(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.
Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)
In a previous post, I discussed the fact that although all of us have the identical set of ancestors who lived just 5,000 years ago, this does not mean that we have the same genes. The fact that we are different is due to the fact that if most of the mating occurs within a group, then this can result in certain features becoming emphasized. In extreme case, this initial isolated mating pattern can result in a new species being formed that cannot mate with other groups that it could have done in the past.
I had always thought that the two organisms belonged to different species if they were biologically different enough that they either could not produce offspring or, as in the case of mules produced by horses and donkeys, the offspring were infertile and thus not able to reproduce.
But I learned from Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) that two things can be considered different species even if they are perfectly capable of producing fertile offspring. All that is required for them to be considered to be different species is that they are not found to mate in the wild for whatever reason.
Normally, this happens when there is some kind of barrier that separates two groups of the same species so that they cannot mate. “No longer able to interbreed, the two populations drift apart, or are pushed apart by natural selection in different evolutionary directions” (p. 339) and thus over time evolve into different species. But the separation can also occur due to sexual selection.
He gives a fascinating example of this on page 339. He describes experiments done with two species of cichlid fish. The two species live together in Lake Victoria in Africa and are very similar, except that one has a reddish color and the other bluish. Under normal conditions, females choose males of the same color. In other words, there was no hybridization between the two colors in the wild, thus meeting the requirements for being considered different species. But when experimenters lit the fish in artificial monochromatic light so that they all looked dirty brown, the females no longer discriminated among the males and mated equally with both kinds of males and the offspring of these hybrids were fully fertile.
He also describes ring speciation using the example of the herring gull and lesser black-backed gull (p. 302). In Britain, these two kinds of birds don’t hybridize even though they meet and even breed alongside one another in mixed colonies. Thus they are considered different species.
But he goes on to say:
If you follow the population of herring gulls westward to North America, then on around the world across Siberia and back to Europe again, you notice a curious fact. The ‘herring gulls’, as you move around the pole, gradually become less and less like herring gulls and more and more like lesser black-backed gulls, until it turns out that our Western European lesser black-backed gulls actually are the other end of a ring-shaped continuum which started with herring gulls. At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their immediate neighbors in the ring to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, and the ring bites itself in the tail. The herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull in Europe never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way around the other side of the world.
Dawkins gives a similar example of this kind of ring speciation with salamanders in the Central Valley of California.
Why is this interesting? Because it addresses a point that sometimes comes up with skeptics of evolution. They try and argue that there is a contradiction if we had evolved from an ancestor species that was so different from us that we could not interbreed with that species. Surely, the argument goes, doesn’t speciation imply that if species A evolves into species B, then must there be a time when the child is of species B while the parent is of species A. And isn’t that a ridiculous notion?
The herring gulls and salamanders are the counterexamples in space (which we can directly see now) of the counterargument in time (which we can only infer). What it says is that as descendants are produced, they form a continuum in time. Each generation, while differing slightly, can interbreed with its previous generation, but over a long enough period of time, the two end points of the time continuum need not be able to interbreed.
Thus it is possible for an organism to be intermediate between two species.
Coming back to the question of why we look so different if we all shared common ancestors so recently, it is likely that the kind of selectivity practiced by the cichlid fish has resulted in certain features being shared by groups that interbreed within a restricted domain bounded by distance and geography and culture, although the process has not become so extreme that we have formed into distinct species.
I apologize for boring those readers who had had a much more extensive biology education than I have because all these things which I have been writing about recently on evolution must be well known to them. But I find all this perfectly fascinating and novel.