Gene Expression

Bora’s reference to popular misconceptions about evolution and RPM’s post which points to some of Francis Collins’ bizarre contentions in regards to human evolution (talk about “End of History”) got me thinking, how about I be a unifier and not a divider? If you had 10 words or less, what would you have the public master (and I mean internalize, not spit back as a creed) about evolutionary theory?

Here is my shot:

Differential fitness correlated with heritable variation results in evolution

This an attempt to condense Richard Lewontin’s “three conditions” for biological evolution:
(i) there must be phenotypic variation
(ii) the different phenotypic variants must be associated with different fitnesses
(iii) fitness must be heritable

Of course, this arguably neglects the important area of molecular evolution, where one could argue that neutral fitness dominates the scene and so evolution is driven by entirely different principles. Well, one step at a time…no need putting the cart before the horse & all.

Update: John Hawks has an answer (I was thinking along the lines of reproductive skew too!). And, it is in plain English, so all the better.

Update II: RPM offers pointed commentary.

Update III: Robert Skipper stands upon RPM’s shoulders. This is great! If you have a weblog and throw up something, give a shout on the comment board and I’ll hook you up with a link.

Update IV: John Wilkins offers his nickel.

Update V: Alon sums up his genius.


  1. #1 SteveG
    June 15, 2006

    “Gotta be living and sexy to have kids like yourself.”

  2. #2 Robert Skipper
    June 15, 2006

    Alas, you won’t have told them anything about the causes of evolution –selection, drift, and all that– only about correlations.

  3. #3 RPM
    June 15, 2006

    I’d leave out selection. I’m not a neutralist, I just think allelic variation is the key. Selection is just one of the forces that operate on that variation. The forces can be devided into two classes, so we are left with this:

    Differential inheritance of genetic variation via stochastic and deterministic forces.

  4. #4 John Emerson
    June 15, 2006

    “Blind variation and selective retention” is the catchword of Donald Campbell’s evolutionary epistemology, which generalizes evolution to history and even to the experimental method. It’s a very powerful idea.

    Many early attempts to generalize evolution interpreted evolution as a deterministic directional or teleological theory of progress by stages. As far as I know Darwin had nothing to do with this, which predated him by decades; in any case, this is not contemporary evolutionary theory.

    Gould’s development of these ideas stressed contingency and “proliferation and decimation”. Many new forms are thrown up, and only a few survive, and the exact outcomes cannot be predicted.

    This relates, again, to the distinction between reversible conservative systems which can be exhaustively described in a universal, ahistorical theory, and irreversible, emergent historical systems which fundamentally change with time.

    This messes up the sound-bite quality of the ideas, but it does sketch a way of looking at verious phenomena and the related sciences which gives evolution and history its full significance. (It really isn’t “reducing history to biology”, because history has its own proliferation and decimation track, though bioilogy is a component of history. You could just as well say that evolution historicizes biology).

  5. #5 Allen MacNeill
    June 15, 2006

    Here’s my attempt:

    “Variation, inheritance, and fecundity result in unequal, non-random reproductive success.”

    I realize that “non-random” might be considered cheating, but WTH…

  6. #6 No One Of Consequence
    June 15, 2006

    Your mutant children are better than you.

  7. #7 No One Of Consequence
    June 15, 2006

    or haiku:

    Imperfect Copies
    Harsh environment kills some
    Ever changing life

  8. #8 razib
    June 15, 2006

    keep ’em coming!

  9. #9 did
    June 15, 2006

    You look like your parents, but not exactly.

    Disclaimer: I design filing cabinets (intelligently, I hope). YMMV.


  10. #10 pough
    June 15, 2006

    The definition that I like to give people, especially when they’re trying to bash evolution with the abiogenesis stick, is:

    Populations of living things can and do change over time.

  11. #11 David Boxenhorn
    June 15, 2006

    Who’s having more children? What do they have in common?

  12. #12 Art Beall
    June 15, 2006

    Here is my attempt:

    “”Evolution is “ecoethoproteogenomic” selection and survival.”

    Variation, selection, and survival are produced from the complex interactions of ecological (eco), behavioral (ethos), and (proteogenomic) responses and interactions of life. I make a clear distinction that variation is not a global genomic event. Clearly, there are regions or hot spots of genetic variation, and genomic elements that are completely conserved to a phylum or a developmental process. I believe genetic change is neutral and random to these hot spots, but I’m intriqued by the elements that are completely conserved for the last half billion years.

