The Natural History Reader in Evolution

By Niles Eldredge | Go to book overview

PART 3
ECOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, EVOLUTION

Ecological and behavioral themes run deep in the literature on evolution, and have been prominently featured in the pages of Natural History for years. Yet ecologists spend most of their time trying to analyze how organisms interact with each other and the physical aspects of their environment. For such functional studies of living systems, evolutionary concepts often play a negligible role. Similarly, animal behavior is an object of study in and of itself.

Yet, equally obviously, the ecological arena, where the game of life is played out on a day-to-day basis, is where all those adaptations are actually used. In a very real sense, evolution is about the development, maintenance, and modification of ways of making a living, of playing the economic game of life and continuing to pass that information along via reproduction. Viewed this way, natural selection is the interface of ecology and the genetically based rules for living: degree of success at the economic game determines, more or less, how successful an organism will be when it comes to reproductive matters.

And behavior, too, must evolve. Behaviors are as much a part of an organism's phenotype as are its skeleton and biochemistry. Those behaviors that are strongly genetically based are perhaps more easily seen as adaptations in a classic, Darwinian sense. But learned behaviors, with but a vague basis in genetic information, certainly also evolve and function as adaptations.

The essays in part 3 seek to forge definite links between evolutionary theory and ecology and the study of behavior. In the first essay, John A. Wiens gives a lucid exposition of a rather controversial and startling thesis: the evidence for competition between local populations of different species is not as compelling as we have all, for over a century, assumed it should be. Wiens briefly alludes to the mathematically centered work in theoretical ecology that pinpointed the effects of competition precisely enough to enable field ecologists to formulate predictions and go out to nature to test the theories. Lo and behold--according to Wiens and a substantial number of his colleagues--communities often appear not to be

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