A stochastic version of the Price equation reveals the interplay of deterministic and stochastic processes in evolution
Background. Evolution involves both deterministic and random processes, both of which are known to contribute to directional evolutionary change. A number of studies have shown that when fitness is treated as a random variable, meaning that each individual has a distribution of possible fitness values, then both the mean and variance of individual fitness distributions contribute to directional evolution. Unfortunately the most general mathematical description of evolution that we have, the Price equation, is derived under the assumption that both fitness and offspring phenotype are fixed values that are known exactly. The Price equation is thus poorly equipped to study an important class of evolutionary processes. Results. I present a general equation for directional evolutionary change that incorporates both deterministic and stochastic processes and applies to any evolving system. This is essentially a stochastic version of the Price equation, but it is derived independently and contains terms with no analog in Price's formulation. This equation shows that the effects of selection are actually amplified by random variation in fitness. It also generalizes the known tendency of populations to be pulled towards phenotypes with minimum variance in fitness, and shows that this is matched by a tendency to be pulled towards phenotypes with maximum positive asymmetry in fitness. This equation also contains a term, having no analog in the Price equation, that captures cases in which the fitness of parents has a direct effect on the phenotype of their offspring. Conclusion. Directional evolution is influenced by the entire distribution of individual fitness, not just the mean and variance. Though all moments of individuals' fitness distributions contribute to evolutionary change, the ways that they do so follow some general rules. These rules are invisible to the Price equation because it describes evolution retrospectively. An equally general prospective evolution equation compliments the Price equation and shows that the influence of stochastic processes on directional evolution is more diverse than has generally been recognized. © 2008 Rice; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.