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Darwin's error? Patrick Matthew and the catastrophic nature of the geologic record

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In 1831, the Scottish horticulturalist Patrick Matthew (1790-1874) published a clear statement of the law of natural selection in an Appendix to his book Naval Timber and Arboriculture, which both Darwin and Wallace later acknowledged. Matthew, however, was a catastrophist, and he presented natural selection within the contemporary view that relatively long intervals of environmental stability were episodically punctuated by catastrophic mass extinctions of life. Modern studies support a similar picture of the division of geologic time into long periods of relative evolutionary stability ended by sudden extinction events. Mass extinctions are followed by recovery intervals during which surviving taxa radiate into vacated niches. This modern punctuated view of evolution and speciation is much more in line with Matthew's episodic catastrophism than the classical Lyellian-Darwinian gradualist view.
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Keywords: Charles Darwin; Patrick Matthew; catastrophism; natural selection

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Biology and Environmental Studies Program, New York University, New York, NY, USA

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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