How Much Did Darwin Get Wrong?

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A study in Biology Letters written up in the BBC earlier this week has found an interesting wrinkle in Darwin's theory of natural selection. In short, evolution may not be as driven by competition as once thought.

In the classic view of "Darwinism" (itself a misleading phrase, perhaps), organisms compete over resources for the right to survive and reproduce. Those that are successful pass on their genes. Those that can't cut it die out.

But looking at the fossil record over the last 400 million years, Sarda Sahney and colleagues at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found that patterns of evolution don't always match this trend.

Instead, species tend to move away from competition into new ecological niches. And sometimes they just get lucky.

For example, the evolution of birds allowed a whole group of animals to take to the skies. The extinction of the dinosaurs, which had for millions of years ruled the landscape, opened the door for mammals to colonize the planet.

Darwin's "wrongness" on this point or any related to evolution is in the eye of the beholder. Religious leaders who advocate creationism have campaigned mercilessly against his ideas (and against science in general), seeking to sew false controversy in the tenets of natural selection whenever and wherever possible.

But even intellectually honest media outlets have proclaimed "Darwin was Wrong" many times over. In reality what they're doing, and what this latest study has done, is point out that Darwin's thoughts on evolution were profound and far-reaching, and while they almost invariably remain true to this day — surprise! — in 150 years, scientists have managed to discover a few new things about how evolution works.

The BBC's somewhat breathless blurb beneath the headline reads, "Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution." But a more proper way of characterizing it would be that this was one facet of natural selection that he didn't immediately foresee.

There are plenty of examples of this. Darwin didn't know what DNA was, and therefore couldn't have predicted the complexities of modern genetics. He didn't understand that certain situations in the natural world could confer advantages upon organisms that worked as a group instead of as selfish individuals — in other words, he didn't have an explanation for altruism.

But when a theory survives a century and a half of rigorous scientific skepticism and scrutiny, and is bolstered by mountains upon mountains of experimental evidence — as the notion of natural selection has, and is — it may not be the be all and end all of science. But it's a fair bet that the idea, and its creator, are right.

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