In the past fifteen years, the field of evolutionary biology has seen an ongoing fundamental debate regarding the conceptual foundations of this central and organizing discipline in biology. Proponents of an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) argue that newer perspectives, including an appreciation of non-gene-based inheritance, developmental constraints, and niche construction, require a major overhaul of Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET), resulting from the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis of the 1920s-40s.
In particular, a vocal group has argued that niche construction, the modification of the environment by organisms, is a neglected process in evolution and a phenomenon at par with natural selection as a causal explanation for adaptive evolutionary change. They have also argued that there is a vast body of formal theory in niche construction that necessitates a substantial rethinking of how we conceptualize the process of adaptive evolution. Other eminent evolutionary biologists have argued that SET is wide and flexible enough to incorporate these newer perspectives without any re-conceptualization of the foundations of evolutionary explanation.
Thus far, this foundational conceptual debate in evolutionary biology has been dominated by scientists from North America and Europe. In a recent paper, available as a preprint on bioRxiv and to appear soon in a special issue of the Journal of Genetics, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, five evolutionary biologists from India have published a detailed critique of all major claims of the proponents of niche construction.
They marshall evidence and present arguments showing that (a) a niche construction perspective has been present in a lot of evolutionary research, both theoretical and empirical, since the times of Darwin; (b) the major mathematical models of niche construction are merely small extensions/modifications of existing population genetics models in SET and do not constitute a novel theoretical corpus; and (c) that niche construction cannot be logically at par with natural selection as a causal explanation of adaptive evolutionary change.
Typically, the contributions of Indian biologists tend to be factual or, sometimes, product-related. Much less frequently, Indian biologists, especially in the areas of ecology and evolutionary biology, have contributed novel theoretical concepts in areas like coevolution, evolution of social behaviour, density-dependent selection etc., contributions that have helped shape subsequent empirical work. However, till date, there have been practically no contributions from Indian biologists to fundamental debates regarding the conceptual foundations (the very ‘heart and soul’) of any sub-discipline within biology.
The present work, thus, marks a new level of contribution to biological knowledge by Indian scientists. The preprint version of the paper has attracted unprecedented attention worldwide and, according to Altmetrics , is in the top 5% of most discussed papers across all disciplines in the past six years and in the top 1% of most discussed papers available on bioRxiv, which includes papers from all sub-disciplines of biology, including medicine.
In addition, the work has been very warmly received internationally, as evidenced by numerous tweets, blog and facebook posts and personal emails from very distinguished evolutionary biologists, including Profs. Brian Charlesworth (FRS, and Darwin Medal awardee), Douglas Futuyma (author of a very popular textbook of Evolutionary Biology), Jerry Coyne (recipient of Richard Dawkins Award), Deborah Charlesworth (FRS), Michael Rose (Director of University of California’s Multi-Campus Network for Experimental Research on Evolution), John Thompson (Univ. Of California Santa Cruz, author of four books on coevolution) and Erik Svensson (distinguished evolutionary biologist, Univ. Of Lund, Sweden).
They have all recognized this work as a timely and important fundamental contribution to the discipline by Indian evolutionary biologists. All five authors of this paper are connected with the Evolutionary & Organismal Biology Unit (EOBU) of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru (a DST institution): Manan Gupta is pursuing PhD at EOBU, JNCASR under the joint supervision of T.N.C. Vidya and Amitabh Joshi (both EOBU, JNCASR faculty), and Sutirth Dey (IISER Pune) and N.G. Prasad (IISER Mohali) both earlier received their PhD degrees from EOBU, JNCASR. Vidya, Joshi, Dey & Prasad constitute the Foundations of Genetics and Evolution Group (FOGEG), an informal grouping in which they come together from time to time to work on fundamental conceptual issues on genetics and evolution. The present paper is publication no. 2 from FOGEG, and further work is in the pipeline.