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Do Examples of “Microevolution” Provide Support for Macroevolution?

Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of September 2005

Introduced by Richard Peachey

Is it legitimate to extrapolate from instances of small-scale change (such as those found in peppered moths, Darwin’s finches, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria) to large-scale changes of the sort that would allow protists to evolve into people?

Some evolutionists respond: YES, CERTAINLY!

“I was not prepared to find creationists . . . actually accepting the [peppered] moths as examples of small-scale evolution by natural selection! . . . That, to my mind, is tantamount to conceding the entire issue, for . . . there is utter continuity in evolutionary processes from the smallest scales (microevolution) up through the largest scales (macroevolution).”

— Niles Eldredge. 2000. The Triumph of Evolution. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co. p. 119. (cf. pp. 62, 66, 76, 88)

“Many who reject darwinism on religious grounds . . . argue that such small changes [as seen in selective breeding] cannot explain the evolution of new groups of plants and animals. This argument defies common sense. When, after a Christmas visit, we watch grandma leave on the train to Miami, we assume that the rest of her journey will be an extrapolation of that first quarter-mile. A creationist unwilling to extrapolate from micro- to macroevolution is as irrational as an observer who assumes that, after grandma’s train disappears around the bend, it is seized by divine forces and instantly transported to Florida.”

— Jerry Coyne. 2001 (Aug 19). Nature 412:587.

“. . . there is no justification for dismissing the selective and genetic mechanism responsible for the change from grey to black in [peppered] moths as incapable of producing new organs. . . . there are no grounds for doubting that the mechanism of selection and mutation that has adaptively turned grey moths black in 100 years has been adequate to achieve evolutionary changes that have taken place during hundreds and thousands of millions of years.”

— Gavin de Beer. 1964. Atlas of Evolution. London: Nelson. pp. 93f.

“Most sceptics about natural selection are prepared to accept that it can bring about minor changes like the dark coloration that has evolved in various species of moth since the industrial revolution. But, having accepted this, they then point out how small a change this is. . . . But . . . the moths only took a hundred years to make their change. . . . just think about the time involved.”

— Richard Dawkins. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. p. 40.

But other evolutionists say: NO, NOT NECESSARILY!

“A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution). Outsiders to this rich literature may be surprised that there is no consensus on this issue, and that strong viewpoints are held at both ends of the spectrum, with many undecided.”

— Sean B. Carroll. 2001 (Feb 8). Nature 409:669.

“. . . large-scale evolutionary phenomena cannot be understood solely on the basis of extrapolation from processes observed at the level of modern populations and species. . . . The most conspicuous event in metazoan evolution was the dramatic origin of major new structures and body plans documented by the Cambrian explosion. . . . The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time period requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for the evolution of species within the modern biota. . . . This explosive evolution of phyla with diverse body plans is certainly not explicable by extrapolation from the processes and rates of evolution observed in modern species. . . .”

— Robert Carroll. 2000 (Jan). Trends in Ecology and Evolution 15(1):27f.

“. . . biologists have documented a veritable glut of cases for rapid and eminently measurable evolution on timescales of years and decades. . . . to be visible at all over so short a span, evolution must be far too rapid (and transient) to serve as the basis for major transformations in geological time. Hence, the ‘paradox of the visibly irrelevant’—or, if you can see it at all, it’s too fast to matter in the long run. . . . These shortest-term studies are elegant and important, but they cannot represent the general mode for building patterns in the history of life. . . . Thus, if we can measure it at all (in a few years), it is too powerful to be the stuff of life’s history. . . . [Widely publicized cases such as beak size changes in ‘Darwin’s finches’] represent transient and momentary blips and fillips that ‘flesh out’ the rich history of lineages in stasis, not the atoms of substantial and steadily accumulated evolutionary trends. . . . One scale doesn’t translate into another.”

— Stephen Jay Gould. 1998 (Jan). Natural History 106(11):12, 14, 64.

“If macroevolution is, as I believe, mainly a story of the differential success of certain kinds of species and, if most species change little in the phyletic mode during the course of their existence (Gould and Eldredge, 1977), then microevolutionary change within populations is not the stuff (by extrapolation) of major transformations.”

— Stephen Jay Gould in Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology (Harvard University Press paperback, 1998; originally published in 1980), page 170.

“A wide spectrum of researchers—ranging from geologists and paleontologists, through ecologists and population geneticists, to embryologists and molecular biologists—gathered at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History under the simple conference title: Macroevolution. Their task was to consider the mechanisms that underlie the origin of species and the evolutionary relationship between species. . . . The central question of the Chicago conference was whether the mechanisms underlying microevolution can be extrapolated to explain the phenomena of macroevolution. At the risk of doing violence to the positions of some of the people at the meeting, the answer can be given as a clear, No.”

