Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution not supported by geological history, NYU scientist concludes

Charles Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution is not supported by geological history, New York University Geologist Michael Rampino concludes in an essay in the journal Historical Biology. In fact, Rampino notes that a more accurate theory of gradual evolution, positing that long periods of evolutionary stability are disrupted by catastrophic mass extinctions of life, was put forth by Scottish horticulturalist Patrick Matthew prior to Darwin’s published work on the topic.

“Matthew discovered and clearly stated the idea of natural selection, applied it to the origin of species, and placed it in the context of a geologic record marked by catastrophic mass extinctions followed by relatively rapid adaptations,” says Rampino, whose research on catastrophic events includes studies on volcano eruptions and asteroid impacts. “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.”

Matthew (1790-1874), Rampino notes, published a statement of the law of natural selection in a little-read Appendix to his 1831 book Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Even though both Darwin and his colleague Alfred Russel Wallace acknowledged that Matthew was the first to put forth the theory of natural selection, historians have attributed the unveiling of the theory to Darwin and Wallace. Darwin’s notebooks show that he arrived at the idea in 1838, and he composed an essay on natural selection as early as 1842 — years after Matthew’s work appeared. Darwin and Wallace’s theory was formally presented in 1858 at a science society meeting in London. Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared a year later.

In the Appendix of Naval Timber and Arboriculture, Matthew described the theory of natural selection in a way that Darwin later echoed: “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…”

However, in explaining the forces that influenced this process, 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.”

When Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly three decades later, 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.

However, as Rampino notes, 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, casting doubt on Darwin’s theory that “most evolutionary change was accomplished very gradually by competition between organisms and by becoming better adapted to a relatively stable environment.”

“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.”

7 thoughts on “Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution not supported by geological history, NYU scientist concludes

  1. the theory of evolution is is much easier to dispute in stages from stellar evolution to macro evolution which is still in it’s fancy. The proof for evolution throu science is great but it need to be taken as a reallity at least for a moment when looking at thehttp://evolutionevidenceflawed.blogspot.com link

  2. I agree with Michael Rampino. I also believe that humans and dinosaurs have coexisted million years ago. I have also formulated Gravitation Force Theory of Biological Evolution.

    I know one story (imagination/free thinking) of H.G.Wells. About 35 years ago when I was doing my first degree course in science, one of my senior colleague told me a story from Time Machine of H.G.Wells that a day will come when the size of humans would of size of a rat. Now see what has actually happened afterwards. About 2 or 3 years back I saw in news paper that a giant sized rodent fossil had been found. This was almost to elephant or bull size. This confirmed my belief that dinosaurs had not been wiped out. They are still found may be in smaller size, yes of course with some different characteristics. I think Gravitation Force is one of the major cause of genetic mutation. Gravitation Force is continued to increase gradually towards centre and compressing all members of animal kingdom bringing about genetic change with respect to size. A new evolved species or same species with some new characteristics created in due course of time.

  3. This is a theory put forth by a geologist. Modern evolutionary biology tells a different tail. Periods of rapid evolution certainly occur during periods of environmental stress, but this does not negate the fact that biological change is observed to be nearly constant.

  4. Sure PM is under appreciated. But this doesn’t necessarily undermine the importance of Darwin’s ideas or their significance. As Rampino concludes, PM was under appreciated in his own, as well. Darwin, on the contrary, made and has made a big splash. So, historically, this is like arguing that Nirvana’s Nevermind is an overrated album. But it’s immediate overrated-ness (if that was indeed the case–a sentiment with which I happen to disagree) did make it a ridiculously significant album in terms of influence and indie and pop precedent which is largely why it is rated so highly today. In both cases, the content itself is almost underrated by comparison. Darwin’s suggestion is not that instantaneously evolution does not occur but that consistent competition does indeed do the most species shaping. Stability, is not characterized by stagnation. If it was, Rampino would have a point. Instead stability is defined by the lack of an epic environmental event. So while these epic episodes do essentially necessitate evolution, their lack does not preclude its constant subtle steps, some of which ultimately dictate a species’ success when that inevitable epic environmental event eventually occurs.

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