In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolutionary Innovation

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Definitions
  • History
  • Journals

Evolutionary Biology Evolutionary Innovation
Douglas H. Erwin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0060


Innovation has been one of the most contentious issues in evolutionary biology in the past several decades, in part because defining how innovation differs from other types of evolutionary change, such as adaptation, has proven difficult. Early work on innovation was generally associated with the origin of morphological novelties that were generally recognized, within a Linnean taxonomic framework, as higher taxa. More recently innovations have been recognized at genetic and developmental levels, and associated with the origin of new levels of selection through work on the Major Evolutionary transitions. Thus the topic of evolutionary innovation is inextricably linked to novelty, which is considered here as well, as well as to a host of other issues in evolutionary biology, such as the developmental basis of morphologic change, the nature of phenotypic characters, and the role of phylogenetic analysis in characterizing increased rates of taxonomic diversification, which may be related to “key innovations.” Fortunately, the development of new techniques such as phylogenetic analysis and comparative phylogenetic methods, as well as comparative developmental biology (“evo-devo”), has provided a more rigorous mechanistic basis.

Overviews and Definitions

The papers in this section provide general introductions and definitions to evolutionary innovations from several different points of view. Paleontologists have tended to focus on evolutionary innovation expressed as the origin or higher taxa, and thus Jablonski 2001 focuses on the evolution of orders where more data are available. Phylogenetically focused biologists have been more concerned with the origin of new characters, a topic addressed in Müller and Wagner 1991, Müller and Wagner 2003, Müller 2002, and Peterson and Müller 2013. The development of comparative evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) has generated alternative approaches, focused more on the mechanisms that generate novel phenotypes; these are discussed in Moczek 2008. Philosophers of science have also become interested in the topic, a viewpoint introduced in Brigandt and Love 2012.

  • Brigandt, I., and A. C. Love. 2012. Conceptualizing evolutionary novelty: Moving beyond definitional debates. In Special issue: Perspectives on evolutionary novelty and evo-devo. Edited by Ingo Brigandt. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution 318.6: 417–427.

    DOI: 10.1002/jez.b.22461

    In contrast to many of the other papers grouped here, this analysis of the various ways in which evolutionary novelty is used celebrates the diversity as focusing on different aspects of innovation. This is also the introductory paper in a special issue on evolutionary novelty.

  • Jablonski, D. 2001. Origin of evolutionary novelties. In Palaeobiology II. Edited by D. E. G. Briggs and P. R. Crowther, 162–166. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470999295

    An introduction to the macroevolutionary dimensions of evolutionary novelty.

  • Moczek, A. P. 2008. On the origins of novelty in development and evolution. BioEssays 30:432–447.

    DOI: 10.1002/bies.20754

    Moczek argues that understanding development is key to understanding innovation, but provides a valuable discussion of differing definitions of novelty as well as addresses the importance of evaluating character homology, and other issues.

  • Müller, G. B. 2002. Novelty and key innovations. In Encyclopedia of evolution. Vol. 2. Edited by M. Pagel, 827–830. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An overview of novelty, key innovation, and innovations.

  • Müller, G. B., and G. P. Wagner. 1991. Novelty in evolution: Restructuring the concept. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 22:229–256.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This early paper of the new generation of novelty studies has been quite influential as the authors defined the major issues associated with discussion of evolutionary novelty, identifying problems with previous approaches and focusing on character analysis and development.

  • Müller, G. B., and G. P. Wagner. 2003. Innovation. In Keywords and concepts in evolutionary developmental biology. Edited by B. K. Hall and W. M. Olson, 218–227. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Provides a definition of phenotypic innovations and discusses a number of conceptual problems associated with the concept, as well as possible evolutionary mechanisms.

  • Peterson, T., and G. B. Müller. 2013. What is evolutionary novelty? Process versus character based definitions. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution 320:345–350.

    DOI: 10.1002/jez.b.22508

    This paper contrasts character-based definitions of novelty with those based on the evolutionary process that generate morphologic novelty, while strongly advocating for the former point of view.

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