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Natural selection 150 years on - Professor Mark Pagel in Nature journal – University of Reading

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Natural selection 150 years on - Professor Mark Pagel in Nature journal

Release Date 12 February 2009

In Nature journal this week (12 February), leading evolutionary biologist and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedeia of Evolution, Professor Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, introduces a Darwin special feature to mark the 200th birthday of Darwin.

In his essay, Professor Pagel traces the controversial origins of Darwin's theory, the spread of its application beyond biology to other disciplines and analyses where the theory stands today on core questions such as whether all human traits are adaptations and arbitrary outcomes of the evolutionary process.

"Natural selection is at once conservative and severe, yet innovative and exacting, yielding often surprisingly well-adapted organisms from among a relatively small number that manage to wriggle or claw their way through its sieve." In the paper, he reviews recent research by peers in the field, and in particular, he looks at:-

Variation

As organisms have increased in complexity over time, natural selection has had more to work with. Diversity seems to beget more diversity by creating different ways for species to make a living.

Contingency

How repeatable is evolution? If the species observed now are the chance outcomes of many contingent historical events, there is hardly anything special about any particular outcome of evolution, including humans.

Speciation

Historical extinction rates might be as high as speciation rates and existing species a rarefied club of survivors. Gaps in species might be attributable to survivors outcompeting similarly shaped and sized species, such as the close human cousins, Neanderthals.

Ways of life

Nature admits far fewer combinations of genes and by inference kinds of species than are possible. If the varieties of life are severely constrained, the competition to occupy them will be fierce.

A theory moving with the times

Complex systems can acquire information about their environment and respond to it, becoming 'complex adaptive systems'. The question of whose interests are served is allowed into the realms of cultural and societal evolution.

Read the full Nature paper

University of Reading School of Biological Sciences

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