Ecology A.D. (“After Darwin”)
Charles Robert Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Darwin would survive until April 19, 1882. It is hard to overstate the importance of either man. Each was an agent for profound change.1
Charles Darwin, with stimulus from a younger man, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913),2 solved what is arguably the greatest problem in biology. Darwin, borrowing an expression first used by the astronomer John Herschel, called it “that mystery of mysteries,” the means by which species form. Darwin and Wallace discovered a mechanism for evolutionary change. Natural selection is a blind and mechanistic process lacking any vitalistic component (and thus it is not Lamarckian). It is non-teleological, with no underlying purpose. It is a blind process that inevitably follows from two realities: (1) the existence of genetic diversity conferring different phenotypic traits on individuals within a population, (2) and the inevitable limitation of resources. When resources are limited, those individuals with traits most suitable (i.e., adapted) to the environment will have a statistically better chance of survival and reproduction. Survivorship is thus not random, but dependent on characteristics of phenotypic variants within the population. Natural selection would seem to be as much a characteristic of the universe as gravity and electromagnetic radiation. If a planet somewhere, anywhere in the universe has life, natural selection will be blindly acting on the various life forms.