For 80 years now, a famous and influent picture have been around in evolutionary biology: it is the adaptive landscape, a hilly or rugged surface with peaks and valleys onto which combinations of traits are mapped, the elevation representing the fitness value of these combinations. As a communication and heuristic tool, the adaptive landscape well conveyed several ideas, e.g., adaptation seen as peak climbing. It also set research questions, e.g., how can a population cross a low-fitness valley.
In the mid 1990s, with a certain non-chalance, Princeton mathematician and population geneticist Sergey Gavrilets began to propose an idea which soon several evolutionists regarded as potentially explosive. Gavrilet’s “holey landscapes” were about fitness distribution in the genotype space of a population with realistic number of loci and alleles: backed by newly introduced mathematical methods and empirical evidence, they depicted fitness distribution by means of flat or nearly-flat surfaces drilled with large holes.
The explicit reference and, at the same time, the striking differences between holey landscapes and the adaptive landscape fueled a reflection on crucial themes like the role of adaptation, the extent of neutralism, the meaning of speciation, and even the possibility of non-gradual evolution. Reconsiderations and revisions of the history of adaptive landscapes, since its first introduction by Sewall Wright in 1932, flourished. More deeply, holey landscapes are offering an occasion of rethinking the nature of evolutionary biology as a scientific enterprise.
Look for it in the Talks page (with additional links):
2012, Sep 17 (h.6-8 PM) – Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science, HPS Research Seminar Series Semester Two, University of Sydney, Faculty of Science: Holey landscapes and rethinking evolutionary biology. Seminar.