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Gradualism vs. Punctuated Equilibrium

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Does evolution occur in rapid bursts or gradually? It’s difficult to answer because we can’t replay the past with a stopwatch in hand.

However, we can try to figure out what patterns we’d expect to observe in the fossil record if evolution did happen in bursts, or if evolution happened gradually. Then we can check these predictions against what we observe.

What should we observe in the fossil record if evolution is slow and steady?

We’d expect to see the entire transition, from ancestor to descendent, displayed as transitional forms over a long period of time in the fossil record.

Gradualism evolution

That could give a complete record of slow and steady evolution.In fact, we see many examples of transitional forms in the fossil record.

For example, here are steps in the evolution of whales from land-dwelling mammals, highlighting the transition of the walking forelimb to the flipper.

whale ancestors

What would we observe in the fossil record if evolution happens in “quick” jumps (perhaps fewer than 100,000 years for significant change)?

Then we’d expect to see big changes happen quickly in the fossil record, with little transition between ancestor and descendent.

punctuated evolution

In the above example, we see the descendent preserved in a layer directly after the ancestor, showing a big change in a short time, with no transitional forms.

When evolution is rapid, transitional forms may not be preserved, even if fossils are laid down at regular intervals. We see many examples of this “quick” jumps pattern in the fossil record.

Does a jump in the fossil record necessarily mean that evolution has happened in a “quick” jump?

We expect to see a jump in the fossil record if evolution has occurred as a “quick” jump, but a jump in the fossil record can also be explained by irregular fossil preservation.

irregular fossil preservation evolution

This possibility can make it difficult to conclude that evolution has happened rapidly.

We observe examples of both slow, steady change and rapid, periodic change in the fossil record. Both happen. But scientists are trying to determine which pace is more typical of evolution and how each sort of evolutionary change happens.

Further reading

Competing hypotheses and More on punctuated equilibrium


Evolution of antibiotic resistance

“The evolution of antibiotic resistance occurs through natural selection. Imagine a population of bacteria infecting a patient in a hospital. The patient is treated with an antibiotic. The drug kills most of the bacteria but there are a few individual bacteria that happen to carry a gene that allows them to survive the onslaught of antibiotic. “

“These survivors reproduce, passing on the gene for resistance to their offspring, and soon the patient is populated by an antibiotic resistant infection — one that not only affects the original patient but that can also be passed on to other patients in the hospital.”

– University of California Museum of Paleontology’s Understanding Evolution (http://evolution.berkeley.edu).

Evolution of DDT resistance by mosquitos 

Evolution of pesticide resistance by other insects

Evolution of pesticide resistance

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