Recent reading: 18 Feb 2022

A cloud-streaked blue sky over distant mountains and an open desert landscape dotted with low shrubs
The Mojave Desert, south of Boulder City, Nevada (jby)

Fieldwork in the spring is always a bit tricky, but I’ve fortunately been able to put my teaching commitment aside for a week to help plant Joshua tree seedlings in an ongoing experiment in climate adaptation. It was a scramble to get things set up and get myself out the door to drive into the desert; and it’ll be a scramble to catch up when I get back into town. But in the moment, I’m out in the wind under the open sky, with a pallet of tiny delicate plants that need to be tucked into the ground.

Here’s what I’ve been reading, recently:

Antonovics J. 1987. The evolutionary dys-synthesis: Which bottles for which wine? American Naturalist129(3):321-331. doi: 10.1086/284639

Really revelatory (if highly individualistic) look back at the state of evolutionary biology as a field in the decades after the Modern Synthesis. Antonovics suggests that adopting natural selection as the unifying idea of biology made people ignore it as a subject of actual research, and that evolution has benefitted from a “dys-synthesis” in which biologists started questioning the primacy of selection again. The “money passage”, if there is just one:

The presentation of a confirmed theory of such broad scope led to a complacent acceptance and reduced evolutionary biology to everybody’s toy and plaything. The ability to generate a simplistic speculation about some putative past selection process seemed to qualify anyone as an evolutionary biologist and, perhaps worse, led others to imagine that this is what professional evolutionary biologists do.

Other highlights:

  • Citation of a complaint about Darwinists’ knee-jerk appeals to natural selection by T.H. Morgan in 1909, anticipating Gould and Lewontin’s “Spandrels” by 70 years.
  • Pointing up the fundamental disconnect between the historical reconstruction of past evolutionary processes (paleontology, phylogenetics) and the direct study of evolution in action (population genetics, direct tracking of selection)
  • “I imagine that more progress would be made if [paleontologists] expended less effort in convincing and integrating the population geneticist but instead interacted with the community ecologist.”
  • “… it has been unclear to me why the evolutionary biologist has to bear the tedium of the creationist debate, when creationism flies in the face of physics, plant physiology, biochemistry, immunology, and indeed every other science imaginable.”

de Jong M et al. 2022. The evolution of novel biotic interactions at ecological margins in response to climate change involves alleles from across the geographical range of the UK Brown Argus butterfly. bioRxiv doi: 10.1101/2022.02.07.479435

The Brown Argus butterfly, Arcicia agrestis has expanded its range in the UK with warming climates, associating with a new larval food plant. The paper presents SNP data for populations on the novel host and throughout the pre-expansion range.

  • Populations in the newly colonized regions are somewhat less diverse.
  • Loci across the genome are associated with use of the new host plant or occupation of new habitat, many in introns.
  • Haplotypes associated with new host association or habitat were present in the ancestral range, suggesting selection on standing variation facilitated by a high level of gene flow across the range.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Assistant Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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