  13. #13 David Boxenhorn
    June 15, 2006

    Of course, there’s the classic four-word summary: Survival of the fittest.

    Hard to beat that.

  14. #14 David Boxenhorn
    June 15, 2006

    If you will allow me 15 words, I will expand it in Gauguin-like style:

    Who’s having more children? What do they have in common? Will it be passed on?

  15. #15 Art Beall
    June 15, 2006

    I recant my attempt to define evolution in ten words or less, because it just can’t be done. After further reflection , I realize I am at a loss for words to define speciation, natural selection, or evolution. I had hoped the sciences would have produced a more concise theory, but I see little agreement in the details.

  16. #16 David Williams
    June 15, 2006

    Populations get more like those who reproduce more.

  17. #17 RPM
    June 15, 2006

    Quit conflating natural selection with evolution. Most people are providing solid descriptions of natural selection, but leaving out the stochasticity.

  18. #18 Glenn Hammonds
    June 15, 2006

    Plain English! Pfaw. Here’s my powerpoint presentation.

    Title: Evolution
    source of variation: genetics
    selective principle: differential reproduction

    Oh, and here’s another one on a related subject.

    Title: Mind
    source of variation: sensorium
    selective principle: intrinsic reward

  19. #19 Rob
    June 15, 2006

    Heritable differences mean some critters have more babies than others.

    Exactly 10

  20. #20 Wolpoff
    June 15, 2006

    Evolution means change; take it or leave it (nature does!)

  21. #21 Rietzsche Boknekht
    June 15, 2006


    1)Evolution = gradual & significant stochastic protein change, resulting in bio-physiological differentiation(change). (I know, kinda made it sound like speciation)

    2)Natural selection = Environmental pressures(of any type) acting upon population variation; result is differential repro/survival..


  22. #22 MinX
    June 15, 2006

    Evolution: When you find shit keeps changing but nothing really gets better. E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N.

  23. #23 Rietzsche Boknekht
    June 15, 2006

    Well, actually, I sorta got that garbled. If selection is the driver of speciation & evolution, then that’s not really stochastic. It is the spontaneous new protein variants that are stochastic, or apparantly so, but these, once present, are subject to the forces of selection, no? I really need to brush up on the basic here.

  24. #24 Robert Skipper
    June 15, 2006

    And so I say, see here.

  25. #25 Corkscrew
    June 15, 2006

    Confucius say: man who not evade tiger have few children

  26. #26 matoko_mutant_grrl
    June 15, 2006

    birth! survival! competition! reproduction! death!
    matoko represents in five words. 😉

    props to the godfathers– birth-school-work-death.

  27. #27 gbruno
    June 16, 2006

    Discrete Genes imperfectly reproducing vary organisms success at reproduction.

    I believe the discrete ‘digital’ nature of genes is important. The alternative pre-mendel ‘analog’ or ‘continuous’ gives ‘blending’ which caused CD some head-scratching.

    The ‘imperfectly’ is best very small. Organisms spend as much as they can on DNA repair. Wouldnt you want to stay the same if you were the product of 4.5 billion years of testing?

    A common mis-understanding is that the purpose of sex is to ‘increase variety’ to ‘enable evolution’. Wheras organisms despeately want not to change. Bill Hamiltons idea that sex is to resist faster smaller biters, ie parasites, seems the best.

  28. #28 nil
    June 16, 2006

    Survivor. RedsvBlues. Reds win more. More rounds means more reds.

    Not really a definition but atleast it has a high Flesch-Kincaid score.

  29. #29 Joseph W.
    June 16, 2006

    “Offspring change over many generations, the better to reproduce again.”

    “Dem genes, dem genes, chillun dem genes gonna change again.”

    Matoko – you haven’t just got a definition; you’ve got a symphony:

    But if the goal is to have the publicly-educated public internalize it, maybe the trick isn’t to fit it into ten words or less, but to translate it into Hawaii Pidgin. It worked for the New Testament – .

  30. #30 Art Beall
    June 16, 2006

    While I don’t deny the importance of genes, it is the genomic duplications, transpositons, inversions, deletions,and rearrangements that generate new gene networks from the parts of old that is of critical importance. Some genes have inheritable variability and reproductive success that serve for plasticity in biological responses and serve no role in speciation or evolution. Further, the success of many inheritable traits is a compromise of positive and negative factors and has little to do with any concept of fitness. While natural selection is a proven fact, there is also pause to question is it significant. The thirty year study of Darwin’s finches demonstrated natural selection,yet in the end evolution was unpredictable. Most of the definitions I’ve seen leave out ecological interactions and behaviors which both play huge roles in evolution. As I said, any ten word definition of evolution lacks depth and can be misleading.

