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Convergence as Natural Experiment

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Stephen Jay Gould argued that replaying the ‘tape of life’ would result in radically different evolutionary outcomes. Recently, biologists and philosophers of science have paid increasing attention to the theoretical importance of convergent evolution—the independent origination of similar biological forms and functions—which many interpret as evidence against Gould's thesis. In this paper, we examine the evidentiary relevance of convergent evolution for the radical contingency debate. We show that under the right conditions, episodes of convergent evolution can constitute valid natural experiments that support inferences regarding the deep counterfactual stability of macroevolutionary outcomes. However, we argue that proponents of convergence have problematically lumped causally heterogeneous phenomena into a single evidentiary basket, in effect treating all convergent events as if they are of equivalent theoretical import. As a result, the ‘critique from convergent evolution’ fails to engage with key claims of the radical contingency thesis. To remedy this, we develop ways to break down the heterogeneous set of convergent events based on the nature of the generalizations they support. Adopting this more nuanced approach to convergent evolution allows us to differentiate iterated evolutionary outcomes that are probably common among alternative evolutionary histories and subject to law-like generalizations, from those that do little to undermine and may even support, the Gouldian view of life.

Ergodic Limits to Evolution

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

We examine the analogy between evolutionary dynamics and statistical mechanics to include the fundamental question of ergodicity—the representative exploration of the space of possible states (in the case of evolution this is genome space). Several properties of evolutionary dynamics are identified that allow a generalization of the ergodic dynamics, familiar in dynamical systems theory, to evolution. Two classes of evolved biological structure then arise, differentiated by the qualitative duration of their evolutionary time scales. The first class has an ergodicity time scale (the time required for representative genome exploration) longer than available evolutionary time, and has incompletely explored the genotypic and phenotypic space of its possibilities. This case generates no expectation of convergence to an optimal phenotype or possibility of its prediction. The second, more interesting, class exhibits an evolutionary form of ergodicity—essentially all of the structural space within the constraints of slower evolutionary variables have been sampled; the ergodicity time scale for the system evolution is less than the evolutionary time. In this case, some convergence towards similar optima may be expected for equivalent systems in different species where both possess ergodic evolutionary dynamics. When the fitness maximum is set by physical, rather than co-evolved, constraints, it is additionally possible to make predictions of some properties of the evolved structures and systems. We propose four structures that emerge from evolution within genotypes whose fitness is induced from their phenotypes. Together, these result in an exponential speeding up of evolution, when compared with complete exploration of genomic space. We illustrate a possible case of application and a prediction of convergence together with attaining a physical fitness optimum in the case of invertebrate compound eye resolution.

Limits to morphological disparity

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

The morphological disparity of species within major clades shows a variety of trajectory patterns through evolutionary time. However, there is a significant tendency for groups to reach their maximum disparity relatively early in their histories, even while their species richness or diversity is comparatively low. This pattern of early high-disparity suggests that there are internal constraints (e.g. developmental pleiotropy) or external restrictions (e.g. ecological competition) upon the variety of morphologies that can subsequently evolve. It has also been demonstrated that the rate of evolution of new character states decreases in most clades through time (character saturation), as does the rate of origination of novel bodyplans and higher taxa. Here, we tested whether there was a simple relationship between the level or rate of character state exhaustion and the shape of a clade's disparity profile: specifically, its centre of gravity (CG). In a sample of 93 extinct major clades, most showed some degree of exhaustion, but all continued to evolve new states up until their extinction. Projection of states/steps curves suggested that clades realized an average of 60% of their inferred maximum numbers of states. Despite a weak but significant correlation between overall levels of homoplasy and the CG of clade disparity profiles, there were no significant relationships between any of our indices of exhaustion curve shape and the clade disparity CG. Clades showing early high-disparity were no more likely to have early character saturation than those with maximum disparity late in their evolution.

