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Workshop on the Causal Factors of Robustness and Plasticity in Living Systems

Date: Friday December 5th, 2014

Time: 9:00am

Location: Oak Room at IMU

Title: The causal factors of robustness and plasticity in living systems: towards a synthesis of genetics, development, and the organization of whole organisms


Living systems demonstrate both robustness and plasticity throughout their lifetime. An outstanding question is how stability and change coexist and drive behavior and cognition. Is it through 1) evolutionary selection and genetic control, 2) regularity of context and developmental scaffolding, or 3) the autonomous organization of whole organisms? It seems reasonable to accept that all three play a role in the nature of living, behaving, and cognizing systems. Theorists have often prioritized one of the above options at the expense of others, but given that all are factors in behavior, there remains an outstanding problem to describe how these factors interrelate. The objective of this workshop is to identify the substantive claims made by theorists who defend the priority of one kind of factor over others, and then to attempt a synthesis of approaches.>


This day-long workshop will be broken into four discussion sessions, on the topics of evolution and genetic control, developmental scaffolding, physiology/metabolic closure of whole organisms, and finally a synthesizing session that incorporates all three perspectives. Each session will begin with a brief report on the previous session, and a short presentation to highlight the main arguments for prioritizing the given session’s factor, followed by a moderated discussion amongst a small panel and audience Q&A. The final session will place all the previous panelists together and attempt to integrate the outcomes of the prior discussions.


Genetics and Evolution:

Luis Rocha - IU Informatics, Cognitive Science

Manfred Laubichler - ASU Theoretical Biology, History of Biology

Chris Harshaw - IU Biology 

Lisa Lloyd - IU History and Philosophy of Science

Colin Allen - IU History and Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Science



Paul Meyer - IU Psychological and Brain Sciences, Neurobiology

Shane Zappettini - IU History and Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Science

Jeff Alberts - IU Psychological and Brain Sciences

Swapnaa Jayaraman - IU Psychological and Brain Sciences 

Erik Ragsdale - IU Biology

Greg Kohn - IU Psychological and Brain Sciences 

Armin P. Moczek - IU Biology


Physiology and Metabolic Closure:

Eran Agmon - IU Informatics, Cognitive Science

Randall Beer - IU Informatics, Cognitive Science

Alex Gates - IU Infomatics, Cognitive Science

Simon DeDeo - IU Informatics, Cognitive Science

Derek Jones - University of Evansville Philosophy

Russ McBride - University of Utah Cognitive Science

Jake McKinlay - IU Biology



Everyone listed

Colin Allen - History and Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Science

Alex Gates - Informatics, Cognitive Science




This workshop covers a broad range of topics at a fairly high level, so there is no definitive reference on the subject.  If you have any recommendations for more references to be added here, please email them to


Genetics and Evolution

  • Wagner, Andreas. "Robustness against mutations in genetic networks of yeast." Nature genetics 24.4 (2000): 355-361.Masel, Joanna, and Mark L. Siegal. "Robustness: mechanisms and consequences." Trends in Genetics 25.9 (2009): 395-403.
  • Wagner, Andreas. "Robustness and evolvability: a paradox resolved."Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275.1630 (2008): 91-100.
  • Krakauer, David C., and Joshua B. Plotkin. "Redundancy, antiredundancy, and the robustness of genomes." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99.3 (2002): 1405-1409.
  • Schlichting, Carl D., and Massimo Pigliucci. "Control of phenotypic plasticity via regulatory genes." American Naturalist (1993): 366-370.
  • Scheiner, Samuel M. "Genetics and evolution of phenotypic plasticity." Annual review of ecology and systematics (1993): 35-68.
  • Brenner, Sydney. "Turing centenary: Life's code script." Nature 482.7386 (2012): 461-461.
  • Gibson, Daniel G., et al. "Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome." Science 329.5987 (2010): 52-56.



  • Nijhout, H. F. "The nature of robustness in development." BioEssays 24.6 (2002): 553-563.
  • Bateson, Patrick, et al. "Developmental plasticity and human health." Nature 430.6998 (2004): 419-421.
  • West-Eberhard, Mary Jane. "Phenotypic plasticity and the origins of diversity."Annual review of Ecology and Systematics (1989): 249-278.
  • Nijhout, H. Frederik. "Development and evolution of adaptive polyphenisms."Evolution & development 5.1 (2003): 9-18.
  • Bateson, Patrick, and Peter Gluckman. Plasticity, robustness, development and evolution. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Griffiths, Paul E., and James Tabery. "Developmental systems theory: What does it explain, and how does it explain it." Advances in child development and behavior 44 (2013): 65-94.


Physiology and Metabolic Closure

  • Kitano, Hiroaki. "Biological robustness." Nature Reviews Genetics 5.11 (2004): 826-837.
  • Carlson, Jean M., and John Doyle. "Complexity and robustness." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99.suppl 1 (2002): 2538-2545.
  • Luisi, Pier Luigi. "Autopoiesis: a review and a reappraisal." Naturwissenschaften90.2 (2003): 49-59.
  • Nicholson, Daniel J. "The Return of the Organism as a Fundamental Explanatory Concept in Biology." Philosophy Compass 9.5 (2014): 347-359.
  • Eldar, Avigdor, Ben-Zion Shilo, and Naama Barkai. "Elucidating mechanisms underlying robustness of morphogen gradients." Current opinion in genetics & development 14.4 (2004): 435-439.
  • Brockes, Jeremy P., and Anoop Kumar. "Comparative aspects of animal regeneration." Annual review of cell and developmental biology 24 (2008): 525-549.
  • Mrosovsky, Nicholas. Rheostasis: The physiology of change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Schwenk, Kurt, et al. Grand challenges in organismal biology. Integrative and Comparative Biology 49.1 (2009): 7-14.