Tag Archives: ecology

Macroevolution: Explanation, Interpretation, Evidence

Serrelli E, Gontier N, eds. (forthcoming). Macroevolution: Explanation, Interpretation and Evidence. Springer.
Serrelli E, Gontier N, eds. Macroevolution: Explanation, Interpretation and Evidence. Springer.


  • Provides a unique multidisciplinary approach to understand macroevolution
  • Presents state of the art scientific methodologies
  • Written by international experts from different fields

This book is divided in two parts, the first of which shows how, beyond paleontology and systematics, macroevolutionary theories apply key insights from ecology and biogeography, developmental biology, biophysics, molecular phylogenetics, and even the sociocultural sciences to explain evolution in deep time. In the second part, the phenomenon of macroevolution is examined with the help of real life-history case studies on the evolution of eukaryotic sex, the formation of anatomical form and body-plans, extinction and speciation events of marine invertebrates, hominin evolution and species conservation ethics.
The book brings together leading experts, who explain pivotal concepts such as Punctuated Equilibria, Stasis, Developmental Constraints, Adaptive Radiations, Habitat Tracking, Turnovers, (Mass) Extinctions, Species Sorting, Major Transitions, Trends, and Hierarchies – key premises that allow macroevolutionary epistemic frameworks to transcend microevolutionary theories that focus on genetic variation, selection, migration and fitness.
Along the way, the contributing authors review ongoing debates and current scientific challenges; detail new and fascinating scientific tools and techniques that allow us to cross the classic borders between disciplines; demonstrate how their theories make it possible to extend the Modern Synthesis; present guidelines on how the macroevolutionary field could be further developed; and provide a rich view of just how it was that life evolved across time and space. In short, this book is a must-read for active scholars and, because the technical aspects are fully explained, it is also accessible for non-specialists.
Understanding evolution requires a solid grasp of above-population phenomena. Species are real biological individuals, and abiotic factors impact the future course of evolution. Beyond observation, when the explanation of macroevolution is the goal, we need both evidence and theory that enable us to explain and interpret how life evolves at the grand scale.

Table of contents

Preface and Acknowledgements by the Editors

1. Emanuele Serrelli and Nathalie Gontier – Introduction: Macroevolutionary Issues and Approaches in Evolutionary Biology

Part 1: Macroevolutionary Explanations and Interpretations

2. Douglas J. Futuyma – Can Modern Evolutionary Theory Explain Macroevolution?

3. Folmer Bokma – Evolution as a Largely Autonomous Process

4. Emanuele Serrelli – Visualizing Macroevolution: From Adaptive Landscapes to Compositions of Multiple Spaces

5. Stanley S. Salthe – Toward a Natural Philosophy of Macroevolution

6. Ilya Tëmkin and Niles Eldredge – Networks and Hierarchies: Approaching Complexity in Evolutionary Theory

7. Nathalie Gontier – Uniting Micro- with Macroevolution into an Extended Synthesis: Reintegrating Life’s Natural History into Evolution Studies

Part 2: Evidencing Macroevolution with Case Studies

8. Lutz Becks and Yasaman Alavi – Using Microevolution to Explain the Macroevolutionary Observations for the Evolution of Sex

9. Alycia L. Stigall – Speciation: Expanding the Role of Biogeography and Niche Breadth in Macroevolutionary Theory

10. Alessandro Minelli – Morphological Misfits and the Architecture of Development

11. Bernard Wood and Mark Grabowski – Macroevolution In and Around the Hominin Clade

12. Elena Casetta and Jorge Marques da Silva – Facing the Big Sixth: From Prioritizing Species to Conserving Biodiversity

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E, Gontier N, eds. (2015). Macroevolution: Explanation, Interpretation and Evidence. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-15044-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-15045-1] [BOA] [Ac] [RG]

See the book webpage.

Ambiente e società. Appendice XXI Secolo

2014: scientific coordinator, together with Andrea Romano, of the volume Ambiente e società. Appendice XXI Secolo, Torino: UTET Grandi Opere (scientific director Telmo Pievani), out in September 2014.

We solicited, supervised, and revised to publication 28 chapters by major Italian and International authors on many topics concerning environmental challenges and sustainability.

