Saturday, February 07, 2009

Darwin's Tree of Life

 
On reading Origin of Species one can't help but be struck by Darwin's insight and intellect. His description of the tree of life from the summary of Chapter 4: Natural Selection is just one example.

As you read the passage, note how Darwin emphasizes competition between species. This was an important theme in Origin of Species. Modern evolutionary theory tends to describe natural selection as a competition between individuals within a species.
The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.


3 comments :

  1. Yeah, but in Chapter 3 he says

    “But the struggle almost invariably will be most severe between the individuals of the same species, for they frequent the same districts, require the same food, and are exposed to the same dangers.”

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  2. note how Darwin emphasizes competition between species. This was an important theme in Origin of Species. Modern evolutionary theory tends to describe natural selection as a competition between individuals within a species.

    To add to the TRG's quote above: the books's title itself - "... or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" - clearly puts emphasis on competition within species.

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  3. Yes, Larry. That's an important point. Competition between species is a factor in the natural selection of alleles within the population of a species.

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