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The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited

The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited

Brett Calcott
Kim Sterelny
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited
    Book Description:

    In 1995, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry published their influential book The Major Transitions in Evolution. The "transitions" that Maynard Smith and Szathmáry chose to describe all constituted major changes in the kinds of organisms that existed but, most important, these events also transformed the evolutionary process itself. The evolution of new levels of biological organization, such as chromosomes, cells, multicelled organisms, and complex social groups radically changed the kinds of individuals natural selection could act upon. Many of these events also produced revolutionary changes in the process of inheritance, by expanding the range and fidelity of transmission, establishing new inheritance channels, and developing more open-ended sources of variation.Maynard Smith and Szathmáry had planned a major revision of their work, but the death of Maynard Smith in 2004 prevented this. In this volume, prominent scholars (including Szathmáry himself) reconsider and extend the earlier book's themes in light of recent developments in evolutionary biology. The contributors discuss different frameworks for understanding macroevolution, prokaryote evolution (the study of which has been aided by developments in molecular biology), and the complex evolution of multicellularity.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29570-3
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Gerd B. Müller, Günter P. Wagner and Werner Callebaut

    Biology is becoming the leading science in this century. As in all other sciences, progress in biology depends on interactions between empirical research, theory building, and modeling. However, whereas the techniques and methods of descriptive and experimental biology have evolved dramatically in recent years, generating a flood of highly detailed empirical data, the integration of these results into useful theoretical frameworks has lagged behind. Driven largely by pragmatic and technical considerations, research in biology continues to be less guided by theory than seems indicated. By promoting the formulation and discussion of new theoretical concepts in the biosciences, this series is...

  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: A Dynamic View of Evolution
    (pp. 1-14)
    Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny

    The Major Transitions in Evolutionis part of an important tradition in evolutionary biology. This tradition attempts to identify large-scale patterns in life’s history, and to relate those patterns to evolutionary mechanisms that can be studied empirically. Here, we sketch some of this history and give our take on the importance of these projects. But we also lay out the ways in which Maynard Smith’s and Szathmáry’s formulation contrasts with its predecessors, and explain the significance of those contrasts. These themes connect in many ways with individual chapters of this collection, and at times we identify those connections. But for...


    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 15-18)
      Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny

      In the introduction, we suggested that the single most important feature of Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s Major Transitions was its dynamic approach: The major changes are those that affect the key elements in the process of evolution itself. Even if this is right, it still does not isolate a single line of investigation about major transitions, nor a single way of understanding how and why they might occur. The chapters in this section sample a number of approaches to the major transitions. Each chapter critiques or extends the major transitions framework in some way, but not in the same way,...

    • 1 The Miscellaneous Transitions in Evolution
      (pp. 19-34)
      Daniel W. McShea and Carl Simpson

      In Mark Twain’sLetters from the Earth, his sardonic alter ego Puddin’head Wilson reflects that if the Eiffel Tower represented the history of the world, and the skin of paint atop the knob at the pinnacle were the portion of that history in which humans have existed, “anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno” (Twain 1962, 226).

      Twain was being facetious, of course, but taken at face value the remark does reflect a common intuition that people are special, that their existence reflects something profound about the evolutionary...

    • 2 Alternative Patterns of Explanation for Major Transitions
      (pp. 35-52)
      Brett Calcott

      Two central claims in Maynard-Smith and Száthmary’s book are that (a) some events in evolutionary history are special because they changed what was subsequently possible to evolve, and (b) these events share many similar properties. The goal in this chapter is to explore this second claim, to assess what these claims of similarity amount to, and how and why we can make them.

      My goal is different from that of McShea and Simpson (this volume), who look for similarity in theoutputsof these transitions; they wonder, for example, whether all the transitions increase hierarchical complexity. Instead, I shall focus...

    • 3 Biological Ontology and Hierarchical Organization: A Defense of Rank Freedom
      (pp. 53-64)
      Samir Okasha

      This chapter deals with the ontology of biology systems, with particular reference to hierarchical organization. That biological systems exhibit hierarchical structure is a commonplace: larger biological units, such as multicelled organisms, are composed of smaller biological units (e.g., cells), which themselves contain still smaller units (e.g., chromosomes).