Interdisciplinary Workshop on Robustness

Goal of the workshop is to rise relevant questions as well as to encourage interdisciplinary discussions surrounding the topic of Robustness.

2014, October 14 (09.30) – 16 (17.30)

Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma
Via Álvaro del Portillo, 21
00128 Roma


October 14th
09:30 – 10.30  Plenary Session – Gerald H. Pollack
11.00 – 13:30  Session 1: The methodological and conceptual foundations of robustness
S. Caianiello – Prolegomena to a history of the notion of robustness
G. Caniglia – Robustness, Integration and What We Can Do When We Cannot Observe Something
S. Mitchell – Challenges of Robustness for Causal Explanation
P. Huneman – Robustness as an explanandum and explanans in evolutionary biology and ecology
14:30 – 17:30  Session 2: Talking about robustness
G. Vitiello – Dynamical rearrangement of Symmetry, minimum stimulus and robustness
L. Di Paola, A. Giuliani – Ecological Process Design and Robustness: the Case of Biofuels
S. Filippi – Robustness and Emergent Dynamics in Noisy Biological Systems
F. Keller – Robustness and Embodiment of Higher Cognitive Functions
M. Trombetta – Tissue Engineering and Cell Driving

October 15th
09:30 – 11:00  Session 2: Talking about robustness
A. Marcos – Difference
A. Moreno – Robustness and Autonomy
14:00 – 17:45  Working Groups

October 16th
09:30 – 12:30  Results presentation
13:45 – 17:00  Roundtable
17:00 – 17.30  Conclusions

Philosophical and Scientific Steering Committee
Marta Bertolaso – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, FAST e Facoltà di Ingegneria
Sandra D. Mitchell – University of Pittsburgh
Jane Maienschein – Arizona State University
Simonetta Filippi – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, Facoltà di Ingegneria
Flavio Keller – Università Campus  Bio-Medico di Roma, Facoltà di Medicina

Marta Bertolaso – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, FAST e Facoltà di Ingegneria

Local Organizing Committee
Luca Valera – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, FAST
Anna Maria Dieli – Università Tor Vergata, Roma; IHPST, Paris

Organizzato da:
Campus Bio-Medico di Roma
Con il contributo di Fondazione Cattolica Assicurazioni

Referente organizzativo:
Silvia Caianiello

Ufficio stampa:
Luca Valera
Campus Bio-Medico


More pictures on Flickr.

Phenotypic variation in ecological setting

phenotypic-ecological.035Organisms are niche constructors: they impact the environment and modify selective pressures that direct their own evolution as well as that of their non-conspecific fellows in ecological systems at various scales. The theoretical acknowledgement of niche construction has inspired many reflections about the active role of organisms in evolution, often proclaiming a revolutionary theoretical change. But if we look at formal models the claim is not yet justified. Ecologists have specified population-scale models of niche construction, but these cannot be adopted as evolutionary models: they don’t incorporate heritable variation nor allow for directional selection and cumulative change. As evolutionists point out, these models are mere phenotype dynamics or population fluctuations with different possible outcomes – extinction or sustainability. Evolutionary models of niche construction, on the other hand, are not so revolutionary in their foundations, often being just classical population genetics provided with feedback loops between loci and selective pressures acting on them. The idea that variation among organisms boils down to genetic differences captured by gene frequencies dates back to the heart of the Modern Synthesis. But niche construction points directly to the world of physical and chemical interactions. This is the world where resource-impacting phenotypes are built through developmental processes, in turn subject and sensitive to the surrounding environment and the resources left over by previous generations. The produced phenotypes and their effects are hardly summarized by gene frequencies, yet evolutionary models need some kind of heritable variation and selection. The future challenge of evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis is thus ecological, plastic variation that allows for inheritance with varying degrees and not-always-allelic mechanisms.

