The revolt of the clay: an initial progress report

A “chance” encounter

Earlier this month I was contacted by a reporter writing a piece on the role of chance in evolution.   I responded that I didn’t work on that topic, but if he was interested in predictable non-randomness due to biases in variation, then I would be happy to talk.  We had a nice chat last Friday.

I’m only working on the role of “chance” in the sense that, in our field, referring to “chance” is a placemarker for the demise of an approach based implicitly on deterministic thinking— evolution proceeds to equilibrium, and everything turns out for the best, driven by selection.  This justifies the classic view that “the ultimate source of explanation in biology is the principle of natural selection” (Ayala, 1970).  Bruce Levin and colleagues mock this idea hilariously in the following passage from an actual research paper:

To be sure, the ascent and fixation of the earlier-occurring rather than the best-adapted genotypes due to this bottleneck-mutation rate mechanism is a non-equilibrium result. On Equilibrium Day deterministic processes will prevail and the best genotypes will inherit the earth (Levin, Perrot & Walker, 2000)

Wait, I’m still laughing.   (more…)

The surprising case of origin-fixation models

In a recent QRB paper with David McCandlish, we review the form, origins, uses, and implications of models (e.g., the familiar K = 4Nus) that represent evolutionary change as a 2-step process of (1) the introduction of a new allele by mutation, followed by (2) its fixation or loss.

What could be surprising about these “origin-fixation” models, which are invoked in theoretical models of adaptation (e.g., the mutational landscape model) and in widely used methods applied to phylogenetic inference, comparative genomics, detecting selection, modeling codon usage, and so on?

Quite a lot, it turns out. (more…)

The Mutationism Myth (3): Foundations of evolutionary genetics

This is the third in a series of 2010 blogs entitled “The Mutationism Myth” (a more scholarly version of this material ended being published in J. Hist. Biol. by Stoltzfus and Cable, 2014)

In this oft-told story (see part 1), the discovery of genetics in 1900 leads to rejection of Darwin’s theory and the rise of “mutationism”, a laughable1 theory that imagines evolution by mutation alone, without selection. “Mutationism” prevails for a generation, until Fisher, Haldane and Wright show that genetics is the missing key to Darwinism. In the conclusion to the story, the world is set right again when the “Modern Synthesis”, combining selection with Mendelian genetics, shoulders aside the mutationist heresy, which ends up in the dustbin of history with the other “doomed rivals” of Darwin’s great theory.2

Thats the story, at least. In reality— as we found out in part 2—, the Mendelians rejected Darwin’s errant principles of heredity, not his principle of selection. What kind of view did the Mendelians develop? Addressing this question is our next challenge.  Today, in part 3, we’ll consider aspects of the Mendelian view that became the foundations of mainstream 20th-century thinking. In part 4, we’ll delve into some “non-Darwinian” or “anti-Darwinian” aspects that were rejected, or merely ignored. (more…)