Character identification in evolutionary biology: The role of the organism

Günter P. Wagner, Manfred D. Laubichler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


In this article we argue that an organismic perspective in character identification can alleviate a structural deficiency of mathematical models in biology relative to the ones in the physical sciences. The problem with many biological theories is that they do not contain the conditions of their validity or a method of identifying objects that are appropriate instances of the models. Here functionally important biological characters are introduced as conceptual abstractions derived within the context of an ontologically prior object, such as a cell or an organism. To illustrate this approach, we present an analytical method of character decomposition based on the notion of the quasi-independence of traits. Two cases are analyzed: context dependent units of inheritance and a model of character identification in adaptive evolution. We demonstrate that in each case the biological process as represented by a mathematical theory entails the conditions for the individualization of characters. Our approach also requires a conceptual re-orientation in the way we build biological models. Rather than defining a set of biological characters a priori, functionally relevant characters are identified in the context of a higher level biological process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20-40
Number of pages21
JournalTheory in Biosciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptive evolution
  • Conceptual analysis
  • Decomposition theory
  • Structure of biological theories
  • Units of selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Applied Mathematics


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