Commentary: Fisher's infinitesimal model: A story for the ages
Abstract Mendel (1866) suggested that if many heritable “factors” contribute to a trait, near-continuous variation could result. Fisher (1918) clarified the connection between Mendelian inheritance and continuous trait variation by assuming many loci, each with small effect, and by informally invoking the central limit theorem. Barton et al. (2017) rigorously analyze the approach to a multivariate Gaussian distribution of the genetic effects for descendants of parents who may be related. This commentary distinguishes three nested approximations, referred to as “infinitesimal genetics,” “Gaussian descendants” and “Gaussian population,” each plausibly called “the infinitesimal model.” The first and most basic is Fisher’s “infinitesimal” approximation of the underlying genetics – namely, many loci, each making a small contribution to the total variance. As Barton et al. (2017) show, in the limit as the number of loci increases (with enough additivity), the distribution of genotypic values for descendants approaches a multivariate Gaussian, whose variance–covariance structure depends only on the relatedness, not the phenotypes, of the parents (or whether their population experiences selection or other processes such as mutation and migration). Barton et al. (2017) call this rigorously defensible “Gaussian descendants” approximation “the infinitesimal model.” However, it is widely assumed that Fisher’s genetic assumptions yield another Gaussian approximation, in which the distribution of breeding values in a population follows a Gaussian — even if the population is subject to non-Gaussian selection. This third “Gaussian population” approximation, is also described as the “infinitesimal model.” Unlike the “Gaussian descendants” approximation, this third approximation cannot be rigorously justified, except in a weak-selection limit, even for a purely additive model. Nevertheless, it underlies the two most widely used descriptions of selection-induced changes in trait means and genetic variances, the “breeder’s equation” and the “Bulmer effect.” Future generations may understand why the “infinitesimal model” provides such useful approximations in the face of epistasis, linkage, linkage disequilibrium and strong selection.
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