Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective

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Eldredge N, Pievani T, Serrelli E, Tëmkin I, eds. (2016). Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About this book

The natural world is infinitely complex and hierarchically structured, with smaller units forming the components of progressively larger systems: molecules make up cells, cells comprise tissues and organs that are, in turn, parts of individual organisms, which are united into populations and integrated into yet more encompassing ecosystems. In the face of such awe-inspiring complexity, there is a need for a comprehensive, non-reductionist evolutionary theory. Having emerged at the crossroads of paleobiology, genetics, and developmental biology, the hierarchical approach to evolution provides a unifying perspective on the natural world and offers an operational framework for scientists seeking to understand the way complex biological systems work and evolve.

Coedited by one of the founders of hierarchy theory and featuring a diverse and renowned group of contributors, this volume provides an integrated, comprehensive, cutting-edge introduction to the hierarchy theory of evolution. From sweeping historical reviews to philosophical pieces, theoretical essays, and strictly empirical chapters, it reveals hierarchy theory as a vibrant field of scientific enterprise that holds promise for unification across the life sciences and offers new venues of empirical and theoretical research. Stretching from molecules to the biosphere, hierarchy theory aims to provide an all-encompassing understanding of evolution and—with this first collection devoted entirely to the concept—will help make transparent the fundamental patterns that propel living systems.


Niles Eldredge is an emeritus curator in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the founders of the hierarchy theory of evolution. He is the author, most recently, of Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond. Telmo Pievani is professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Padua, where he holds the first Italian chair of the philosophy of biological science. Emanuele Serrelli is a fellow at the University of Milano-Bicocca and a researcher in the philosophy of science who collaborates with several universities around the world. Ilya Tëmkin is associate professor of biology at Northern Virginia Community College and a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. All four are members of the Hierarchy Group.


“All of the topics examined here ultimately emanate from the longstanding desire of distinguished evolutionary theoretician Eldredge to integrate what he saw as two independent hierarchies that impinge on evolution process: the genealogical hierarchy of genes, demes, species, and higher taxa, and the ecological hierarchy of individuals, populations, and communities. It is this integrative focus, viewed from a variety of perspectives, that gives the book its distinctive form. Diverse as the chapters are, linking commentaries help to make this perhaps the best-integrated edited volume I have seen. It is a conceptually homogeneous, truly unusual work that represents the state of the art in the realm of hierarchy-driven evolutionary theory and will move this field ahead in a significant way.” Ian Tattersall, American Museum of Natural History, author of “The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution”

“The editors of Evolutionary Theory are all respected scholars with important track records as advocates of an understanding of evolution that does not conform to the standard, received version—the so-called Evolutionary or Modern Synthesis. The central point of disagreement between the two camps turns on the role of natural selection: while neither denies its role, the editors of and contributors to this volume consider that it is not the only factor that plays a role in speciation—especially the origin of species. Clear and readable, chapters explore themes of information, integration, organization, mereology, context, time—and the constraints responsible for bringing hierarchies into being and keeping them in existence while allowing them to change. The crucial significance of these conceptual issues, and how they are made manifest in biology, development, and evolution, can no longer be ignored.” Alicia Juarrero, Prince George’s Community College, emerita, author of “Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System”

Table of contents

Introduction The Checkered Career of Hierarchical Thinking in Evolutionary Biology
Niles Eldredge

Part 1 Hierarchy Theory of Evolution

Linking Section General Principles of Biological Hierarchical Systems
Ilya Tëmkin and Emanuele Serrelli

Chapter 1 Pattern versus Process and Hierarchies: Revisiting Eternal Metaphors in Macroevolutionary Theory
Bruce S. Lieberman

Chapter 2 Lineages and Systems: A Conceptual Discontinuity in Biological Hierarchies
Gustavo Caponi

Chapter 3 Biological Organization from a Hierarchical Perspective: Articulation of Concepts and Interlevel Relation
Jon Umerez

Chapter 4 Hierarchy: The Source of Teleology in Evolution
Daniel W. McShea

Chapter 5 Three Approaches to the Teleological and Normative Aspects of Ecological Functions
Gregory J. Cooper, Charbel N. El-Hani, and Nei F. Nunes-Neto

Part 2 Hierarchical Dynamics: Process Integration across Levels

Linking Section Information and Energy in Biological Hierarchical Systems
Ilya Tëmkin and Emanuele Serrelli

Chapter 6 Why Genomics Needs Multilevel Evolutionary Theory
T. Ryan Gregory, Tyler A. Elliott, and Stefan Linquist

Chapter 7 Revisiting the Phenotypic Hierarchy in Hierarchy Theory
Silvia Caianiello

Chapter 8 Multilevel Selection in a Broader Hierarchical Perspective
Telmo Pievani and Andrea Parravicini

Chapter 9 Systems Emergence: The Origin of Individuals in Biological and Biocultural Evolution
Mihaela Pavličev, Richard O. Prum, Gary Tomlinson, and Günter P. Wagner

Part 3 Biological Hierarchies and Macroevolutionary Patterns

Linking Section Ecology and Evolution: Neither Separate nor Merged
Emanuele Serrelli and Ilya Tëmkin

Chapter 10 Unification of Macroevolutionary Theory: Biologic Hierarchies, Consonance, and the Possibility of Connecting the Dots
William Miller III

Chapter 11 Coming to Terms with Tempo and Mode: Speciation, Anagenesis, and Assessing Relative Frequencies in Macroevolution
Warren D. Allmon

Chapter 12 Niche Conservatism, Tracking, and Ecological Stasis: A Hierarchical Perspective
Carlton E. Brett, Andrew Zaffos, and Arnold I. Miller

Chapter 13 The Stability of Ecological Communities as an Agent of Evolutionary Selection: Evidence from the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction
Peter D. Roopnarine and Kenneth D. Angielczyk

Chapter 14 Hierarchy Theory in the Anthropocene: Biocultural Homogenization, Urban Ecosystems, and Other Emerging Dynamics
Michael L. McKinney

Conclusion Hierarchy Theory and the Extended Synthesis Debate
Telmo Pievani

List of Contributors