Evolution Institute Projects

Evolutionary Mismatch

Natural selection adapts organisms to their past environments and has no ability to foresee the future. When the environment changes, adaptations to past environments can misfire in the current environment, producing a mismatch that can only be solved by subsequent evolution or by modifying the current environment. Mismatches are an inevitable consequence of evolution in changing environments.

Evolutionary Mismatch
Evolutionary Mismatch

The first workshop was held on May 1-4, 2011 and the second workshop on Nov 17-20, 2011 at NESCent headquarters in Durham, NC.

Natural selection adapts organisms to their past environments and has no ability to foresee the future. When the environment changes, adaptations to past environments can misfire in the current environment, producing a mismatch that can only be solved by subsequent evolution or by modifying the current environment. Mismatches are an inevitable consequence of evolution in changing environments. They are especially relevant to human affairs, since modern human environments are so radically different from ancestral human environments. In addition, countless species are becoming mismatched to their environments due to anthropogenic environmental changes at a planetary scale.

Waiting for subsequent genetic evolution to correct mismatches is not an option for problems requiring immediate solutions. This working group will develop a rigorous methodology for identifying evolutionary mismatches and finding the right environmental interventions, or “what to do about it,” in both humans and nonhuman species. Developing a rigorous methodology is important because many putative examples of mismatches are little more than speculative “just-so stories”.  Finding the right interventions is important because restoring the ancestral environment is not always the most feasible or desirable option.

This project brought over 40 evolutionary scientists together to consider the problem of evolutionary mismatch in all its complexity. It was funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) under their “working group” rubric, which includes four workshops over a period of two years. The workshops were attended by a subset of the 40 participants, with the full group functioning as a virtual community.

Watch workshop participants explain the importance of mismatch.

Evolutionary Mismatch And What To Do About It: A Basic Tutorial (pdf)