How Strong is Natural Selection? Stitching Together Linear and Nonlinear Selection on a Single Scale

Post provided by Robert May Prize Winner Jonathan Henshaw

Some individuals survive and reproduce better than others. Traits that help them do so may be passed on to the next generation, leading to evolutionary change. Because of this, evolutionary biologists are interested in what differentiates the winners from the losers – how do their traits differ, and by how much? These differences are known as natural selection.

Linear and Nonlinear Selection

Traditionally, natural selection is separated into linear selection (differences in average trait values) and nonlinear selection (any other differences in trait distributions between winners and the rest). For example, successful individuals might be unusually close to average: this is known as stabilizing selection. Alternatively, winners might split into two camps, some with unusually high trait values, and others with unusually low trait values. This is disruptive selection (famously thought to explain the ur-origin of sperm and eggs). Stabilizing and disruptive selection are important types of nonlinear selection. In general, though, the trait distribution of successful individuals can differ from the general population in arbitrarily complicated ways.

When individuals with larger trait values have higher fitness on average (left panel), the trait distribution of successful individuals is shifted towards the right (right panel, orange curve). The difference in mean trait values between the winners and the general population is called linear selection.

When individuals with larger trait values have higher fitness on average (left panel), the trait distribution of successful individuals is shifted towards the right (right panel, orange curve). The difference in mean trait values between the winners and the general population is called linear selection.

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