International Lectures on Nature and Human Ecology

Pat Bateson
Wad's systems approach

Waddington was much influenced by the thinking of A.N Whitehead whose books he read while still an undergraduate. Whitehead argued that the static approach of being should be replaced by a search for understanding the dynamic of becoming. This thought was reflected in Waddington's emphasis on development and by his sense that Darwinian evolution acted on phenotypes not genes. Many people who think analytically have difficulty in bringing a necessary systems approach to their work.

Waddington's term "epigenetics" which essentially implied a systems theory was only used by a handful of authors in the decades after his book The Strategy of the Genes was published. Now in 2015 alone - 60 years after his book was published - more than 6,000 authors used "epigenetics" in the titles of their papers. The term has been incorporated into analytical approaches to molecular biology. However, Wad's famous picture of the epigenetic landscape requires hooks from above, representing environmental influences, as well as pegs underneath representing the genes. Also much of development is accomplished at the behavioural level. These phenomena, of which there are many, is often characterised as the organism's plasticity but they all interact with the robust mechanisms of development.

The distinction between two types of developmental is therefore incorrect as Peter Gluckman and I argued in our book Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution. I have also suggested that a useful distinction can be drawn between conditional plasticity which is a product of Darwinian evolution and adaptability plasticity. In the second case the underlying processes are likely to be the product of Darwinian evolution but the outcome can be entirely novel and have important implications for subsequent evolution of the organism' descendants.

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