27 November 2010

Mapping fitness: bacteria, mutations, and Seattle

ResearchBlogging.orgThinking about fitness landscapes can stimulate detailed discussion and consideration of the meanings and limitations of such metaphors, and my introductory comments at The Panda's Thumb did just that. Most notably, Joe Felsenstein pointed us to the various ways these depictions can be employed, and urged everyone to use caution in interpreting them. All too true, but the goal here is modest: I want to discuss the interesting questions that arise when considering the relationship between genotypes and phenotypes, i.e., how a particular genetic makeup influences fitness, whether the genetic makeup in question is simple or complex, and however fitness is conceived. These questions can take further discussion in all sorts of directions, but there are two that I have in mind in this series. First, I want to point to increasing capacity of scientists in their ability to examine these relationships experimentally. Second, I want to highlight the failure of design creationists to address or even to understand such matters.

20 November 2010

Mapping fitness: landscapes, topographic maps, and Seattle

The concept of a "fitness landscape" is a fundamental idea in evolutionary biology, first introduced and established during the so-called "evolutionary synthesis" in the early 20th century. It was the great Sewall Wright who pictured adaptation as a "walk" through a landscape (pictured below), where the walking is done by variants (of an organism or a molecule) and the landscape is a theoretical representation of the relative fitness of the variants. (J.B.S. Haldane did similar work around the same time, but Wright's paper is much better known perhaps because it's more accessible to non-experts. See Carneiro and Hartl in PNAS earlier this year for more.)

It's a simple concept, and a helpful one, though sometimes subject to over-interpretation. And it helps to frame some of the big questions in evolutionary genetics. One of those big questions is this one, stated somewhat simplistically: how do the variants navigate to fitness peaks, if there are fitness valleys that separate the peaks? (The ideas is that fitness is higher on the peaks, and so a population would be unlikely to descend from a local peak into a valley.) In other words, given a particular fitness landscape, what are the evolutionary trajectories by which variation can explore that landscape?

12 November 2010

Biologos and Christian unity: mission accomplished?

And so, last week, some of my friends from BioLogos and Calvin College participated in this Vibrant Dance thing. These are people I hold in very high regard, people pursuing goals that I consider to be among the most important projects a Christian scientist can tackle. But mistakes are being made, and in a previous post I pointed to one of the biggest ones: overemphasizing "Christian unity" in an environment of rampant dishonesty, an environment poisoned by apologetic propaganda.