Article Summary: “Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population” by many


Title: Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population
Author: Emmanuel Milota, Francine M. Mayera, Daniel H. Nusseyb, Mireille Boisverta, Fanie Pelletierc, and Denis Réalea
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Readability: 2 stars
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Topic of Article

The researchers study a relatively isolated and well-documented community in Quebec to see if there is evidence of selection on AFR (Age at First Reproduction)

Key Take-aways

  • Researchers found evidence that the decline in Age at First Reproduction in one Quebec village was driven by natural selection and not environment.

Important Quotes from Article

It is often claimed that modern humans have stopped evolving because cultural and technological advancements have annihilated natural selection. In contrast, recent studies show that selection can be strong in contemporary populations. However, detecting a response to selection is particularly challenging; previous evidence from wild animals has been criticized for both applying anticonservative statistical tests and failing to consider random genetic drift. Here we study life-history variation in an insular preindustrial French-Canadian population and apply a recently proposed conservative approach to testing microevolutionary responses to selection. As reported for other such societies, natural selection favored an earlier age at first reproduction (AFR) among women. AFR was also highly heritable and genetically correlated to fitness, predicting a microevolutionary change toward earlier reproduction. In agreement with this prediction, AFR declined from about 26–22 y over a 140-y period. Crucially, we uncovered a substantial change in the breeding values for this trait, indicating that the change in AFR largely occurred at the genetic level. Moreover, the genetic trend was higher than expected under the effect of random genetic drift alone. Our results show that microevolution can be detectable over relatively few generations in humans and underscore the need for studies of human demography and reproductive ecology to consider the role of evolutionary processes.

Darwinian evolution is often perceived as a slow process. However, there is growing awareness that microevolution, defined as a genetic change from one generation to the next in response to natural selection, can lead to changes in the phenotypes (observable characters) of organisms over just a few years or decades . This likely applies to humans as well because (i) natural selection operates on several morphological, physiological, and life-history traits in modern societies through differential reproduction or survival , and (ii) a number of these traits show heritable genetic variation, attesting the potential for a microevolutionary response to selection. This evolutionary potential of modern humans has major implications. First, it signifies that we should consider the role of evolutionary processes that might underlie any observed trends in phenotypes. Second, it may produce eco-evolutionary feedbacks modifying the dynamics of modern populations . This also means that the accuracy of forecasts, for instance those pertaining to demography or epidemiology, and on which public policies may rely, could well depend on our knowledge of contemporary evolution.

Ile aux Coudres is a 34-km2 island located ∼80 km to the northeast of Québec City along the St. Lawrence River (Canada). Thirty families settled on the island between 1720 and 1773 and the population reached 1,585 people by the 1950s .

We examined the life history of women married after 1799, as the genealogical depth is highest after this date, and before 1940, to make sure that the couples retained had completed their family before the records ended (in 1973).

On île aux Coudres, selection indeed strongly favored women with earlier AFR.

AFR was significantly heritable.

Average AFR advanced from about 26 to 22 y over the study period, therefore in the direction predicted by selection.

Throughout the history of île aux Coudres, there was a progressive advancement of age at first reproduction: Women giving birth to their first child around the 1930s were about 4 y younger than those who began to reproduce around 1800. There was a concomitant increase in lifetime reproductive success as women who began their reproduction earlier generally had more children surviving to adulthood.

Very few empirical investigations of secular changes in life-history traits in humans have considered microevolutionary hypotheses. Certainly, these should not be discarded a priori simply because an immediate nongenetic explanation may exist. In particular, natural selection on reproductive timing appears to be widespread in humans. Our study supports the idea that humans are still evolving. It also demonstrates that microevolution is detectable over just a few generations in long-lived species. For instance, a large proportion of the phenotypic trend in age at first reproduction at île aux Coudres appears to be attributable to a response to natural selection. Modifications in the timing of reproduction can have important effects on the demography of a population (e.g., 50). Therefore, human studies need to carefully consider the role of microevolutionary processes underlying any observed trends in traits and their potential feedback on population dynamics.

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