Supply and demand as driving forces behind biological evolution

Recently I was revisiting Xue et al. (2016) and Julian Xue’s thought on supply-driven evolution more generally. I’ve been fascinated by this work since Julian first told me about it. But only now did I realize the economic analogy that Julian is making. So I want to go through this Mutants as Economic Goods metaphor in a bit of detail. A sort of long-delayed follow up to my post on evolution as a risk-averse investor (and another among many links between evolution and economics).

Let us start by viewing the evolving population as a market — focusing on the genetic variation in the population, in particular. From this view, each variant or mutant trait is a good. Natural selection is the demand. It prefers certain goods over others and ‘pays more’ for them in the currency of fitness. Mutation and the genotype-phenotype map that translates individual genetic changes into selected traits is the supply. Both demand and supply matter to the evolutionary economy. But as a field, we’ve put too much emphasis on the demand — survival of the fittest — and not enough emphasis on the supply — arrival of the fittest. This accusation of too much emphasis on demand has usually been raised against the adaptationist program.

The easiest justification for the demand focus of the adapatationist program has been one of model simplicity — similar to the complete market models in economics. If we assume isotropic mutations — i.e. there is the same unbiased chance of a trait to mutate in any direction on the fitness landscape — then surely mutation isn’t an important force in evolution. As long as the right genetic variance is available then nature will be able to select it and we can ignore further properties of the mutation operator. We can make a demand based theory of evolution.

But if only life was so simple.
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