Quantitative genetics theory provides a framework that predicts the effects of selection on a phenotype consisting of a suite of complex traits. However, the ability of existing theory to reconstruct the history of selection or to predict the future trajectory of evolution depends upon the evolutionary dynamics of the genetic variance-covariance matrix (G-matrix). Thus, the central focus of the emerging field of comparative quantitative genetics is the evolution of the G-matrix. Existing analytical theory reveals little about the dynamics of G, because the problem is too complex to be mathematically tractable. As a first step toward a predictive theory of G-matrix evolution, our goal was to use stochastic computer models to investigate factors that might contribute to the stability of G over evolutionary time. We were concerned with the relatively simple case of two quantitative traits in a population experiencing stabilizing selection, pleiotropic mutation, and random genetic drift. Our results show that G-matrix stability is enhanced by strong correlational selection and large effective population size. In addition, the nature of mutations at pleiotropic loci can dramatically influence stability of G. In particular, when a mutation at a single locus simultaneously changes the value of the two traits (due to pleiotropy) and these effects are correlated, mutation can generate extreme stability of G. Thus, the central message of our study is that the empirical question regarding G-matrix stability is not necessarily a general question of whether G is stable across various taxonomic levels. Rather, we should expect the G-matrix to be extremely stable for some suites of characters and unstable for others over similar spans of evolutionary time.
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Vol. 57 • No. 8