Speciation corresponds to the progressive establishment of reproductive barriers between groups of individuals derived from an ancestral stock. Since Darwin did not believe that reproductive barriers could be selected for, he proposed that most events of speciation would occur through a process of separation and divergence, and this point of view is still shared by most evolutionary biologists today.
I do, however, contend that, if so much speciation occurs, the most likely explanation is that there must be conditions where reproductive barriers can be directly selected for. In other words, situations where it is advantageous for individuals to reproduce preferentially within a small group and reduce their breeding with the rest of the ancestral population. This leads me to propose a model whereby new species arise not by populations splitting into separate branches, but by small inbreeding groups "budding" from an ancestral stock. This would be driven by several advantages of inbreeding, and mainly by advantageous recessive phenotypes, which could only be retained in the context of inbreeding. Reproductive barriers would thus not arise as secondary consequences of divergent evolution in populations isolated from one another, but under the direct selective pressure of ancestral stocks. Many documented cases of speciation in natural populations appear to fit the model proposed, with more speciation occurring in populations with high inbreeding coefficients, and many recessive characters identified as central to the phenomenon of speciation, with these recessive mutations expected to be surrounded by patterns of limited genomic diversity.
Whilst adaptive evolution would correspond to gains of function that would, most of the time, be dominant, this type of speciation by budding would thus be driven by mutations resulting in the advantageous loss of certain functions since recessive mutations very often correspond to the inactivation of a gene. A very important further advantage of inbreeding is that it reduces the accumulation of recessive mutations in genomes. A consequence of the model proposed is that the existence of species would correspond to a metastable equilibrium between inbreeding and outbreeding, with excessive inbreeding promoting speciation, and excessive outbreeding resulting in irreversible accumulation of recessive mutations that could ultimately only lead to extinction.
Eugene V. Koonin, Patrick Nosil (nominated by Dr Jerzy Jurka), Pierre Pontarotti