Copying Errors

At the beginning, this DNA-combining called sex was probably not very selective. It was simply the most convenient way to make sure that not all of your offspring inherited your mutations. In evolution, mutations are generally a bad thing. Since almost all mutations are harmful, organisms evolve sophisticated DNA repair machinery to correct mutations. Of course, in the long term, mutations are necessary for evolutionary progress, because a tiny minority prove helpful when a species faces new challenges. But organisms don't plan for the long term. To the organism, mutations are simply copying errors—mistakes made when trying to spread DNA by producing offspring.

If you have only one copy of each gene, it is hard to know when certain kinds of copying error have been made. Some errors just won't look right to the DNA repair machinery. They are chemical nonsense, and easily fixed. But other errors look just like ordinary working DNA. These' pseudo-normal mutations are the problem. They look like good DNA to the repair machinery, but they do not act like good DNA when you try to grow an organism using them. They undermine the biological efficiency called fitness. Unless there is some way of eliminating them, they will accumulate, generation after generation, gradually eroding the fitness of offspring.

In very recent work, biologists Adam Eyre-Walker and Peter Keightley calculated that the average human has 1.6 harmful new mutations that neither parent had. Our ancestors would have accumulated mutations at the same rate. Geneticist James Crow thinks this estimate too conservative by half, and suggests that we have 3 new harmful mutations per individual every generation.

That doesn't sound too bad, given that we have about 80,000 genes, yet this mutation rate is near the theoretical limit of what selection can cope with. For a species to avoid going extinct as a result of accumulating too many harmful mutations, selection must be able to eliminate mutations at the same average rate that mutations arise, otherwise the species would suffer a "mutational meltdown." For technical reasons, it is very hard to avoid a mutational meltdown when more than one harmful new mutation arises per individual. In fact, it may be impossible without sexual reproduction.

Sexual reproduction probably arose as a way to contain the damage caused by mutations. By mixing up your DNA with that of another individual to make offspring, you make sure that any mutations you have will end up in only half of your offspring. Your sexual partner will have mutations of their own, but they are almost certain to be different mutations on different genes. Because offspring have two copies of each gene, the normal version inherited from one parent often masks the failures of the mutated version inherited from the other parents. Incest is a bad idea because blood relatives often inherit the same mutations, which are not masked by normal genes when close relatives produce offspring. For example, you may need just a little bit of the protein produced by a gene, so one copy of the gene may suffice. The mutated gene's inability to produce a working protein may not matter very much. This masking effect is called genetic dominance. Dominance makes sex very powerful in limiting the damage caused by mutations.

However, dominance is often not perfect, and it is really only a short-term solution. Two normal genes are sometimes still better than one. And hiding the effects of mutations allows them to accumulate over evolutionary time. To keep mutations from accumulating over the longer term, sexual reproduction takes some chances. Consider two parents with average numbers of mutations. Each contributes half of their genes to each offspring. Most of the offspring will inherit nearly the same number of mutations as their parents had. But some may be lucky: they may inherit a below-average number of mutations from their father, and a below-average number from their mother too. They will have much better genes than average, and should survive and reproduce very well. Their relatively mutation-free genes will spread through future generations. Other offspring may be very unlucky: they may inherit an above-average load of mutations from both parents, and may fail to develop at all, or may die in infancy. When they die, they take a large number of mutations with them into evolutionary oblivion.

This effect is extremely important. By endowing the next generation with unequal numbers of mutations, sexual reproduction ensures that at least some offspring will have very good genes. They will preserve the genetic information that keeps the species working. From a selfish gene's point of view, it does not matter that some offspring have very bad genes full of mutations, because those mutations would have died out sooner or later anyway. Better to concentrate them in as few bodies as possible so they do the least damage over the long term. Investment analysts will recognize that sexual reproduction is a way of implementing a risk-seeking strategy. Since evolution over the long term is a winner-takes-all contest, it is more important to produce a few offspring that have a chance to do very well, than a larger number of mediocre offspring.

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