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New PNAS paper: Large, related groups of animals diverge from each other quite early in their evolution


Not the long, slow process advocated by Darwin’s followers.* This has long been known, if course, it just gets conveniently buried in the “We’re working on it” pile, lest anyone ask more basic questions. One burial method is obfuscated prose, for which see below.

Here’s the Abstract:

There are few putative macroevolutionary trends or rules that withstand scrutiny. Here, we test and verify the purported tendency for animal clades to reach their maximum morphological variety relatively early in their evolutionary histories (early high disparity). We present a meta-analysis of 98 metazoan clades radiating throughout the Phanerozoic. The disparity profiles of groups through time are summarized in terms of their center of gravity (CG), with values above and below 0.50 indicating top- and bottom-heaviness, respectively. Clades that terminate at one of the “big five” mass extinction events tend to have truncated trajectories, with a significantly top-heavy CG distribution overall. The remaining 63 clades show the opposite tendency, with a significantly bottom-heavy mean CG (relatively early high disparity). Resampling tests are used to identify groups with a CG significantly above or below 0.50; clades not terminating at a mass extinction are three times more likely to be significantly bottom-heavy than top-heavy. Overall, there is no clear temporal trend in disparity profile shapes from the Cambrian to the Recent, and early high disparity is the predominant pattern throughout the Phanerozoic. Our results do not allow us to distinguish between ecological and developmental explanations for this phenomenon. To the extent that ecology has a role, however, the paucity of bottom-heavy clades radiating in the immediate wake of mass extinctions suggests that early high disparity more probably results from the evolution of key apomorphies at the base of clades rather than from physical drivers or catastrophic ecospace clearing.

Note: A clade is a group of life forms believed to have a common ancestor according to one of the methods of classification.

* Forever basically. Darwin started this trend, claiming that natural selection, personified, was “daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good, …” (Charles Darwin, 1859, Chapter 4)


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