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Cortical Evolution in Mammals: The Bane and Beauty of Phenotypic Variability



Evolution by natural selection, the unifying theory of all biological sciences, provides a basis for understanding how phenotypic variability is generated at all levels of organization from genes to behavior. However, it is important to distinguish what is the target of selection vs. what is transmitted across generations. Physical traits, behaviors, and the extended phenotype are all selected features of an individual, but genes that covary with different aspects of the targets of selection are inherited. Here we review the variability in cortical organization, morphology, and behavior that have been observed across species and describe similar types of variability within species. We examine sources of variability and the constraints that limit the types of changes that evolution has and can produce. Finally, we underscore the importance of how genes and genetic regulatory networks are deployed and interact within an individual, and their relationship to external, physical forces within the environment that shape the ultimate phenotype.

Evolution is the change in heritable, phenotypic characteristics within a population that occurs over successive generations. The notion that biological life evolves and that animal forms descend from ancient predecessors has been considered for centuries and, in fact, predates


*Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, CA 95618. To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

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