The studies of the team at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Morphology propose that a recurring central aspect of macroevolutionary innovations is an increase in individual organismal autonomy, whereby organisms emancipate to a certain degree from the environment with changes in their capacity for flexibility, self-regulation and self-control of behavior. This is not a linear trend, but it is the outcome of some of the major transitions in evolution in different lines. It emphasizes the active and self-organizing role of organisms during their lifes and in evolutionary changes.
These changes lead to shifts in organism/environment relations so that adaptation obviously is not the only factor in evolution. In addition organisms often influence and construct their environment, so that the picture becomes complicated: Organisms that maintain their autonomy are intertwined with given as well as constructed factors of the environment, thus exhibiting features of a system.
We study such systems, for example by means of paleontological work concerning the evolution of mammals from synapsids. Results from this work propose that functions and functional changes of whole systems might be more important during the major transitions than single genetic mutations. Therefore we expect that phenotypic plasticity may be a central factor in evolution, however, closely intertwinded with genetic, epigenetic, physiological, behavioral and developmental factors, which all may be involved during the generation of innovations.
Looking at these complexities we hold that it is important in the next future of biology to develop an integrative systems approach to organisms in general and to overcome the onesidedness of reductionistic thinking. The future of biological thinking needs to be organismic in order to cover the real properties of life.
Among several consequences for biological thinking this concept also throws new light on our self-image. Although humans are not the most autonomous organisms, humans have a special combination of features of autonomy. These features generate a broad spectrum of possibilities and gives highly flexible prerequisites for generating culture. This contrasts clearly with widespread determinstic thinking. Our nature is not determining, but rather enabling.