Session: Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2013). Phenotypic variation in ecological setting: a challenge for evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Montpellier, France, July 7-11. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/46365]


Evolutionary explanation and bucket thinking

sloshing bucket evolutionary explanationThe hierarchical interplay between ecology and genealogy is a fundamental ingredient for the most compelling current explanations in evolutionary biology. Yet philosophy of biology has hardly welcomed a classic fundamental intuition by palaeontologist Niles Eldredge, i.e. the non-coincidence and interrelation between ecology and genealogy, and their interaction in a Sloshing Bucket fashion. Hierarchy Theory and the Sloshing Bucket need to be made precise, developed and updated in light of an explosion of new discoveries and fields and philosophical issues. They also suggests re-thinking concepts such as natural selection, species, and speciation that have always been part of evolutionary theory.

contrastes coverWhen philosophers, theorists, and working scientists think about evolution, they often do so by means of models based on inheritance. Natural selection, for example, is quantified as selective pressures, intended as coefficients directly influencing reproductive outputs, or summaries of the influences on reproductive outputs. Ecology therein is often seen as the circumstancy of evolution, a source of perturbations and influences which is accurately reflected, translated into units of reproductive output. Yet contemporary explanatory models of biological evolution, for example those that are emerging for Homo sapiens, show that a much much better understanding of the constructive interaction between two independent domains – the ecological and the genealogical – is required not only to account for quintessentially macroevolutionary events such as mass extinctions, but also for smaller-scale happenings such as speciations and intra-specific evolutionary innovations. The huge frequency of utterly inheritance-centric philosophical works on natural selection seems, in this light, an unmistakable symptom of theoretical inertia. Bucket Thinking could reflect the way in which the best evolutionary explanations are built today, and at the same time aid the explanation by laying down and relating the researches that are being conducted in different fields (e.g. from population genetics to palaeontology, from ecosystem ecology to developmental biology). Bucket Thinking is also a way of reframing many classical problems, such as multi-level selection, individuality, or even reductionism or emergence. This doesn’t mean that Hierarchy and the Bucket are free of their own epistemological and methodological problems. On the contrary, what we suggest is precisely a critical philosophical discussion more deep than the one that has been deserved until now to these potentially fruitful ideas. Hierarchy Theory asks to be developed and updated in light of an explosion of new discoveries and fields, e.g., EvoDevo, lateral gene transfer and the charge of zoo-centrism pending on evolutionary theory (O’Malley 2010), network theory, genomics. But the dual Hierarchy Theory is also a way of re-thinking and re-framing concepts that have ever been present in evolutionary theory, like natural selection itself, or species and speciation, as we have seen here.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Pievani T, Serrelli E (2013). Bucket thinking: the future framework for evolutionary explanation. Contrastes. Revista internacional de filosofia – Suplementos 18: 389-405. ISSN 1139-9922 [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/44944]

