, Volume 121, Issue 1, pp 1-80

Modularity and the units of evolution

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Summary

While many developmental processes (e. g., gene networks or signaling pathways) are astonishingly conserved during evolution, they may be employed differently in different metazoan taxa or may be used multiply in different contexts of development. This suggests that these processes belong to building blocks or modules, viz., highly integrated parts of the organism, which develop and/or function relatively independent from other parts. Such modules may be relatively easy to dissociate from other modules and, therefore, could also serve as units of evolution. However, in order to further explore the implications of modularity for evolution, the vague notion of “modularity” as well as its relation to concepts like “unit of evolution” need to be more precisely specified. Here, a module is characterized as a certain type of dynamic pattern of couplings among the constituents of a process. It may or may not form a spatially contiguous unit. A unit of selection is defined as a unit of those constituents of a reproducing process/system, which exists in different variants and acts as a non-decomposable unit of fitness and variant reproduction during a particular selection process. The more general notion of a unit of evolution is characterized as a nondecomposable unit of constituents with reciprocal fitness dependence, be it due to fitness epistasis or due to the lack of independent variability. Because such fitness dependence may only be observed for some combinations of variants, several constituents may act as a unit of evolution only with a certain probability (coevolution probability). It is argued, that under certain conditions modules are likely to act as units of evolution with high coevolution probabilities, because there is likely to be a close tie between the pattern of couplings of the constituents of a reproducing system and their interdependent fitness contributions. Moreover and contrary to the traditional dichotomy of genes versus organisms as units of selection, modules tend to be more important in delimiting actual units of selection than either organisms or genes, because they are less easily disrupted by recombination than organisms, while having less contextsensitive fitness values than genes. Finally, it is suggested that the evolution of modularity is self-reinforcing, because the flexibility of intermodular connections facilitates the recombination among modules and their multiple employment in new contexts.