The plastic response of phenotypic traits to environmental change is a common research focus in several disciplines - from ecology and evolutionary biology to physiology and molecular genetics. The use of model systems such as the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana has facilitated a dialogue between developmental biologists asking how plasticity is controlled (proximate causes) and organismal biologists asking why plasticity exists (ultimate causes). Researchers studying ultimate causes and consequences are increasingly compelled to reject simplistic, ‘black box’ models, while those studying proximate causes and mechanisms are increasingly obliged to subject their interpretations to ecological ‘reality checks.’ We review the successful multidisciplinary efforts to understand the phytochrome-mediated shade-avoidance and light-seeking responses of flowering plants as a pertinent example of convergence between evolutionary and molecular biology. In this example, the two-way exchange between reductionist and holist camps has been essential to rapid and sustained progress. This should serve as a model for future collaborative efforts towards understanding the responses of organisms to their constantly changing environments.