Article: Palaeontology and evolutionary developmental biology: a science of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries
Brian K. Hall
A wind of change has swept through palaeontology in the past few decades. Contrast Sir Peter Medawar's dismissive: 'palaeontology is a particularly undemanding branch of science' (as recalled by John Maynard Smith in Sabbagh 1999, p. 158) with 'Palaeontology: grasping the opportunities in the science of the twenty-first century', the title of a contribution to a special issue of Geobios by the Cambridge palaeontologist, Simon Conway Morris (1998a). The winds of change have come partly from palaeontologists seeking to broaden the impact of their studies and partly from biologists (neontologists) realizing the contributions that palaeontology can make to their disciplines. Consequently, impressions of past life preserved in stone are coming alive. Fossils are being described and analyzed using new tools and languages as the static fossil record becomes a record of transitions in patterns that can be explained and related to biological, ecological, climatic and tectonic changes. The latest addition is evolutionary developmental biology, or 'evo-devo', whose language provides a new basis upon which to interpret anatomical change, both materially and mechanistically. In this review I examine the major contributions made by palaeontology, how palaeontology has been linked to evolution and to embryology in the past, and how links with evo-devo have enlivened and will continue to enliven both palaeontology and evo-devo. Closer links between the two fields should illuminate important unresolved issues related to the origin of the metazoans (e.g. Why is there a conflict between molecular clocks and the fossil record in timing the metazoan radiation; were Precambrian metazoan ancestors similar to extant larvae or to miniature adults?) and to diversification of the metazoans (e.g. How do developmental constraints bias the direction of evolution; how do microevolutionary developmental processes relate to macroevolutionary changes?).