Over time, organisms appear to become increasingly capable of evolving in response to changes in the environment, but computer boffins at the University of Central Florida say the traditional explanation – competition to survive in nature – may not actually be necessary for evolvability to increase.
In their paper, published in PLOS ONE, the researchers report that evolvability can increase over generations regardless of whether species are competing for food, habitat or other factors.
Working with computer models designed to mimic how organisms evolve, the researchers saw increasing evolvability even without competitive pressure. “The explanation is that evolvable organisms separate themselves naturally from less evolvable organisms over time simply by becoming increasingly diverse,” said computer scientist Kenneth O. Stanley.
The finding could have implications for the origins of evolvability in many species. “When new species appear in the future, they are most likely descendants of those that were evolvable in the past,” noted co-researcher Joel Lehman. “The result is that evolvable species accumulate over time even without selective pressure.”
The simulations were based on a conceptual algorithm based on how organisms are evolved, but not on any particular real-life organism. During the simulations, the team’s simulated organisms became more evolvable without any pressure from other organisms out-competing them.
The team’s hypothesis is unique and is in contrast to most popular theories for why evolvability increases. “An important implication of this result is that traditional selective and adaptive explanations for phenomena such as increasing evolvability deserve more scrutiny and may turn out unnecessary in some cases,” Stanley suggests.
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