The morphological state space

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Biological variety and major evolutionary transitions suggest that the space of possible morphologies may have varied among lineages and through time. However, most models of phylogenetic character evolution assume that the potential state space is finite. Here, I explore what the morphological state space might be like, by analysing trends in homoplasy (repeated derivation of the same character state). Analyses of ten published character matrices are compared against computer simulations with different state space models: infinite states, finite states, ordered states and an ‘inertial' model, simulating phylogenetic constraints. Of these, only the infinite states model results in evolution without homoplasy, a prediction which is not generally met by real phylogenies. Many authors have interpreted the ubiquity of homoplasy as evidence that the number of evolutionary alternatives is finite. However, homoplasy is also predicted by phylogenetic constraints on the morphological distance that can be traversed between ancestor and descendent. Phylogenetic rarefaction (sub-sampling) shows that finite and inertial state spaces do produce contrasting trends in the distribution of homoplasy. Two clades show trends characteristic of phylogenetic inertia, with decreasing homoplasy (increasing consistency index) as we sub-sample more distantly related taxa. One clade shows increasing homoplasy, suggesting exhaustion of finite states. Different clades may, therefore, show different patterns of character evolution. However, when parsimony uninformative characters are excluded (which may occur without documentation in cladistic studies), it may no longer be possible to distinguish inertial and finite state spaces. Interestingly, inertial models predict that homoplasy should be clustered among comparatively close relatives (parallel evolution), whereas finite state models do not. If morphological evolution is often inertial in nature, then homoplasy (false homology) may primarily occur between close relatives, perhaps being replaced by functional analogy at higher taxonomic scales.

Bias constrains non-coding RNA

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

The prevalence of neutral mutations implies that biological systems typically have many more genotypes than phenotypes. But, can the way that genotypes are distributed over phenotypes determine evolutionary outcomes? Answering such questions is difficult, in part because the number of genotypes can be hyper-astronomically large. By solving the genotype–phenotype (GP) map for RNA secondary structure (SS) for systems up to length L = 126 nucleotides (where the set of all possible RNA strands would weigh more than the mass of the visible universe), we show that the GP map strongly constrains the evolution of non-coding RNA (ncRNA). Simple random sampling over genotypes predicts the distribution of properties such as the mutational robustness or the number of stems per SS found in naturally occurring ncRNA with surprising accuracy. Because we ignore natural selection, this strikingly close correspondence with the mapping suggests that structures allowing for functionality are easily discovered, despite the enormous size of the genetic spaces. The mapping is extremely biased: the majority of genotypes map to an exponentially small portion of the morphospace of all biophysically possible structures. Such strong constraints provide a non-adaptive explanation for the convergent evolution of structures such as the hammerhead ribozyme. These results present a particularly clear example of bias in the arrival of variation strongly shaping evolutionary outcomes and may be relevant to Mayr's distinction between proximate and ultimate causes in evolutionary biology.

Replaying life's tape

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Should the tape of life be replayed, would it produce similar living beings? A classical answer has long been ‘no’, but accumulating data are now challenging this view. Repeatability in experimental evolution, in phenotypic evolution of diverse species and in the genes underlying phenotypic evolution indicates that despite unpredictability at the level of basic evolutionary processes (such as apparition of mutations), a certain kind of predictability can emerge at higher levels over long time periods. For instance, a survey of the alleles described in the literature that cause non-deleterious phenotypic differences among animals, plants and yeasts indicates that similar phenotypes have often evolved in distinct taxa through independent mutations in the same genes. Does this mean that the range of possibilities for evolution is limited? Does this mean that we can predict the outcomes of a replayed tape of life? Imagining other possible paths for evolution runs into four important issues: (i) resolving the influence of contingency, (ii) imagining living organisms that are different from the ones we know, (iii) finding the relevant concepts for predicting evolution, and (iv) estimating the probability of occurrence for complex evolutionary events that occurred only once during the evolution of life on earth.

Evolutionary neurodynamics

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Standard evolutionary dynamics is limited by the constraints of the genetic system. A central message of evolutionary neurodynamics is that evolutionary dynamics in the brain can happen in a neuronal niche in real time, despite the fact that neurons do not reproduce. We show that Hebbian learning and structural synaptic plasticity broaden the capacity for informational replication and guided variability provided a neuronally plausible mechanism of replication is in place. The synergy between learning and selection is more efficient than the equivalent search by mutation selection. We also consider asymmetric landscapes and show that the learning weights become correlated with the fitness gradient. That is, the neuronal complexes learn the local properties of the fitness landscape, resulting in the generation of variability directed towards the direction of fitness increase, as if mutations in a genetic pool were drawn such that they would increase reproductive success. Evolution might thus be more efficient within evolved brains than among organisms out in the wild.

