'Nothing exists for one cause' : putting biology back into evolution

Penny, David & Phillips, Matthew J. (2006) 'Nothing exists for one cause' : putting biology back into evolution. In Geology amd Genes III Conference, 2006, Wellington.

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The opening phrase of the title is from Charles Darwin’s notebooks (Schweber 1977). It is a double reminder, firstly that mainstream evolutionary theory is not just about describing nature but is particularly looking for mechanisms or ‘causes’, and secondly, that there will usually be several causes affecting any particular outcome. The second part of the title is our concern at the almost universal rejection of the idea that biological mechanisms are sufficient for macroevolutionary changes, thus rejecting a cornerstone of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Our primary aim here is to consider ways of making it easier to develop and to test hypotheses about evolution. Formalizing hypotheses can help generate tests.

In an absolute sense, some of the discussion by scientists about evolution is little better than the lack of reasoning used by those advocating intelligent design. Our discussion here is in a Popperian framework where science is defined by that area of study where it is possible, in principle, to find evidence against hypotheses – they are in principle falsifiable. However, with time, the boundaries of science keep expanding. In the past, some aspects of evolution were outside the current boundaries of falsifiable science, but increasingly new techniques and ideas are expanding the boundaries of science and it is appropriate to re-examine some topics.

It often appears that over the last few decades there has been an increasingly strong assumption to look first (and only) for a physical cause. This decision is virtually never formally discussed, just an assumption is made that some physical factor ‘drives’ evolution. It is necessary to examine our assumptions much more carefully. What is meant by physical factors ‘driving’ evolution, or what is an ‘explosive radiation’. Our discussion focuses on two of the six mass extinctions, the fifth being events in the Late Cretaceous, and the sixth starting at least 50,000 years ago (and is ongoing).

Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary; the rise of birds and mammals. We have had a long-term interest (Cooper and Penny 1997) in designing tests to help evaluate whether the processes of microevolution are sufficient to explain macroevolution. The real challenge is to formulate hypotheses in a testable way. For example the numbers of lineages of birds and mammals that survive from the Cretaceous to the present is one test. Our first estimate was 22 for birds, and current work is tending to increase this value. This still does not consider lineages that survived into the Tertiary, and then went extinct later. Our initial suggestion was probably too narrow in that it lumped four models from Penny and Phillips (2004) into one model. This reduction is too simplistic in that we need to know about survival and ecological and morphological divergences during the Late Cretaceous, and whether Crown groups of avian or mammalian orders may have existed back into the Cretaceous. More recently (Penny and Phillips 2004) we have formalized hypotheses about dinosaurs and pterosaurs, with the prediction that interactions between mammals (and groundfeeding birds) and dinosaurs would be most likely to affect the smallest dinosaurs, and similarly interactions between birds and pterosaurs would particularly affect the smaller pterosaurs. There is now evidence for both classes of interactions, with the smallest dinosaurs and pterosaurs declining first, as predicted. Thus, testable models are now possible. Mass extinction number six: human impacts. On a broad scale, there is a good correlation between time of human arrival, and increased extinctions (Hurles et al. 2003; Martin 2005; Figure 1). However, it is necessary to distinguish different time scales (Penny 2005) and on a finer scale there are still large numbers of possibilities. In Hurles et al. (2003) we mentioned habitat modification (including the use of Geogenes III July 2006 31 fire), introduced plants and animals (including kiore) in addition to direct predation (the ‘overkill’ hypothesis). We need also to consider prey switching that occurs in early human societies, as evidenced by the results of Wragg (1995) on the middens of different ages on Henderson Island in the Pitcairn group. In addition, the presence of human-wary or humanadapted animals will affect the distribution in the subfossil record. A better understanding of human impacts world-wide, in conjunction with pre-scientific knowledge will make it easier to discuss the issues by removing ‘blame’. While continued spontaneous generation was accepted universally, there was the expectation that animals continued to reappear. New Zealand is one of the very best locations in the world to study many of these issues. Apart from the marine fossil record, some human impact events are extremely recent and the remains less disrupted by time.

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ID Code: 50559
Item Type: Conference Item (Other)
Refereed: No
Deposited On: 23 May 2012 22:31
Last Modified: 23 May 2012 22:31

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