Tobias Uller | Armin P. Moczek | Richard A. Watson | Paul M. Brakefield | Kevin N. Laland
Phenotypic variation is generated by the processes of development, with some variants arising more readily than others—a phenomenon known as “developmental bias.” Developmental bias and natural selection have often been portrayed as alternative explanations, but this is a false dichotomy: developmental bias can evolve through natural selection, and bias and selection jointly influence phenotypic evolution. Here, we briefly review the evidence for developmental bias and illustrate how it is studied empirically. We describe recent theory on regulatory networks that explains why the influence of genetic and environmental perturbation on phenotypes is typically not uniform, and may even be biased toward adaptive phenotypic variation. We show how bias produced by developmental processes constitutes an evolving property able to impose direction on adaptive evolution and influence patterns of taxonomic and phenotypic diversity. Taking these considerations together, we argue that it is not sufficient to accommodate developmental bias into evolutionary theory merely as a constraint on evolutionary adaptation. The influence of natural selection in shaping developmental bias, and conversely, the influence of developmental bias in shaping subsequent opportunities for adaptation, requires mechanistic models of development to be expanded and incorporated into evolutionary theory. A regulatory network perspective on phenotypic evolution thus helps to integrate the generation of phenotypic variation with natural selection, leaving evolutionary biology better placed to explain how organisms adapt and diversify.