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Eternal EphemeraAdaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond$

Niles Eldredge

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780231153164

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231153164.001.0001

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Approaching Adaptation and the Origin of Species

Approaching Adaptation and the Origin of Species

(p.1) Introduction Approaching Adaptation and the Origin of Species
Eternal Ephemera

Niles Eldredge

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins with a discourse regarding evolutionary biology, particularly the theme of the “origin of species,” adaptation, geographic species replacement, and stasis. It presents the core rationale of the book, which focuses on the advancement of a natural causal explanation for the origin of species, along with the addition of the phenomenon of adaptation prompted by natural selection. The first part of the book recounts the story of the development of evolutionary theory in France, Italy, and Great Britain—a story inspired by Isaac Newton's persistence that there be natural causes for natural phenomena. The second part considers the arrival of adaptation on the evolutionary conceptual scene.

Keywords:   evolutionary biology, origin of species, adaptation, geographic species replacement, stasis, natural causes

The last time I saw the great biologist Ernst Mayr, he was in his nineties. He was clutching a martini at the end of a long meeting at which we both had spoken. He seemed happy, and I told him he clearly was still having fun. Ernst put on a mock scowl, and growled, “Come on, Eldredge, you know as well as I that evolutionary biology is hard work!”

And so it is. I have been an intensely engaged evolutionary biologist since the mid-1960s. I still love it—especially the ideas themselves, if not always the infighting that all such pursuits inevitably entail. But there is also the element of a game to it, something like “monkey-in-the-middle,” in which people jockey for position and ideas are contested as if they are a ball to be tossed, grasped—or dropped.

More substantively, some thinkers have seen evolution itself as a sort of a game in which the “goal” is to maximize adaptive, hence reproductive, success. They in fact equate evolution purely with the process of adaptation through competition and some form of selection. This approach is perhaps especially effective (or at least most commonly encountered) in theories of material cultural evolution. But it has been a dominant theme throughout much of the history of evolutionary biology as well.

But alongside adaptation, there has been this persistent, almost pesky, theme of the “origin of species.” Starting with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s work of 1801 on marine fossil shells and their relation to modern species, questions on the nature and modes of origin and extinction of species (p.2) have been out there on the evolutionary table. Indeed, the origin of the species of the modern fauna and flora was the original subject matter of evolutionary biology. Adaptation as a topic requiring analysis in and of itself did not come along until several decades later.

Once adaptation came to the fore, starting with Darwin’s Transmutation Notebooks of the late 1830s, the question then became: What is the relation between the origin of species and selection-driven adaptive change? Are new species strictly a byproduct of adaptive evolutionary change? Or do species exist and have natural causal origins, histories, and deaths through processes involving, not simply a fallout of, selection-driven adaptive change? Much of the history of evolutionary biology has involved wrangling over the nature of species and the relationship between speciation and adaptation.

In the waning days of the 1970s, I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. I already had a decade of employment as an evolutionary paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History under my belt. I had developed the early versions of punctuated equilibria and published the final version with my co-author Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. By the mid-1970s, the paper had gained a lot of notoriety, and I was receiving many invitations to speak at universities in the United States and abroad.

Punctuated equilibria was based on two empirical patterns: geographic species replacement in the living biota, which had prompted a renaissance of geographic speciation theory by people like the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr; and stasis, the very common observation that, once they first appear, species seem to be relatively stable, often for millions of years. There was little hint of the slow, steady, gradual change that Darwin, by the time he went public with his ideas, had insisted must be the general rule.

The paleobiology program at Rochester was very strong, staffed as it had been by the likes of David M. Raup, Jack Sepkoski, and Dan Fisher—the latter two former students of my friend from graduate student days a decade earlier, Stephen Jay Gould. But my invitation actually had come from the evolutionary biologists at Rochester, who were immersed in the study of genetics, systematics, and ecology of living species—rather than fossils.