The hierarchy theory view of speciation

Hierarchy theory (e.g. Salthe 1985, Eldredge 1986) provides a unifying approach for representing the multi-level structure of the organic world and an explanatory framework for the wide range of natural phenomena. Its birthdate can be located in the 1980s, when evolutionary biologists began exploring in detail the nature of hierarchical systems as an approach to understanding both the nature of these complex systems, and the nature of their interactions that underlie the evolutionary process. Nowadays hierarchy theory is being developed and updated in light of an explosion of new discoveries and fields, but also as a way of re-thinking and re-framing concepts, like speciation, that have been present in evolutionary theory for many decades.
According to hierarchy theory, organisms are parts of at least two different kinds of systems:
(1) matter-energy transfer systems, where organisms are parts of local populations that in turn are parts of local ecosystems. The economic roles played by such populations are what constitute ecological niches. Local ecosystems are parts of regional systems, a geographic mosaic of matter-energy transfer systems that together constitute the global biosphere.
(2) genetically-based information systems: organisms are parts of local breeding populations that in turn are parts of each individual species. Species, through the process of evolution, are parts of historical lineages: genera, then families, orders etc. of the Linnaean Hierarchy. While evolutionary theory has legitimately focused most on genetic processes and the formation of genetic lineages, evolution does not occur in a vacuum: specifically, it is what takes place inside matter-energy transfer systems that determines, in large measure, the patterns of stability and change in genetic systems that we call “evolution”.
The “sloshing bucket theory of evolution” (Eldredge 2003) is an example of how theoretical hierarchy theory applies to the real world of biological systems and their histories. The theory describes the multilevel interplay between ecological disruption, taxic extinction and consequent bursts of evolutionary diversification. The pulse, pace and scope of ecological disruptions – ranging from localized disturbances; regional, longer term disruptions; and (rarely) drastic global environmental change – have corresponding effects on dynamic matter-energy systems on different scales. Localized disruptions result in re-establishment of very similar local ecosystems, based on genetic recruitment of members of the same species still living outside the affected area; on the grandest scale, mass extinctions resulting from global environmental disruption witness the disappearance of larger-scale taxonomic entities. Over periods of millions of years (5-10 my, typically), the ecological roles played in the now-disrupted ecosystems by organisms in now-extinct groups are assumed by evolutionarily modified species that are derived from taxa that survived the extinction event. The intermediate situation – where regional ecosystems are disturbed, resulting in the extinction of many species – is perhaps of the greatest interest: the fossil record shows clearly that most speciation events (hence most evolutionary genetic change in the history of life) take place as a consequence of regional ecosystemic collapse and multiple extinctions of species across different lineages.
Traditional presentations of speciation commonly depict one species at a time, and classify speciation events on a geographical basis (allopatric, peripatric, sympatric etc.). In light of hierarchy theory, both these habits are wrong, and a rethinking the process of speciation is needed to explicitly describe the interaction between (1) economic and (2) genealogical events.
First, with “geographic speciation”, more than an eco-geographical event we actually mean one of the possible genealogical consequences of ecological barriers, i.e. the multiplication of genealogical entities at the level of species within instances of the evolutionary hierarchy (we use the biological concept of species, with no necessary link with the individuality thesis). As Gavrilets (2010) pointed out, a geographical taxonomy of speciation is silent about what happens in the genealogical hierarchy, for example about the kinds of genetic, morphological or behavioral “uncoordination” that yield reproductive isolation. A new taxonomy of processes of genealogical diversification (e.g., sympatric speciation, birth of varieties and subspecies, agamospecies) is possible. On the other hand, geographic barriers impact many species at once: ecological events which arguably trigger speciation are cross-phyletic.
Second, a proper re-description of geographic speciation should contextualize the phenomenon properly in the scenario of ecological systems (ecosystems and, at a macroevolutionary time scale, faunas). Sometimes speciation can be adaptive (a critical assessment of its relative frequency would be necessary). But the important thing is that adaptation – usually seen from an intra-populational point of view – should as well be described in the context of ecological reassortment and reshaping of communities. We are in presence of contemporaneous processes that occur at the population-ecological time scale at different levels of the ecological hierarchy, inviting reinterpretation of the concepts of adaptation and fitness, coevolution, and niche construction. Intra-populational, inter-individual variation of ecologically relevant traits is examined as the “raw recruit” for natural selection. Transversal comparison among ecological communities brings into focus patterns in ecological processes and systems, and also processes like adaptive convergence. In this way, some epistemological problems which are usually related to adaptation disappear, and new ways of framing the issue emerge. For example, coevolution is not a separate issue, neither it is niche construction, i.e., the cross-genealogical modification of selective pressures as a consequence of the existence and activity of populations, including the interactive role of abiotic factors.
It is important to remark that this re-worked speciation concepts seems to play a key role in the most updated views on hominid evolution.

Gavrilets S (2010). High-dimensional fitness landscapes and speciation. In Pigliucci M, Müller GB, eds. Evolution – The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge-London: MIT Press, pp. 45-79.
Eldredge, N. (1986), “Information, Economics, and Evolution,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 17, 351-369.
Eldredge, N. (2003), “The Sloshing Bucket: How the Physical Realm Controls Evolution,” in Evolutionary Dynamics – Exploring the Interplay of Selection, Accident, Neutrality, and Function, eds. J. P. Crutchfield and P. Schuster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-32.
Salthe, S. N. (1985), Evolving Hierarchical Systems: Their Structure and Representation, New York: Columbia University Press.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Pievani T, Serrelli E (2012). From molecules to ecology and back: the hierarchy theory view of speciation. In Antonio Diéguez, Vicente Claramonte, Jesús Alcolea, Gustavo Caponi, Arantza Etxeberría, Pablo Lorenzano, Alfredo Marcos, Jorge Martínez-Contreras, Alejandro Rosas, eds. I Congreso de la Asociación Iberoamericana de Filosofía de la Biología, Publicacions de la Universitat de València, pp. 296-302. ISBN 978-84-370-9040-5 [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/39798]


