Degeneracy at multiple levels of complexity

Paul H. Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Degeneracy is a poorly understood process, essential to natural selection. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of degeneracy was commandeered by the colonial imagination. A rigid understanding of species, race, and culture grew to dominate the normative thinking that persisted well into the burgeoning new industrial age. A 20th-century reconfiguration of the concept by George Gamow highlighted a form of intraorganismic variation that is still underexplored. Degeneracy exists in a population of variants where structurally different components perform a similar, but not necessarily identical, function with respect to context. The presence of degeneracy increases a system's complexity and robustness against perturbations. The loss of a genetic component in biological systems, for example, can be compensated by redundant elements (the presence of isomorphic and isofunctional components), or by degenerate elements (heteromorphic variants that are isofunctional). A historical survey of the use of the term “degeneracy” reveals how and why the processes it once designated, and the mechanisms it now represents, have largely escaped the purview of contemporary science. Despite confusion and general oversight, degeneracy has been characterized by select researchers at the molecular, genetic, and neuronal levels. The concept is a potent analytical tool to understand selection, variation, and transmission.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-288
Number of pages12
JournalBiological theory : integrating development, evolution and cognition
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • degeneracy
  • diversity
  • evolution
  • robustness
  • selection
  • transmission complexity
  • variation


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