Morphology, Evolution, and the Whole Organism Imperative: Why Evolutionary Questions Need Multi-trait Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Since Washburn's New Physical Anthropology, researchers have sought to understand the complexities of morphological evolution among anatomical regions in human and non-human primates. Researchers continue, however, to preferentially use comparative and functional approaches to examine complex traits, but these methods cannot address questions about evolutionary process and often conflate function with fitness. Moreover, researchers also tend to examine anatomical elements in isolation, which implicitly assumes independent evolution among different body regions. In this paper, we argue that questions asked in primate evolution are best examined using multiple anatomical regions subjected to model-bound methods built from an understanding of evolutionary quantitative genetics. A nascent but expanding number of studies over the last two decades use this approach, examining morphological integration, evolvability, and selection modeling. To help readers learn how to use these methods, we review fundamentals of evolutionary processes within a quantitative genetic framework, explore the importance of neutral evolutionary theory, and explain the basics of evolutionary quantitative genetics, namely the calculation of evolutionary potential for multiple traits in response to selection. Leveraging these methods, we demonstrate their use to understand non-independence in possible evolutionary responses across the limbs, limb girdles, and basicranium of humans. Our results show that model-bound quantitative genetic methods can reveal unexpected genetic covariances among traits that create a novel but measurable understanding of evolutionary complexity among multiple traits. We advocate for evolutionary quantitative genetic methods to be a standard whenever appropriate to keep studies of primate morphological evolution relevant for the next seventy years and beyond.


Online ahead of print, April 15, 2023



PubMed ID