Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Evolution Through Punctuated Equilibrium: History Of An Idea

Palaeontologist Niles Eldredge explains how one of the most famous papers on paleontology and evolution came to be published: 

Steve was determined to be a part of Tom’s plan to do a GSA symposium and publish a book of essays on this new-fangled concept of “paleobiology.” Tom had a list of topics and was shopping around for speakers to be assigned to each one. When Steve saw the list, he told me that he had first wanted “morphology”—but that was already assigned to Dave Raup. So he opted instead for “phylogeny”—but that had been grabbed up by Mike Ghiselin. That left only “speciation,” the last of the evolutionarily imbued topics on Tom’s list, as yet unassigned. Steve called me up, explained the situation, and said he had settled for speciation—but could not think of anything much to say about it beyond the manuscript I had written and recently submitted to Evolution—there of course being no Paleobiology as yet. “The Allopatric Model and Phylogeny in Paleozoic Invertebrates”—a distinctly un-Gouldian, plodding, if accurate, title (Eldredge 1971). Without Ralph Gordon Johnson in the editorial chair of Evolution at that time, I doubt that that early paper would have been accepted. As it was, it was likely to have gone relatively unnoticed—had not Tom come along, Steve grabbing “Speciation”—and Steve asking if we could coauthor the paper along the basic lines of my first effort. He was stuck with “speciation,” and couldn’t think of anything much to say beyond what I had said in the Allopatric Model manuscript.

This passage is from an article by Niles Eldredge titled Reflections On Punctuated Equilibria, published in a recent issue of Paleobiology. The 1972 paper he refers to, coauthored with Stephen Jay Gould, was, Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. It marked the beginnings of a long debate on how to interpret the patterns of morphological change observed in the fossil record. Do species remain in stasis, showing little morphological change through much of their existence as Eldredge and Gould argued? Do periods of rapid morphological change coincide with the origin of new species (speciation)? Supporters hailed it as a revolutionary work. Critics called it 'evolution by jerks', a jibe aimed not just at the patterns of change.

Dr. Eldredge provides a very insightful look at the history of this idea including some fascinating snippets on Darwin's thinking about divergence and species origins. For Darwin, change accumulates incrementally over long passages of time. Divergence via natural selection can give rise to descendant varieties even without geographic isolation of a population. Later thinking has given more importance to exogenous factors like climate change in causing habitat fragmentation and reproductive isolation. Populations gets geographically isolated first, and then diverge from the ancestral species either through natural selection or random genetic drift. Eldredge and Gould applied this idea to the fossil record and emphasized that the sudden appearance of new fossil species is a manifestation of long periods of stability interrupted by episodes of isolation and geologically rapid shifts in morphology (allopatric speciation).

There is a lot to take in and think about the long term patterns of change preserved in the fossil record. But it is enriching reading. The article is open access.

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