(p.3) I had been in the business long enough to know that, on most campuses, most of the time, the paleobiologists residing in the geology department (by then beginning to call themselves more fashionable names like “Earth and Planetary Sciences,” reflecting the revolution in plate tectonics) had at best only a nodding acquaintance with the systematists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists of the biology department (which, by then, and prompted by the molecular revolution, had begun to call themselves names like “Ecology and Evolution,” as they began to split off from the newly minted molecular biologists). And vice versa. I had long since discovered that evolution interests people from many different walks of academic life: biology and paleontology, to be sure, but also anthropology, psychology, history, and philosophy of science—even comparative literature. For the most part, people from different departments didn’t seem to know—let alone work with—each other all that well. If anything, Rochester was more open and communicative across disciplinary lines than most universities were at that time.

I had given my lecture title in advance: “Alternative Approaches to Evolutionary Theory” (1979), the same title as a paper I had recently completed. The campus newspaper announced the event, but the title had somehow become garbled: the ad for my talk now read “Alternatives to Evolutionary Theory,” explaining why the rather modest-size classroom in which I spoke was crowded to overflowing, as twenty or so rather clean-cut kids (who no one from either biology or geology had ever seen before) showed up just as the lecture was about to begin. They were, of course, creationists; they kept politely silent, and softly shuffled out the door when my disappointing talk was (finally!) over with.

My actual talk dealt with what I had come to see as something of a rhetorical schism in ways of thinking about evolution. I was trying to turn the schism into a dialectic—a dialogue that might shed light on the entire subject if only evolutionary biologists (in the broadest sense of the term) would acknowledge that different disciplines made certain different assumptions about what evolution is; about what exists in the biological world that can reasonably be said to “evolve”; and regarding the fundamental nature of the processes that underlie evolution.

Although I was yet to learn Ernst Mach’s admirably concise definition of science (something like “the description of the entities of the (p.4) material universe and the interactions between them”), and was still decades from learning the great John Herschel’s much earlier characterization to the exact same effect, it did always seem pretty obvious that science dealt with what philosopher Mario Bunge (1977) had already been calling the “furniture” of the universe, and the things that happen to that furniture.

And what are those entities that lie at the core of modern evolutionary discourse? Genes and species, each with their subsets like “alleles” (and more in these post–molecular revolution days) and their frequencies within “populations” (subsets themselves of species). Looking upward, some evolutionary biologists (paleontologists, but also “neontologists”) would also consider “higher taxa” (such as genera, families, and the like) for the most part to be groups of genealogically interconnected species. Higher taxa are the large-scale results of the evolutionary process.

Missing from the gene/species duality, of course, are organisms, and more particularly their anatomical, physiological, and behavioral (phenotypic) characteristics. These are generally held to be the expression of the underlying genetic information, almost invariably assumed to be adaptations forged by natural selection working on genetically based variations within populations within species. But organisms themselves have ontogenies, births, and deaths. Organisms change throughout their lifetimes, but do not themselves evolve. Their genes and their phenotypic expressions evolve. And species evolve.

And it made sense, in the division of labor that inevitably arises in all human endeavor (certainly in all branches of the academic world) that some people, hence some research traditions, and perhaps even entire departments, would focus on one subset of phenomena, in the interests of efficiency, and following the funding of emerging new technologies. So some people were geneticists, until subsets of genetics began to develop. And some geneticists of course could consider the nature and role of entire species (Theodosius Dobzhansky, as we shall see, played a huge role in that respect). But it was quite possible to study the changing distributions of alleles in populations, whether on a sheet of paper (using the mathematical analytical techniques developed primarily by Ronald Fisher [1930], J. B. S. Haldane [1932], and Sewall Wright [1931, 1932] in the 1920s and 1930s); in experimental conditions using fruit flies, mice, (p.5) and, nowadays, E. coli; and also in the field (as Dobzhansky himself did—and as still goes on in myriad studies such as John N. Thompson’s (1994, 2005, 2013) co-evolutionary work, and Peter and Rosemary Grant’s (2011) work on the Daphne Major Island population of the Galápagos finch species Geospiza fortis). Though some of these studies contemplate species as a whole (including their origins), most do not, focused as they are on the dynamics of gene frequency change mediated by natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, and a host of molecular causes.

