How development affects evolution

The modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s unified Darwinian evolution and Mendelian inheritance. Since then, many researchers have called for an analogous synthesis between evolutionary and developmental biology, arguing that the lack of such synthesis has yielded a lack of understanding of how development affects evolution.


We have formulated a mathematical framework that integrates evolutionary and developmental dynamics, yielding deep insights into how development affects evolution. In particular, Wright’s principle — according to which adaptation by natural selection occurs such that the population climbs the fitness landscape — is sharpened such that development provides the evolutionary path.

Image modified from González-Forero & Gardner. Preprint.

Brain evolution

Brains have evolved into a stunning diversity across the animal kingdom giving rise to an even more stunning diversity in behavior. What drives brain evolution? We developed a mathematical model to help address this question.

Using this model, we have found that cognitive ability and brain mass can be related by a simple equation. We have also found evidence suggesting that human brain expansion may have been driven by ecological rather than social factors.

Social evolution

In major evolutionary transitions, groups of individuals become higher level individuals, which has had major effects on life on earth. What causes such major transitions?

We have developed mathematical models to study a classic hypothesis that posits that one such major transition, i.e., eusociality, occurred arose from ancestral maternal manipulation. The hypothesis suggests that workers in eusocial organisms evolved because mothers manipulated their offspring to become helpers. Although this hypothesis attracted interest in 1970s, it has received little attention partly because it has been thought that manipulation would lead offspring to resist, and so eusociality would be unstable in the long run. We have found that resistance may fail to evolve for various reasons, and that the patterns that emerge from manipulation are consistent with various patterns observed in eusocial taxa.

Species problem

Species are key units for evolutionary inference and conservation policies, but they are infamously difficult to define. I developed a formalization of the biological species concept and explored its consequences.

found that one formal interpretation of this concept overcomes various difficulties of the verbal concept, but by doing so populations can belong to multiple species.