Introgression encore

5 minute read

Although I've had a number of papers come out this year, there are two in particular that I've been working on for quite a long time. Both papers began their gestation in the summer and fall of 2005. Each of the two papers explicates a major pattern for the action of natural selection in human evolution -- to my mind, at least, the most important two. Each was a long project, requiring the integration of mathematical, theoretical and informatic resources, and researchers scattered across the country.

Both papers were submitted earlier this year to different journals, and in several instances revisions and decisions about them were made within a week of each other.

Now, the two papers are being published online, both within a week of each other.

The first to appear is our review of genetic introgression and modern human origins, now online in Trends in Genetics.

Gregory Cochran and I published a number of theoretical considerations about introgression last year (Hawks and Cochran 2006, described in this post). That paper included a very comprehensive review of adaptive introgression among natural populations, focused on mammals, citing more than 170 references. But we had relatively little to say about the genetic evidence for introgression in human evolution, because the key paper from Bruce Lahn's lab (Evans et al. 2006) had not yet been published.

We have included some of that evidence in our current review. It is a shorter, more compact paper than last year's. That means that it leaves out a number of details, but it allows us to bring the molecular evidence and population genetic theory together.

In that form, it is possible to discuss some of the interesting predictions we might make about Neandertal-human population dynamics. For instance, why are two of the candidate introgressive alleles related to the brain? Our final section, "What did archaics have to offer?" takes on this question:

Adaptive alleles from archaic humans present a paradox. We recognize archaic humans by their morphology, and their morphology has mostly disappeared. Therefore, if moderns still retain adaptive alleles from archaic humans, those alleles almost certainly were not correlated with traits that we recognize as archaic. Instead, they must be related to phenotypes that we cannot recognize easily in archaic human fossils.

This is a crucial fact. We already know that Neandertal anatomies disappeared. But what makes a "Neandertal" anatomical feature? Clearly, we recognize it precisely because it is rare today.

If we are going to look for introgressive alleles, we have to look outside of this acquisition bias. The brain is a promising area on this score -- we know little about its variation in fossil humans.

In the final section, we allowed ourselves some speculation about the dynamics of modern human origins and dispersal:

Cosmopolitan populations like modern humans are generally a threat to endemics, but this threat intensifies during range expansions and population growth. In endemic species, alleles that promote outbreeding can be selected merely because the cosmopolitan species is expanding, aiding the collapse of former reproductive boundaries. Certainly, the distinctive morphological adaptations of archaic humans lost some of their selective advantage with the increasing technical sophistication of the early Upper Paleolithic (35 000 - 15 000 years ago). This must especially have been true of populations like the Neanderthals, whose skeletal and muscular specializations required a high energy budget. In an adaptive context, Neanderthals and other archaic humans were like endangered endemics, suffering from relatively high mortality and high energetic costs. Possibly, the only remaining adaptive strategy for them was mixture with the more cosmopolitan modern humans.

This is of course speculative, but I think it is valuable because it attempts to place ancient human populations in the context of modern conservation biology.

We often read that various human groups were "endangered" at one time or another, including the Neanderthals. But I have not seen anyone take the next logical step, which is to discuss the ways that endangered species actually interact with their congeneric competitors. When the interaction between populations includes interbreeding, interesting dynamics may emerge.

Does this mean that humans and Neandertals were distinct species who intermixed by hybridization?

I wrote about that question last year, concluding:

There will never be any tidy solution to the species problem, because all species have unique evolutionary histories and constraints. Given these difficulties, the species status of archaic Homo populations is basically an intractable problem. That is, I am happy to suggest that archaic Homo populations correspond to classical subspecies, and as far as I know, no evidence strongly contradicts that position. But I can recognize that some people will never agree with this assignment. And from the perspective of their evolution, it just doesn't matter. Evolutionarily important gene flow occurs between mammal species, subspecies, and populations.

The last sentence is the most important point. Those who want to put Neandertals into a distinct species (Homo neanderthalensis) generally believe that there was no evolutionarily significant gene flow between them and modern humans. But the opportunity for evolutionarily significant gene flow is always there, irrespective of whether the populations are species, subspecies, or even genera. Remember Bos-Bison introgression.

You can't simply define the problem of Neandertal-modern interactions away by giving them different names. And in reference to the "paradox" pointed out above, there is no defining the problem away by pointing to morphological differences. If we recognize that Neandertals are hominids, that is quite enough to suggest that gene flow was possible between them and their contemporaries.

The only thing left is to quantify the amount. The genetic observations thus far suggest that a predominant fraction of the gene pool of living humans descends from a relatively homogeneous ancient population. Since Late Pleistocene humans were geographically differentiated, this means that one ancient population disproportionately expanded at the expense of others. Genetic comparisons allow us to infer that the expanding population was initially African. This expanding population received introgressive alleles, both from other African populations and from Eurasian ones.

But that was not the end of the story. Introgressive alleles succeeded or failed on the basis of selection on them. The expanding population continued to grow in numbers. And the stage may have been set for something even more interesting...

More reading

"Why introgression?" discusses why introgression is a useful concept, compared to the simpler "gene flow."

"Introgression and microcephalin FAQ" addressed the MCPH1 genealogy.

"Neandertal introgression, anatomically" reviewed the paper by Soficaru et al. (2006) on the Pestera Muierii skull.

"The inevitability of introgression" announced and gave some details from our 2006 paper.


Evans PD, Mekel-Bobrov N, Vallender EJ, Hudson RR, Lahn BT. 2006. Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage. Proc Nat Acad Sci 103:18178-18183. doi:10.1073/pnas.0606966103

Hawks J, Cochran G. 2006. Dynamics of adaptive introgression from archaic to modern humans. PaleoAnthropology 2006:101-115. Open access

Hawks J, Cochran G, Harpending HC, Lahn BT. 2007. A genetic legacy from archaic Homo. Trends Genet (early online) doi:10.1016/j.tig.2007.10.003