Friday, May 6, 2016

Darwin the Newtonian. Part II. Is life really 'Newtonian'?

In yesterday's post I suggested that Darwin had a Newtonian view of the world, that is, he repeatedly and clearly described the organisms and diversity of life as the product of evolution, due to natural selection viewed as a force, which in an implicit way he likened to gravity.  At the same time, he knew that there was widespread evidence of various kinds for long-term evolutionary stasis, which a prominent geologist has recently called  "Darwin's null hypothesis of evolution," the idea that evolution does not occur if the environment stays the same.

That suggests that a changing environment leads to a changing mix of organisms that live in the environment, including of their genotypes.  It makes evolutionary sense, of course, because environments screen organisms for 'fitness'.  However, its negative--no change in the environment implies no evolution-- doesn't make sense and badly misrepresents what is widely assumed that we know about evolution. Even if we define evolution, as often done in textbooks, as 'change in gene frequencies' such change clearly occurs even in stable environments.  Mutations always arise, and selectively neutral variants, that is, that don't affect the fitness of their bearers, change in frequency by chance alone, not by natural selection, which means that at the genomic level evolution still occurs. It's curious that not only can organisms stay very similar in what seem like static environments, but also can be similar even in changing environments.

The idea of dual environmental-genetic stasis is an inference made from species that seem to stay similar for long time periods in environments that also appear similar--but how similar are they really?

Indeed, there are several problems with the widely if often implicitly assumed 'null hypothesis':

  1.  It is a very narrow assumption of the meaning of 'evolution', implicitly implying that it refers only to functionally important traits or their underlying genotypes. As we will see, there are ways for genetic change (and even trait change) to occur even in static environments, so that an unchanging environment doesn't imply no biological change.
  2.  It implies that 'the environment' actually stays the same, although 'environment' is hard to define.
  3.  It implies a tight essentially one-to-one fit between genotype and adaptive traits, so that in unchanging environments there will not be any functional genomic change.

All of these assumptions are wrong.  In essence, there cannot be 'the', or even 'a' null hypothesis for evolution.   Sexual reproduction, horizontal transfer, and recombination occur even without new sequence mutation.  To ignore that along with assuming a stationary environment, and adopt a null hypothesis that had anything like mathematical or Aristotelian rigor would be to reduce evolution's basis to something like this not-very-profound tautology:  Everything stays the same, if everything stays the same.

So let's look at this a little more closely
From the fossil record, we infer that some species stay the 'same' for eons, sometimes millions of years.  Then they change.  Gould and Eldridge called this 'punctuated equilibrium' and it was taken as a kind of up-dated version of Darwinism--mistakenly, because Darwin recognized it very clearly at least by the 6th edition of his Origin.  And while some aspects of animals and plants can hardly change in appearance for long time periods, close inspection shows that only some aspects of what can be preserved in fossils stays similar; other aspects typically change.  Also, speciation events occur and some descendants of an early form do change in form, even if the older species seems not to change. So we should be very careful even to suggest that environments or species really are not changing.

But mutations certainly occur and that means that even for a set of fossils that look the same, the genomes of the individuals would have varied, at least in non-functional sequence elements.  That itself is 'evolution', and it is misleading to restrict the term only to visible functional change.  But genetic drift is just the tip of the molecular evolution iceberg.  It is now very clear that there are many ways for an organism to produce what appears to be the same trait--and this is true both at the molecular and morphological levels.  That is, even a trait that 'looks' the same can be produced by different genotypes.  I wrote about this long ago in a rather simple vein, calling it phenogenetic drift, and Andreas Wagner in particular has written extensively about it, with sophisticated technical detail, in his book The Origin of Evolutionary Innovation, and this paper.  (The images are of my general paper and Wagner's book given just to break up the monotony of long text! ; he has written a more popular-level book as well called Arrival of the Fittest, which is a very good introduction to these ideas).

Recent exploration, with great detail

A modest statement of principl

Wagner explores this in many ways and among his views is that the ability of organisms to evolve innovative traits is based on the huge number of overlapping, essentially similar ways it can carry out its various functions, which allows mutations to add new function without jeopardizing the current one. Redundancy is protective against environmental changes as well as enabling new traits to arise.

This is in a sense no news at all. It was implicit in the very foundational concept of 'polygenic' control-- the determination of a trait by independent, or semi-independent of many different genes.  The way complex traits are thus constructed was clear to various biologists more than a century ago, even if the specific genes could not be identified (and the nature of a 'gene' was unknown).  A fundamental implication of the idea for our current purposes is that each individual with a given trait value (say, two people with the same height or blood pressure) can have its own underlying multi-locus genotype, which can vary among them.  Genotypes may predict phenotypes, but a phenotype does not accurately predict the underlying genotype (a deep lesson that many who promote simplistic models of causation in biomedical contexts should have learned in school).

And of course that does not even consider environmental effects, even though we know very well that for most characters of interest, normal or pathological, 'genetic' factors account only for a modest fraction of their variation. And, of course, if it's hard to identify contributing genetic variants, it's at least as difficult to identify the complex environmental contributors who make inference of phenotype from genotype so problematic. That is, neither does genotype reliably predict phenotype, nor does phenotype reliably predict genotype and the idea that they do so with 'precision' (to use todays' fashionable branding phrase) is very misleading.

In turn, these considerations imply that even if we accepted the idea of natural selection as a Newtonian deterministic force, it works at the level of the achieved trait, and can ignore (actually, is blinded to) the underlying causal genetic mechanism.  There can be extensive variation within populations in the latter, and change over time.  Just because two individuals now or in the past have a similar trait does not imply they have the same underlying genotype and hence does not imply there's been no 'evolution' even in that stable trait!

In this sense, evolution could be Newtonian, driven by force-like selection, and still not be genetically static.  But there's more.  How can there actually be stasis in a local environment?  If organisms adapt to conditions, then that in itself changes those conditions.  Even within a species, as more and more of its members take on some adaptive response to the environment, they change their own relative fitness by changing the mix of genotypes in their population, and that in turn will affect their predators and prey, their mate selection, and the various ways that the mix of resources are used in the local ecology.  If, say, the members of a species become bigger, or faster, or better at smelling prey, then the distribution of energy and species size must also change.  That is, the 'environment' cannot really remain the same.  That ecosystems are fundamentally dynamic has long been a core aspect of population ecology.

In a nutshell, it must be true that if genotypes change, that changes the local environment because my genotype is part of everybody else's 'environment'. In that sense, only if no mutations are possible can there be no 'evolution'. Even if one wants to argue that all mutations that arise are purged in order to keep the species the 'same', there will still be a dynamic mix of mutational variants over time and place.

One could even assert that an essence of Darwinism, literally interpreted, is that environments cannot be the same because the adaptation of one species affects others, even were new mutations not arising, because it affects the fitness of others. That is what his idea of the relentless struggle for existence among species meant, so stasis did cause him a bit of a problem, which he recognized in the later edition of the Origin.

I think that in essence Darwin viewed natural selection as being basically a deterministic force, like gravity, corresponding to Newton's second law of motion. And the idea of stasis corresponds to Newton's first law, of inertia. Today even many knowledgeable biologists seem to think in that way (for example, invoking drift only as a minor source of 'noise' in otherwise force-like adaptive evolution). Selective explanations are offered routinely as true, and the word 'force' routinely is used to explain how traits got here.
But there are deep problems even if we accept this view as correct.  Among other things, even if natural selection is really force-like, or if genetic drift exists as a moderating factor, then these factors should have some properties that we could test, at least in principle.  But as we'll see next time, it's not at all clear that that is the case.

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