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Eternal Ephemera

Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Eternal Ephemera
    Book Description:

    All organisms and species are transitory, yet life endures. The origin, extinction, and evolution of species--interconnected in the web of life as "eternal ephemera"--are the concern of evolutionary biology. In this riveting work, renowned paleontologist Niles Eldredge follows leading thinkers as they have wrestled for more than two hundred years with the eternal skein of life composed of ephemeral beings, revitalizing evolutionary science with their own, more resilient findings.

    Eldredge begins in France with the naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in 1801 first framed the overarching question about the emergence of new species. The Italian geologist Giambattista Brocchi followed, bringing in geology and paleontology to expand the question. In 1825, at the University of Edinburgh, Robert Grant and Robert Jameson introduced the astounding ideas formulated by Lamarck and Brocchi to a young medical student named Charles Darwin. Who can doubt that Darwin left for his voyage on the Beagle in 1831 filled with thoughts about these daring new explanations for the "transmutation" of species.

    Eldredge revisits Darwin's early insights into evolution in South America and his later synthesis of knowledge into a theory of the origin of species. He then considers the ideas of more recent evolutionary thinkers, such as George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, as well as the young and brash Niles Eldredge and Steven Jay Gould, who set science afire with their concept of punctuated equilibria. Filled with insights into evolutionary biology and told with a rich affection for the scientific arena, this book celebrates the organic, vital relationship between scientific thinking and its subjects.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52675-3
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences, History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xxi)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. xxii-xxii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Approaching Adaptation and the Origin of Species
    (pp. 1-18)

    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...


    • 1 THE ADVENT OF THE MODERN FAUNA: On the Births and Deaths of Species, 1801–1831
      (pp. 21-74)

      If evolution is the non-miraculous, scientific explanation for the origin of species, it will come as no surprise that the original problem that led to the development of evolutionary theory was the search for natural (secondary) causes to explain the origin of the modern biota: the living species of animals, plants, and fungi. It was a simple, hard-to-ignore fact that, as you climb vertical stacks of fossiliferous rocks, the fossils you find become progressively more modern in aspect, until, near the top of the sequence, in the youngest sediments, species still alive in the modern fauna begin to make their...

    • 2 DARWIN AND THE BEAGLE: Experimenting with Transmutation, 1831–1836
      (pp. 75-150)

      There can be no question that Charles Darwin was fully apprised of the transmutational debate taking shape around him as a student at Edinburgh and Cambridge. He would have been aware of the search for natural causal explanations of the modern fauna through the births and deaths of species, seen as inherently real and stable entities, analogized with the births and deaths of individuals: “Brocchian transmutation,” whether or not he knew Giambattista Brocchi’s name in that connection. And of course he was also apprised of the Lamarckian construct of continual transformation of the anatomies of organisms. He knew that Jean-Baptiste...

      (pp. 151-198)

      Up to the mid-1830s, in the minds of those actively seeking a non-miraculous explanation for the origin of the species of the modern fauna, lay a fundamentally taxic perspective: species come and go, as Robert Grant put it so eloquently in 1828, while Giambattista Brocchi’s analogy between the births and deaths of individuals, and the births and deaths of species, lay at the heart of early evolutionary theory. And no one had explored the empirical and theoretical aspects of this taxic perspective more than Charles Darwin had.

      But in that very same passage, Grant had also said that “each species...


      (pp. 201-218)

      By the time Charles Darwin published the sixth edition of theOrigin of Speciesin 1872, he had all but abandoned the search for an explanation for the origin of discrete species. Gaps between species became, instead, a missing data problem. The possibility that most adaptive change in evolution might somehow be causally tied up with the emergence of new species in isolation no longer troubled him. Instead, Darwin sought continuities, rather than discontinuities. When he worried about the lack of evidence of continuous progressive change in the fossil record, he placed the blame on the vagaries of the deposition...

    • 5 PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIA: Speciation and Stasis in Paleontology, 1968–
      (pp. 219-276)

      With the return of the taxic view to evolutionary biology through the pioneering effort, this time not of a paleontologist, but that of a naturalist-turned-geneticist, the question then becomes: When and under what circumstances did the taxic perspective make its way back into the work of paleontologists? Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1937) early works emphasizing the genetic nature of species and the importance of isolation in the evolutionary process caught the attention of other geneticists and systematists, creating new avenues of research, and prompting a flurry of attention, even of excitement, in the new (or at least revivified) field of speciation studies....

    • 6 SPECIATION AND ADAPTATION: Large-Scale Patterns in the Evolution of Life, 1972–
      (pp. 277-332)

      Evolution, of course, implies that all organisms, living and extinct, are genealogically interconnected through a process of ancestry and descent. Life, in short, is monophyletic—a proposition repeatedly confirmed over the past two hundred years, and made all the more certain by the spectacular results of the application of molecular biology to evolutionary issues.

      So if life is monophyletic, there must be one single evolutionary process that has generated life’s history, whatever the relation between the process of adaptation and the origin of species may be. Whether one subscribes to a gradualist picture of the slow, steady, inexorable modi-fication of...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 333-352)
    (pp. 353-366)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 367-376)