—Roger Lewin. 1980 (Nov 21). Science 210:883. <>

Additional historical note:

(from Scott F. Gilbert, John M. Opitz, and Rudolf A. Raff. 1996. “Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology.” Developmental Biology 173:357-372).

[p. 358] “I. A. Filipchenko (1929) coined the terms microevolution and macroevolution and argued that one could not be inferred from the other. Macroevolution concerned the origins of higher taxa. Originally, H. F. Osborn (1925), G. G. Simpson, and other American paleontologists did not accept the view that the fossil record could be explained by the accumulation of minute selectable changes over millions of years. But . . . by 1951 Dobzhansky could confidently declare, ‘Evolution is a change in the genetic composition of populations. The study of mechanisms of evolution falls within the province of population genetics.’ Thus, evolution was seen as a subset of the formal mathematics of population genetics . . ., and there was nothing in evolutionary biology that fell outside of it. One of the major tenets of the Modern Synthesis has been that of extrapolation: the phenomena of macroevolution, the evolution of species and higher taxa, are fully explained by the microevolutionary processes that gives [sic] rise to varieties within species. Macroevolution can be reduced to microevolution. That is, the origins of higher taxa can be explained by population genetics.
  “There were several reasons for the success of the population genetic approach to evolution. First and foremost, it got results. One could not expect to see species or phyletic change over a lifetime, but microevolutionary changes could be observed in the field or in the laboratory. Moreover, unlike most of biology, these results were phrased in the unambiguous language of mathematics. There were also social factors that hastened the hegemony of genetic approaches to evolution over any other. First, the population genetic approach to evolution was readily funded by the Atomic Energy Commission. Whereas most evolutionary studies had difficulty getting funds and students, concerns about the genetic effects of radiation enabled Dobzhansky and others a constant supply of money and graduate students. . . . Second, the linkage of evolution and genetics fit into certain social agendas. . . . Dobzhansky and others viewed the population genetic model of adaptation as undermining the racial and class associations of ‘fitness.’ Moreover, there was the threat of Creationism. In the United States, evolution is still so suspect that no National Science Foundation program is designated as ‘Evolutionary Biology.’ In the 1930s and 1940s, it was even more suspect. Genetics, however, was (and is) seen as being true and economically important. If evolution were merely ‘a change in the genetic composition of a population,’ then evolution is a mathematically proven fact. Evolution is nought but genetics writ large. . . .

[p. 362] “The concept that macroevolution could not be derived from microevolution remained as an underground current in evolutionary theory. Every so often, it was brought to the surface by developmentally oriented evolutionary biologists such as Goldschmidt, Waddington, or de Beer. In 1940, Richard Goldschmidt stated the challenge to those who proposed the Modern Synthesis. How could the origin of such things as mammalian hair, aortic arches, mollusc shells, cnidocysts, or the compound eye be explained ‘by accumulation and selection of small mutants’? But these attempts to decouple microevolution from macroevolution were either ignored or marginalized. . . .
  “Macroevolution was brought back as as autonomous entity only after Eldredge and Gould (1972), Stanley (1979), and others postulated an alternative view to the gradualism that characterized the Modern Synthesis. By 1980, Gould claimed that the idea of ‘gradual alleleic [sic] substitution as a mode for all evolutionary change’ was effectively dead. This view did not go unchallenged, and by 1982, Gould’s view had become more specific. It wasn’t that the Modern Synthesis was wrong; rather, it was incomplete. ‘Nothing about microevolutionary population genetics, or any other aspect of microevolutionary theory, is wrong or inadequate at its level. . . . But it is not everything’ . . . . While punctuated equilibrium remained a controversial theory, it did bring to light the question of the autonomy of macroevolution. Indeed, the failure of microevolutionary biology to distinguish between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism demonstrated its weakness when applied to macroevolution. . . . Molecular studies . . . were similarly pointing to ‘evolution at two levels,’ one molecular, the other morphological. Thus, by the early 1980s, numerous paleontologists and evolutionary biologists (Gould, Stanley, Eldredge, Verba [sic, should be Vrba], and mostly critically, Ayala) came to the conclusion that although macroevolutionary phenomena were underlain by microevolutionary phenomena, the two areas were autonomous and that macroevolutionary processes could not be explained solely by microevolutionary events.”

For further reading:

“Evolutionists and E x t r a p o l a t i o n” <>

“Major Twentieth Century Theories of Evolution: The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis and Punctuated Equilibrium” <>

“Do Evolutionists Avoid the Terms ‘Macroevolution’ and ‘Microevolution’?” <>

Jerry Bergman. 2004 (Jun). “The Unbridgeable Chasm Between Microevolution and Macroevolution.” Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(1):60-68. <>

Tom Bethell. 2013 (Mar 23). “Evolution’s Central Claim Has Not Yet Been Observed.” <>

Douglas H. Erwin. 2000 (Mar/Apr). “Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution.” Evolution and Development 2(2):78-84. <>