Visualizing evolution in action: Survival of the flattest

Fitness landscapes were invented by Sewall Wright in 1932. They map fitness, or reproductive success, of individual organisms as a function of genotype or phenotype. Organisms with higher fitness have a higher chance of reproducing, and populations therefore tend to evolve towards higher ground in the fitness landscape. Even though only two traits can be visualized this way, we can actually observe evolution in action. Building on the idea of fitness landscapes, Bjørn Østman and I decided to create some animations of simulated evolving populations to illustrate concepts of evolution that are typically difficult to comprehend.

Here we demonstrate the survival of the flattest, a theory stating that when organisms experience a high enough mutation rate, the population will evolve to “flatter” fitness peaks instead of higher peaks. This theory of course flies in the face of the more traditional “survival of the fittest,” which would have us think that organisms will always adapt to the highest fitness peak. We hope to show here that there’s much more to evolution than “survival of the fittest.”

Warning: The GIF on this page is large and may take some time to load.

survival-flattest


Here’s the full video that Bjørn and I submitted to the ALife 2014 Science Visualization Competition.

Dr. Randy Olson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. As a member of Prof. Jason H. Moore's research lab, he studies biologically-inspired AI and its applications to biomedical problems.

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About this blog

The data visualizations on this blog are the result of my "data tinkering" hobby, where I tackle a new data analysis problem every weekend. If I find something interesting, I report my findings here to share with the world.

If you would like to use one of my graphs on your website or in a publication, please feel free to do so with attribution, but I would appreciate it if you email me first to let me know.

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