On Saturday we are opening the doors of the Royal Society building in London to members of the public for a behind the scenes look at what the Society does. Held in celebration of British Science Week, we hope to engage and excite those who attend about the work that we do at the Royal Society.
Publishing at the Royal Society
Royal Society journals have a long and rich history. We celebrated 350th anniversary of Philosophical Transactions last year, so to demonstrate the role Publishing plays in the Society we are the showcasing some rare materials from our archives.
Along with the first ever copy of Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest and longest running scientific journal, an original peer review report by Darwin himself (ever wanted to see his handwriting first hand?), and an account of a comet which turned out to be Uranus, we have also selected a particularly special issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B; 205(1161).
A ‘must read’ in evolutionary biology
Proceedings B issue 1161 is probably one of the most influential single journal issues published for the field of evolutionary biology. Current Editor-in-Chief, Spencer Barrett, has fond memories of the publication when it appeared in 1979:
“This was a particularly exciting time in evolutionary biology and many of the articles became ‘must reads’ in journal clubs at universities in N. America. The Gould and Lewontin article in particular stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. I remember well the offense taken by some evolutionary biologists who saw the article as a frontal attack on the newly emerging field of sociobiology as well as work done in the UK in ecological genetics. My copy of the issue still sits on my bookshelf and even today I look at it regularly”.
The issue came out of a Discussion Meeting held at the Society on the topic of ‘The evolution of adaptation by means of natural selection’, a fundamental component of modern evolutionary biology. Speakers comprised some of the ‘A-list’ of the evolutionary biology community and their talks were written up as articles offering readers the opportunity to become a ‘fly on the wall’ for this important meeting.
Evolutionary biology is a synthetic discipline involving many fields including ecology, genetics, behaviour and comparative biology and the approaches used range from theory to field experiments. This issue covered a broad range of topics on the general problem of how a ‘blind’ mechanistic process with no foresight like natural selection can produce the bewildering diversity of adaptations that characterize life on Earth.
Dawkins and Krebs
Richard Dawkins and John Krebs’ article ‘Arms races between and within species’ focused on furthering our application of the metaphoric ‘arms race’ between competing genes, individuals and species as a driver for evolutionary change in organisms. They build on the theory of an evolutionary arms race and introduce a two-way classification system, which can be applied to all types of potential organism interactions both between and within species. Importantly, they used this to explain situations of evolutionary change even under conditions of comparative environmental stability.
John Maynard Smith built on his previous work using game theory to explain interactions between animals and develop the concept of an ‘evolutionary stable strategy’ to explain how particular strategies could spread and become fixed in populations, and how plastic or mixed strategies can evolve. These approaches are now widely used today in evolutionary ecology as a means of explaining life history diversity and many forms of behaviour.
Bryan Clarke’s article focused on the evolutionary processes responsible for maintaining the large amounts of genetic variation that characterize populations of virtually all sexually reproducing organisms. Clarke argues for the importance of frequency-dependent selection as an explanation for much of this diversity, now used to explain diverse evolutionary phenomena from sex ratio variation to pest and disease outbreaks.
Deborah and Brian Charlesworth’s article on ‘The evolutionary genetics of sexual systems in flowering plants’ also concerns the phenomenon of frequency-dependent selection. They present various theoretical models including one that can explain why some plants like kiwi fruit and marijuana evolve separate sexes from the more widespread condition of hermaphroditism. The article is important because it demonstrates how the use of simple population genetic models based on individual selection can provide a powerful tool for understanding evolutionary transitions in reproductive systems.
Gould and Lewontin
And finally, the infamous Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin article ‘The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme’. This article makes the case that evolutionary biologists can be lead astray by assuming that all features of an organism are adaptive and for breaking down organisms into a simple collection of individual traits and then trying to provide an adaptive explanation for each one.
They question, for example, the adaptive significance of the human chin, and is the fact that blood is red adaptive? They criticize this “adaptionist programme” and make the case quite correctly that selection acts on the entire phenotype of organisms. The intriguing title of their article refers to the spandrels of the cathedral of San Marco, which have been made into ornate decorative pieces in their own right, despite their primary purpose being as a by-product of an architectural necessity. Gould and Lewontin compare this to the interpretation of all biological traits being adaptive, rather than looking at an organism as an integrated whole where some traits may be by products of development of other biological processes. The article proved to be hugely influential, as well as controversial, and has to date been cited over 3000 times.
This entire issue is free to access until the end of March, but do come along and see the original copy, along with numerous other behind the scenes exhibitions, talks and demonstrations on Saturday. We look forward to meeting you there.