Comparing strengths of directional selection: how strong is strong?

Evolution. 2004 Oct;58(10):2133-43. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2004.tb01592.x.


The fundamental equation in evolutionary quantitative genetics, the Lande equation, describes the response to directional selection as a product of the additive genetic variance and the selection gradient of trait value on relative fitness. Comparisons of both genetic variances and selection gradients across traits or populations require standardization, as both are scale dependent. The Lande equation can be standardized in two ways. Standardizing by the variance of the selected trait yields the response in units of standard deviation as the product of the heritability and the variance-standardized selection gradient. This standardization conflates selection and variation because the phenotypic variance is a function of the genetic variance. Alternatively, one can standardize the Lande equation using the trait mean, yielding the proportional response to selection as the product of the squared coefficient of additive genetic variance and the mean-standardized selection gradient. Mean-standardized selection gradients are particularly useful for summarizing the strength of selection because the mean-standardized gradient for fitness itself is one, a convenient benchmark for strong selection. We review published estimates of directional selection in natural populations using mean-standardized selection gradients. Only 38 published studies provided all the necessary information for calculation of mean-standardized gradients. The median absolute value of multivariate mean-standardized gradients shows that selection is on average 54% as strong as selection on fitness. Correcting for the upward bias introduced by taking absolute values lowers the median to 31%, still very strong selection. Such large estimates clearly cannot be representative of selection on all traits. Some possible sources of overestimation of the strength of selection include confounding environmental and genotypic effects on fitness, the use of fitness components as proxies for fitness, and biases in publication or choice of traits to study.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Models, Genetic*
  • Phenotype*
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable*
  • Selection, Genetic*