The pace of modern life II: From rates of contemporary microevolution to pattern and process

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Abstract

We compiled a database of microevolution on contemporary time scales in nature (47 source articles; 30 animal species), comprising 2649 evolutionary rates in darwins (proportional change per million years) and 2151 evolutionary rates in haldanes (standard deviations per generation). Here we demonstrate how quantitative rate measures can provide general insights into patterns and processes of evolution. The frequency distribution of evolutionary rates was approximately log-normal, with many slow rates and few fast rates. Net selection intensities estimated from haldanes were on average lower than selection intensities commonly measured directly in natural populations. This difference suggests that natural selection could easily accomplish observed microevolution but that the intensities of selection typically measured in nature are rarely maintained for long (otherwise observed evolutionary rates would be higher). Traits closely associated with fitness (life history traits) appear to evolve at least as fast as traits less closely tied to fitness (morphology). The magnitude of evolutionary difference increased with the length of the time interval, particularly when maximum rates from a given study were considered. This pattern suggests a general underlying tendency toward increasing evolutionary diversification with time. However, evolutionary rates also tended to decrease with time, perhaps because longer time intervals average increasingly disparate rates over time, or because evolution slows when populations approach new optima or as genetic variation is depleted. In combination, our results suggest that macroevolutionary transitions may ultimately arise through microevolution occasionally ‘writ large’ but are perhaps temporally characterized by microevolution ‘writ in fits and starts’.