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Conceptualizing Evolutionary Novelty: Moving Beyond Definitional Debates


Correspondence to: Ingo Brigandt, 2-40 Assiniboia Hall, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada AB T6G 2E7. E-mail:


According to many biologists, explaining the evolution of morphological novelty and behavioral innovation are central endeavors in contemporary evolutionary biology. These endeavors are inherently multidisciplinary but also have involved a high degree of controversy. One key source of controversy is the definitional diversity associated with the concept of evolutionary novelty, which can lead to contradictory claims (a novel trait according to one definition is not a novel trait according to another). We argue that this diversity should be interpreted in light of a different epistemic role played by the concept of evolutionary novelty—the structuring of a problem space or setting of an explanatory agenda—rather than the concept's capacity to categorize traits as novel. This distinctive role is consistent with the definitional diversity and shows that the concept of novelty benefits ongoing investigation by focusing attention on answering different questions related to comprehending the origins of novelty. A review of recent theoretical and empirical work on evolutionary novelty confirms this interpretation. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 318B:417–427, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.