Maladaptation and natural selection

Randolph M. Nesse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


The transformations George Williams initiated in evolutionary biology seem so blindingly obvious in retrospect that they spur the question of why he saw what no one else did. While most humans are prone to see only what theory predicts, Williams sees in bold relief whatever does not fit. Not an adaptationist or an anti-adaptationist, Williams is better described as a maladaptionist. The challenge of finding evolutionary explanations for apparent maladaptations has been overlooked with casualness akin to that once typical for group selection. Suboptimal traits tend to be dismissed as illustrations of the weakness and stochastic nature of selection compared with mutation and drift. A closer look suggests that such constraints are only one of six possible kinds of explanations for apparently suboptimal designs: mismatch, coevolution, tradeoffs, constraints, reproductive advantage at the expense of the individual, and defenses that are aversive but useful. Medicine has asked proximate questions at every possible level but has only begun to ask evolutionary questions about why bodies are vulnerable to disease. Considering all six possible evolutionary reasons for apparently suboptimal traits will spur progress not only in medicine but also more generally in biology. "Williams Vision" may not yield a net benefit to the possessor, but it is invaluable for the species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)62-70
Number of pages9
JournalQuarterly Review of Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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