What is wrong with absolute individual fitness?

Trends Ecol Evol. 2004 May;19(5):245-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.02.008.


One of the most basic facts about evolution is that fitness is a relative concept. It does not matter how well an organism survives and reproduces, only that it does so better than other organisms bearing alternative traits. Nevertheless, many evolutionary arguments are framed in terms of absolute individual fitness. The absolute fitness criterion (AFC) can be justified in terms of relative fitness only given certain assumptions that are frequently violated in nature. In particular, interactions must occur in groups that are randomly formed and phenotypic variation among groups must be tightly coupled to genetic variation. Complicating the genotype-phenotype relationship can cause phenotypic variation among groups to become nonrandom, even when the groups are randomly formed, favoring traits that do not maximize absolute individual fitness. Complex genotype-phenotype relationships and complex population structures require explicit models of evolutionary change based on relative fitness differences within and among groups.