  31. #31 Monado
    June 16, 2006

    Children vary,
    Nature chooses–
    Isolates? Gambling,
    The best might win!

  32. #32 Alon Levy
    June 16, 2006

    “Random, heritable mutations make organisms multiply at different rates.” A variation on this that emphasizes selection is “Random, heritable mutations let fitter organisms have more offspring.”

  33. #33 ArtD0dger
    June 16, 2006

    “Nothing breeds like success.” ?

  34. #34 Art Beall
    June 16, 2006

    Recently, 80% of all the worlds natural populations of drosophila melanogaster have been found to express a specific transposon that is associated with increased resistance to synthetic insecticides. The transposon is estimated to be 90,000 years old, however it has only gainded reproductive success the last 25-200 years. A kind of Gouldian spandrel at the molecular level. I asked some grad students “When did the evolution occur, and is it evolution because no speciation occurs?” Note the change was not a result or a gene mutation or reproductive success in a gene, but the reproductive success of the jumping transposon altering an existing genetic network. I was surprised by the diveristy in perspectives and answers, which supports my contention of a lack of consensus on evolution theory. All agreed conceptually that evolution is fact.

  35. #35 SkookumPlanet
    June 16, 2006

    Infinite stars at night — species flickering through Earth’s long life.

    Huh? Everyone’s proposing definitions of evolution, but that’s not exactly what razib asked for. He said “what would you have the public master (and I mean internalize, not spit back as a creed) about evolutionary theory?”

    That’s a great question. I’d argue, but it’d take more than ten words, we want the public to internalize motivation that would lead them to learn about evolution and evolutionary science/theory on their own initiative.

    Wonderment must proceed understanding. From wonderment comes attention, interest, seeking, learning, then understanding.

    A 10-word limit makes choosing verbs very difficult and connotative meaning looms large in every word choice.

  36. #36 Fred
    June 16, 2006

    Here’s a few for laughs.

    1. Even if you die childless, your life may meme something.
    2. Polyphyletic are Tweedledee and Tweedledu; then parents share they none.
    3. Neutral regions in the genome are the DMZ of selection.
    4. Populations in Hardy-Weinberg partake of bacchanals but are well balanced.

  37. #37 SkookumPlanet
    June 16, 2006

    Here’s something tangential that touches on some of your thoughts in your recent Hawkings post.

    I did something similar with human evolution/history recently. Utne Magazine reprinted, from a cultural magazine, multiple writers’ attempts at “six-word novels”. The idea is taken from a Hemingway comment that one can reduce any good novel’s story down to six words.

    A few issues later Utne printed six-word novels from several readers in the magazine’s letters section, including mine. I’ll even add a title, here, and keep it under ten words.

    Six Word Saga

    Hunted, hunter, crop, city, wheel — stars!

  38. #38 Joseph W.
    June 18, 2006

    Skookum – well, perhaps we’re all born optimists and hoping that the general public could and should understand what evolution is (though if you were inspiring a sense of wonder in your ten words, you’d also need to temper it with standards of evidence, or they might chase it anywhere).

    Then again, if you wanted to be brutally pragmatic about it, you might be satisfied with –

    “ID is drivel. Creationism is drivel. Stop supporting them, dolts.”

  39. #39 omnivore
    June 20, 2006

    “What happens when strong families succeed for long enough.”

  40. #40 omnivore
    June 20, 2006

    “Expressed variations often lost, unless they increase offspring naturally.”

    Bonus: acronym.

  41. #41 kongpaobeef
    June 21, 2006

    “Eve’s Valued Offspring Left Under Tyranny Intellectual, Overarching, Normative.”

    A little off color for this group maybe, but different. =)

  42. #42 Larry Moran
    June 27, 2006

    Here’s my suggestion ..

    A process resulting in long-term heritable changes in a population.

    What Is Evolution?

  43. #43 Shan
    August 14, 2006

    This is challenging, and I’m certainly not as qualified, but here is my simplistic attempt. Perhaps more descriptive of natural selection than evolution, per se:

    Phenotypes that increase survival probability are inherited by next generation.

  44. #44 Dave Godfrey
    August 16, 2006

    I like Steve Jones’ very succinct description:

    Genetics + Time = Evolution

  45. #45 bfy
    August 22, 2006

    mutation proposes, nature disposes

  46. #46 Matt
    December 17, 2006

    change in gene frequency over time (within a population).

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