1. Ecology
  2. Evolutionary Biology
Download icon

Towards a mechanistic foundation of evolutionary theory

  1. Michael Doebeli  Is a corresponding author
  2. Yaroslav Ispolatov
  3. Burt Simon
  1. University of British Columbia, Canada
  2. Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Chile
  3. University of Colorado, Denver, United States
Feature Article
  • Cited 24
  • Views 7,134
  • Annotations
Cite this article as: eLife 2017;6:e23804 doi: 10.7554/eLife.23804


Most evolutionary thinking is based on the notion of fitness and related ideas such as fitness landscapes and evolutionary optima. Nevertheless, it is often unclear what fitness actually is, and its meaning often depends on the context. Here we argue that fitness should not be a basal ingredient in verbal or mathematical descriptions of evolution. Instead, we propose that evolutionary birth-death processes, in which individuals give birth and die at ever-changing rates, should be the basis of evolutionary theory, because such processes capture the fundamental events that generate evolutionary dynamics. In evolutionary birth-death processes, fitness is at best a derived quantity, and owing to the potential complexity of such processes, there is no guarantee that there is a simple scalar, such as fitness, that would describe long-term evolutionary outcomes. We discuss how evolutionary birth-death processes can provide useful perspectives on a number of central issues in evolution.

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Michael Doebeli

    Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    Michael Doebeli, Reviewing editor, eLife.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-5975-5710
  2. Yaroslav Ispolatov

    Departamento de Fisica, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Santiago, Chile
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-0201-3396
  3. Burt Simon

    Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, University of Colorado, Denver, Denver, United States
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.


Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (219930)

  • Michael Doebeli

Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico (1151524)

  • Yaroslav Ispolatov

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

  • Michael Doebeli

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Wenying Shou, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: December 3, 2016
  2. Accepted: February 13, 2017
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: February 15, 2017 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: March 2, 2017 (version 2)
  5. Version of Record updated: March 3, 2017 (version 3)


© 2017, Doebeli et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


  • 7,134
    Page views
  • 1,338
  • 24

Article citation count generated by polling the highest count across the following sources: Crossref, PubMed Central, Scopus.

Download links

A two-part list of links to download the article, or parts of the article, in various formats.

Downloads (link to download the article as PDF)

Download citations (links to download the citations from this article in formats compatible with various reference manager tools)

Open citations (links to open the citations from this article in various online reference manager services)

Further reading

    1. Ecology
    2. Physics of Living Systems
    Aviram Gelblum et al.
    Research Article Updated
    1. Ecology
    2. Evolutionary Biology
    Anthony B Lapsansky et al.
    Research Article Updated