• Corresponding Editor: M. Holyoak. For reprints of this Special Feature, see footnote 1, p. 1368.


Hubbell's unified neutral theory is a zero-sum ecological drift model in which population sizes change at random in a process resembling genetic drift, eventually leading to extinction. Diversity is maintained within the community by speciation. Hubbell's model makes predictions about the distribution of species abundances within communities and the turnover of species from place to place (beta diversity). However, ecological drift cannot be tested adequately against these predictions without independent estimates of speciation rates, population sizes, and dispersal distances. A more practical prediction from ecological drift is that time to extinction of a population of size N is approximately 2N generations. I test this prediction here using data for passerine birds (Passeriformes). Waiting times to speciation and extinction were estimated from genetic divergence between sister populations and a lineage-through-time plot for endemic South American suboscine passerines. Population sizes were estimated from local counts of birds in two large forest plots extrapolated to the area of wet tropical forest in South America and from atlas data on European passerines. Waiting times to extinction (ca. 2 Ma) are much less than twice the product of average population size (4.0 and 14.4 × 106 individuals in South America and Europe) and generation length (five and three years) for songbirds, that is, 40 and 86 Ma, respectively. Thus, drift is too slow to account for turnover in regional avifaunas. Presumably, other processes, involving external drivers, such as climate and physiographic change, and internal drivers, such as evolutionary change in antagonistic interactions, predominate. Hubbell's model is historical and geographic, and his perspective importantly links local and regional process and pattern. Ecological reality can be added to the mix while retaining Hubbell's concept of continuity of communities in space and time.