Paper #: 04-12-030
Biological systems, from macromolecules to whole organisms, are robust if they continue to function, survive, or reproduce when faced with mutations, environmental change, and internal noise. I focus here on biological systems that are robust to mutations and ask whether such systems are more or less evolvable, in the sense that they can acquire novel properties. The more robust a system is, the more mutations in it are neutral, that is, without phenotypic effect. I argue here that such neutral change - and thus robustness - can be a key to future evolutionary innovation, if one accepts that neutrality is not an essential feature of a mutation. That is, a once neutral mutation may cause phenotypic effects in a changed environment or genetic background. I argue that most, if not all, neutral mutations are of this sort, and that the essentialist notion of neutrality should be abandoned. This perspective reconciles two opposing views on the forces dominating organismal evolution, natural selection and random drift: Neutral mutations occur and are especially abundant in robust systems, but they do not remain neutral indefinitely, and eventually become visible to natural selection, where some of them lead to evolutionary innovations.