Evolutionary Biology

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 374–394 | Cite as

A Virtue Made of Necessity: Is the Increasing Hierarchical Complexity of Sexual Clades an Inevitable Outcome of Their Declining (Macro)evolutionary Potential?

  • Jan TomanEmail author
  • Jaroslav Flegr
Synthesis Paper


The increasing maximal hierarchical complexity of organisms is one of the best-supported macroevolutionary trends. The nature and causes of this trend, as well as several accompanying macroevolutionary phenomena are, however, still unclear. In this theoretical article, we propose that the cause of this trend could be the increasing pressure of species selection, which results from the gradual decrease of (macro)evolutionary potential (i.e. the probability of producing major evolutionary innovations). As follows from the Theory of Frozen Evolution, this process is an inevitable consequence of the sorting of genes, traits, and their integrated groups (modules) based on their contextually dependent stability. In turn, this causes effectively unchangeable elements of genetic architecture to accumulate during the existence of evolutionary lineages. Although (macro)evolutionary potential can be partially restored by several processes, a profound restoration of (macro)evolutionary potential is probably possible only by means of a transition to a higher level of hierarchical complexity. However, the accumulation of contextually more stable elements continues even on this higher level. This leads to the integration of the modular character of composite organisms and a repeated pressure to increase the level of hierarchical complexity. Our model explains all components of McShea’s “Evolutionary Syndrome,” i.e. the trend of increasing the hierarchical complexity of organisms, the growth of variability among elements on the immediately lower level, and their gradual machinification. This pattern should be characteristic of sexual eukaryotes and especially their complex representatives. Our model also sheds new light on several related macroevolutionary phenomena, such as the gradual acceleration of the trend or the striking difference between pre-Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic evolution.


Evolvability (Macro)evolutionary potential Evolutionary trends Hierarchical complexity Frozen evolution theory Frozen plasticity theory Stability-based sorting 



We thank Lincoln Cline and Charlie Lotterman for the final revisions of our text.


This work was supported by the Grant Agency of the Charles University in Prague (project no: 578416); and the Charles University Research Centre (UNCE 204004). The funding sources had no role in study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the writing of the report or in the decision to submit the article for publication.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology, Department of Philosophy and History of Sciences, Faculty of ScienceCharles UniversityPrague 2Czech Republic

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