And that, of course, is as it should be. But what was bothering me back in the late 1970s was that something deeper seemed to be going on: that many evolutionary biologists seemed to be acting as if species, in a sense, did not really matter—or, in a sense, even truly exist. By that time, Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976), one of the most influential books on evolution in the latter half of the twentieth century, had appeared, and one could easily read that book and come away with the idea that genetic change through natural selection is all there really is to the process of evolution. Indeed, Dawkins took Darwin’s original concept of natural selection, in which the distribution of heritable features of organisms within species could change owing to the differential success in the “struggle for existence” (as Darwin had put it) of individuals with various different traits leading to their differential reproductive success, down a notch. Dawkins seductively argued that it is the genes themselves (or, really, the information that they contain) that are competitively vying for representation in the next generation.

Thus in the 1970s evolution was seen by many biologists almost purely as a process of adaptive change through natural selection. Nor was this an entirely novel gambit: evolutionary biologists could rightly cite Charles Darwin himself, whose overwhelming message left to his intellectual descendants in all editions of On the Origin of Species was one of inexorable evolutionary change through natural selection through long periods of geological time. Darwin had essentially included species in the pile that accumulated on his cutting room floor. That Darwin’s thinking as a younger man had been in reality far more complex than this cartoon caricature of his ideas was not really known to biologists, as modern Darwinian scholarship really did not come to the fore until the 1980s.

(p.6) But there was another way of envisioning the organization and evolution of biological entities: specifically, species seen as discrete entities with births, histories, and eventually deaths. Adaptation generated through natural selection was very much a part of this theoretical perspective. But the origin of discrete species is a phenomenon that itself needed causal explanation. It also needed to be folded into general evolutionary theory. This is the tradition of evolutionary biology that I absorbed in graduate school—even though my friends and I, as budding paleontologists, were firmly ensconced in the geology department.

At Rochester, then, I was talking about the dichotomy between two lines of evolutionary thinking: one that denied the significance of the existence of discrete species and the possible connections between their origins and processes of adaptive change; the other that held that the origin of discrete species is intimately connected with adaptive change in evolutionary history.

And I was beginning to see that the implications of stasis, which, along with geographic speciation was the other component of punctuated equilibria, were potentially profound. Stasis is the empirical refutation that most adaptive change accumulates slowly within species as time goes by. The two views were in fact antithetical, to the point of mutual exclusion. What I didn’t know then was that Darwin had reached that very conclusion in 1839 when he was thirty years old.

When the gist of these ruminations was published in 1979 as “Alternative Approaches to Evolutionary Theory,” I called the two views the “transformationist approach” and the “taxic approach.” It was the only paper of mine that Ernst Mayr wrote to me for a reprint. What matters is the circumstances under which adaptation through natural selection occurs. And I readily admit that it is not intuitively obvious that the two possibilities need be mutually exclusive. Darwin didn’t think so when he first saw both possibilities. Nor did Dobzhansky and many others who reinvented the concept of geographic speciation beginning in the 1930s.

But Darwin had come to think so, and, based on punctuated equilibria, so had I by the late 1970s. Darwin chose what we called “phyletic gradualism” as the predominant way natural selection forges and modifies adaptations. In contrast, we chose geographic speciation as that arena in which selection-generated adaptive change mostly occurs.

(p.7) And thus my entire narrative is about the development of a natural causal explanation for the origin of the species of the modern fauna and the addition of the phenomenon of adaptation generated by natural selection—thus setting up a conflict that flared up again in the twentieth century after Darwin had seemingly laid matters to rest.

The first half of this narrative begins with the story of the development of evolutionary theory in France, then Italy, and finally, by the 1820s and early 1830s, in Great Britain. It is a story inspired, at base, by Isaac Newton’s insistence that there be natural causes (sometimes called “secondary” causes in deference to the prime causal actions of the Creator) for natural phenomena. Newton, by all accounts, was a deeply religious person, yet he was someone who saw no inherent conflict between his religious beliefs and his search for natural causal explanations for the phenomena he studied.

