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