The Pith: In this post I review some findings of patterns of natural selection within the Drosophila fruit fly genome. I relate them to very similar findings, though in the opposite direction, in human genomics. Different forms of natural selection and their impact on the structure of the genome are also spotlighted on the course of the review. In particular how specific methods to detect adaptation on the genomic level may be biased by assumptions of classical evolutionary genetic models are explored. Finally, I try and place these details in the broader framework of how best to understand evolutionary process in the “big picture.”
A few days ago I titled a post “The evolution of man is no cartoon”. The reason I titled it such is that as the methods become more refined and our data sets more robust it seems that previously held models of how humans evolved, and evolution’s impact on our genomes, are being refined. Evolutionary genetics at its most elegantly spare can be reduced down to several general parameters. Drift, selection, migration, etc. Exogenous phenomena such as the flux in census size, or environmental variation, has a straightforward relationship to these parameters. But, to some extent the broadest truths are nearly trivial. Down to the brass tacks what are these general assertions telling us? We don’t know yet. We’re in a time of transitions, though not troubles.
Going back to cartoons, starting around 1970 there were a series of debates which hinged around the role of deterministic adaptive forces and random neutral ones in the domain of evolutionary process. You have probably heard terms like “adaptationist,” “ultra-Darwinian,” and “evolution by jerks” thrown around. All great fun, and certainly ripe “hooks” to draw the public in, but ultimately that phase in the scientific discourse seems to have been besides the point. A transient between the age of Theory when there was too little of the empirics, and now the age of Data, when there is too little theory. Biology is a very contingent discipline, and it may be that questions of the power of selection or the relevance of neutral forces will loom large or small dependent upon the particular tip of the tree of life to which the question is being addressed. Evolution may not be a unitary oracle, but rather a cacophony from which we have to construct a harmonious symphony for our own mental sanity. Nature is one, an the joints which we carve out of nature’s wholeness are for our own benefit.
The age of molecular evolution, ushered in by the work on allozymes in the 1960s, was just a preface to the age of genomics. If Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins were in their prime today I wonder if the complexities of the issues on hand would be too much even for their verbal fluency in terms of formulating a concise quip with which to skewer one’s intellectual antagonists. Complexity does not make fodder for honest quips and barbs. You’re just as liable to inflict a wound upon your own side through clumsiness of rhetoric in the thicket of the data, which fires in all directions.
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