I tell the essentially adaptation-free story of the earliest decades of the scientific study of “transmutation,” long since called “evolution,” in chapter 1. The initial focal point for all early evolutionists was the search for a natural causal explanation for the origin of species alive today.

It is remarkable that the two basically polarized positions that have permeated evolutionary thought throughout the last two hundred years were established by the first two naturalists to seriously study the subject. Both men based their ideas on empirical data drawn from a comparison of fossil mollusks with the species still alive along the coasts of their respective countries. First, there was the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who, in 1801, painted a picture of slow, steady, inexorable change of species through time. In Lamarck’s “system,” species do not so much become extinct as much as they transform slowly into their descendants, up to and including the species of the modern biota.

Little more than a decade later, in 1814, the Italian geologist Giambattista Brocchi published a rather different set of ideas on the origin of modern species (that’s right … the first two scholars to lay the groundwork for modern evolutionary biology were both named John the Baptist). Brocchi said that species are like individuals: both (p.8) individuals and species have natural causal explanations for their births and deaths. He denied Lamarck’s vision of slow, steady, gradual change, seeing species appearances and disappearances as reflections of discrete events, births and deaths, by analogy with what happens to individual organisms such as us. Brocchi saw descendant species replacing one another, becoming progressively more and more like modern species in progressively younger rocks.

For the remainder of chapter 1, I examine the paper trail, primarily in Edinburgh in the 1820s, where the ideas of both Lamarck and Brocchi were considered in some detail. Most of the discussion was published anonymously in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, founded in 1826 by geologist and medical school faculty member Robert Jameson. Patterns of geological replacement of species progressively more like, and eventually identical with, modern species became a commonplace catchphrase for British scientists not afraid to engage, however discreetly, with the concept of transmutation. The influential philosopher John Herschel also talked, in several places, of this pattern of progressive replacement of older species by their presumed descendants.

Both Jameson and the invertebrate biologist (and physician) Robert Grant were teachers and mentors to students, including Charles Darwin. Darwin read Lamarck’s treatise of 1801 on invertebrates while a student at the medical school in Edinburgh, and on other evidence, including Darwin’s own somewhat grudging words, there is little doubt that he was familiar not only with Lamarck’s picture of evolutionary change, but with Brocchi’s as well.

Darwin’s exposure to scientific analysis, natural history, and transmutational thinking continued as he completed his formal education at Cambridge in the last few years of the 1820s. It was at Cambridge that Darwin read John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on Natural Philosophy (1830). Herschel’s book is a clarion call for the Newton-inspired search for natural causal explanations for natural phenomena, among which was the progressive, successive replacement of older, extinct species by more modern ones. Darwin once said that Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse and Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (1819–1829), were the two books that persuaded him to pursue a life in science.

(p.9) In chapter 2, I move on to consider Darwin’s experiences, primarily in South America, during the five-year journey of HMS Beagle. Through Geological Notes, Zoological Notes, Diary, and letters sent home to his Cambridge botany teacher, John Stevens Henslow, and family members, a picture of Darwin wrestling with the possibility of transmutation emerges from his earliest formative experiences (in 1832) with the fossils and living species he encountered.

First, Darwin thinks he has found evidence of the replacement of an extinct species by a descendant still alive in southern South America. He then, I think quite originally, begins to see geographic replacement of “closely allied” species of the modern biota (predominantly birds). And, as the icing on the cake, beginning in 1834 in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), and especially, of course, in the Galápagos in 1835, he sees patterns of replacement of mainland species by similar ones found on islands, a pattern further broken down by replacement of species on different islands in the chain. Years later, Darwin opens the Origin of Species (1859) alluding to these patterns.

There was, however, an intriguing case of adaptation and transformation of characters in Darwin’s notes, Diary, and some of his letters, involving a poisonous snake he collected in 1832. Beyond this, nothing much of a Lamarckian-style tracing of morphological transformation between closely related species appears in Darwin’s Beagle writings.

