The ecological causes and consequences of hard and soft selection

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Bell, Donovan A.
Kovach, Ryan P.
Robinson, Zachary L.
Whiteley, Andrew R.
Reed, Thomas E.
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Interactions between natural selection and population dynamics are central to both evolutionary-ecology and biological responses to anthropogenic change. Natural selection is often thought to incur a demographic cost that, at least temporarily, reduces population growth. However, hard and soft selection clarify that the influence of natural selection on population dynamics depends on ecological context. Under hard selection, an individual's fitness is independent of the population's phenotypic composition, and substantial population declines can occur when phenotypes are mismatched with the environment. In contrast, under soft selection, an individual's fitness is influenced by its phenotype relative to other interacting conspecifics. Soft selection generally influences which, but not how many, individuals survive and reproduce, resulting in little effect on population growth. Despite these important differences, the distinction between hard and soft selection is rarely considered in ecology. Here, we review and synthesize literature on hard and soft selection, explore their ecological causes and implications and highlight their conservation relevance to climate change, inbreeding depression, outbreeding depression and harvest. Overall, these concepts emphasise that natural selection and evolution may often have negligible or counterintuitive effects on population growth—underappreciated outcomes that have major implications in a rapidly changing world.
Hard selection , Soft selection , Eco-evolutionary dynamics , Inbreeding , Depression , Population dynamics , Evolutionary rescue , Global change , Sexual selection , Natural selection , Outbreeding depression
Bell, D. A., Kovach, R. P., Robinson, Z. L., Whiteley, A. R. and Reed, T. E. (2021) 'The ecological causes and consequences of hard and soft selection', Ecology Letters, 24(7), pp. 1505-1521. doi: 10.1111/ele.13754
© 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Bell, D.A., Kovach, R.P., Robinson, Z.L., Whiteley, A.R. and Reed, T.E. (2021), The ecological causes and consequences of hard and soft selection. Ecol Lett, 24: 1505-1521, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving.