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Evolution in Structured Populations

About Me

Posted: April 25th, 2013 by Charles Goodnight

I seriously doubt anybody wants the details of my life, so the short version is that my parents were biologists (of Daddy long legs), which meant that as a kid I traveled extensively, and learned a lot of biology.  I went to the University of Michigan for my undergraduate work, where I took courses from people like Wagner, Kluge, and Tinkle, and ended up determined to work on evolutionary biology.

I did my graduate work at the University of Chicago at a time when many eventually famous biologists (Wade, Lande, Teeri, Schemske) were young assistant professors.  It was an exciting time when we were just discovering that quantitative genetics could be applied to evolutionary biology.  I apparently did not have a lot of good sense, since I took this golden opportunity of working with the masters to do a thesis on group selection in Arabidopsis, and theoretical work on gene interaction.  Lets just say my thesis did not set the world on fire!

After that, apparently thinking group selection was too mundane, I did a postdoc studying community selection in two species communities of Tribolium flour beetles.  Again, the publication of this work was met with a giant yawn from the academic world.  I was saved, however, by my theoretical work on gene interaction.  That paper came out during my postdoc, and almost simultaneously with its publication Lisa Meffert (Lisa Combs at the time) and colleagues published a paper on house flies with results that were best explained by my model of gene interactions.  Based on the strength of that I was able to get a job at the University of Vermont where I am today.

Current research:

Over the years I have continued my focus on multilevel selection and gene interaction.  When I started this was a very lonely field; however in recent years it has started to heat up.  A few themes in my research:

Indirect genetic effects:  (Indirect genetic effects is not my term!) One thing we have discovered over the years is that group selection works much better than it is supposed to.  To cut to the chase, the reason is that individual interact with each other, and group selection can act on these interactions:

Goodnight, C. J. and L. Stevens 1997. Experimental Studies of Group Selection:  What do they tell us about group selection in nature? American Naturalist 150(Supplement): S59-S79.


Measuring multilevel selection in the field:  I have worked for some time on a statistical method called contextual analysis. This is a regression approach that can be used in natural populations to compare the strength of selection acting at two or more levels:

Goodnight, C. J., J. M. Schwartz and L. Stevens 1992. Contextual analysis of models of group selection, soft selection, hard selection and the evolution of altruism. American Naturalist 140:743-761.


Epistasis in structured populations:  An understanding of epistasis, or gene interaction, dramatically changes how evolution occurs in “metapopulations” (populations of populations).  Traditional theory is based on the “additive dominance” model.  I have had a great time redoing the work of the old masters except incorporating epistasis into the theory:

Goodnight, C. J. 2004. Metapopulation quantitative genetics:  the quantitative genetics of population differentiation. Ecology, Genetics and Evolution of Metapopulations. I. Hanski and O. E. Goggiotti. Burlington MA, Elsevier Academic Press.


More philosophical and statistical issues in evolutionary biology:  I have done work on the relationship between multilevel selection theory and kin selection theory (they are almost, but not quite the same thing), and issues such as what is an individual, and how does migration pattern affect the evolution of communities.  Also, I have done several papers that use fairly unique statistical methods for genetic data.  These discussions are a lot of fun, but unfortunately I don’t have a single review article that summarizes the results.

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