Why only one migrant per generation keeps divergence at bay

The best thing about population genetics is that because it’s a way of thinking and modeling the world it can be quite versatile. If Thinking Like An Economist is a way to analyze the world rationally, thinking like a population geneticist allows you to have the big picture on the past, present, and future, of life.

I have some personal knowledge of this as a transformative experience. My own background was in biochemistry before I became interested in population genetics as an outgrowth of my lifelong fascination with evolutionary biology. It’s not exactly useless knowing all the steps of the Krebs cycle, but it lacks in generality. In his autobiography I recall Isaac Asimov stating that one of the main benefits of his background as a biochemist was that he could rattle off the names on medicine bottles with fluency. Unless you are an active researcher in biochemistry your specialized research is quite abstruse. Population genetics tends to be more applicable to general phenomena.

In a post below I made a comment about how one migrant per generation or so is sufficient to prevent divergence between two populations. This is an old heuristic which goes back to Sewall Wright, and is encapsulated in the formalism to the left. Basically the divergence, as measured by Fst, is proportional to the inverse of 4 time the proportion of migrants times the total population + 1. The mN is equivalent to the number of migrants per generation (proportion times the total population). As the mN become very large, the Fst converges to zero.

The intuition is pretty simple. Image you have two populations which separate at a specific time. For example, sea level rise, so now you have a mainland and island population. Since before sea level rise the two populations were one random mating population their initial allele frequencies are the same at t = 0. But once they are separated random drift should begin to subject them to divergence, so that more and more of their genes exhibit differences in allele frequencies (ergo, Fst, the between population proportion of genetic variation, increases from 0).

Now add to this the parameter of migration. Why is one migrant per generation sufficient to keep divergence low? The two extreme scenarios are like so:

  1. Large populations change allele frequency very slowly due to drift, so only a small proportion of migration is needed to prevent them from diverging
  2. Small populations change allele frequency very fast due to drift, so a larger proportion of migration is needed to prevent them from drifting

Within a large population one migrant is a small proportion, but drift is occurring very slowly. Within a small population drift is occurring fast, but one migrant is a relatively large proportion of a small population.

Obviously this is a stylized fact with many details which need elaborating. Some conservation geneticists believe that the focus on one migrant is wrongheaded, and the number should be set closer to 10 migrants.

But it still gets at a major intuition: gene flow is extremely powerful and effective at reducing differences between groups. This is why most geneticists are skeptical of sympatric speciation. Though the focus above is on drift, the same intuition applies to selective divergence. Gene flow between populations work at cross-purposes with selection which drives two groups toward different equilibrium frequencies.

This is why it was surprising when results showed that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and farmers in Europe were extremely genetically distinct in close proximity for on the order of 1,000 years. That being said, strong genetic differentiation persists between Pygmy peoples and their agriculturalist neighbors, despite a long history of living nearby each other (Pygmies do not have their own indigenous languages, but speak the tongue of their farmer neighbors). In the context of animals physical separation is often necessary for divergence, but for humans cultural differences can enforce surprisingly strong taboos. Culture is as strong a phenomenon as mountains or rivers….