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Clones, hermaphrodites and pregnancies: nature's oddities offer evolutionary lessons on reproduction

Abstract

I love the term 'natural history' because it encapsulates the sentiment that nature's operations have evolutionary etiologies. Charles Darwin was a natural historian par excellence and his elucidation of natural selection, artificial selection, and sexual selection fundamentally changed how scientists interpret the origins of biological features previously ascribed to sentient craftsmanship by supernatural agents. Darwin's insights on evolutionary forces grew from his exceptional knowledge of natural history, yet two key topics steeped in natural history - sex and reproductive genetics - remained poorly understood (and probably even shunned) in Darwin's Victorian era. That situation changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century with societal awakenings about sexuality that also happened to coincide with the introduction of molecular parentage analyses that unveiled a plethora of formerly hidden 'sexcapades' throughout the biological world. Here I summarize some of the evolutionary revelations that have emerged from selection theory as applied to genetic and phylogenetic information on clonality, hermaphroditism, and pregnancy, three procreative phenomena that are relatively rare in vertebrate animals and thus offer alternative evolutionary perspectives on standard reproductive modes. Collectively, these three peculiarities of nature illustrate how the abnormal in biology can enlighten evolutionary thought about the norm. © 2011 The Zoological Society of London.

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