neutral theory of molecular evolution
The theory, originally proposed in the late 1960s by Motoo Kimura
(1924–94) and others, that most evolutionary changes at the molecular level are due to the random process of genetic drift
acting on mutations, rather than natural selection
. Its proponents, while recognizing the importance of selection in determining functionally significant traits, hold that the great majority of the differences in macromolecular structures observed between individuals in a population are of no adaptive significance and have no impact on the reproductive success of the individual in which they arise. Hence, frequencies of the corresponding mutant alleles are governed by purely random events. This contrasts with the orthodox neo-Darwinian view that nearly all evolutionary changes have adaptive value for the organism and arise through natural selection
. For example, many enzymes exhibit polymorphism
with regard to their amino acid
sequence, giving rise to morphological variants that are detectable by electrophoresis. However, these variants may apparently perform equally well, and `neutralists' would argue that evolution consists essentially of random shuffling between them. The `selectionists' retort that such variants are likely to have subtle differences in function and are susceptible to selective forces, such as minor environmental changes. The degree to which the neutral theory applies to polymorphisms in proteins and nucleic acids is still a matter of controversy and debate.