Complexity Without Natural Selection

You all know about natural selection… how the struggle of each individual to survive and reproduce in the face of obstacles in the environment (including other individuals) results in the elimination of individuals unfit to survive in that environment, which in turn precludes those unfit individuals from reproducing.

You also understand that natural selection applies to random genetic variation within a species, across generations of that species, leading to “better” critters, i.e., critters more fit to survive in their particular environment. This is no mystery to us; we’ve understood this at least since Darwin’s work.

Are there other selection mechanisms at work that influence the typical characteristics of species? Of course there are. Darwin himself mentions what we call sexual selection, the preference of some individuals for sexual partners with specific characteristics, characteristics not necessarily directly related to fitness to survive.

Are there still other selection mechanisms at work? and do any of those mechanisms actually favor less-than-optimal but still beneficial characteristics? The answer is a resounding Maybe. My former boss, Dr. Kenneth M. Weiss, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology and Genetics at Penn State University, discusses on his blog The Mermaid’s Tale (shared with colleagues Anne Buchanan and Holly Dunsworth) recent forays, published in Nature by various researchers and echoed by the BBC, into the possibility that flaws in large proteins, proteins which may then “cooperate” in increasing an organism’s complexity, may contribute to increasing complexity in life forms, completely apart from natural selection. Once in a while, there really is something new under the Sun.

If you aren’t regularly reading The Mermaid’s Tale, you are missing one of the most thought-provoking science blogs on the Web.

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  • MandT  On Monday May 23, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Steve, on a related topic: you may find this fascinating article on George Price of great interest:

  • Steve  On Tuesday May 24, 2011 at 10:16 am

    MandT – thanks. I was unaware of Price. The Nation sees fit to cut off public access to an article after one has read one page, unless one offers up his email for unlimited spam from then, so I now know what they said in the first page of that article. I will try to follow up from other less hard-assed sources. 🙂

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