Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective























22-23 September 2016 – Washington, DC


Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective


The natural world is hierarchically structured, with smaller units forming the parts of progressively larger systems: molecules comprise cells, cells make up tissues and organs which are parts of individual organisms, that give place to 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. 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.

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. In Eldregde’s theory, in particular, 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 processes.

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 at reconsidering 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.

Despite the significant impact of the Hierarchy Theory on evolutionary biology, no comprehensive and up-to-date treatment of the subject has yet been published. Coedited by Niles Eldredge in person and featuring a diverse and renowned group of contributors, the just published book Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective (ed. by Niles Eldredge, Telmo Pievani, Emanuele Serrelli and Ilya Tëmkin, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2016) provides an integrated, comprehensive, cutting-edge introduction to the hierarchy theory of evolution and it actually represents the major product of the Hierarchy Group’s research project. 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. This publication has the potential of becoming a seminal contribution to contemporary evolutionary biology, and it is significant and timely, because it aims at providing a single explanatory framework for integrating the tremendous recent advances in various specialized areas of biology.

Launching the multi-authored book Evolutionary Theory and debating the hierarchy theory of evolution will be the central aims of a double International meeting which will be held on September 22-23, 2016 in USA. A symposium to celebrate the publication of the book and to introduce it to a greater audience will be held at the National Academy of Science (Washington, DC). The event will take place on September 22 (Thursday) 2016 from 2:30-5:00 PM, with the participation of many of the book’s contributors. The day after, September 23, the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA; Annandale) will host a series of workshops with the contributing authors of the book and several discussants to further discuss issues related to the hierarchy theory in biology in an informal, more convivial atmosphere, and to foster further collaborative work. Beside the workshops at NOVA, an hour-long public event promoting the book is scheduled for the middle of the day at NOVA, a more abbreviated and less formal version of the NAS symposium.

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