Evolutionary biology today and the call for an extended synthesis

Interface Focus. 2017 Oct 6;7(5):20160145. doi: 10.1098/rsfs.2016.0145. Epub 2017 Aug 18.


Evolutionary theory has been extended almost continually since the evolutionary synthesis (ES), but except for the much greater importance afforded genetic drift, the principal tenets of the ES have been strongly supported. Adaptations are attributable to the sorting of genetic variation by natural selection, which remains the only known cause of increase in fitness. Mutations are not adaptively directed, but as principal authors of the ES recognized, the material (structural) bases of biochemistry and development affect the variety of phenotypic variations that arise by mutation and recombination. Against this historical background, I analyse major propositions in the movement for an 'extended evolutionary synthesis'. 'Niche construction' is a new label for a wide variety of well-known phenomena, many of which have been extensively studied, but (as with every topic in evolutionary biology) some aspects may have been understudied. There is no reason to consider it a neglected 'process' of evolution. The proposition that phenotypic plasticity may engender new adaptive phenotypes that are later genetically assimilated or accommodated is theoretically plausible; it may be most likely when the new phenotype is not truly novel, but is instead a slight extension of a reaction norm already shaped by natural selection in similar environments. However, evolution in new environments often compensates for maladaptive plastic phenotypic responses. The union of population genetic theory with mechanistic understanding of developmental processes enables more complete understanding by joining ultimate and proximate causation; but the latter does not replace or invalidate the former. Newly discovered molecular phenomena have been easily accommodated in the past by elaborating orthodox evolutionary theory, and it appears that the same holds today for phenomena such as epigenetic inheritance. In several of these areas, empirical evidence is needed to evaluate enthusiastic speculation. Evolutionary theory will continue to be extended, but there is no sign that it requires emendation.

Keywords: evolution; evolutionary synthesis; niche construction.