Monday, March 31, 2014

Natural Selection And Punctuated Equilibrium

A reader asks-

I am still curious as to the mechanism and speed with which evolution by natural selection itself happened, like was it "punctuated equilibrium" or was it a slow and steady (continuous) mode of evolution, or was it a combination of the two, or some altogether third process. Not many programs discuss this unfortunately..

I left a short answer in a comment. Some additional thoughts:

Well.. Natural Selection and Punctuated Equilibrium are not directly connected with each other. Natural selection along with random genetic drift are mechanisms of evolution. Populations change in their genetic character and morphology due to natural selection or random genetic drift or a combination of the two. Punctuated equilibrium on the other hand refers to the tempo and pattern of morphological change seen in the fossil record and its significance. As was originally proposed by Eldridge and Gould it said that morphological change is concentrated in short bursts during cladogenesis i.e. when a new species buds off from an ancestral species. This change in morphology can be driven via natural selection or drift. So Punctuated Equilibrium says nothing about the primacy of any particular mechanism of evolution. Rather the emphasis is on the observed long periods of statis or little directional change in morphology in a lineage interrupted by geologically rapid bursts of change interpreted to be coupled to cladogenesis.

Gould later retracted somewhat from this position. He accepted the explanation for the pattern of Punctuated Equilibrium put forth by evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyama which was that change could occur at any time during the life of a species but it is only when a small population gets reproductively isolated from its parent population i.e when the two populations stop exchanging genes that any directional change may get fixed or become permanent enough to show up in the fossil record.

Then there are examples of lineages changing in a slow and steady fashion too.. so can't generalize.. Nature has examples of both.

Regarding why programs don't cover this-its true that television programs have to my knowledge not covered this topic. My sense is programs on evolution and fossils stick to popular topics like the discovery of fossils of recognizable creatures like dinosaurs, the first tetrapods, proto-whales or on dramatic events in the history of life such as mass extinctions. A debate that uses detailed morphometric analysis of creatures like trilobites and foraminifers to reveal the pace of evolution (two organisms used extensively to test for patterns of punctuated equilibrium due to their abundance) may be thought of as too arcane to make for great television.

Having said that punctuated equilibrium got its fair share of attention in the print media and mostly for the wrong reasons for it was widely misinterpreted by the media as some kind of alternative to conventional evolution. The biggest mistakes made were in thinking that punctuated equilibrium means that new species form due to large morphological changes that occur suddenly. The primary authors Eldridge and Gould never advocated this, but the garbled version promoted in popular press made it seem so and large changes meant that some unknown genetic mechanism (macromutations?) may be at work. In reality, some of the demonstrated cases of punctuated equilibrium from trilobites showed that the new species differed only slightly from the ancestral species, nothing that could not be explained by well understood processes in an evolving population. So, an interesting theory that sought to explain patterns of appearances of new species in the fossil record as an example of allopatric speciation and migration became sensationalized as an alternative to "Darwin's theory" of evolution.

Creationists loved it,  palaeontologists banged their heads in frustration and much of the reading public have been confused ever since.


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