Monday, September 24, 2007

Back to Basics #1 - Punctuated Equilibrium

Today, in a desperate attempt to find a hint of paleontological research at OPU, I typed "paleontology" into the search field on the university's home page. Though there wasn't much in the way of dinosaur research, I was surprised to find a few interesting articles on evolution, which is something I don't know much about, but should.

My favorite article was "Opus 200" by Stephen Jay Gould, published in Natural History, August 1991, 100 (8):12-18. You can read the paper here.

I was SO impressed with the article. I don't know what the current opinion of punctuated equilibrium is, but it's a fascinating concept. Gould's article has done something that Julia over at The Ethical Palaeontologist has done; it has turned science into something less superhuman and more accessible while maintaining its complexity. When I decided to go back to school, I was overwhelmed by the amount of information that presented itself to me. I was even more overwhelmed by the nature of the information; it was in a different language and in order to read a paragraph in a journal, I had to use a dictionary. I felt hopelessly stupid and incapable. After reading this article and some of Julia's posts, I feel capable of grasping the "impossibly" complex concepts of paleontology.

Punctuated equilibrium suggests an alternative to the gradual evolution of species. It suggests that speciation occurs rapidly (but only in a geological time frame) and reaches a point of stasis in which a species remains stable and fairly unchanged. The rapid speciation occurs as a result of small populations becoming isolated from larger populations. The small population undergoes change much more rapidly than a small population, speeding up the process (Gould, 1991).

What fascinates me about punctuated equilibrium (p.e.) is that it attempts to explain the "gaps" in the fossil record. If speciation occurred as the p.e. model suggests, then the "gaps" are not gaps at all, but evidence of equilibrium and rapid change (Gould, 1991).

I also like the history of Gould's theory. It fascinates me that his theory was used by Creationists to disprove the theory of evolution...that they could conclude from his argument that no intermediary specimens existed and therefore evolution was a lie. Gould refutes this well, saying "punctuated a different theory of intermediacy for evolutionary trends—pushing a ball up an inclined plane for gradualism, climbing a staircase for punctuated equilibrium" (Gould, 1991). Either way, the ball is heading up the hill...

This, of course, just confirms my belief that creationists are experts at using rhetoric to argue science, rather than science itself.

I'm going to continue searching for articles, but meanwhile, I'd like to know what you all think about punctuated equilibrium.

Stephen Jay Gould, "Opus 200," Natural History 100 (August 1991): 12-18.

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