When did Darwin become an evolutionist? Part of the solution to this perennial question is recognition that adaptation need not be the clinching evidence for the existence of a genuine evolutionary formulation, at least in these early days. Darwin was clearly toying with transmutational notions as soon as he started his field work on the Beagle. But when did he become convinced? I think the case is pretty clear that Darwin was a firm transmutationist in his first essay on the subject, written in Valdivia, Chile, and entitled, simply, “February 1835.” This was written some six months before he reached the Galápagos. Before “February 1835,” it is impossible to say.

Historians seem to agree that Darwin was a full-blown transmutationist by the time he wrote (in early 1837) the passages in the latter half of the Red Notebook after he was safely home. These passages are simply a rewrite of the gist of what he had to say in “February 1835.”

(p.10) Thus Darwin’s earliest flirtation with transmutation was, on the whole, much more Brocchian than Lamarckian in tone and content. I close chapter 2 with Darwin’s admission of precisely this in a letter written to Leonard Jenyns in 1844.

The rest of the first half of my narrative (chapter 3) looks at the late arrival of adaptation on the evolutionary conceptual scene. Darwin opens Notebook B in 1837 invoking the spirit of his grandfather Erasmus’s book Zoonomia (1794, 1796) and, convinced that a natural law of adaptation is near at hand, Darwin seizes the moment and links adaptation directly with two scenarios: speciation in isolation, on the one hand, and gradual progressive change on the other. At first, Darwin sees no conflict between the two very different models. But after he formulates natural selection in Notebooks D and E, and after acknowledging the uncomfortable fact that paleontologists have failed to find any convincing evidence of gradual progressive change, by the end of Notebook E (1838) he acknowledges a conflict, and adaptation temporarily becomes a problem. At that point, Darwin feels compelled to choose between adaptive change in conjunction with the origin of species in isolation, or, instead, a picture of gradual wholesale transformation of species.

Darwin resolves the conflict by insisting that, lack of evidence to the contrary, gradual evolutionary change must be the general rule. I conclude this first half of chapter 3 with an exploration of why Darwin saw the two pictures as antithetical—a subject that recurs in the second half of the book when I look at the events in evolutionary biology beginning in 1935.

Basically, Darwin had what we later called “punctuated equilibria” firmly in his grasp, but dropped the ball, as he downplayed the importance of speciation-through-isolation in the generation and accumulation of adaptive change in evolutionary history. The remainder of chapter 3 examines how the importance of isolation in evolution, especially in conjunction with the origin and modification of adaptations, becomes more and more dim in Darwin’s essays of 1842, 1844, mid-1850s, and finally On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859, and the sixth edition of 1872, the one that still dominates the bookshelves).

(p.11) Darwin left a lot on the cutting room floor, and the second half of my narrative can be seen as much as a restoration and elaboration of insights that were grasped even before Darwin as it can be seen as anything starkly new under the sun.

As a paleontology student in the 1960s, I of course knew next to nothing of all this early work that laid the foundation of evolutionary biology. I was hardly alone, as none of the earlier leading lights in evolutionary biology and paleontology of my era knew anything in detail about pre-Darwinian evolutionary thinking, nor of Darwin’s early 1830s thoughts, never published in his lifetime, about evolution. I was only to learn of all this in the last decade of my career, after I had spent something like forty years learning about modern evolutionary concepts, working to improve evolutionary theory by bringing it more into synch with patterns of biological history that the fossil record seemed to be resonating so loudly and clearly, all the while trying to make a living and help support a family in suburban New Jersey.

I had, of course, been delving into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species off and on throughout my career, starting as a college senior in 1965, when I took a copy to the lecture hall where Louis Leakey was scheduled to speak on the latest hominid fossil finds from Olduvai Gorge. I went early to grab a good seat. Leakey was very, very late, giving me the chance to delve into the Origin. I was overawed to begin with, afraid that I would not be able to wrap my mind around the great man’s words. The Victorian prose was additionally unnerving, though I managed to shoulder on. But by page 15 of the first chapter, Darwin had already immersed himself and his unwitting readers in a discussion of the intricacies of domestic pigeon breeding. Ennui quickly replaced awe. I put the book down, and at long last Leakey walked into the room.

