The researchers found that many previously identified genetic signals of selection may have been created by historical and demographic factors rather than by selection. When the team compared closely related populations they found few large genetic differences. If the individual populations' environments were exerting strong selective pressure, such differences should have been apparent.
Selection may still be occurring in many regions of the genome, says Pritchard. But if so, it is exerting a moderate effect on many genes that together influence a biological characteristic. "We don't know enough yet about the genetics of most human traits to be able to pick out all of the relevant variation," says Pritchard. "As functional studies go forward, people will start figuring out the phenotypes that are associated with selective signals," says lead author Graham Coop. "That will be very important, because then we can figure out what selection pressures underlie these episodes of natural selection."
But even with further research, much will remain unknown about the processes that have resulted in human traits. In particular, Pritchard and Coop urge great caution in trying to link selection with complex characteristics like intelligence. "We're in the infancy of trying to understand what signals of selection are telling us," says Coop, "so it's a very long jump to attribute cultural features and group characteristics to selection."
|Contact: Catriona Silvey|
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