit individuals' capacities to perform a range of tasks or functions. A section entitled 'organization of work' considers a variety of aspects, e.g. the ability to tackle group, team or partitioned tasks, foraging strategies and colony reliability and efficiency. A final section, 'communication and functional integration', considers how individual activity is coordinated to produce an integrated and adaptive colony. Within each section we use illustrative examples drawn from the social insect literature (mostly from ants, for which there is the best data) to illustrate concepts or trends and make a number of predictions concerning how a particular trait is expected to correlate with other aspects of social complexity. Within each section we also expand the scope of the arguments to consider these relationships in a much broader sense of'sociality' by drawing parallels with other 'social' entities such as multicellular individuals, which can be understood as 'societies' of cells. The aim is to draw out any parallels and common causal relationships among the correlates. Two themes run through the study. The first is the role of colony size as an important factor affecting social complexity. The second is the complexity of individual workers in relation to the complexity of the colony. Consequently, this is an ideal opportunity to test a previously proposed hypothesis that 'individuals of highly social ant species are less complex than individuals from simple ant species' in light of numerous social correlates. Our findings support this hypothesis. In summary, we conclude that, in general, complex societies are characterized by large colony size, worker polymorphism, strong behavioural specialization and loss of totipotency in its workers, low individual complexity, decentralized colony control and high system redundancy, low individual competence, a high degree of worker cooperation wher tackling tasks, group foraging strategies, high tempo, multi-chambered tailor-made nests, high functional integration, relatively greater use of cues and modulatory signals to coordinate individuals and heterogeneous patterns of worker-worker interaction.

      • D.W. McShea and E.P. Venit.
      • "What is a part?."
      • The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology.
      • Ed. G.P. Wagner.
      • 2001.
      • DW McShea.
      • "Functional complexity in organisms: Parts as proxies."
      • Biology and Philosophy
      • 15
      • .5
      • (2000)
      • :
      • 641-668.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      The functional complexity, or the number of functions, of organisms has figured prominently in certain theoretical and empirical work in evolutionary biology. Large-scale trends in functional complexity and correlations between functional complexity and other variables, such as size, have been proposed. However, the notion of number of functions has also been operationally intractable, in that no method has been developed for counting functions in an organism in a systematic and reliable way. Thus, studies have had to rely on the largely unsupported assumption that number of functions can be measured indirectly, by using number of morphological, physiological, and behavioral partsas a proxy. Here, a model is developed that supports this assumption. Specifically, the model predicts that few parts will have many functions overlapping in them, and therefore the variance in number of functions per part will be low. If so, then number of parts is expected to be well correlated with number of functions, and we can use part counts as proxies for function counts in comparative studies of organisms, even when part counts are low. Also discussed briefly is a strategy for identifying certain kinds of parts in organisms in a systematic way.

      • D.W. McShea.
      • "Feelings as the proximate cause of behavior."
      • Where Psychology Meets Biology: Philosophical Essays.
      • Ed. V.G. Hardcastle.
      • Cambridge University Press,
      • 1999.
      • DW McShea.
      • "Possible largest-scale trends in organismal evolution: Eight 'live hypotheses'."
      • Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics
      • 29
      • (1998)
      • :
      • 293-318.
      • [web]
      Publication Description

      Historically, a great many features of organisms have been said to show a trend over the history of life, and many rationales for such trends have been proposed. Here I review eight candidates, eight 'live hypotheses' that are inspiring research on largest-scale trends today: entropy, energy intensiveness, evolutionary versatility, developmental depth, structural depth, adaptedness, size, and complexity. For each, the review covers the principal arguments that have been advanced for why a trend is expected, as well as some of the empirical approaches that have been adopted. Also discussed are three conceptual matters arising in connection with trend studies: 1. Alternative bases for classifying trends: pattern versus dynamics; 2. alternative modes in which largest-scale trends have been studied: 'exploratory' versus 'skeptical'; and 3. evolutionary progress.

  • View All Publications