Department of Biology: Dr. Lonnie Aarssen

Publications by Dr. Lonnie Aarssen. Dr. Aarssen is a Professor in the Queen's University Biology Department.

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Recent Submissions

Now showing 1 - 5 of 14
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    Body size and fitness in plants: Revisiting the selection consequences of competition
    (Elsevier, 2015) Aarssen, Lonnie W.
    Having capacity for a relatively large plant body size is usually regarded as a key functional trait associated with success under competition between resident species within natural vegetation. This traditional ‘size-advantage’ hypothesis, however, generally fails to find support from several lines of recent research. Possible interpretations are considered here, including one in particular that has been largely overlooked: a larger species generally also needs to grow to a larger threshold size before it can reproduce at all, and the latter may not be generally attainable when neighbourhood resources are severely contested. The implications of this are explored in calling for a revised model of the selection consequences of competition on body size in plants, where success is defined not just (or even most importantly) by capacity to capture resources and deny them to neighbours, but more fundamentally by the capacity to transmit genes to future generations, despite severe resource deprivation by neighbours. For this latter capacity, a growing body of evidence is pointing to an alternative hypothesis based on ‘reproductive economy advantage’: under conditions of extreme and protracted neighbourhood crowding/competition (where virtually all resident plants are necessarily forced to remain, until death, at only a small fraction of their maximum potential body sizes), it is the relatively small species that are more likely to leave descendants here – simply because they need to reach only a relatively small body size in order to produce at least some offspring. Resident plants of most larger species, however, are more likely to die here producing none at all.
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    Not my brother’s keeper: A thought experiment for Hamilton’s rule.
    (Elsevier, 2009) Aarssen, Lonnie W.
    The now popular ‘selfish gene’ view defines evolutionary fitness at the gene levele in terms of the number of gene copies residing in future generations (or propelled from previous generations). Yet, most current biology textbooks still apply the concept of fitness to the individual, where it is defined more traditionally as the number of descendants residing in future generations. The existing literature remains ambiguous regarding whether one of these concepts is more meaningful than the other, or whether they both represent legitimate, functional definitions of fitness. In support of the latter view, I present a composite perspective that recognizes the gene as evolutionarily ‘selfish’, but also the individual as a ‘selfish vehicle’ for resident genes. Hamilton’s rule explains, based on genetic relatedness, why natural selection has favoured behaviours that compel individuals (as ‘donors’ of help) to act for the good of copies of their genes residing in close kin (‘recipients’). I propose however, that natural selection should particularly favour helping behaviours directed at those recipient kin who have the highest relative probability of being the vehicle for a remarkably adaptive newly mutant gene, weighted by the proportion of genes shared with the donor. According to this ‘adaptive-genetic-novelty rescue’ (AGNR) hypothesis, these favoured vehicles for shared gene copies are more likely to involve direct descendants (e.g. offspring) than other close kin from one’s collateral lineage (e.g. siblings), even when the donor (e.g. a father) shares fewer genes with an offspring (e.g. a son) than with a sibling (e.g. a brother).
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    Will empathy save us?
    (2013) Aarssen, Lonnie W.
    Recent prescriptions for rescuing civilization from collapse involve extending our human capacity for empathy to a global scale. This is a worthy goal, but several indications leave grounds for cautious optimism at best. Evolutionary biology interprets non-kin helping behaviors as products of natural selection that rewarded only the transmission success of resident genes within ancestors, not their prospects for building a sustainable civilization for descendants. These descendants however are now us, threatened with ruin on a warming, overcrowded planet—and our evolutionary bequeathal, in giving us empathy, may have also given us potential for resolve in guiding cultural evolution for the best interests of humanity. But can the latter trump the best interests of our genes? And if so, now that the liberal copying success of our genes is in conflict with the best interests of a sustainable civilization for our descendants, do the latter risk losing the empathic instinct presently called upon to save them?