Gradual Evolution Not Supported By Geological History, Says Geologist
    By News Staff | November 9th 2010 12:10 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Gradual evolution is not supported by geological history, writes New York University geologist Michael Rampino, who prefers the hypothesis that long periods of evolutionary stability were disrupted by catastrophic mass extinctions of life.  Not surprisingly, he studies volcano eruptions and asteroid impacts.

    When Charles Darwin published his "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" he explicitly rejected the role of catastrophic change in natural selection: "The old notion of all the inhabitants of the Earth having been swept away by catastrophes at successive periods is very generally given up," he wrote. Instead, Darwin outlined a theory of evolution based on the ongoing struggle for survival among individuals within populations of existing species. This process of natural selection, he argued, should lead to gradual changes in the characteristics of surviving organisms.

    Rampino states that geological history is now commonly understood to be marked by long periods of stability punctuated by major ecological changes that occur both episodically and rapidly, which he says casts doubt on Darwin's idea that "most evolutionary change was accomplished very gradually by competition between organisms and by becoming better adapted to a relatively stable environment."

    Rampino harkens back to Scottish horticulturalist Patrick Matthew, who published a statement of the law of natural selection in a little-read Appendix to his 1831 book "Naval Timber and Arboriculture", who described natural selection in a way similar to Darwin:
    There is a natural law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition…As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity…
    For more on natural selection thought prior to Darwin's book, see Prof. T. Ryan Gregory's Natural Selection Before Darwin.

    The difference was that Matthew saw catastrophic events as a prime factor, maintaining that mass extinctions were crucial to the process of evolution:
    ...all living things must have reduced existence so much, that an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life... these remnants, in the course of time moulding and accommodating ... to the change in circumstances.
    "In light of the recent acceptance of the importance of catastrophic mass extinctions in the history of life, it may be time to reconsider the evolutionary views of Patrick Matthew as much more in line with present ideas regarding biological evolution than the Darwin view," says Rampino.

    "Matthew's contribution was largely ignored at the time, and, with few exceptions, generally merits only a footnote in modern discussions of the discovery of natural selection," Rampino concludes. "Others have said that Matthew's thesis was published in too obscure a place to be noticed by the scientific community, or that the idea was so far ahead of its time that it could not be connected to generally accepted knowledge. As a result, his discovery was consigned to the dustbin of premature and unappreciated scientific ideas."

    Rampino contends a modern punctuated view of evolution and speciation is much more in line with Matthew's episodic catastrophism than Lyellian-Darwinian gradualism.

    Citation: Michael R. Rampino, 'Darwin's error? Patrick Matthew and the catastrophic nature of the geologic record', Historical Biology November 8 2010 DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2010.523948



    I told you so!

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Out of the mouths of dinosaurs ...
    Steve Davis
    Can't we have both?!!
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not even sure what the debate is about.  Evolution is about change, while natural selection is about competition.  All organisms tend to change, but whether those changes are significant or diluted will depend on who the competitors are.  Unless an organism can out-compete someone that is already filling a niche, then any modifications will be irrelevant since they don't improve a species position.  The risk, is that a modification will be extreme enough to compromise an organism's ability to reproduce or survive, but the overall tendency in reproduction is to "avoid" change. 

    I would argue that one of the roles of sexual reproduction is precisely to reduce the acceleration of changes and to "dilute" changes so that modification is avoided (as much as is possible).  After all, change is dangerous and has the potential to move a successful species into a new domain which may make it less well suited.  Therefore, those species that successfully exploit their niche will tend to maintain the status quo with selection favoring those that are stable.

    When a catastrophe strikes, it isn't evolution that is affected, but rather it is the competitors for environmental niches.  Therefore when such an event occurs, it affords more opportunity for the changes that are already intrinsic in a species to have a broader opportunity for exploitation.  If this occurs, it affords a species the opportunity to exploit these modifications in an environment that is now free of competitors, or for whom such changes may prove more advantageous than others.  In this case we would expect to see significant amounts of diversity suddenly "pop up" because it is the competitors that have been eliminated and not evolution that has changed.

