Saturday, 22 May 2010

Breakthroughs in Evolution are Old News

I was browsing earlier, looking for news I have missed over the last few months. I found an interesting article titled Evolution Impacts Environment, Challenging Traditionally Held View, Study Finds. My first thoughts upon seeing this title was that this is obvious, the evolution of life has had enormous impacts on the environment and not just through the evolution of humans. The most striking example is the transformation of the atmosphere (much more than a local environment) by cyanobacteria which resulted in our oxygen rich atmosphere. The evolution of photosynthesis affected the entire planet and continues to do so. This seems like old news to me.

The article states that the traditional view is that ecology shapes evolution; organisms evolve to fit the environment through natural selection. The new insights gained from these studies observing guppies are that evolutionary processes influence ecology too. To someone accustomed to longer time scales this seems to be obvious, but apparently ecologists ignore evolution because ecological interactions occur on a short time scale which evolution is too slow to affect. So what is the real insight from this study?

It seems that what we gain from it is that ecologists become aware that evolution affects their studies too and must be taken into account (they do not ignore evolution, only its effects in the short term). It also backs the growing body of evidence showing that evolution can occur very rapidly and has effects even in the short term. What I often notice with views in evolution is that the middle ground is often the best. Evolution and ecology have a reciprocal relationship, something which just sounds like common sense. Coupling rapid evolutionary change with the understanding brought through the concept of the extended phenotype makes it surprising that ecologists are only just catching up with common sense. More unity in biology is a good thing, thankfully we have evolution.

I must admit though, as I am not an ecologist I might be missing something subtle.

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