Sexual reproduction was likely an early evolutionary innovation after the appearance of eukaryotic cells. It appears to have been very successful because most eukaryotes are able to reproduce sexually and, in many animals, it is the only mode of reproduction. And yet, scientists also recognize some real disadvantages to sexual reproduction. On the surface, creating offspring that are genetic clones of the parent appears to be a better system. If the parent organism is successfully occupying a habitat, offspring with the same traits should be similarly successful. There is also the obvious benefit to an organism that can produce offspring whenever circumstances are favorable by asexual budding, fragmentation, or by producing eggs asexually. These methods of reproduction do not require another organism of the opposite sex. Indeed, some organisms that lead a solitary lifestyle have retained the ability to reproduce asexually. In addition, in asexual populations, every individual is capable of reproduction. In sexual populations, the males are not producing the offspring themselves, so hypothetically an asexual population could grow twice as fast.
However, multicellular organisms that exclusively depend on asexual reproduction are exceedingly rare. Why are meiosis and sexual reproductive strategies so common? These are important (and as yet unanswered) questions in biology, even though they have been the focus of much research beginning in the latter half of the 20th century. There are several possible explanations, one of which is that the variation that sexual reproduction creates among offspring is very important to the survival and reproduction of the population. Thus, on average, a sexually reproducing population will leave more descendants than an otherwise similar asexually reproducing population. The only source of variation in asexual organisms is mutation. Mutations that take place during the formation of germ cell lines are also the ultimate source of variation in sexually reproducing organisms. However, in contrast to mutation during asexual reproduction, the mutations during sexual reproduction can be continually reshuffled from one generation to the next when different parents combine their unique genomes and the genes are mixed into different combinations by crossovers during prophase I and random assortment at metaphase I.
The Red Queen HypothesisGenetic variation is the outcome of sexual reproduction, but why are ongoing variations necessary, even under seemingly stable environmental conditions? Enter the Red Queen hypothesis, first proposed by Leigh Van Valen in 1973.Leigh Van Valen, “A New Evolutionary Law,” Evolutionary Theory 1 (1973): 1–30 The concept was named in reference to the Red Queen's race in Lewis Carroll's book, Through the Looking-Glass.
All species coevolve (evolve together) with other organisms. For example, predators evolve with their prey, and parasites evolve with their hosts. Each tiny advantage gained by favorable variation gives a species a reproductive edge over close competitors, predators, parasites, or even prey. However, survival of any given genotype or phenotype in a population is dependent on the reproductive fitness of other genotypes or phenotypes within a given species. The only method that will allow a coevolving species to maintain its own share of the resources is to also continually improve its fitness (the capacity of the members to produce more reproductively viable offspring relative to others within a species). As one species gains an advantage, this increases selection on the other species; they must also develop an advantage or they will be outcompeted. No single species progresses too far ahead because genetic variation among the progeny of sexual reproduction provides all species with a mechanism to improve rapidly. Species that cannot keep up become extinct. The Red Queen’s catchphrase was, “It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.” This is an apt description of coevolution between competing species.