Hunting Darwin's Snark

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

The 11 contributions to this thematic volume touch on a large range of issues concerning the landscape of biological possibilities and the manner by which it may be traversed by evolving life forms. The contributors also consider how this landscape might be mapped by evolutionary biologists, with an emphasis on how one might identify the limits of such maps. While some agreements emerge on the question of limits on evolution, not surprisingly few contributors look towards the same horizons. Rather than providing a potted summary of the 11 papers, our aim in this introduction is to identify eight principal themes that might serve as common ground and, as importantly, to listen out for the sound of rushing subterranean waters that hint at caverns of concealed knowledge. By no means all of these themes are addressed by all authors, but in gathering the many strands of enquiry we hope that this will allow us to ask: What, if any, are the limits to evolution?

Forbidden Phenotypes

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Evolution has produced an astonishing array of organisms, but does it have limits and, if so, how are these overcome and how have they changed over the course of time? Here, I review models for describing and explaining existing diversity, and then explore parts of the evolutionary tree that remain empty. In an analysis of 32 forbidden states among eukaryotes, identified in major clades and in the three great habitat realms of water, land and air, I argue that no phenotypic constraint is absolute, that most constraints reflect a limited time–energy budget available to individual organisms, that natural selection is ultimately responsible for both imposing and overcoming constraints, including those normally ascribed to developmental patterns of construction and phylogenetic conservatism, and that increases in adaptive versatility in major clades together with accompanying new ecological opportunities have eliminated many constraints. Phenotypes that were inaccessible during the Early Palaeozoic era have evolved during later periods while very few adaptive states have disappeared. The filling of phenotypic space has proceeded cumulatively in three overlapping phases characterized by diversification at the biochemical, morphological and cultural levels.

Animal symmetry

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

My aim in this article is to soften certain rigid concepts concerning the radial and bilateral symmetry of the animal body plan, and to offer a more flexible framework of thinking for them, based on recent understandings of how morphogenesis is regulated by the mosaically acting gene regulatory networks. Based on general principles of the genetic regulation of morphogenesis, it can be seen that the difference between the symmetry of the whole body and that of minor anatomical structures is only a question of a diverse timing during development. I propose that the animal genome, as such, is capable of expressing both radial and bilateral symmetries, and deploys them according to the functional requirements which must be satisfied by both the anatomical structure and body as a whole. Although it may seem paradoxical, this flexible view of symmetry, together with the idea that symmetry is strongly determined by function, bolsters the concept that the presence of the two main symmetries in the animal world is not due to chance: they are necessary biological patterns emerging in evolution.

Limits in evolution

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Limits in the evolution of biological form can be empirically demonstrated by using theoretical morphospace analyses, and actual analytic examples are given for univalved ammonoid shell form, bivalved brachiopod shell form and helical bryozoan colony form. Limits in the evolution of form in these animal groups can be shown to be due to functional and developmental constraints on possible evolutionary trajectories in morphospace. Future evolutionary-limit research is needed to analyse the possible existence of temporal constraint in the evolution of biological form on Earth, and in the search for the possible existence of functional alien life forms on Titan and Triton that are developmentally impossible for Earth life.

The meaning of convergent evolution

Fri, 10/23/2015 - 02:05

Convergent evolution is central to the study of life's evolutionary history. Researchers have documented the ubiquity of convergence and have used this ubiquity to make inferences about the nature of limits on evolution. However, these inferences are compromised by unrecognized inconsistencies in the definitions, measures, significance tests and inferred causes of convergent evolution. I review these inconsistencies and provide recommendations for standardizing studies of convergence. A fundamental dichotomy exists between definitions that describe convergence as a pattern and those that describe it as a pattern caused by a particular process. When this distinction is not acknowledged it becomes easy to assume that a pattern of convergence indicates that a particular process has been active, leading researchers away from alternative explanations. Convergence is not necessarily caused by limits to evolution, either adaptation or constraint; even substantial amounts of convergent evolution can be generated by a purely stochastic process. In the absence of null models, long lists of examples of convergent events do not necessarily indicate that convergence or any evolutionary process is ubiquitous throughout the history of life. Pattern-based definitions of convergence, coupled with quantitative measures and null models, must be applied before drawing inferences regarding large-scale limits to evolution.