Synthesis: “Theoretical approaches in evolutionary ecology: environmental feedback as a unifying perspective”

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Sébastien Lion

Time scales and environmental feedback in the different theoretical approaches to evolutionary ecology

When traveling between trees, weaver ants need to bridge gaps between twigs and leaves. Similarly, future conceptual progress in evolutionary ecology are likely to come from building bridges between different theoretical approaches.
(Photo by Kasi Metcalfe, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Among biological sciences, evolutionary biology and ecology have a unique relationship with mathematics. In both fields, mathematical theory has been a key ingredient of conceptual innovation and theoretical progress. The use of mathematical models is necessary because both evolutionary biologists and ecologists seek to understand complex biological systems characterized by multiple time scales and levels of organization. In the last 50 years, a rich theoretical literature has been devoted to understanding the interplay between ecological processes and evolution. Unfortunately, a large part of this literature hinges on sophisticated mathematics that are beyond the training of many biologists. Furthermore, theoretical evolutionary ecology tends to be divided among different schools of thought with different toolboxes, such as quantitative genetics or evolutionary game theory.

The aim of this synthesis by Sébastien Lion of the Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique in Montpellier, France, is to highlight the connections between these different approaches and to clarify the current state of theory in evolutionary ecology. The author discusses the interplay between the feedback of the environment and the time scales of ecological and evolutionary processes. This notion of environmental feedback can be traced all the way back to Darwin and is key to an intuitive ecological approach to evolution. In this synthesis, the author uses this unifying perspective to revisit various key results of evolutionary theory, such as the Price equation, Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection, or the notion of evolutionarily stable strategy. This is a call for pluralism and integration in a field that has often been divided by acute debates between theoretical schools. Such debates, which often result from minor technical quibbles blown out of proportion, have occasionally reached an unprepared general public, with damaging consequences for the reputation of evolutionary biology. This synthesis chooses to celebrate the solid unity of the mathematical theory of evolution. Read the Article