The Hierarchy Group Presentation

The last few decades have witnessed tremendous advances in different specialized

fields of biology, from elucidating the molecular basis of development, to human genome

sequencing, to inferring the structure of the global tree of life. This great advancement of

the research has also revealed serious theoretical weaknesses in the evolutionary research

programme and the need to provide a new unified perspective on living phenomena.

Proposed by eminent paleontologist and evolutionist Niles Eldredge since the 1980’s, the

Hierarchy Theory states that the best way to interpret the broad spectrum of the evolutionary

phenomena is to structure them in a hierarchical view, in which biological systems are

organized in nested multiple levels, with smaller units forming the components of larger

systems: genes within chromosomes, within cells, within organs, within organisms, within

populations, within species. In Eldregde’s theory, living processes and evolutionary

patterns are the product of the interactions between two different hierarchies: one is named

“genealogical” or “evolutionary”, and it is based on information and replication; the other is

named “economic” or “ecological”, and it is based on matter-energy transfers and ecological


The primary objectives of the Hierarchy Group, an international network of highly

qualified scholars which includes scientists, philosophers of science and historians of

science, are a) to study the way these hierarchies are organized and b) to understand the

occurring interactions between the levels. The Hierarchy Group aims to reconsider the

evolutionary research programme through the inherently pluralistic and non-reductionist

approach provided by the unified hierarchical perspective. This perspective is able to

connect the micro-evolutionary phenomena with the macro-evolutionary ones and to shed

light on still poorly understood aspects, such as those concerning human biological and

cultural evolution or the coevolution between genes and culture.

In such a view, the Hierarchy Group website is intended as a useful device to disseminate

the new hierarchical perspective in biology, to stimulate the scientific discussion on this

subject, to strengthen and extend the network of Institutions and scholars involved in the

project. This is the first website completely dedicated to the Hierarchy Approach. It is not

a news-based one, but rather an organized academic scientific repository of up-to-date

materials and links to hierarchy theory. The website presents a dynamic section dedicated to

the news; two sections which explain the contents of the theory and the aims of the project

in a simple and effective way; a page presenting the scholars involved in the project; an

extensive and updated bibliography on the hierarchical approach in evolutionary biology;

a video page and other sections which will collect the future publications, the events

organized by the group, the external links. Despite the complexity of the addressed issues,

the contents of the website are expressed in language which is clear and understandable to

all, with the support of a helpful glossary which defines and clarifies the meaning of the

most technical terms and an innovative video presentation by Niles Eldregde in person and

by the philosopher of biology Telmo Pievani.

The Hierarchy Group website is part of a more comprehensive and ambitious project

entitled The Hierarchy Group: Approaching Complex Systems in Evolutionary Biology,

co-directed by Eldredge and Pievani, and funded by the Templeton Foundation, with the

support of an International network of scientific institutions coordinated by the University

of Padua. Among the main goals, the project includes the publication of a series of peer-
reviewed papers, the realization of a multi-authored book on the hierarchical approach in

evolutionary biology and the organization of an International conference to be held in New

York (spring, 2016). The meeting will offer the opportunity to present the results of the

Hierarchy Group project and the possibility to discuss the hierarchical perspective with

experts and scholars from all over the world, paving the way for new research and new

projects for the future. A new adventure of thought has begun.

Andrea Parravicini

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