Evolution in small steps and giant leaps

Noah K. Whiteman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The first Editor of Evolution was Ernst Mayr. His foreword to the first issue of Evolution published in 1947 framed evolution as a “problem of interaction” that was just beginning to be studied in this broad context. First, I explore progress and prospects on understanding the subsidiary interactions identified by Mayr, including interactions between parts of organisms, between individuals and populations, between species, and between the organism and its abiotic environment. Mayr's overall “problem of interaction” framework is examined in the context of coevolution within and among levels of biological organization. This leads to a comparison in the relative roles of biotic versus abiotic agents of selection and fluctuating versus directional selection, followed by stabilizing selection in shaping the genomic architecture of adaptation. Oligogenic architectures may be typical for traits shaped more by fluctuating selection and biotic selection. Conversely, polygenic architectures may be typical for traits shaped more by directional followed by stabilizing selection and abiotic selection. The distribution of effect sizes and turnover dynamics of adaptive alleles in these scenarios deserves further study. Second, I review two case studies on the evolution of acquired toxicity in animals, one involving cardiac glycosides obtained from plants and one involving bacterial virulence factors horizontally transferred to animals. The approaches used in these studies and the results gained directly flow from Mayr's vision of an evolutionary biology that revolves around the “problem of interaction.”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-77
Number of pages11
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Adaptation
  • coevolution
  • evolutionary biology
  • genomes
  • oligogenic
  • omnigenic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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