Learning how complex traits like eyes originate is fundamental for understanding evolution. Here, we first sketch historical perspectives on trait origins and argue that new technologies offer key new insights. Next, we articulate four open questions about trait origins. To address them, we define a research program to break complex traits into components and study the individual evolutionary histories of those parts. By doing so, we can learn when the parts came together and perhaps understand why they stayed together. We apply the approach to five structural innovations critical for complex eyes, reviewing the history of the parts of each of those innovations. Photoreceptors evolved within animals by bricolage, recombining genes that originated far earlier. Multiple genes used in eyes today had ancestral roles in stress responses. We hypothesize that photo-stress could have increased the chance those genes were expressed together in places on animals where light was abundant.
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