An evolutionary process that assembles phenotypes through space rather than through time

Richard Shine*, Gregory P. Brown, Benjamin L. Phillips

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

340 Citations (Scopus)


In classical evolutionary theory, traits evolve because they facilitate organismal survival and/or reproduction. We discuss a different type of evolutionary mechanism that relies upon differential dispersal. Traits that enhance rates of dispersal inevitably accumulate at expanding range edges, and assortative mating between fast-dispersing individuals at the invasion front results in an evolutionary increase in dispersal rates in successive generations. This cumulative process (which we dub "spatial sorting") generates novel phenotypes that are adept at rapid dispersal, irrespective of how the underlying genes affect an organism's survival or its reproductive success. Although the concept is not original with us, its revolutionary implications for evolutionary theory have been overlooked. A range of biological phenomena (e.g., acceleration of invasion fronts, insular flightlessness, preadaptation) may have evolved via spatial sorting as well as (or rather than) by natural selection, and this evolutionary mechanism warrants further study.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5708-5711
Number of pages4
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • colonization
  • evolution
  • spatial disequilibrium
  • nonadaptive evolution


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