      Commonplace though this observation is, it is unclear exactly how the biological hierarchy should be conceptualized. Is the biological hierarchy strictly nested, or does it permit overlapping? What determines the hierarchical level that a given biological unit occupies? What biological relation(s) bind(s) the smaller biological units into larger units? Moreover, it is unclear...

    • 4 Darwinian Populations and Transitions in Individuality
      (pp. 65-82)
      Peter Godfrey-Smith

      John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (1995) used the phrase “major transitions” to refer to a set of evolutionary events with particular importance in the history of life. In their original count, eight such transitions were recognized. In many of their cases, though not all, the “transition” involved the appearance of a new kind of entity or biological unit, formed by the merging or combination of simpler ones. These new biological entities include eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, and insect societies. Michod (1999) uses the phrase “transitions in individuality” to refer to this particular kind of transition, and those are the...

    • 5 Evolvability Reconsidered
      (pp. 83-100)
      Kim Sterelny

      The history of life is not just a history of evolution; it is a history of extraordinarily fecund evolutionary change. Many lineages have seen the evolution of complex adaptive structures, including completely novel structures: complex morphological innovations in the macrobes (sensory systems; locomotion; internal structural systems for circulation and support) and metabolic innovations in the microbes (nitrogen fixation, photosynthesis). Others lineages have histories of extraordinary diversification; most obviously the legendarily speciose beetle lineage. Perhaps most strikingly of all, there has been directionality in evolutionary history.As Major Transitionsdocuments, there has been an evolutionary trend of a special kind: the...


    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 101-104)
      Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny

      Microbiology played almost no role in the establishment of the synthesis consensus (O’Malley and Dupre 2007). If it had, Mayr’s biological species concept would not have dominated thinking about species and lineages for so long (Cohan 2002). The rise of molecular biology was an inestimable boon to microbiology, giving real tools through which microbial, and especially prokaryote, evolution could be studied. The results have been so surprising that they reshaped our picture of life’s history. The depth and disparity of prokaryote evolution has been wholly unexpected, with the traditional “three kingdoms” model of the history of life being replaced by...

    • 6 To Be or Not To Be: Where Is Self-Preservation in Evolutionary Theory?
      (pp. 105-126)
      Pamela Lyon

      Cooperation, it is commonly said, is a puzzle for evolutionary biology because of the intrinsic selfishness of living things (Queller 1997; Sachs et al. 2004). So foundational is selfishness to the contemporary theory of natural selection that the most influential account of the evolution of cooperation and altruism, kin selection, is based on it (Lehmann et al. 2007; Sober and Wilson 1998). Organisms are willing to moderate or even sacrifice their own existential imperatives to be, to grow, and to reproduce for kin, first and foremost, because kin are the closest to self, genetically speaking. In this chapter, I argue...

    • 7 The Evolution of Restraint in Structured Populations: Setting the Stage for an Egalitarian Major Transition
      (pp. 127-140)
      Benjamin Kerr and Joshua Nahum

      The prolific reef-building capacity of hermatypic corals depends on their association with single-celled photosynthetic endosymbionts called zooxanthellae (Knowlton 2001). One might think of the reef itself as a magnificent signature of an interspecific union. A “major transition” in evolution has transpired: Formerly independent entities have come to rely on one another as a “higher-level” entity for continued existence. If we dig a bit deeper evolutionarily, the coral contains a layered series of such transitions. There is evidence that a nonphotosynthetic ancestor of zooxanthellae engulfed a red algal cell, which eventually generated its photosynthetic plastid (Bhattacharya et al. 2007; Keeling 2004)....

    • 8 Conflicts among Levels of Selection as Fuel for the Evolution of Individuality
      (pp. 141-162)
      Paul B. Rainey and Benjamin Kerr

      A fundamental feature of contemporary biological life is its hierarchical organization. Consider just one colony of leaf-cutting ants in a South American forest. This colony is composed of multiple individual ants, differentiated for different tasks. However, each ant is also composed of a set of differentiated cells. And each cell houses a diverse array of genes. Although multiple layers of nested organization characterize many living systems, these hierarchical structures were presumably reduced or absent in our most ancient ancestors. How then do biological hierarchies come to be?

      This question motivates a consideration of the “major transitions in evolution,” which describe...


