Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 6, pp 915–933 | Cite as

Wandering drunks and general lawlessness in biology: does diversity and complexity tend to increase in evolutionary systems?

Daniel W. McShea and Robert N. Brandon: Biology’s first law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, 2010
  • Lindell Bromham
Book Review


Does biology have general laws that apply to all levels of biological organisation, across all evolutionary time? In their book “Biology’s first law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems” (2010), Daniel McShea and Robert Brandon propose that the most fundamental law of biology is that all levels of biological organisation have an underlying tendency to become more complex and diverse over time. A range of processes, most notably selection, can prevent the expression of this tendency, but they predict that, on average, we should see that lineages tend toward greater diversity and complexity, driven by fundamentally neutral processes. Their hypothesis can be summarised as “diversity is easy, stasis is hard”. Here, I consider evidence for this “zero force evolutionary law”. It provides a fair description of evolutionary change at the genomic level, but the predictions of the proposed law are not met for broad scale patterns in the evolution of the animal kingdom.


Evolution Adaptation Phylogeny Genome Molecular evolution Drift Biodiversity ZFEL 



With thanks to Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny for encouragement, feedback and vigorous debate.


  1. Adami C, Ofria C, Collier TC (2000) Evolution of biological complexity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 97:4463–4468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barraclough TG, Savolainen V (2001) Evolutionary rates and species diversity in flowering plants. Evolution 55:677–683CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beatty J (1995) The evolutionary contingency thesis. In: Wolters G, Lennox JG, McLaughlin P (eds) Concepts, theories and rationality in the biological sciences. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, p 46Google Scholar
  4. Bengston S (2002) Origins and early evolution of predation. Palaeontol Soc Pap 8:289–317Google Scholar
  5. Bolnick DI, Near TJ (2005) Tempo of hybrid inviability in centrarchid fishes (Teleostei: Centrarchidae). Evolution 59:1754–1767Google Scholar
  6. Botting JP, Muir LA (2008) Unravelling causal components of the Ordovician radiation: the Builth Inlier (central Wales) as a case study. Lethaia 41:111–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bromham L (2000) Conservation and mutability in molecular evolution. Trends Ecol Evol 15:355CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bromham L (2008) Reading the story in DNA: a beginner’s guide to molecular evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Bromham L (2009) Does nothing in evolution make sense except in the light of population genetics? Biol Philos 24:387–403CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bromham L (2011) The small picture approach to the big picture: using DNA sequences to investigate the diversification of animal body plans. In: Sterelny K, Calcott B (eds) The major transitions in evolution revisited. MIT press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  11. Bromham L, Cardillo M (2007) Primates follow the ‘island rule’: implications for interpreting Homo floresiensis. Biol Lett 3:398–400CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bromham L, Penny D (2003) The modern molecular clock. Nat Rev Genet 4:216–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Capellini I, Venditti C, Barton RA (2010) Phylogeny and metabolic scaling in mammals. Ecology 91:2783–2793CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Colyvan M, Ginzburg LR (2003) Laws of nature and laws of ecology. Oikos 101:649–653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cornette JL, Lieberman BS (2004) Random walks in the history of life. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101:187–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Coyne JA, Orr HA (1989) Patterns of speciation in Drosophila. Evolution 43:362–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Crick FHC (1970) Central dogma of molecular biology. Nature 227:561–563CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Darwin CR (1838) Notebook D: [Transmutation of species (7–10.1838)]. Rookmaaker K (transcribed). Darwin Online,
  19. Darwin C (1859) The origin of species by means of natural selection: or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray, LondonGoogle Scholar
  20. Darwin C (1872) The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray, LondonGoogle Scholar
  21. Davies TJ, Savolainen V, Chase MW, Moat J, Barraclough TG (2004) Environmental energy and evolutionary rates in flowering plants. Proc R Soc Lond B 271:2195–2220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. DesAutels L (2010) Sober and Elgin on laws of biology: a critique. Biol Philos 25:249–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Eo SH, DeWoody JA (2010) Evolutionary rates of mitochondrial genomes correspond to diversification rates and to contemporary species richness in birds and reptiles. Proc R Soc B 277:3587–3592CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Erwin DH (1993) The great Paleozoic crisis: life and death in the Permian. Columbia University Press, New York CityGoogle Scholar
  25. Franklin IR, Frankham R (1998) How large must populations be to retain evolutionary potential? Anim Conserv 1:69–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frydlova P, Frynta D (2010) A test of Rensch’s rule in varanid lizards. J Linn Soc 100:293–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Goldie X, Lanfear R, Bromham L (2011) Diversification and the rate of molecular evolution: no evidence of a link in mammals. BMC Evol Biol (submitted)Google Scholar
  28. Gould SJ (1996) Full house: the spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin. Three Rivers Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Gregory TR (2005) Animal genome size database.
