David Speijer, a biochemist at the University of Amsterdam, thinks that Gray and his colleagues have done biology a service with the idea of constructive neutral evolution, especially by challenging the notion that all complexity must be adaptive.But Speijer worries they may be pushing their argument too hard in some cases. On one hand, he thinks that the fungus pumps are a good example of constructive neutral evolution. “Everybody in their right mind would totally agree with it,” he says. In other cases, such as RNA editing, scientists should not, in his view, dismiss the possibility that natural selection was at work, even if the complexity seems useless.
Gray, McShea and Brandon acknowledge the important role of natural selection in the rise of the complexity that surrounds us, from the biochemistry that builds a feather to the photosynthetic factories inside the leaves of trees. Yet they hope their research will coax other biologists to think beyond natural selection and to see the possibility that random mutation can fuel the evolution of complexity on its own. “We don't dismiss adaptation at all as part of that,” Gray says. “We just don't think it explains everything.”
This article was originally published with the title The Surprising Origins of Life's Complexity.