Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 July 2014
A Shift in Focus
Millions of species currently exist on earth, and to secure an understanding of how all this magnificent variety arose is no small task. Biologists have long accepted Darwinian selection as the central explanation of adaptation and evolutionary change; yet, to date, no similar agreement has emerged about evolutionary processes that can create two species out of one. Almost 150 years after Darwin's seminal work On the Origin of Species (1859), conditions for and mechanisms of biological speciation are still debated vigorously.
The traditional “standard model” of speciation rests on the assumption of geographic isolation. After a population has become subdivided by external causes – like fragmentation through environmental change or colonization of a new, disconnected habitat – and after the resultant subpopulations have remained separated for sufficiently long, genetic drift and pleiotropic effects of local adaptation are supposed to lead to partial reproductive incompatibility. When the two incipient species come into secondary contact, individuals from one species cannot mate with those of the other – even if they try – or, if mating is still possible, their hybrid off spring are inferior. Further evolution of premating isolation (like assortative mate choice or seasonal isolation) and/or postmating isolation (like gametic incompatibility) eventually ensures that the two species continue to steer separate evolutionary courses.
The trigger for speciation in this standard model is geographic isolation. It is for this reason that the distinction between allopatric speciation (occurring under geographic isolation) and sympatric speciation (without geographic isolation) has taken center stage in the speciation debate.