  30. Herbert W (1837) Amaryllidaceae: preceded by an attempt to arrange the monocotyledonous orders and followed by a treatise on cross-bred vegetables and supplement. James Ridgway & Sons, PicadillyGoogle Scholar
  31. Hone DWE, Keesey TM, Pisani D, Purvis A (2005) Macroevolutionary trends in the Dinosauria: Cope’s rule. J Evol Biol 18:587–595CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hubbell S (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  33. Kimura M (1983) The neutral theory of molecular evolution. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  34. King JL, Jukes TH (1969) Non-Darwinian evolution. Science 164:788–798CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Koonin EV (2009) Darwinian evolution in the light of genomics. Nucleic Acids Res 37:1011–1034CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lamarck JB (1809) Philosophie Zoologique (trans: Johnston I, 1999)Google Scholar
  37. Lanfear R, Thomas JA, Welch JJ, Bromham L (2007) Metabolic rate does not calibrate the molecular clock. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:15388–15393CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lanfear R, Ho SYW, Love D, Bromham L (2010) Mutation rate influences diversification rate in birds. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:20423–20428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Liu Y-S, Zhou X-M, Zhi M-X, Li XJ, Wang Q-L (2009) Darwin’s contribution to genetics. J Appl Genet 50:177–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lomolino MV (2005) Body size evolution in insular vertebrates: generality of the island rule. J Biogeogr 32:1683–1699CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lynch M (2007) The origins of genome architecture. Sinauer Associates, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  42. Mallet J (2008) Mayr’s view of Darwin: was Darwin wrong about speciation. Biol J Linn Soc 95:3–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Malone JH, Fontenot BE (2008) Patterns of reproductive isolation in toads. PLoS One 3:e3900CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Maynard Smith J (1990) Taking a chance on evolution. New York Review, 14 June 1990Google Scholar
  45. Maynard Smith J, Szathmáry E (1995) The major transitions in evolution. W. H. Freeman, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  46. Monroe MJ, Bokma F (2010) Little evidence for Cope’s rule from Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of extant mammals. J Evol Biol 23:2017–2921CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Nee S (2005) The great chain of being. Nature 435:429CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nee S, Colegrave N, West SA, Grafen A (2005) The illusion of invariant quantities in life histories. Science 309:1236–1239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Nosil P, Funk DJ, Ortiz-Barrientos D (2009) Divergent selection and heterogenous genomic divergence. Mol Ecol 18:375–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Novak-Gottshall PM, Lanier MA (2008) Scale-dependence of Cope’s rule in body size evolution in Paleozoic brachiopods. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 10514:5430–5434CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Omland KE, Cook LG, Crisp MD (2008) Tree thinking for all biology: the problem with reading phylogenies as ladders of progress. BioEssays 30:854–867CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Orr HA, Turelli M (2001) The evolution of postzygotic isolation: accumulating Dobzhansky-Muller incompatibilities. Evolution 55:1085–1094Google Scholar
  53. Pagel M, Venditti C, Meade A (2006) Large punctuational contribution of speciation to evolutionary divergence at the molecular level. Science 314:119–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Patel PH, Loeb LA (2000) DNA polymerase active site is highly mutable: evolutionary consequences. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 97:5095–5100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Peters SE, Foote M (2001) Biodiversity in the Phanerozoic: a reinterpretation. Paleobiology 27:583–601CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Raup DM (1977) Species diversity in the phanerozoic: systematists follow the fossils. Paleobiology 3:328Google Scholar
  57. Reich PB, Tjoelker MG, Machado J-L, Oleksyn J (2006) Universal scaling of respiratory metabolism, size and nitrogen in plants. Nature 439:457–461CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Richards E (1994) A political anatomy of monsters, hopeful and otherwise: teratogeny, transcendentalism and evolutionary theorizing. Isis 85:377–411Google Scholar
  59. Sepkoski JJ Jr (1981) A factor analytic description of the Phanerozoic marine fossil record. Paleobiology 7:36–53Google Scholar
  60. Smith AB (2001) Large-scale heterogeneity of the fossil record: implications for Phanerozoic biodiversity studies. Philos Trans R Soc Lond 356:351–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Sober E (1997) Two outbreaks of lawlessness in recent philosophy of biology. Philos Sci 64:S458–S467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Stelkens RB, Young KA, Seehausen O (2009) The accumulation of reproductive incompatibilities in African cichlid fish. Evolution 64:617–633CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Stuart-Fox D (2009) A test of Rensch’s rule in dwarf chameleons (Bradypodion spp.), a group with female-biased sexual size dimorphism. Evol Ecol 23:425–433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Valentine JW, Collins AG, Meyer CP (1994) Morphological complexity increases in metazoans. Paleobiology 20:131–142Google Scholar
  65. Webster AJ, Payne RJH, Pagel M (2003) Molecular phylogenies link rates of evolution and speciation. Science 301:478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. West GB, Brown JH (2005) The origin of allometric scaling laws in biology from genomes to ecosystems: towards a quantitative unifying theory of biological structure and organization. J Exp Biol 208:1572–1592CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, Evolution, Ecology and Genetics, Research School of BiologyAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

Personalised recommendations