Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Charles Darwin, founder of evolution AND ecology

Perhaps a good alternative title should be: “Why we need a second modern synthesis”

Darwin is rightfully seen (or vilified in some quarters) as the founder of modern evolutionary biology. He gave the naturalists of that era an observable and testable mechanism explaining species change and for understanding the similarities and differences among species. As we celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species, it seemed right to think about Darwin’s contributions beyond just evolutionary change, namely ecological patterns and processes.

I’ve read Origin probably half a dozen times now and as an ecologist, I am always amazed by the depth and breadth of Darwin’s insights. Every time I read it, there are passages that directly relate to what I happen to be thinking about or working on at the time, which leads me to the conclusion that he thought a lot about what scientists would come to call ecology. Though the word “ecology” wouldn’t be invented for another seven years (by Ernst Haeckel in 1866) and the first ecology text book didn’t appear until 1895 (by Eugenius Warming, and which includes interesting Lamarckian invocations in the last chapter), Darwin thought and wrote about ecology extensively.

In the Origin (1st edition), Darwin makes predictions about ecological patterns. On page 109, he states, “a … larger number of the very common and much diffused or dominant species will be found on the side of larger genera”. That is community dominance likely relays on inherited traits linked to species success. This certainly sounds like the result of some recent, interesting papers (e.g., Strauss et al.*).

Almost the whole discussion in the Struggle for Existence chapter is about ecological interactions and the severity of negative interactions, which stems from the fact that populations, if unchecked, will increase exponentially (i.e., page 116). We all know from work by ecologists such as Connell and Huston that those negative, deterministic interactions can be overridden by non-equilibrium processes, especially disturbances. Here again Darwin’s observations lead him to this conclusion; “If turf which has long been mown …be let to grow, the more vigorous plants gradually kill the less vigorous” and he observes that diversity in a plot goes from 20 species to 11 when the disturbance is removed.

Further, we often think of Darwin’s view of the environment as a selective pressure (e.g., fur thickness), but he also saw the environment as a determinant of species interactions. Lush places support a lot of species and the control of populations is due to competitive interactions, whereas in harsh places, populations are controlled by “injurious action” of the environment (e.g., page 121). Thus there is a shift from biotic to abiotic controls on ecological processes.

I think that we have collectively forgotten that evolution directly informs our expectations and predictions of ecological patterns and processes. While ecological geneticists drove much of the modern synthesis in the mid 1900’s by incorporating ecology (namely selection) into evolutionary processes, the reverse, bringing evolution into ecology is only now really starting to happen. Lets hope this second modern synthesis completes Darwin’s vision.


Anonymous said...

"The challenge of integrating ecological dynamics into evolutionary theory" is the topic of a series of 9 posts of mine, starting with

Michael said...

Nice article, it gave me so much new thoughts!

Marc Cadotte said...