Punctuated Equilibrium and Macroevolution

  • Kim Sterelny
Part of the Australasian Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 11)


Hardened Darwinism is the view that the history of life is explained by forces operating on populations of organisms, or perhaps, on their genes. Large scale events and processes are no more than an aggregation of the fate of individual organisms. This story has received some rough treatment in the literature lately, for hierarchical views of evolutionary theory are currently popular. Eldredge, Gould and Stanley1, to name only three, are on the record in urging that there are robust macroevolutionary phenomena, phenomena not captured generation by generation change in gene frequency. Three large scale patterns are most on people’s minds. One is mass extinction. Mass extinctions, its been alleged, are regular and intense. Most importantly, surviving mass extinction is mostly chance; it is not determined by an organism’s suite of adaptations. If so, the shape of the tree of life is determined not by the relative fitness of its various twigs, but by their proximity to an extrinsic, perhaps even extraterrestrial, pruner. A second is Gould’s most recent preoccupation, the “cone of decreasing diversity”. The theme of his 1989 is his idea that life reached its maximal diversity at the Cambrian explosion; diversity has declined since. On Gould’s view, natural selection played no central role in either the establishment of that diversity or its decline2.


Natural Selection Mass Extinction Fossil Trace Individual Organism Species Selection 
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  1. 1.
    See for example Eldredge (1985a) Time Frames Google Scholar
  2. 1a.
    Simon & Schuster, Eldredge (1985b) The Unfinished Synthesis Google Scholar
  3. 1b.
    OUP and Eldredge (1989) Macroevolutionary Dynamics, McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  4. 1c.
    See also Vrba & Eldredge (1984) Individuals, Hierarchies and Processes: Towards a More Complete Evolutionary Theory’ Paleobiology 10, pp 146–171Google Scholar
  5. 1d.
    Gould (1980d) Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?’ Paleobiology, 6, pp, 119–130Google Scholar
  6. 1e.
    Gould (1983) The Meaning of Punctuated Equilibrium & Its Role in Validating a Hierarchical Approach to Macroevolution’ Scientia, 1 pp 135–157Google Scholar
  7. 1f.
    Gould (1985) The Paradox of the First tier: An Agenda for Paleobiology’ Paleobiology, 11, pp 2–12Google Scholar
  8. 1g.
    Salthe (1985) Evolving Hierarchical Systems ; Columbia UPGoogle Scholar
  9. 1h.
    Stanley (1981) The New Evolutionary Timetable, Basic Books. For very sceptical views of the whole punctua-tional enterpriseGoogle Scholar
  10. 1i.
    see Dawkins (1986) The Blind Watchmaker Google Scholar
  11. 1j.
    W.W. Norton and Hoffman (1989) Arguments on Evolution, OUP.Google Scholar
  12. 2.
    I discuss Gould on diversity in Sterelny ‘Gould’s ‘Wonderful Life”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  13. 3.
    Gould especially; see for example his (1980b) The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change’, and (1980c) The Return of the Hopeful Monster’ both in Gould (1980a) The Panda’s Thumb ; W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  14. 4.
    Sober (1984) The Nature of Selection , MITPress (section9.4) and Hoffman 1989 (chapter 7) have also made this crucial distinction between pattern and process in punctuated thought.Google Scholar
  15. 5.
    Mayr seems to defend an intermediate position; the genetics of speciation is abnormal not because of macromutation but because founder populations are not just under greater selectional pressure, but also because they exhibit greater variability (cf Mayr (1988a) Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard UP, Cambridge pp 473–4).Google Scholar
  16. 6.
    For a pellucid exposition of this, see Dawkins 1986 pp 66–74, but the general point is uncontroversial.Google Scholar
  17. 7.
    See for example Mayr 1988a chapter 21.Google Scholar
  18. 8.
    For a more detailed and careful reconciliation of adaptive hypotheses with due modesty about the optimizing power of natural selection see part I of Godfrey-Smith (forthcoming) Teleometry and the Philosophy of Mind. Sober doesnot agree with this attempt to drive a wedge between optimality theory and adaptation; for his views on these issues see his (1987) ‘What is Adaptationism?’ in Dupre (1987) The Latest on the Best; MIT Press.Google Scholar
  19. 9.
    This line of thought is particularly prominent in Eldredge; seehis 1985 a&b, and his 1989.Google Scholar
  20. 10.
    For the general distinction between the causally agnostic “selection of” some trait versus the causally committed “selection for” it, see Sober 1984a 3.2. For its application to species, see Vrba (1984) “What is Species Selection?” Systematic Zoology 33 pp 318–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 11.
    Hull (1988) Interactors versus Vehicles’Google Scholar
  22. 11a.
    in Plotkin (1988) The Role of Behavior in Evolution ; MIT PressGoogle Scholar
  23. 11b.
    and Dawkins (1982) The Extended Phenotype ; OUP, chapter 6.Google Scholar
  24. 12.
    For ease of exposition I will take it that our candidate replicator is the species, not the species gene pool, for nothing I say depends on this distinction. For similar reasons, in this paper I will be neutral on the gene/organism debate.Google Scholar
  25. 13.
    For example, in Part 4 of Maynard Smith (1989) Did Darwin Get it Right? , Chapman and Hall, and 9.3/9.4 of Sober 1984a.Google Scholar
  26. 14.
    Some see these claims as tantamount to the idea that species are individuals; see Ghiselin (1974) ‘A Radical Solution to the Species Problem’ Systematic Zoology 23, pp 536–544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 14a.
    Hull (1978) ‘A Matter of Individuality’ Philosophy of Science 45 pp 335–360CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 14b.
    reprinted in Sober (1984b) Conceptual Issues In Evolutionary Biology , MIT PressGoogle Scholar
  29. 14c.
    and especially Hull (1987) ‘Genealogical Actors in Ecological Roles’ Biology and Philosophy, 2 pp 168–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 14d.
    reprinted in Hull (1989) The Metaphysics of Evolution , State University of New York Press, New York. For arguments that we can pose the biological question independently of this issue see Kitcher (1989) ‘Some Puzzles about Species’ in Ruse What the Philosophy of Biology Is, Kluwer, and Hoffman 1989 chapter 8.Google Scholar
  31. 15.
    See Kitcher 1989 on the idealizations implicit in the etiological species concept’.Google Scholar
  32. 16.
    See e. g. Williams (1966) Adaptation and Natural Selection, Princeton University Press, especially pp 96–98.Google Scholar
  33. 17.
    In the final chapter of his 1982.Google Scholar
  34. 18.
    See Sober 1984a pp 259–62 for a more detailed discussion of a parallel example drawing a similar moral.Google Scholar
  35. 19.
    Schull (1990) ‘Are Species Intelligent?’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 pp 63–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 20.
    See Ridley (1989) The Cladistic Solution to the Species Concept Biology & Philosophy 4, pp 1–16 for a defense of this picture of species and speciation.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 21.
    That is, changes in survivability and resource use, as contrasted with the sort of changes produced by “sexual selection”.Google Scholar
  38. 22.
    Thanks to John Maynard Smith for his comments on an very early version of this paper, and to Philip Kitcher, David Hull, and, especially, Elliot Sober for comments on the most recent versionGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kim Sterelny
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyVictoria University of WellingtonNew Zealand

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