Sunday, September 17, 2006


Sex ratios and social evolution ('Current Biology' article)

When we think of modern biology, an image that does not usually come to mind is of an entomologist squinting over mounds of wasps, sorting out the males from the females, and assiduously tallying them up. This work requires no fancy machines, no chemicals, no molecular techniques. But what it does rest on is a theory, and such seemingly pedestrian work has tested and confirmed one of the most elegant and successful theories in modern biology.

The ratio of females to males in a species is a topic that interested Darwin, but how such ratios evolve left him puzzled. The basic solution to the problem has led to a body of work that has informed nearly every important area of social evolution: group selection, kin selection, parent-offspring conflict, evolutionary stable strategies and game theory, and within-genome conflict.

The solution of the sex ratio problem has traditionally been attributed to Sir Ronald A. Fisher's 1930 classic The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (Amazon UK | US). But it is now known that a German biologist, Carl Dusing, got the solution more than four decades earlier. Fisher's book was the pipeline through which the theory flowed into the modern era, but his research reputation will now have to rest on other accomplishments, such as inventing the analysis of variance and deriving the fundamental theorem of natural selection. [Entomology]
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