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Is evolvability evolvable?

Abstract

In recent years, biologists have increasingly been asking whether the ability to evolve — the evolvability — of biological systems, itself evolves, and whether this phenomenon is the result of natural selection or a by-product of other evolutionary processes. The concept of evolvability, and the increasing theoretical and empirical literature that refers to it, may constitute one of several pillars on which an extended evolutionary synthesis will take shape during the next few years, although much work remains to be done on how evolvability comes about.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to thank J. Kaplan for many enjoyable discussions on these themes, G. Wagner for kindly agreeing to read and comment on a previous version of the manuscript while sharing some excellent Austrian Riesling, P. Brakefield and three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

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FURTHER INFORMATION

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Glossary

Canalization

A concept first introduced by C.H. Waddington in the 1940s to refer to the fact that development is often resistant to perturbation and seems to proceed along certain preferential directions (to be 'canalized' along certain channels).

Epistasis

A term that originated with quantitative genetic theory to describe a particular type of nonlinear statistical interaction of gene effects on quantitative traits. It is generally interpreted to be the population-level outcome of individual-level mechanistic effects due to the biochemical interaction between gene products. However, there is actually no simple relationship between individual-level, mechanistic epistasis and population-level, statistical epistasis.

Negative epistasis

Gene–gene interactions that decrease a given phenotypic effect. This usage of the term epistasis refers directly to population-level, statistical effects.

Positive epistasis

Gene–gene interactions that enhance a given phenotypic effect.

Quasi-species

A model for the evolution of replicating entities such as RNA and DNA, originally proposed by Eigen. The basic idea is that the early evolution of life was characterized by relatively high mutation rates, so that selection did not act on individual sequences but on clusters of closely related sequences, known as quasi-species.

Teleology

A philosophical approach, tracing back at least to Aristotle, that seeks explanations in terms of final causes. In evolutionary biology, teleology has often taken the form of some sort of vitalistic force that pushes evolution in a particular direction, for example, increased complexity.

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Pigliucci, M. Is evolvability evolvable?. Nat Rev Genet 9, 75–82 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrg2278

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