​CategoriesPaleobiology, Evolutionary biology​

Prof. Douglas ErwinDouglas Erwin is the Curator of Paleozoic Invertebrates at the Smithsonian Institution of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, NM. He received his Ph.D. in Geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1985.

Most of his current research focuses on major evolutionary transitions and evolutionary innovation, where he attempts to understand both the role of developmental invention in generating novel morphologies and how new niches are constructed to facilitate the persistence of these new inventions. Much of his work has focused on the events of the early radiation of animals about 540 million years ago (the Cambrian radiation). From 1990 to 2005 he examined causes and consequences of the great end-Permian Mass Extinction that occurred 252 million years ago and then conducted research on the generation of evolutionary innovations that followed these and other mass extinctions.

Interview themes:

  • *Macroevolution and criticism of Neo-Darwinism
    *Developmental mechanisms in evolution and Eric Davidson
    *Methodology and epistemology
    *History and philosophy of paleontology

  • Interview with Douglas Erwin.pdf

  • Interview Excerpt

  • UD: If I understood correctly, you are critical of certain claims of Neo-Darwinism, for example uniformitarianism and adaptive radiation through environmental pulls that allegedly cause biological inventions.

    DE: It’s not that I think that there is necessarily anything wrong with Neo-Darwinism in particular types of questions, it’s just that I view the evolutionary process as being broader, as a lot of paleontologists do. That there are patterns that you see in the fossil record that don’t seem to be explicable by processes of the traditional Neo-Darwinism of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not quite sure how I got interested in the question of how the evolutionary process had itself evolved, but at some point, 10 or 15 years ago, I realized that there was this implicit assumption within Neo-Darwinism that mechanisms generating variation were essentially fixed over time. That was an assumption that they had to make in the 1940s, the 30s really, to combat orthogenesis and a lot of other anti-Darwinian views that had developed from the late 19th century before the Modern Synthesis. So I don’t fault Simpson and Mayr and Wright because in a sense that was an assumption that they had to make. And I don’t think that most of them realized that they were making this assumption about Neo-Darwinism – that evolution was a uniformitarian process. But to a geologist, there was this assumption that the evolutionary mechanisms had not themselves changed over time. And interestingly enough, in Steve Gould’s book, Structure of Evolutionary Theory in 2002, there were three places where he sort of “dances up” to almost asking that question, but then doesn’t go farther.

  • Related Interviews: Eric Davidson