There have been repeated attempts in the history of comparative biology to provide a mechanistic account of morphological homology. However, it is well-established that homologues can develop from diverse sets of developmental causes, appearing not to share any core causal architecture that underwrites character identity. We address this challenge with a new conceptual model of Character Identity Mechanisms (ChIMs). ChIMs are cohesive mechanisms with a recognizable causal profile that allows them to be traced through evolution as homologues despite having a diverse etiological organization. Our model hypothesizes that anatomical units at different levels of organization—cell types, tissues, and organs—have level-specific ChIMs with different conserved parts, activities, and organization. Relying on a methodology of conceptual engineering, we show how the ChIM concept advances our understanding of the developmental basis of morphological characters, while forging an important link between comparative and mechanistic biology.

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