Evolvability and the Fossil Record


The concept of evolvability the capacity of a population to produce and maintain evolutionarily relevant variation has become increasingly prominent in evolutionary biology. Although paleontology has a long history of investigating questions of evolvability, often invoking different but allied terminology, the study of evolvability in the fossil record has seemed intrinsically problematic. How can we surmount difficulties in disentangling whether the causes of evolutionary patterns arise from variational properties of traits or lineages rather than due to selection and ecological success? Despite these challenges, the fossil record is unique in offering growing sources of data that span millions of years and therefore capture evolutionary patterns of sustained duration and significance otherwise inaccessible to evolutionary biologists. Additionally, there are a variety of strategic possibilities for combining prominent neontological approaches to evolvability with those from paleontology. We illustrate three of these possibilities with quantitative genetics, evolutionary developmental biology, and phylogenetic models of macroevolution. In conclusion, we provide a methodological schema that focuses on the conceptualization, measurement, and testing of hypotheses to motivate and provide guidance for future empirical and theoretical studies of evolvability in the fossil record


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