I finally read the Origin in graduate school, switching to the original edition, in a facsimile version with an introduction by Ernst Mayr, a book I still have and consult regularly. Especially when Gould and I were being accused of anti-Darwinian tendencies by the mid-1970s, it was important to be accurate in our characterizations of what Darwin in fact had said. But that was about the extent of my knowledge of pre-twentieth-century evolutionary biology.

(p.12) Part II of my story deals with the sequence of events that led to the resurrection of that second line of thinking that Darwin had all but tossed aside.

Though the importance of geographic isolation to the evolution of new species had never been wholly lost sight of after 1859, it was not until Theodosius Dobzhansky resurrected this whole line of thinking in a short paper published in 1935, followed two years later by Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937, 1941, 1951), that speciation theory assumed an important position in modern, post-genetics evolutionary thinking. It was thus a geneticist (that is, not a paleontologist) who had, in effect, brought back notions of the reality of species and the importance of their origins, largely (if not exclusively) through geographic isolation.

This reinvention, revival, call it what you will, of the theory of the origin of species in isolation is the subject of chapter 4—the first chapter of the second half of my narrative.

Dobzhansky took the existence of species literally. He said that mutations at the level of individual organisms produce discontinuities: alternative discrete forms of genes, or “alleles.” But at the level of populations, continuity is the rule, as allelic frequencies within populations could be modified gradually and intergradationally among generations, through the agencies of natural selection (a statistically deterministic process) and “genetic drift,” the sampling error “random” process accounting for changes especially among populations within the same species originally proposed by Sewall Wright.

But Dobzhansky also pointed to a third, higher level: that of species themselves. Darwin had left the message that discontinuities among closely related species are largely a matter of extinction of intermediate forms. In sharp contrast, Dobzhansky argued that discontinuities between species are there for a reason: to focus species on “adaptive peaks.” Dobzhansky thought that, while some variation is necessary within a species to maintain flexibility, to avoid extinction should environmental conditions change, nonetheless organisms are adapted to a set of environmental conditions that is typical for any given species. Were there no genetic gaps between species, such an adaptive focus would be difficult, if not impossible, for a species to achieve.

(p.13) Five years later, in Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), systematist Ernst Mayr followed up Dobzhansky’s line of thinking, and the notion of geographic (“allopatric”) speciation, an idea developed at least as far back as Darwin in the 1830s, was finally back on the table in evolutionary biology. Yet again, by the 1970s, the newer game in town (“selfish genes”) seemed to imply that the existence and origins of species made little or no substantive difference to understanding evolution. In some quarters of evolutionary biology, by the 1960s and 1970s at least, species and speciation once again seemed to dim in importance.

Which brings us to chapter 5, devoted to the development of the theory of punctuated equilibria, fondly known around our house, and elsewhere, as “punk eek.”

Schermerhorn Hall on the Columbia University campus in the 1960s housed five departments: Biology (top floors); Geology (appropriately on the ground floors down to the basement); Fine Arts and Archaeology (wedged incongruously in the intervening floors); and, in the building’s “extension,” Anthropology and Psychology. As an undergraduate in the 1960s, I mostly hung out in the Anthropology Department, toying with the idea of taking it up seriously under the cultural materialist Marvin Harris, who in fact became my academic role model. But by the time I graduated, I had already also started hanging around the Geology Department, having preferred collecting Pleistocene fossils to badgering people about the details of their personal lives in my rudimentary Portuguese while on a three-month trip to Arembepe, Brazil, in 1963.

I’ll never fully understand why I thought that paleontology was the proper way to study evolution. It just seemed to make sense. After all, fossils tell us what was living before the species of the modern world evolved. They usually belong to species now extinct, the forerunners of what is living today. I was blissfully unaware that the study of evolution had long been firmly in the hands of biologists immersed in the living world and, for decades, especially in the intricate details of genetic systems. I had no clue that it had all begun with fossils and that our nineteenth-century predecessors began with the thought that the fossil record holds the key to understanding the origin of modern species. That was another thought we had to reinvent for ourselves.

