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Wednesday, August 20, 2003

The ghost in the machine?

The Ghost of Competition Past
Guest blog by Stephen E. Jones

Last year in an ecology unit the lecturer briefly (and sardonically) mentioned
'the ghost of competition past' as an explanation of why there are not many
example of current competition between species as Darwin's theory requires.

"...looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true,
numberless intermediate varieties, linking closely together all the species of
the same group, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of
natural selection constantly tends, as has been so often remarked, to
exterminate the parent forms and the intermediate links..."
(Darwin C.R., "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,"
[1872], Everyman's Library, J.M. Dent & Sons: London, 6th Edition, 1928,
reprint, p.161)

Yesterday in another ecology unit the senior lecturer, a zoologist, said
quite deliberately, in the context of Gauss' Law of Competitive Exclusion
(i.e. that "no two species in an ecological community can occupy the same
niche"), that "it is impossible to find examples of competition in nature",
and this is referred to as `the ghost of competition past'... are quotes from two of my ecology textbooks that
also mention "the ghost of competition past".

First, that "clear-cut examples of morphological character displacement"
(i.e. competition driving natural selection of morphological change) are ...
surprisingly few":

"Is There Evidence That Evolution Based on Reduction of
Competition Has Been Widespread? Many authors have suggested
that current competition is no more obvious than it is because prior
competition has produced communities composed of species that
now live harmoniously. An absence of current strong competition is
not evidence against the importance of competition, but for it.
Joseph Connell (1980 [Connell, J.H. "Diversity and the coevolution
of competitors, or the ghost of competition past," Oikos, Vol. 35,
1980, pp.131-138]) termed this result `the ghost of competition
past,' a phrase that captures the spirit of the idea. A process of
divergence would occur such as we have described and illustrated
earlier .... If this process is a frequent one, we ought to be able to
find cases in which two species, when they occur separately
(allopatric), are similar but differ when they occur together
(sympatric). ... termed character displacement ... One of the best
examples of character displacement involves the small and medium
ground finches (Geospiza fuliginosa and Geospiza fortis) of the
Galapagos studied by David Lack (1947). ... How many other
clear-cut examples of morphological character displacement are
known? Their answer is, surprisingly few. "
(Brewer R., "The Science of Ecology," [1988], Saunders College Publishing: Ft.
Worth TX, Second Edition, 1994, p.290).

"Differences in resource use, size, and shape between coexisting species
... have been attributed to the 'ghost of competition past' ... [but they]
may have arisen from other causes, including chance, making it difficult to
confirm the hand of the ghost

"Given that competition is an energy-costly process that has a
negative impact on the interactants, we might expect selective
advantages to accrue to individuals that use different resources
from their competitors. Further, as many competitive interactions
are asymmetric, with larger species outcompeting smaller ones,
directional selection is expected to be particularly intense on
competitive 'losers'. Differences in resource use, size, and shape
between coexisting species are in fact often interpreted as
evolutionary responses to past competition, and such patterns have
been attributed to the 'ghost of competition past' (Connell 1980
[Connell, J.H. "Diversity and the coevolution of competitors, or the
ghost of competition past," Oikos, Vol. 35, 1980, pp.131-138]).
However, differences in resource use and morphology among
sympatric species may have arisen from other causes, including
chance, making it difficult to confirm the hand of the ghost."
(Attiwill P. & Wilson B., eds., "Ecology: An Australian
Perspective," Oxford University Press: South Melbourne Vic,
Australia, 2003, pp.145-146)

Has anyone heard of this? It sounds like the "trade-secret of ecology"!

It quite clearly is another major problem for Darwinism, because
competition is supposed to be the engine that drives Darwinian natural
selection. If there is little or no observable competition today, then
Darwin's theory has correspondingly little or no experimental support.

And if there is little or no evidence of competition occurring today, then
why should it be assumed that things were markedly different in the past?

Or to put it another way, if Darwinian evolution is supposed to be a
falsifiable scientific theory, then if evidence of competition occurring today
would be evidence for the theory, then why is not lack of evidence of
competition occurring today not counted as evidence against the theory?

Stephen E. Jones

9:09:00 pm