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Variability Selection in Hominid Evolution

by Richard Potts
Evolutionary Anthropology ()

Abstract

Variability selection (abbreviated as VS) is a process considered to link adaptive change to large degrees of environment variability. Its application to hominid evolution is based, in part, on the pronounced rise in environmental remodeling that took place over the past several million years. The VS hypothesis differs from prior views of hominid evolution, which stress the consistent selective effects associated with specific habitats or directional trends (e.g., woodland, savanna expansion, cooling). According to the VS hypothesis, wide fluctuations over time created a growing disparity in adaptive conditions. Inconsistency in selection eventually caused habitat-specific adaptations to be replaced by structures and behaviors responsive to complex environmental change. Key hominid adaptations, in fact, emerged during times of heightened variability. Early bipedality, encephalized brains, and complex human sociality appear to signify a sequence of VS adapta- tions—i.e., a ratcheting up of versatility and responsiveness to novel environments experienced over the past 6 million years. The adaptive results of VS cannot be extrapolated from selection within a single environmental shift or relatively stable habitat. If some complex traits indeed require disparities in adaptive setting (and relative fitness) in order to evolve, the VS idea counters the prevailing view that adaptive change necessitates long-term, directional consistency in selection.

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