Criticizing adaptive landscapes, ecology and genealogy

Disentangling ecological vs. genealogical dimensions is a core task of hierarchy theory in evolutionary biology. As Eldredge repeatedly epitomized, organisms carry out (only) two distinct kinds of activities: they survive, and they reproduce.
At the organismal level, the organism stays the same whether we consider it ecologically or genealogically – yet, differences can occur in what features we consider relevant, and what fitness measurement we use.
At higher levels, the two dimensions diverge, realizing different systems. Reproductive (deme) may not coincide with ecological (avatar) population. Further upwards, along the ecological dimension, higher-level systems are grouped by energy- matter interconnection, whereas, along the genealogical dimension, higher taxa are assembled by relatedness.
In Dobzhansky’s (1937) use of the adaptive landscape visualization (Wright 1932), all living species are imagined as distributed on adaptive peaks which correspond to ecological niches in existing environments. Peaks are grouped forming genera and higher taxa (e.g., “feline”, “carnivore” ranges), and geographic speciation is figured out – like adaptation – as movement on the landscape.
In criticizing Dobzhansky’s landscape, Eldredge wrote that species actually do not occupy ecological niches; demes don’t, either; avatars do.
I point out that neighborhood and movement need to be conceived separately in genealogical and ecological spaces. Indeed, ecology should be further split in at least two spaces: geographic and phenotypic/adaptive. Movement in one space may in fact result in stability in the other(s).
I also comment on the adaptive landscape: technical limitations prevent it from being coherently used above the population level, even though as a metaphor. Finally, I emphasize the partiality of any landscape – based on the choice of relevant features and fitness components – and interpret partiality as the way of approaching complex multi- hierarchical structure in evolution.

Emanuele is also organizer of the “Hierarchy theory” session at the conference.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2011). Criticizing adaptive landscapes and the conflation between ecology and genealogy. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Salt Lake City (Utah, USA), July 10-16. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/28191]


Hierarchy Theory in Salt Lake City

In 2010 Emanuele Serrelli co-organized the session “Hierarchy Theory of Evolution” inviting Niles Eldredge and 10 other scholars on Hierarchy Theory at the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology Sunday, July 10, 2011 ‐ Friday, July 15, 2011, University of Utah Salt Lake City, Utah United States. Hierarchy Theory assumes that the evolutionary disciplines have an ontological basis for their existence, i.e. systems with peculiar spatiotemporal dimensions, origins, histories, demises, and internal dynamics leading to stability and change through time. The theory is developing around Eldredge’s recognition of at least two main distinct evolutionary hierarchies – the genealogical and the ecological – and around a general vision of evolution as a process of interactions at various scales. E.g., macro-evolutionary patterns are explained by a “sloshing bucket” model, where ecological events reverberate in the evolutionary hierarchy.


  • BROOKS, Dan – Metaphors for the Extended Synthesis: Something Old, Something New.
  • CAIANIELLO, Silvia – Modularity and Hierarchy Theory.
  • CAPORAEL, Linnda – Grounding Human Social Cognition in Hierarchical Group Structure.


  • DIETL, Gregory – Toward a Unified Ecology in Macroevolution.
  • ELDREDGE, Niles – A Matter of Individuality: Hierarchy Theory at the Dawn of Evolutionary Biology.
  • MILLER, William – Macroevolutionary Consonance and expansion of the Modern Synthesis.


See full session abstracts on Academia.


The Ecology of Evolution

Serrelli E (2003). L’ecologia dell’evoluzione: il pluralismo evolutivo letto attraverso un caso di radiazione adattativa. Master Degree Dissertation in Educational Sciences, University of Milano Bicocca, Milan, Italy. [DOI 10.13140/2.1.3863.5525]


This is an epistemological research, concerning knowledge processes. The choice of African Cichlids as a subject has been stimulated mainly by the fact that these fishes are targeted by remarkably different observers: fishermen, ecologists, biologists, geneticists, evolutionists with different approaches, hobbyists and aquarists – beginners and experts. The great epistemological interest of this crowd of observers lies not only in the comparison of different knowing processes applied to the same object, but also in their multiple and complex reciprocal interactions…