Categories: Developmental biology, Epistemology, Evolutionary biology, Genomics, Molecular biology, Systems biology

Prof. Eric DavidsonEric Davidson was a professor in the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology, starting in 1974. He was a leading scientist in the molecular biology of development and its relationship to evolution and the founder of the concept of developmental gene regulatory networks. He died on 1 September 2015 in Pasadena, at the age of 78.

Interview themes:

  • *MBL Woods Hole, U. Penn, Rockefeller Institute - Becoming a molecular biologist of early development
    *Work on gene regulation in higher organisms
    *Caltech; sea urchins; Max Delbrück; disputes on evolution
    *Gene regulatory networks; Disputes on genomic determination
    *The philosophy and success of the causal-mechanistic approach

  • Interview with Eric Davidson.pdf 

  • Interview Excerpt

  • UD: Coming back to your work. Another characteristic about you as a molecular embryologist is that you extended this research to questions of evolution. When did you become interested in evolution?

    ED: That goes right back to the days of the Britten-Davidson model. If you look at the Quarterly Review of Biology article that we wrote on evolution (1971), you’ll find there the first statement that says extremely clearly and explicitly that if you want to understand evolution, you have to understand the change in genomic programs that control development. That’s the only way to consider it. Therefore it has to be concerned with change in the architecture of, what we would call today, gene networks. We said it straight out, clear as day.

    UD: But how did you arrive at this conclusion?

    ED: Since the body plans are made by development, when you consider evolution of different kinds of animals, it means their developmental process is different. How else can you think about it? Darwinian evolution was of a completely different kind. It was all about small changes and they felt if you could understand changes in petunia colors, you could understand changes in whether animals have heads or not. And that’s just total nonsense. But you can’t really blame the Darwinians, because all of Darwinian theory, from the Neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s, was built in the absence of, and ignorance of, any knowledge of how development actually works. Other than wrong theoretical ideas. And in the absence of any knowledge about how transcription works and in the absence of any knowledge about anything that has to do with how the processes of life that make animals actually occur. So it couldn’t possibly have been right, and it wasn’t.

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