More than just a metaphor, Wright’s Adaptive Landscape provides inspiration

Review of The Adaptive Landscape in Evolutionary Biology edited by Erik Svensson and Ryan Calsbeek

adaptive_landscape_book_coverHave you ever wished you could go back in time to be present at a particular historical event? The 1932 International Congress of Genetics sounds perfect, right? There R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright all presented papers of their recent research. If you’re a student of population genetics, you probably recognize these names as some of the founders of the field. At this meeting, Wright was asked to condense some of his more technical mathematical framework into a form that was more widely accessible to the audience of biologists. The result was his conceptualization of the Adaptive Landscape where an analogy is made between the fitness of an individual or population and the varied topographic landscape (pictured on the cover of the book). Wright used this metaphor to describe aspects evolutionary dynamics of populations.

The editors of a recent book, The Adaptive Landscape in Evolutionary Biology, gathered together contributions from evolutionary biologists, ecologists, and philosophers to demonstrate the impact that the Adaptive Landscape has had on the field of biology. This book embraces an 80 year old metaphor created by one of the founders of the modern synthesis to explore the breadth and depth of research generated in evolutionary biology. Unlike a recent book addressing aspects of the modern synthesis, Evolution: The Extendend Synthesis (Pigliucci and Müller, 2010) which called for a revolution, Svensson and Calsbeek have assembled authors that explore the innovations and contributions that build upon the fundamental ideas of population genetics and seek to grow the field. Early in this book, Pigliucci asks about the utility of the Adaptive Landscape metaphors, even titling his chapter with the question, “what are they good for?” I think the rest of the book provides a more than sufficient answer to his question.

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