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in the network can be made rate-limiting for the trait to understand how their inactivation (partial or incomplete) can lead to loss of the trait. Such losses are genetically simple but can have large potential adaptive evolutionary significance. Nevertheless, loss-of-function evolutionary traits are, by definition, derivative traits. For most of the adaptive complex phenotypic traits that are of interest to evolutionists, the primary story lies in the acquisition of those traits. In turn, comprehending those evolutionary innovations requires understanding the underlying genetic networks.


A network perspective, however, has further value for evolutionary biology. A detailed knowledge of genetic networks, which necessarily includes an understanding of their component modules, can provide even more: such knowledge provides a platform from which to assess the relative a priori probabilities of certain evolutionary trajectories. Such assessment would necessarily be approximate, but even that degree of understanding would be sufficient to allow the beginnings of a predictive approach to evolutionary trajectories, extending the potential range of hypothesis testing in evolutionary biology. It will be remembered that it was the apparent dearth of falsifiable hypotheses in evolution that led K. Popper initially to question whether evolutionary biology was truly science or simply a “metaphysical” framework of thought (Popper, 1972), although he later modified his stance (Popper, 1978).

The basis of using genetic network information to estimate relative probabilities of different evolutionary paths depends on understanding two generic properties that are shared by all developmental genetic networks. The first of these general properties is that each interactive step within a module, or between modules, is either an activation of the next gene activity (+) or an inhibition (−). This generalization is independent of the molecular mechanism involved in each such interaction and the stringency of any quantitative requirements. Thus, in a wild-type genetic network each step functions as either an activation (+) or a repression (−). In principle, therefore, one can encode each sequence of steps in a network, or network module, from the first triggering input signals, as a sequence of pluses and minuses.

The second general property concerns the structure of networks. Every network can be analytically decomposed into three kinds of elements (Wilkins, 2007b), which might be termed “functional connectivity motifs.” This may not be immediately obvious from the existing genetic network diagrams, which show an initially bewilderingly complex array of lines, arrows, and bars. (See for instance the diagrams in Davidson et

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