(p.14) But in the 1960s we paleontology students were keenly aware that genetics, ecology, and systematics (the core of evolutionary biology) focused on the nature and modes of origins of discrete species to a high degree. I used to commute between the Geology and Biology Departments on the Schermerhorn elevator, taking courses in both geology and biology, reading in both libraries, trying to understand how the disparate dialogues of these two rather separate worlds actually fit together.

One day a fellow graduate student in paleontology asked me what book I was carrying as we ascended to the lofty aerie of Schemerhorn’s ninth floor (former home to Thomas Hunt Morgan’s “fly room,” where the elements of genetics were hammered out in the first two decades of the twentieth century). That was the very place that attracted the attention, and eventual presence, of that young Russian ladybird beetle systematist Theodosius Dobzhansky. The book I was holding that day on the elevator was Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), the opus that picked up where Dobzhansky had left off five years earlier, developing further the notion of geographic speciation and establishing its importance as a vital component of the evolutionary process.

Punctuated equilibria (my preferred term—as originally published; Steve Gould inexplicably changed it at some point to “punctuated equilibrium” as it perhaps is most commonly known these days) combines the near-universal pattern of stasis with the idea of the origin of species through geographic isolation. Ask virtually any paleontologist what happens to a species in the interval of time between their first and last recorded appearances in the fossil record. You’ll be told that most of the known species appear not to change very much as they live out their “lives,” often over millions of years. That’s stasis.

And new species overwhelmingly appear rather abruptly in the fossil record. It is vanishingly rare to be able to trace the slow, steady, gradual modification of an ancestral species into an undoubted descendant, including tracing very young fossils slowly evolving into the appearance of still-living species. Thus the imagery caught in the name “punctuated equilibria”: relatively quick spurts of evolution (the “punctuation”) interrupting vastly longer periods of business-as-usual non-change of species as one chases them up cliff faces and pieces together their (p.15) histories from disparate far-flung outcrops of rocks that, together, tell their evolutionary history.

Ernst Mayr once famously remarked (in the very book I was carrying on that elevator ride) that of course species are “real” entities: Why else have a theory of their origins? Certainly Gould and I thought (and I still do) that species are “real.” Punctuated equilibria is a general characterization of the births, histories, and deaths of species. Species, to people like us, at any rate, are discrete in both time and in space. They are, as well, component parts of evolving lineages. Every species, as the overwhelming rule, is descended from an ancestral, progenitor species.

That Darwin grasped at least the gist of punctuated equilibria, before dropping it in favor of gradual progressive adaptive change, gives our work the slight aura of “reinventing the wheel.” But I take the more optimistic view that speciation in isolation, the reality of species, and other topics were anticipated, if only to be promptly discarded, by Charles Darwin, thus leaving a vacuum. The phenomena remained essentially unexplained until the twentieth century, beginning with Dobzhansky’s work in the 1930s. This suggests that these concepts centering on the origin of discrete species had to be reinvented. It further implies that, at a very fundamental level, they must be essentially right.

Prompted in part by the attention garnered by punctuated equilibria, theoretical analyses of the nature of species and their putative roles in an expanded evolutionary theory exploded in the 1970s and 1980s. These novel theoretical gambits, loosely gathered under the term “macroevolution,” are the subject matter of chapter 6.

Independent of our work arose the “radical solution to the species problem” posed by biologist Michael Ghiselin: Ghiselin said that people tended to think of species as classes—that is, as collections of similar individuals bound together by traits held in common. Instead, they are entities with proper names—a position that appealed to me especially, as a paleontologist who had no trouble seeing species as real entities.

And of course, here again there is more than a hint of reinventing the wheel: Brocchi had proposed a formal analogy between individuals and species, at least in terms of their births and deaths. Indeed, seeing species as analogous to individuals was the initial insight that began the serious discourse in evolutionary biology that has led us down to the (p.16) dialogues of recent times. Darwin used it as his entrée into the scientific contemplation of the history of life on earth. But when Ghiselin (1974) first proposed it (and as it was extensively elaborated by philosopher David Hull [1976]) it seemed to us all very new, bold, plausible—and very welcome.

