Darwin Was Wrong

Somebody at the BBC sure knows how to write a story lead: “Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.” Say what? I always believed Darwin was wrong—not that I’ll here pitch for Creationism. Darwin being wrong doesn’t make his major opponents right.

I saw the Beeb’s story, “Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims,” last night, while using the BBC iPad app (which I love). Beeb reporter Howard Falcon-Lang cites research published in Biology Letters: “Links between global taxonomic diversity, ecological diversity and the expansion of vertebrates on land.” The current issue of Biology Letters is dated August 23, and thanks to the BBC story, the research seemingly spread everywhere today. Aggregation-whore Huffington Post has the story, citing the BBC, which is typical; I sometimes wonder if Huffington Post has a “no original reporting” policy. Bag someone else’s work and profit from it.

Funny thing—and this is where I do one of my journalism rants—the research isn’t new. Biology Letters published it online about six months ago. There’s an irony that going to print led to online news stories, assuming there were no news stories about the research in late-January. I’ll have to check on that.

Ah, but I digress. The findings are exciting and oh-so sensible. Howard quite aptly summarizes the research, conducted by Sarda Sahney, Michael Benton and Paul Ferry—or so I guess from reading the abstract and other reports. I wanted to read the full research firsthand, but not at a price of $33 for 30 days. I have requested access to a free trial Royal Society Publishing offers. From the abstract:

Throughout geological time, patterns of global diversity of tetrapod families show 97 percent correlation with ecological modes. Global taxonomic and ecological diversity of this group correlates closely with the dominant classes of tetrapods (amphibians in the Palaeozoic, reptiles in the Mesozoic, birds and mammals in the Cenozoic). These groups have driven ecological diversity by expansion and contraction of occupied ecospace, rather than by direct competition within existing ecospace and each group has used ecospace at a greater rate than their predecessors.

OMG! Yes! Yes! Of course! These findings juxtapose Darwinian theory that evolution depends on competition as driving force of change—the fittest survive when competition for living space, food and other resources increases; it directly relates to concepts of natural selection, too. The researchers identify something more dramatic, and I say more sensible: Increased availability of living space and other resources allows biodiversity to naturally occur. Howard explains:

The extinction of the dinosaurs left areas of living space wide open, giving mammals their lucky break. This concept challenges the idea that intense competition for resources in overcrowded habitats is the major driving force of evolution.

What’s that saying? “Nature abhors a vacuum”; granted the phrase’s conception was about physics, not biology. But why not biology, something like: Nature abhors empty living spaces. Just look to any road where grass or trees grow among the cracks or how plants and animals reclaim abandoned buildings.

Charles Darwin

Sarda and the other researchers aren’t disputing evolution, they’re finally making sense of it. The traditional view of competition is negative, assuming that growth occurs through conflict—but the concept is contrary to the most basic, natural observations. Does a sapling sprout because conditions are adverse, such as tall trees crowding out the sunlight? No. Fires naturally clear old forests, creating new living spaces where new plants and animals thrive.

The living space concept makes so much more sense than competition for dwindling resources. Where on earth are the most vibrant ecosystems—those flush with variety of species? Answer: Where conditions are optimal for growth and where there is abundant living space. Amazon rainforest is good example. Is not cactus adaption into a living space? Even in the coldest Arctic or Antarctic regions, something seeks to fill the living space.

I studied biology in college, where too many Darwinian concepts felt wrong to me. For example, I’ve long been convinced there are far fewer evolutionary paths than Darwinian theory supposes. There also clearly is purpose to so-called evolution, which I see more as adaptation (yeah, I’m cutting nuances). The two concepts, limited evolutionary paths and purposeful adaptation, are related. Here’s where I won’t engage in a discussion about the existence of God, to whom many Creationists attribute evolutionary purpose. I see purpose being pushed by the natural elements, the compounds they become and the biosphere they create. Elements have identifiable characteristics and behavior, which define the confines of natural law. From that perspective, evolutionary theory is where the physical and biological sciences should intersect. But that’s topic for a whole other post.

Circling back to the “ecological diversity” study, the findings have fascinating philosophical implications for Capitalism and Marxism. Capitalism is very Darwinian in that competition is perceived as advancing monetary systems and Capitalist societies. Marxism is in more Darwinian, viewing societal advances coming from the struggle between social classes. But if the natural order—of which humans most certainly are part—is one of growth and diversity fostered by living space, then Capitalism and Marxism are both fundamentally flawed worldviews. They are unnatural constructs that obstruct human advancement. Again, that’s topic for another post.

Bottom line: The living space concept makes a helluva lot of sense.

Photo Credits: Field Museum Library and Smithsonian Institution, respectively

Do you have a biological sciences story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: oddlytogether at gmail dot com.