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Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species that "unless profitable variations do occur, natural selection can do nothing." As Darwin recognised, natural selection, far from increasing variation within species, reduces variation constantly in favour of an optimum type. What then is the true source of variation in evolutionary systems?
It is a question which has obsessed Warwick Collins – a novelist who had studied biology at university – for much of his adult life. He proposed in March 2000 that the required degree of variation could be achieved if large numbers of inert or 'silent' genes existed within the genome. Such genes – because they do not code for physical characteristics – could freely mutate over time without deleteriously affecting the host organism. At a later stage they could be 'switched on', by largely random processes, and generate exotic new variants.
Remarkably, his description of 'silent' genes was found to correspond precisely with the so-called 'junk' genes, which comprise up to 98.5 of the genome, and whose function until then had proved mysterious. In addition, Collins theory predicted a number of features of the silent or junk genes which have since been increasingly verified by recent research – for example, that they could become 'active' and begin to code, and that they influenced other genes. It is now widely accepted that, just as Collins predicted, the vast majority of significant mutation in the genome arises from the silent genes.
But Collins powerful and ambitious theory moves well beyond the molecular realm. He argues that while natural selection is a major force in evolution, it is primarily negative and entropic. Instead, the great driver of complex evolution is the range of variation created by the silent genes. These themes are explored in his revolutionary work.
As Professor Donald Braben writes in his illuminating foreword, 'Collins is proposing a general evolutionary theory which – if it continues to be supported by the data – may in due course come to rival Darwins theory that evolution is driven by natural selection.'
Warwick Collins studied biology at Sussex University, where his tutor was the theoretical biologist John Maynard Smith. His first poems were published by the magazine Encounter in his early twenties. He has since published ten novels, including The Sonnets and Gents. Gents has been reviewed in the Times in its series of all-time literary classics.