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Talk:Punctuated equilibrium

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The original version of this, as written by BoN, was, to my mind, incomprehensible. Whilst my version is hardly the height of scholarship it does explain the basic concept. Silver Sloth 06:15, 3 November 2008 (EST)

Hypothesis vs. Theory[edit]

The exercise of classifying a scientific idea as either a hypothesis or theory is somewhat subjective, and relies on varying understandings of the two terms. What generally makes a scientific theory indeed a theory at all are two principal things. One, that it is a broad explanation which incorporates other hypotheses to explain a series of observations. And second, that it has withstood critical testing and scrutiny, and thereby functions as a plausible explanation by professionals in the scientific community.[1] By such a definition punctuated equilibrium surely meets the minimum requirement for a scientific theory.

While practitioners in the fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology use both terms to describe the model of evolution proposed by Eldredge and Gould, the term most often used in the professional literature today is the word "theory."

Notable evolutionists who favor the word theory include Ernst Mayr,[2] who was among the greatest evolutionists of the 20th century. And although Mayr began as a critic of punctuated equilibrium, he became a strong devotee as time went on.[3] The eminent evolutionist John Maynard Smith disagreed with Gould about the tempo of evolution, but he nevertheless saw fit to describe PE as a theory,[4] which if true was saying something very significant about the character of evolutionary change. Richard Dawkins—perhaps the best known evolutionist today—devoted an entire chapter to PE in his book The Blind Watchmaker, and while critical, designates PE with the word "theory," in this book[5] and others.[6][7][8] Philosopher of biology, and outspoken critic of Gould, Michael Ruse also describes PE not only as a theory[9][10] but a genuine scientific paradigm.[11][12] Mark Ridley, another critic of Gould and former student of Richard Dawkins, wrote a definitive textbook on evolution titled Evolution. Throughout the text Ridley also prefers to use the word theory.[13] Other prominent scientists include George C. Williams,[14] G. Ledyard Stebbins,[15] Michael T. Ghiselin,[16] Francisco J. Ayala,[17] Richard Lewontin,[18] Richard Levins,[19] Steven Rose,[20] Sean B. Carroll,[21] Steven Pinker,[22] Norman D. Newell,[23] Jerry Coyne,[24] Brian Charlesworth,[25] William Provine,[26] John Turner,[27] Stuart Kauffman,[28] paleoanthropologists such as C. Loring Brace,[29] Richard Leakey,[30] Tim White,[31] Ian Tattersall,[32] and historians of science Peter J. Bowler,[33] Frank Sulloway,[34] Michael Shermer,[35] and Frank Rhodes.[36] Then of course there are the numerous writings of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge.[37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47]

After the publication of Eldredge and Gould's 1972 paper, numerous paleontologists sought to investigate their claims, and have contributed greatly to the understanding of evolutionary tempo. Paleontologists who describe PE as a theory rather than hypothesis include David Raup,[48] David Sepkoski,[49] Richard Fortey,[50] Peter Ward,[51] J. William Schopf,[52] Robert L. Carroll[53] Elisabeth Vrba,[54] Donald Prothero,[55] Tim Flannery,[56] Douglas Erwin,[57][58] Warren D. Allmon,[59] Robert T. Bakker,[60] John R. Horner,[61] Michael McKinney,[62] Bruce Lieberman,[63] Mark McMenamin,[64] Patricia Princehouse,[65] David Fastovsky,[66] John Huss,[67] Richard Bambach,[68] Anthony Hallam,[69] Arthur Boucot,[70] John Alroy,[71] David Norman,[72] D. B. Lazarus,[73] Richard Kerr,[74] and many, many others.[75][76][77][78][79]

The words: tempo, mode, pattern, model, hypothesis, theory, thesis, idea, concept, and paradigm have all been used to describe punctuated equilibrium in the literature (and they are often used interchangeably).[80][81][82] In fact Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge made it a point to use the more neutral word "picture" in their 1972 paper to avoid what they called a "tedious debate" about what to label their new idea.[83] However as they began to develop PE over the years you see a notable shift in their language. They switch to the word model,[84][85] and eventually move to the word theory.

Lastly, just as an experiment I ran the phrases "hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium" and "theory of punctuated equilibrium" through Google's digitized book search engine. The phrase with the word theory returned 2,080 results whereas the former only returned 119. The same pattern resulted using Google Scholar, with the word theory returning 1,010 results and the word hypothesis only returning 60. Today it is obvious that the word theory dominates the professional literature with the highest relative frequency. As such it should be used in this article. Best, Miguel Chavez (talk) 12:51, 28 March 2012 (UTC)


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The problem is that, on this Wiki, we prefer to keep the strictest scientific definition of what a "theory" is. A scientific theory is something, like evolution, which has been proven and is generally accepted by the scientific community (minus some nutters here and there) as settled. While punctuated equilibrium is an important hypothesis in relation to evolution, it has not been proven beyond reasonable scientific doubt. Thus, it's a hypothesis. A good and important hypothesis, but a hypothesis nonetheless. The Symphony of Noise The official spikey-haired skeptical punk 12:58, 28 March 2012 (UTC)
To give you an idea where I'm coming from, see here. The Symphony of Noise The official spikey-haired skeptical punk 13:02, 28 March 2012 (UTC)
That is definitely a distinction adhered to by a number of scientists and philosophers of science. Douglas Futuyma for instance is a well known example. Although I believe it is a minority view, I will not argue with this community's choice to adopt this particular definition. My only point is that using the word "hypothesis" is in stark contrast with the normative tendencies of most evolutionary biologists, which might confuse some readers. Best, Mchavez (talk) 13:36, 28 March 2012 (UTC)
No, I completely see where you are coming from. There have been many a great battle on this Wiki over calling various things "theory" over "hypothesis" and vice versa. To be honest, I was hoping that more of the community would weight in on this. Alas.... The Symphony of Noise The official spikey-haired skeptical punk 13:41, 28 March 2012 (UTC)
We do link to the (our) definition of hypothesis within he article.--Bob"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." 13:42, 28 March 2012 (UTC)
Thinking about this some more, I think we give the word "theory" all the respect it deserves because of the creationist canard "It's just a theory" when speaking about evolution.--Bob"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." 14:53, 28 March 2012 (UTC)

Early discoverer of Punctuated equilibrium[edit]

Evolutionary biologist Soren Lovtrup in his paper Macroevolution and Punctuated Equilibria Systematic Zoology Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 498-500 wrote:

"It might be anticipated that Darwin, the unbeatable master of ad hoc hypotheses, would be the first to attempt saving the micromutation theory from falsification by paleontological observations by means of "punctuated equilibria." He was indeed. In the fourth edition of On the Origin of Species (1866) we may read in the chapter on the imperfection of the geological record: "It is a more important consideration, clearly leading to the same result [viz., the unreliability of the fossil record], as lately insisted on by Dr. Falconer, namely, that the periods during which species have been undergoing modification, though very long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which these same species remained with- out undergoing any change." This statement was preserved in a slightly modified form in the later editions (Peckham, 1959, p. 501). It thus appears that only ignorance can account for the fact that Eldredge and Gould are acknowledged as originators of the theory on punctuated equilibria." — Unsigned, by: Juan / talk / contribs 04:13, 24 September 2013 (UTC)