DARWIN AND ECOLOGY

Miguel A. Santos, 31 August 1998
Natural Sciences


There are a number of ways that the Darwin Seminar has impacted my teaching and experiments. The seminar reminded me of how Darwin's ideas have shaped the science of ecology. Charles Darwin is an appropriate founder of the science of ecology, although ecology had not been defined when he formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection. The essence of his theory is based in part on ecological observations--namely, the notions of overpopulation, carrying capacity, and competition for resources. Because species have evolved to occupy different ecological niches and have interacted and coevolved, many aspects of their ecology are intimately intertwined with their environments. When I teach my ecology courses, I remind the students that much of modern ecology is predicated on ideas developed by Charles Darwin.

However, while the theory is internally logical, it is experimentally difficult to verify. The observation, for example, that there is a correlation between an environmental variable and a biological trait may lead an unwary experimenter to a source of misunderstanding. A correlation alone does not necessarily prove causation. Two variables may appear to be highly correlated, when, in fact, they are not directly associated with each other but are both highly correlated with a third variable. The interesting experimental problem is to determine which correlations actually reveal direct causal relationships, which represent the mutual effects of another yet unknown cause, and finally which are merely accidental correlations with little, if any, association. Indeed, the theory of evolution by natural selection is one excellent explanation of correlation, albeit, a circumstantial one.


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Last updated 31 August 1998 (MAS/JHW)