If species are “real,” discrete (and, I would add, for the most part evolutionarily stable) entities, species themselves can be seen as playing their own roles in evolutionary history. Once genetic isolation is established within sexually reproducing lineages, what happens later within a newly fledged lineage will have no effect on the collateral kin that also survive. New species embark on their own, separate evolutionary odysseys, variably spreading over the landscape and diversifying; or remaining localized and virtually invariant, or any combination thereof; and they may, in the course of their own “lifetimes” give rise to their own descendant species. And they and their descendant species may survive differentially more than their collateral kin; or they may die out sooner. Concepts such as “species selection” and “species sorting” (a term introduced by paleontologist Elisabeth S. Vrba) have been debated actively in recent decades.

Then, too, there is the delicious possibility that speciation may actually be a factor inducing adaptive change. There’s a switch: instead of assuming, as is almost universally and traditionally the case, that it is adaptive change that “causes” speciation, it seems to some biologists these days that the reverse is more nearly the case: that it is the process of speciation that triggers adaptive change. Indeed, and once again, Darwin spelled out how that could be the case in Notebook B (1837), before essentially dropping the possibility in Notebook E (1839).

Stasis alone suggests that speciation may trigger adaptive change. At the very least we know empirically that morphological adaptive change occurs for the most part in and around speciation events, rather than in the much longer periods of species persistence with little or no lasting accumulation of change. Whatever variation and change through time an ancestral species may have developed prior to giving rise to its descendant, that change is seldom, if ever, going in the morphological direction of any eventual new daughter species that might later arise. It is exceedingly rare to find convincing examples in which geographic (p.17) and temporal patterns of variation within a species turn out to be good indicators of the evolutionary future.

And now, as I write, some molecular biologists are claiming to see similar patterns in their data. Evolutionary genetic change is now emerging as closely correlated with branching points in evolutionary history, suggesting to some molecular geneticists that evolutionary change is actually contingent on episodes of evolutionary branching: speciation.

As Dobzhansky suggested, there is indeed a hierarchy of entities and phenomena at disparate spatiotemporal scales. Organisms, with their component genes, are parts of populations, with their own, continuous processes of selection and drift (“population genetics”); and populations are parts of species, which are genetically and reproductively discontinuous with closely related other species. This is the “genealogical hierarchy.”

Ecological systems are also hierarchically arranged. And the interactions between components in both systems are, in the most general sense, what drives evolution. “Hierarchy theory,” developed from 1980s to the present, recognizes the hierarchical structure of biological systems of varying spatiotemporal scales and dimensions, and examines how they interact to form a more complete understanding of the evolutionary process: the “how and why” the history of life on earth looks the way it does. The “sloshing bucket” theory I proposed a decade or so ago links scales of evolution of entities from local populations, through species and on up through higher taxa, with scales of environmental disruption, from local to global. The relation between extinction and evolution is profound.

All of this—geographic speciation, punctuated equilibria, species as individuals, species selection, species sorting, hierarchy theory, the sloshing bucket—struck especially those of us, primarily paleobiologists, as new and excitingly original. Here at last, we thought in our headier moments, paleontology, arguably for the first time, had real contributions to make to evolutionary theory alongside those who study the biology of living organisms. For my own part, it seemed that it had not been altogether a stupid move after all to try to study the evolutionary process by contemplating the long-dead fossilized remains (p.18) of extinct species. And even some of those not especially enamored with our work did in fact welcome paleontologists to the “High Table” of evolutionary discourse.

The “data” of my story are the actual words of the players in the game, from Lamarck on up to the present day.

My narrative in the ensuing chapters, logically enough, begins with my take on the man who began it all: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. It is of course open-ended, as life, certainly including the study of evolution, goes on. Thus my narrative does not coincide with the order in which I led the life, had the experiences, and learned my own professional lessons. I started in the middle and lived it up to the present time. Only later in life did I learn the details of the first half of the story.

I still think Ernst Mayr was having fun as he clutched his martini after giving a lecture at ninety-plus years. So, for that matter, am I.