    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 163-168)
      Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny

      It is easy to overlook the metabolic, biochemical, and behavioral complexity of microbes, as they live and interact on a scale that makes observation challenging. Our sense of the extraordinary complexity and disparity of the multicellular world may depend, in part, on scale and perspective. Even so, understanding multicellularity is genuinely a special challenge. Multicellular organisms have developmental cycles: Organisms as enormous and as complex as a whale or a mountain ash were once a single fertilized cell. Tissues, organs, and organ systems have to be built from scratch in every generation. In a seed, roots, lignum, leaves, and flowers...

    • 9 Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality: Multicellularity and Sex
      (pp. 169-198)
      Richard E. Michod

      The challenge of explaining evolutionary transitions (ETs) was initially posed by Maynard Smith in two papers (1988, 1991) and later in a more systematic and comprehensive way in his book with Szathmáry (1995). The list of “levels of complexity” first offered by Maynard Smith (1988, table 2) focused on the levels of selection: replicating molecules, replicators in compartments, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, demes and social groups, species, and groups with cultural inheritance. Maynard Smith noted that it was debatable whether the last three were levels of selection; indeed, the level of species was left out of his list...

    • 10 How Many Levels Are There? How Insights from Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality Help Measure the Hierarchical Complexity of Life
      (pp. 199-226)
      Carl Simpson

      How the vast range of spatial and temporal scales on which biological processes interact and relate to each other is a fundamental problem in evolutionary biology. The standard solution was given by Darwin and formed the core of the modern synthesis. Observed processes of organisms interacting with their environment (which includes other organisms) produce all the patterns at all spatial and temporal scales. From this perspective, biology is uniformitarian, patterns at all scales are thought to be caused by the observable local processes. Unfortunately, observations at large scales do not seem to be reducible to local patterns in all cases....

    • 11 Plant Individuality and Multilevel Selection Theory
      (pp. 227-250)
      Ellen Clarke

      Gray’s statement may seem an exaggeration to the modern reader. Although philosophers of biology have become accustomed to worrying over whether genes or species are real units of selection, it is generally taken as uncontroversial that organisms, at least, are individuals. Even multilevel selection theorists, who may acknowledge the challenges presented by things such as outlaw genes or eusocial insect colonies, don’t tend to include plants among their list of entities that warrant serious philosophical concern. Yet in the nineteenth century such fears were commonplace among biological thinkers. Even before Charles Darwin was discussing the possibility of group selection, his...

    • 12 Phylogenetic, Functional, and Geological Perspectives on Complex Multicellularity
      (pp. 251-270)
      Andrew H. Knoll and David Hewitt

      Of all the events nominated as major transitions in evolution, none has received more attention than the rise of multicellularity. In part, this is because the subject can be approached from a number of perspectives, including systematics, developmental genetics, and the fossil record. And in part, of course, it is because multicellularity shapes our perceived biological landscape and, indeed, ourselves. In this chapter, we begin with a brief discussion of the phylogenetic distribution of multicellular organisms in general and complex multicellular life in particular, clarifying the important distinction between the two. We argue that multicellularity per se, the transfer of...

    • 13 The Small Picture Approach to the Big Picture: Using DNA Sequences to Investigate the Diversification of Animal Body Plans
      (pp. 271-298)
      Lindell Bromham

      The Metazoa (animal kingdom) is divided into approximately three dozen phyla (figure 13.1). The first undisputed fossils of around half of the animal phyla appear in the Cambrian, the geological period that runs from around 543 million years ago (Myr) to 488 Myr. At least a third of animal phyla have no fossil record to speak of (Valentine 2004), but we can infer from phylogenetic relationships that many of these lineages must be at least Cambrian in age. On the basis of this fossil evidence, it has been suggested that all of the major kinds of animals were generated in...


    • 14 Concluding Remarks
      (pp. 301-310)
      Eörs Szathmáry and Chrisantha Fernando

      The bookThe Major Transitions in Evolutionwas published in 1995. In 2003 the authors were planning a major revision of the work, which sadly did not materialize due to the death of John Maynard Smith in 2004. Aside from a general update of the content, we wanted to add some brand new items, including evolvable nanotechnology, artificial cells, and the nervous and immune systems. Some of these topics will be covered in another volume of the KLI book series, since many of the relevant insights also belong to what is now called an extended evolutionary synthesis (cf. Fernando and...

  10. Contributors
    (pp. 311-312)
  11. Index
    (pp. 313-319)