Life history theory seeks to explain, from first principles, the evolution of the main features of life cycles, in particular the design of organisms with respect to their reproductive success. To do so, the theory makes two simplifying statements: to understand the evolution of life histories we need to understand (1) the environmental factors that affect the age- or stage-specific schedules of survival and reproduction, and (2) the connections (trade-offs) between life history traits and the internal constraints these connections (and other factors) impose upon how life history traits can vary. By building on these simplifying claims, life history theory has focused on general principles and deliberately ignored complicating details, such as the mechanisms of genetics, development, and physiology. By using relatively simple mathematical models, and by assuming constraining trade-offs as boundary conditions, one can derive elegant theoretical predictions about life history evolution, most – if not all – of which have been confirmed empirically with tremendous success. In contrast to this classical research program, Flatt will explicitly draw attention to the mechanistic description, the "molecular natural history," of life history traits and their evolution. Traditionally, life history theory is silent on such proximate mechanisms; yet recent advances in mechanistic biology have taught us a great deal about how genetics, development, and physiology affect life history. Although much of this information comes from research outside the realm of evolutionary biology, for example from fields such as the genetics of growth control or the molecular biology of aging, it is often directly relevant for our understanding of the evolution of life histories. To date, however, this mechanistic knowledge has not yet been adequately integrated into the life history framework.
Thomas Flatt has been a permanent Group Leader at the Institute of Population Genetics at the Vetmeduni Vienna since January 2009 and a faculty member of the Vienna Graduate School of Population Genetics. His main research interest is in the biology of aging, life history evolution, and evolutionary physiology, using Drosophila as a model system. He studied biology at the University of Basel. In 1994 he was awarded a long-term fellowship from the Swiss Study Foundation. He received his MSc in population biology from the University of Basel in 1999, for work supervised by Prof. Stephen C. Stearns (Basel, now Yale) and Prof. Richard Shine (Sydney). In 2004 he earned his PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Fribourg (under Prof. Tadeusz Kawecki, now Lausanne). Between 2004 and 2008 he was a postdoctoral research fellow in Prof. Marc Tatar's laboratory at Brown University (Providence, USA), sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Roche Research Foundation. He currently serves as a deciding editor for the Journal of Evolutionary Biology and as a reviewing editor for Frontiers in Experimental Endocrinology. He has recently been awarded a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin for Spring 2012. Selected Reading Flatt T, Heyland A, Stearns SC (2011) What mechanistic insights can or cannot contribute to life history evolution - An exchange between Stearns, Heyland, and Flatt. In: Mechanisms of Life History Evolution: The Genetics and Physiology of Life History Traits and Trade-Offs (Flatt T, Heyland A, eds). 375-379. Oxford UP.