(John Jacob Lyons, 18 September 2009)
The four dimensions of evolution identified in Jablonka and Lamb’s book ‘Evolution in Four Dimensions’ were described as; genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and symbolic. Although this is an extremely useful book, the dimensions proposed are not considered the best basis on which to carry forward research on evolutionary theory. The ‘symbolic’ dimension relates to one particular aspect of cultural evolution and, although there can be interaction between adaptive cultural change and genomic change, the use of the word ‘symbolic’ appears inappropriate and too narrow to denote this interaction. Genetic and epigenetic processes often operate in tandem and it may be misleading to nominate them as separate dimensions. An important deficiency is that the nominated dimensions are not from the same class of objects. They are not separate and different evolutionary processes and neither are they separate, independently generated drivers of evolution.
I want to suggest three independently generated, primary drivers of evolution at organism level that, I believe, would provide a better basis for future research; random genetic mutation, natural environmental change and behavioural change – including niche construction.
These categories can all be described as independent drivers of evolution. They are mutually exclusive but, of course, not exhaustive at this level of analysis. Sexual selection is a powerful driver and species would still evolve within the constraints of their existing gene-pool and without considering new mutations. Then there are the effects caused by artificial human selection; both within the human species (eg contraception) and those imposed on other species (eg selective breeding). However, I have highlighted three evolutionary drivers that, I believe, have been somewhat confused in previous work in evolutionary theory.
Each of these primary drivers is described below in a little more detail below.
Driver 1 – Random genetic mutation
This is often called (Classical) Darwinian Evolution. A mutation of this kind will be adaptive if it results in an adaptive phenotype; either increasing the viability/ fecundity of the organism or increasing both. The expected incidence of the mutation in the next generation will increase and will increase further in future generations as long as the mutation continues to be adaptive.
Driver 2 – Natural environment change
Particular extant alleles of particular genes/ epigenetic-markers will be more adaptive in the changed environment, again resulting in an expected increase in the incidence of this particular allele-set in future generations.
Driver 3 – Behavioural change – including niche construction
Initially, one or a small number of organisms learn a behaviour that proves to be adaptive. This behaviour may or may not affect the physical environment. Manifestation of the adaptive behaviour will often be positively and causally correlated with particular allele-sets that make the organism more likely to manifest the behaviour. Selection pressure will result in an increase in the expected incidence of the allele-sets’ constituents in the following generation (see Behavioural Genetic Priming). This will, in turn, increase the expected number of organisms manifesting the behaviour in that generation. This positive feedback loop will continue to increase the incidence of the adaptive behaviour in future generations. In due course, all organisms in a population may be, to a greater or lesser extent, genetically primed to manifest the behaviour with a minimal trigger from the environment. I say “to a greater or lesser extent” since there may well be other adaptive behaviours and other sources of selection pressure in play that are underpinned by overlapping gene-sets. This would eventually result in optimal allele configurations for the complete set of adaptive behaviours and other sources of selection pressure but a suboptimal configuration for any particular adaptive behaviour.
Driver 3 can be described as an adaptive acquired characteristic and, although the characteristic itself cannot be assimilated into the genome, its positive association with concomitant, genetically mediated predispositions means that it is ‘able’ to prime the genome to increase manifestation.
If we add back the other drivers of evolution previously mentioned we get:
Driver 4 – Sexual Selection
Driver 5 – Natural Selection within current gene-pool
Driver 6 – Artificial Human Selection
Driver 7 – Hybridisation
Is this an exhaustive set of evolutionary drivers?