Quick Questions for Günter P. Wagner, author of Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation

Wagner_Homology_au photo jpgGünter P. Wagner is the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and a pioneer of the field of evolutionary developmental biology. He is the editor of The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Wagner received training in biochemical engineering, zoology, and mathematics from the University of Vienna, Austria, where he completed his Ph.D. in zoology.

He then spent six postdoctoral years at the Max Planck Institutes for Biophysical Chemistry (Goettingen, Germany) and for Developmental Biology (Tübingen, Germany) before assuming a full professorship in the Biology department at Yale University. His research focuses predominantly on the study of homology, or character identity, one of the most difficult concepts in evolutionary biology. His latest book, Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation (Princeton) provides a fresh and compelling definition of homology and how it arises in evolution.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?
Günter P. Wagner: I received my initial scientific training in chemistry, and I still love chemistry. It is a beautiful system of ideas and practices with wide applicability and utility. Part of its beauty lies in the fact that chemistry can explain a vast array of facts from the combinatorial richness of a quite limited set of basic elements. In contrast, in biology we are confronted with a vast diversity of life forms that defy a simple combinatorial explanation. Biology has to deal with radically different kinds of things, from viruses to blue whales, where one cannot escape the conclusion that radically new things have originated in evolution: humans with culture and language from non-human primates, animals from single-celled organisms, and ultimately life from non-life. Understanding how these novel forms of existence can originate became my obsession in my professional life. This book is my answer – though a partial and limited one – to this question.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
Homology, the notion that different organisms can be composed of corresponding building blocks, is one of the fundamental scientific concepts that also induce a lot of frustration among those who truly want to understand them. Homology shares this dubious distinction with concepts like species, gene, time, and space, to name a few. The frustration has one main source: the fact that it is hard to pin down how two homologous parts can be the same in spite of differences in shape, function, and underlying developmental genetic mechanisms. In particular linking character identity with our mechanistic understanding of development proved difficult. I think the main contribution of this book is to show that it is possible to forge such a link. I say possible, since it is likely that much of what I say in the book might be wrong, but it never the less shows that such a mechanistic understanding of homology is possible if we ask the right questions and give answers that are constrained by large amounts of empirical knowledge already available.

What is your next project?
I am thinking of writing a textbook on “Comparative Developmental Anatomy of Vertebrates” together with three colleagues. The idea is to recast the vast knowledge of the structure, variation, and development of the vertebrate body in light of the recent progress in comparative developmental biology and also in light of the ideas developed in this book.


“Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.”


What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be myself! In the sciences there is an enormous pressure to conform, which is in part necessary to make science the coherent communal effort that it is. But it also has the potential to kill creativity and thus the search for answers where there have not even been good questions before.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
Certainly the biggest challenge was to find a way to have the focus and the continuity of effort for writing the book, while at the same time running a lab, teaching courses, and responding to the needs of the University. It is not so much time, per se, that is hard to come by – but a predictable continuity of quality time for thinking and writing. Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.

Why did you write this book?
The topic of homology and innovation has fascinated me for many decades, but at one point I had to accept that the subject matter was way too complex to adequately be dealt with even in a very long article. The complexity of the subject results from the large amount of factual, relevant information and from the many facets it has from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, and evolutionary biology, and even philosophical issues. There was no way I could deal with this in any other format than in a book.

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Günter P. Wagner is the author of:

5-29 Wagner Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation by Günter P. Wagner
Hardcover | 2014 | $60.00 / £41.95 | ISBN: 9780691156460
496 pp. | 6 x 9 | 25 halftones. 105 line illus. 4 tables. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851461 |Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]
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