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Homology across inheritance systems

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Russell Powell, Nicholas Shea

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)781-806
Number of pages26
Issue number6
Early online date25 Feb 2014
E-pub ahead of print25 Feb 2014
PublishedNov 2014

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Biology and Philosophy (Springer) permits uploading of final edited version (but not published pdf)


  • Homology across inheritance systems

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King's Authors


Recent work on inheritance systems can be divided into inclusive conceptions, according to which genetic and non-genetic inheritance are both involved in the development and transmission of nearly all animal behavioral traits, and more demanding conceptions of what it takes for non-genetic resources involved in development to qualify as a distinct inheritance system. It might be thought that, if a more stringent conception is adopted, homologies could not subsist across two distinct inheritance systems. Indeed, it is commonly assumed that homology relations cannot survive a shift between genetic and cultural inheritance systems, and substantial reliance has been placed on that assumption in debates over the phylogenetic origins of hominin behavioral traits, such as male-initiated intergroup aggression. However, in the homology literature it is widely accepted that a trait can be homologous—that is, inherited continuously in two different lineages from a single common ancestor—despite divergence in the mechanisms involved in the trait’s development in the two lineages. In this paper, we argue that even on an extremely stringent understanding of what it takes for developmental resources to form a separate inheritance system, homologies can nonetheless subsist across shifts between distinct inheritance systems. We argue that this result is a merit of this way of characterizing what it is to be an inheritance system, that it has implications for adjudicating between alternative accounts of homology, and that it offers an important cautionary lesson about how (not) to reason with the homology concept, particularly in the context of cultural species.

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