    After all, Darwin's observations directly correlate to this because in each observed environment, the changes present represented a niche for which there were no obvious competitors, so natural selection could operate to ensure that variations better suited for the different environments had a higher probability of success and move towards fixation.  These adaptations could not have occurred had these niches already been occupied by successful species.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I assume it's a debate because people want to find the best answer.   This was a lot more controversial when Gould was alive but he (and punctuated equilibrium) seems to catch more of a break these days, though obviously in paleontology magazines.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand, but I'm still somewhat surprised when natural selection is discussed as if it occurs in a vacuum.  One continuously hears examples about how a potential heritable trait, such as running faster, would be passed down to offspring, without considering what happens if running faster isn't necessary.  So, by implication, if a species is successful, selection would tend to operate against unnecessary "improvements" since even those without it would still survive and be capable of reproducing.  Therefore one would expect to only see larger evolutionary steps occurring when the status quo is disrupted and those with distinctive (and significant) advantages are capable of stepping into a niche vacated by previous competitors.
    Mundus vult decipi
    There are various reasons, little discussed as to why my 3rd Great Grandfather's theories did not typically gain acceptance following the publication in 1831 of . Probably most significanct were Patrick's political proponencity for the abolishment of Inherent Nobility, which he thought was stifling the advancement and growth of the Empire...especially at a time when masses of people were unemployed and no existing programs for education or retraining were even thought of, let alone existing at the time. Besides... there were no new industrial base trades or technologies to support such endeavors. Also consideration must also be given to the clearing and purging of the Scottish Highlands not long before. These actions undeniably contributed to this same disparity in Scotland. Any who spoke out or condemned what was happening could easily find themselves ridiculed and marked as social devients among the Nobility. Despite inherited Aristocratic ties to Nobility of his own he chose to publicly condemn it's practice and it's principles. He wrote numerous articles on such issues as well as the plight of the growing poor and uneducated masses. These politcal views are part of why he wrote and published his book in the first place. Not only did he know and understand the role of the British Navy...he thrived on it's history and it's capabilities. He supported having an augmentation of naturalists of different areas of expertise on board every Royal Naval vessel sent to sea. And when either the political or military situation would allow, send them ashore to explore uncharted land masses or uninhabited islands that they may come upon in order to, discover, collect and record anything that could become useful for furthering and advancing the empire and it's colonies... especially new sources of superior forest timber to be used for building the very ships of the Royal Navy. Here in America before 1776 our own Pineries of the upper North East were claimed by the British, valued for the great masting of thier Tall Ships... and were protected by death if unauthorized harvesting was even attempted in these stands. It can be said that Patrick Matthew was just as emphatic as even Lord Nelson on this one aspect... which is a critical point to understand.

    Matthew also advocated, free trade, the abolishment of monopolies, repeal of the Corn Laws and the promotion of dispersing the growing masses of the unemployed at home in the British Isles to the various new colonies in America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These colonies had the potential to alleviate much of the economic disparity in Great Britain. They were growing and had need of all major skills in a small but growing work force and could become a means to provide opportunities for many needful subjects of the empire. In order to understand Patrick Matthew and comprehend his relevence to evolution you must look at all of his works as a whole and not just the fragments found in the appendix of this one book. One must also look at his other noted work. < Emmigration Fields: North America,The Cape, Australia and New Zealand>. Evolution is present and an intrical part of almost every aspect of life upon this planet.

    Getting back to the original premis...Patrick Matthew even for a time aligned himself with the Chartist movement... until he realized that he had other interests and responsibilities of a higher nature or priority and withdrew. Especially to his family who were suddenly feeling the impacts and stigmatic effects brought on by these political sorties to try and bring reformation and equality among the upper and lower classes. However his withdrawl was not enough to avoid the cost of public retrobution of his association to the concerted efforts of the movement. It is because of the stigmatism and unpopularity of his political views on Social ineqaulity among his peers that becomes the basis for a second point. Patrick Matthew's own family felt the sting of social shunning because of his public political pursuits. So for the sake of his family he toned down his public activism and chose to pursue writing his views in what has become his most noted works.

    Matthew had 8 children. Five sons and three daughters . Wikipedia has a description detailing a little about his family...especially about the endeavors of the five sons... including my own line through Alexander Matthew his 3rd son. What it doesn't mention is the significance of his 3 daughters. Because of the stigmatism and social shunning that Matthew's family were subjected to, none of his daughters ever married. These were bright, well educated and attractive young women who once were looked upon as well respected, socially accepted prospects for the young Aristocratic gentry of the times. Unfortunately Patrick's political activism was taking place simultaneously and it would be his 3 daughters who suffered the most in the Social repercusions of Matthew's political views. They never forgave him for that. After Patrick died in 1874, an extensive amount of his works, records, papers, and letters, that were not in the posession of 3 of his sons, were destroyed by his daughters who felt that their lives were totally devistated by Matthews research into evolution and his widely unacceptable political views about inherited nobility. Included in the destroyed papers and works were several other known letters to Matthew from Darwin himself that are not part of a small few remaining in the posession of the Scottish Museum.

    Darwin is very fortunate that his children preserved his material. Had they not taken the tme to save it, store it, have someone help them to make sense of it, and to chronologically put it in order, even his publications could have very likely slipped into obscurity. Even Darwin admited of not finding order among hishigher priorities.

    All I can say about Darwin is that Syms Covington his shooter sure saved his boss's keester with that well documented collection of Galopogos Island Finches that Darwin ordered him to surrender from his own private collection. Otherwise nobody would know who he was today. Darwin wasn't very good at documenting or preserving field specimens on the spot. That's why the Beagle's Captain allowed Darwin to utilize Covington's sevices. He wasn't very good at keeping things in order.