Everybody with at least a junior-high education has heard of “survival of the fittest.” It is a common way of expressing Charles Darwin’s proposition of the importance of competitive advantage in the survival of a species. In a nutshell, the theory holds that the way plant and animal groups spread out over the eons was to evolve better survival traits & mechanisms, such that they out-survived and displaced their older and/or less “fit” competitors.

Now, however, some scientists are questioning that supposition. (And, I’m not referring to proponents of Intelligent Design or creationism of any sort.)

Lizard drawing by Darwin while on H.M.S. Beagle voyage

Lizard drawing by Darwin while on H.M.S. Beagle voyage

Palaeontologist Mike Benton and colleagues at the University of Bristol have completed a recent project, which they claim is “the first numerical study investigating the link between tetrapod taxonomic and ecological diversity on a global scale.” As Benton had concluded in a more limited analysis published in 1996, this new study (published in Biology Letters) indicates that competitive pressures were not the main reason for radiation of the species. Rather, it was “expansion into new ecospace.” The team’s comprehensive analysis of data from around the world, and spanning more than 400 million years, revealed multiple lines of evidence leading to their conclusion. What was missing was evidence that “survival of the fittest” played more than a minor role for the spread of tetrapods. [Btw, I wrote about the oldest tetrapods here and here.]

Sarda Sahney, a PhD student working with Benton et al., summed it up this way on her blog:

[T]he rich biodiversity we see on Earth today has grown out of expansion, not competition. Darwin cited competition among animals, coined ‘survival of the fittest’, as a driver of evolution in his book, On the Origin of Species; since then competition has been considered key to having grown Earth’s biodiversity. But while competition has been observed on a small scale, (eg. between species), there is little evidence of competition guiding large-scale shifts in biodiversity, such as the dominance of mammals and birds over reptiles and amphibians in today’s world. Our new research supports the idea that animals diversified by expanding into empty ecological roles rather than by direct competition with each other.”

Dare we question the Great OZ — er, I mean, Charles Darwin?

The write-up in the BBC News was surprisingly candid, with the tagline: “Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.” The writer begins:

[Darwin] imagined a world in which organisms battled for supremacy and only the fittest survived. But new research identifies the availability of ‘living space’, rather than competition, as being of key importance for evolution. Findings question the old adage of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’…. [Instead,] really big evolutionary changes happen when animals move into empty areas of living space, not occupied by other animals…. This concept challenges the idea that intense competition for resources in overcrowded habitats is the major driving force of evolution.”

How did the Neo-Darwinian establishment react? Predictably. Steve Newton of the [Darwinist propaganda machine] National Center for Scientific Education (NCSE) wrote a piece called “Darwin Was Not Wrong–New Study Being Distorted”. The first target of his scorn was the BBC News report.

Science fares poorly in the media…. When scientific topics are reported, they are consistently misunderstood and spiced-up with such sensationalism that the original significance is contorted beyond all recognition. Such misreporting has happened again–this time involving Charles Darwin and evolution.”

And I agree wholeheartedly. It happens all the time, but the spin and/or sensationalism usually favors the Neo-Darwinian theory or conveniently omits the inconvenient questions raised by new evidence. The problem with Newton’s bringing it up in this case is that the person who wrote the article for BBC News is not your average columnist who was assigned the “science beat”. The piece was written by Howard Falcon-Lang, a professional scientist who has been widely published in peer-reviewed literature. Is someone like Falcon-Lang likely to sensationalize such a story? Or, did he just not understand it?

Charles Darwin statue at Natural History Museum

Charles Darwin statue at Natural History Museum

Newton goes on to say…

A press release for the paper noted that when examining large-scale changes in biodiversity, the data suggest: ‘Animals diversified by expanding into empty ecological roles rather than by direct competition with each other’. This paper does not argue that Darwin’s conception of small-scale competition within species is incorrect. It does not argue that new species arising out of accumulating changes is a flawed concept. It does not argue Darwin was wrong.”

Try again, Mr. Newton. As David Tyler of the Access Research Network (ARN) points out,

[The paper] sets out to identify factors relevant to biodiversification (the origin of species). It claims that competition between species, whether small-scale or large-scale, is not relevant to understanding the phenomenon. Darwin was not wrong to say that ‘small-scale competition within species’ is a real occurrence – but he was wrong to think this phenomenon helps explain the origin of species!”

Newton’s seemingly knee-jerk reaction is somewhat typical of the high-priests of Darwin, whenever their dogma is being questioned. Whether through carelessness or disingenuousness, they immediately try to a) misrepresent the findings; b) spin the conclusions to seemingly support Neo-Darwinism; c) confuse the layman with lots of extraneous numbers & technical language; and/or d) cast aspersions on the integrity and/or competence of the researchers and/or any reporters who dare to not tow the Neo-Darwinian line. While I haven’t seen Newton’s full response, there do seem to be elements of “a” & “d”, in this case.

Why is this? I mean, I understand that a new theory should be well-tested and studies need to be reviewed by independent parties before being fully accepted. But, why so quick to pooh-pooh a new idea and attack anyone who supports it? Could it be that they don’t like their sacred cow being examined too closely? They can’t allow even a hint of doubt about their sacred scripture?

Ironically, I’m not sure Benton et al.’s conclusions do any real damage, ultimately, to the current theory. Darwinism has survived such tweaking before — witness the “Neo” prefix now preferred. Frankly, the NCSE has much bigger problems, when it comes to defending their materialistic “faith”, than the relative significance of competitive pressures in the historical radiation of species.

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