Conscientious theories about evolution may be wrong

2018-09-28

 "History is written by the victors: The effect of the push of the past on the fossil record"

Graham Budd from Uppsala University and Richard Mann at University of Leeds has been published in Evolution.

Opabinia regalis - one of the most famous fossils to appear in the “Cambrian Explosion” some 510 million years ago, when animal life seems to have explosively diversified. But is this pattern an illusion?

Abstract

Survivorship biases can generate remarkable apparent rate heterogeneities through time in otherwise homogeneous birth‐death models of phylogenies. They are a potential explanation for many striking patterns seen in the fossil record and molecular phylogenies. One such bias is the “push of the past”: clades that survived a substantial length of time are likely to have experienced a high rate of early diversification. This creates the illusion of a secular rate slow‐down through time that is, rather, a reversion to the mean. An extra effect increasing early rates of lineage generation is also seen in large clades. These biases are important but relatively neglected influences on many aspects of diversification patterns in the fossil record and elsewhere, such as diversification spikes after mass extinctions and at the origins of clades; they also influence rates of fossilization, changes in rates of phenotypic evolution and even molecular clocks. These inevitable features of surviving and/or large clades should thus not be generalized to the diversification process as a whole without additional study of small and extinct clades, and raise questions about many of the traditional explanations of the patterns seen in the fossil record.

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