A foot in the neutral trap



Many of the strengths and weaknesses of Hubbell's theory can be traced back to Kimura’s neutral theory of molecular evolution. It is thus interesting to look at how theoretical population geneticists have dealt with the theory since its birth in the 1960s. In an insightful discussion of the neutral theory of molecular evolution, Matthew Hahn noted that “[...] we have tied ourselves into philosophical knots by using null models no one believes but are easily parametrized.” In their opinion piece, Rosindell et al. note that neutral theories are good starting points for more complex models. It’s a common argument, and in many ways a sensible one, but it forces us to admit that the other neutral theory (i.e. Kimura’s) proved to be a poor starting point in practice. It did stimulate several extensions, including Tomoko Ohta’s nearly neutral theory, but the original neutral model outrageously dominates molecular biology. Not because it is a good representation of reality but simply because it requires few parameters. We must seriously ask ourselves how to avoid the "neutral trap" and make the neutral theory of biodiversity a step toward a more integrative framework, not an endpoint. It’s a huge challenge, likely to require new techniques and much creativity.

M Hahn (2008) Toward a selection theory of molecular evolution. Evolution 62(2): 255-265. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2007.00308.x.


P Desjardins-Proulx. A foot in the neutral trap. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (invited comment), 2012.

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