Charles Darwin's theory of gradual evolution isn't supported by geological history, a New York University geologist claims.
Instead, says Michael Rampino, the evidence is more supportive of a theory suggested by Scottish horticulturalist Patrick Matthew decades before Darwin's published work on the topic.
Matthew argued that evolution happens in bursts, as long periods of evolutionary stability are disrupted by catastrophic mass extinctions of life. It's a view increasingly supported by evolutionary biologists.
"Matthew discovered and clearly stated the idea of natural selection, applied it to the origin of species, and placed it in the context of a geologic record marked by catastrophic mass extinctions followed by relatively rapid adaptations," says Rampino, who studied volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts to reach his conclusions.
"In light of the recent acceptance of the importance of catastrophic mass extinctions in the history of life, it may be time to reconsider the evolutionary views of Patrick Matthew as much more in line with present ideas regarding biological evolution than the Darwin view."
Matthew published a statement of the law of natural selection in a little-read Appendix to his 1831 book Naval Timber and Arboriculture.
He saw catastrophic events as a prime factor, maintaining that mass extinctions were crucial to the process of evolution. "All living things must have reduced existence so much, that an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life... these remnants, in the course of time moulding and accommodating... to the change in circumstances," he explained.
Rampino points out that environmental disasters do indeed correlate with periods of mass extinction, followed by rapid evolution.
Matthews, he says, had the edge on Darwin, who said that 'most evolutionary change was accomplished very gradually by competition between organisms and by becoming better adapted to a relatively stable environment'.