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Keywords:

  • evolution;
  • origin of species;
  • biodiversity;
  • chaos;
  • species

Abstract

Darwin's On the Origin of Species has led to a theory of evolution with a mass of empirical detail on population genetics below species level, together with heated debate on the details of macroevolutionary patterns above species level. Most of the main principles are clear and generally accepted, notably that life originated once and has evolved over time by descent with modification. Here, I review the fossil and molecular phylogenetic records of the response of life on Earth to Quaternary climatic changes. I suggest that the record can be best understood in terms of the nonlinear dynamics of the relationship between genotype and phenotype, and between climate and environments. ‘The origin of species’ is essentially unpredictable, but is nevertheless an inevitable consequence of the way that organisms reproduce through time. The process is ‘chaotic’, but not ‘random’. I suggest that biodiversity is best considered as continuously branching systems of lineages, where ‘species’ are the branch tips. The Earth's biodiversity should thus (1) be in a state of continuous increase and (2) show continuous discrepancies between genetic and morphological data in time and space.