Sonia E. Sultan
In recent decades, the phenotype of an organism (i.e. its traits and behaviour) has been studied as the outcome of a developmental ‘programme’ coded in its genotype. This deterministic view is implicit in the Modern Synthesis approach to adaptive evolution as a sorting process among genetic variants. Studies of developmental pathways have revealed that genotypes are in fact differently expressed depending on environmental conditions. Accordingly, the genotype can be understood as a repertoire of potential developmental outcomes or norm of reaction. Reconceiving the genotype as an environmental response repertoire rather than a fixed developmental programme leads to three critical evolutionary insights. First, plastic responses to specific conditions often comprise functionally appropriate trait adjustments, resulting in an individual-level, developmental mode of adaptive variation. Second, because genotypes are differently expressed depending on the environment, the genetic diversity available to natural selection is itself environmentally contingent. Finally, environmental influences on development can extend across multiple generations via cytoplasmic and epigenetic factors transmitted to progeny individuals, altering their responses to their own, immediate environmental conditions and, in some cases, leading to inherited but non-genetic adaptations. Together, these insights suggest a more nuanced understanding of the genotype and its evolutionary role, as well as a shift in research focus to investigating the complex developmental interactions among genotypes, environments and previous environments.