Background: Many properties of organisms show great robustness against genetic and environmental perturbations. The terms canalization and developmental stability were originally proposed to describe the ability of an organism to resist perturbations and to produce a predictable target phenotype regardless of random developmental noise. However, the extent to which canalization and developmental stability are controlled by the same set of genes and share underlying regulatory mechanisms is largely unresolved. Results: We have analyzed the effects of clinal genetic variation (inversion polymorphism) on wing asymmetry by applying the methods of geometric morphometrics in the context of quantitative genetics using isochromosomal lines of Drosophila subobscura. For the analysis of overall size, developmental stability was positively correlated with levels of heterozygosity and development at the optimal temperature. For analyses of shape, the overall comparisons by matrix correlations indicate that inter- and intraindividual variation levels were poorly correlated, a result also supported when comparing the vectors describing patterns of variation of landmark position. The lack of similarity was basically due to the discrepancy between the genetic and environmental components of the interindividual variation. Finally, the analyses have also underscored the presence of genetic variation for directional asymmetry. Conclusions: The results strongly support the hypothesis that environmental canalization and developmental stability share underlying regulatory mechanisms, but environmental and genetic canalization are not functionally the same. A likely explanation for this lack of association is that natural wing shape variation in Drosophila populations is loosely related to individual fitness. © 2005 Santos et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.