Erwin, Douglas H.

Since 1990 the recognition of deep homologies among metazoan developmental processes and the spread of more mechanistic approaches to developmental biology have led to a resurgence of interest in evolutionary novelty and innovation. Other evolutionary biologists have proposed central roles for behaviour and phenotypic plasticity in generating the conditions for the construction of novel morphologies, or invoked the accessibility of new regions of vast sequence spaces. These approaches contrast with more traditional emphasis on the exploitation of ecological opportunities as the primary source of novelty. This definitional cornucopia reflects differing stress placed on three attributes of novelties: their radical nature, the generation of new taxa, and ecological and evolutionary impact. Such different emphasis has led to conflating four distinct issues: the origin of novel attributes (genes, developmental processes, phenotypic characters), new functions, higher clades and the ecological impact of new structures and functions. Here I distinguish novelty (the origin of new characters, deep character transformations, or new combinations) from innovation, the ecological and evolutionary success of clades. Evidence from the fossil record of macroevolutionary lags between the origin of a novelty and its ecological success demonstrates that novelty may be decoupled from innovation, and only definitions of novelty based on radicality (rather than generativity or consequentiality) can be assessed without reference to the subsequent history of the clade to which a novelty belongs. These considerations suggest a conceptual framework for novelty and innovation, involving: (i) generation of the potential for novelty; (ii) the formation of novel attributes; (iii) refinement of novelties through adaptation; (iv) exploitation of novelties by a clade, which may coincide with a new round of ecological or environmental potentiation; followed by (v) the establishment of innovations through ecological processes. This framework recognizes that there is little empirical support for either the dominance of ecological opportunity, nor abrupt discontinuities (often caricatured as ‘hopeful monsters’). This general framework may be extended to aspects of cultural and social innovation.