Biological Theory

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 165–178 | Cite as

Developmental Ascendency: From Bottom-up to Top-down Control



Development is a process whereby a relatively unspecified system comprised of loosely connected lower level parts becomes organized into a coherent, higher-level agency. Its temporal corollaries are growth, increasingly deterministic behavior, and a progressive reduction of developmental potential. During immature stages with relatively low specification and high potential, development is largely controlled by local interactions from the “bottom-up,” whereas during more highly specified stages with reduced potential, emergent autocatalytic processes exert “top-down” control. Robert Ulanowicz has shown that this phenomenology of ascendency follows thermodynamic principles and can be described quantitatively using information theory, providing a general theory of development. However, the theory has not found a wide audience among developmental biologists, as genetic determinism encourages the popular reductionistic perception that ontogeny is controlled entirely by molecular mechanisms that exert efficient causality from the bottom-up. Nonetheless, measurements of metabolic rates and mRNA complexity in developing embryos, as well as functional analyses of gene regulatory systems, indicate that ontogeny fits the paradigm of developmental ascendency. Beyond informing biomedical research and the interpretation of large datasets obtained by systems-biological approaches, developmental ascendency helps explain the origin of life, and, being independent of scale, provides an overarching explanation for phylogenetic change that contextualizes Darwinian evolution.


development ecology embryo emergence evolution growth hierarchy ontogeny phylogeny sea urchin 


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mount Desert Island Biological LaboratorySalisbury CoveUSA

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