The genic view of the process of speciation


Chung-I Wu, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. Tel.: 773 702 2565; fax: 773 702 9740; e-mail:


The unit of adaptation is usually thought to be a gene or set of interacting genes, rather than the whole genome, and this may be true of species differentiation. Defining species on the basis of reproductive isolation (RI), on the other hand, is a concept best applied to the entire genome. The biological species concept (BSC; Mayr, 1963) stresses the isolation aspect of speciation on the basis of two fundamental genetic assumptions – the number of loci underlying species differentiation is large and the whole genome behaves as a cohesive, or coadapted genetic unit. Under these tenets, the exchange of any part of the genomes between diverging groups is thought to destroy their integrity. Hence, the maintenance of each species’ genome cohesiveness by isolating mechanisms has become the central concept of species. In contrast, the Darwinian view of speciation is about differential adaptation to different natural or sexual environments. RI is viewed as an important by product of differential adaptation and complete RI across the whole genome need not be considered as the most central criterion of speciation. The emphasis on natural and sexual selection thus makes the Darwinian view compatible with the modern genic concept of evolution. Genetic and molecular analyses of speciation in the last decade have yielded surprisingly strong support for the neo-Darwinian view of extensive genetic differentiation and epistasis during speciation. However, the extent falls short of what BSC requires in order to achieve whole-genome ‘cohesiveness’. Empirical observations suggest that the gene is the unit of species differentiation. Significantly, the genetic architecture underlying RI, the patterns of species hybridization and the molecular signature of speciation genes all appear to support the view that RI is one of the manifestations of differential adaptation, as Darwin (1859, Chap. 8) suggested. The nature of this adaptation may be as much the result of sexual selection as natural selection. In the light of studies since its early days, BSC may now need a major revision by shifting the emphasis from isolation at the level of whole genome to differential adaptation at the genic level. With this revision, BSC would in fact be close to Darwin’s original concept of speciation.