If the direction of selection changes from generation to generation, the ability to respond to selection is maladaptive: the response to selection in one generation leads to reduced fitness in the next. Because the response is determined by the amount of genetic variance expressed at the phenotypic level, rapidly fluctuating selection should favor modifier genes that reduce the phenotypic effect of alleles segregating at structural loci underlying the trait. Such reduction in phenotypic expression of genetic variation has been named “genetic canalization.” I support this argument with a series of two- and multilocus models with alternating linear selection and Gaussian selection with fluctuating optimum. A canalizing modifier gene affects the fitness of its carriers in three ways: (1) it reduces the phenotypic consequences of genetic response to previous selection; (2) it reduces the genetic response to selection, which is manifested as linkage disequilibrium between the modifier and structural loci; and (3) it reduces the phenotypic variance. The first two effects reduce fitness under directional selection sustained for several generations, but improve fitness when the direction of selection has just been reversed. The net effect tends to favor a canalizing modifier under rapidly fluctuating selection regimes (period of eight generations or less). The third effect improves fitness of the modifier allele if the fitness function is convex and reduces it if the function is concave. Under fluctuating Gaussian selection, the population is more likely to experience the concave portion of the fitness function when selection is stronger. Therefore, only weak to moderately strong fluctuating Gaussian selection favors genetic canalization. This paper considerably broadens the conditions that favor genetic canalization, which so far has only been postulated to evolve under long-term stabilizing selection.
Corresponding Editor: T. Mousseau