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NSF Study on Green Algae Finds Darwin Was Wrong About Competition


It raises an eyebrow, to say the least, to find a mainstream science story so offhandedly dissing Darwin, especially when the National Science Foundation is paying for it. That's what happened when the NSF's "Discoveries" website listed this: "Study suggests survival isn't always about competition." Yes, the NSF supported work that undermines a key Darwinian concept: competition among closely related species.

With $2 million in funding over a five-year period starting in 2010, researchers from the University of Michigan, led by Bradley Cardinale, with help from colleagues at the University of Maryland and UC Santa Barbara, set out to test a fundamental aspect of Darwin's theory. According to Darwin, closely related species compete more than distant ones, because they occupy similar ecological niches. The scientists neither intended nor expected to find Darwin's precept wrong. Examining closely related algae in North American lakes, they expected to find species battling each other for dominance. What they found was "completely unexpected," the report says. Look at the shock these scientists experienced:

The researchers ... were so uncomfortable with their results that they spent the next several months trying to disprove their own work. But the research held up.

"[Darwin's] hypothesis is so intuitive that it was hard for us to give it up. But we are becoming more and more convinced that he wasn't right about the organisms we've been studying," Cardinale says. "It doesn't mean the hypothesis won't hold for other organisms, but it's enough that we want to get biologists to rethink the generality of Darwin's hypothesis." (Emphasis added.)

So it's not about competition. It's about cooperation.

"If Darwin had been right, the older, more genetically unique species should have unique niches, and should compete less strongly, while the ones closely related should be ecologically similar and compete much more strongly -- but that's not what happened," Cardinale says. "We didn't see any evidence of that at all." They found this to be so in field experiments, lab experiments and surveys in 1,200 lakes in North America.

"If Darwin was right, we should've seen species that are genetically different and ecologically unique, doing unique things and not competing with other species," he adds. "But we didn't."

This result is important because competition is a key tenet of Darwinism. It harks back to the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who assumed that organisms, multiplying exponentially, cannot keep up with the food supply that only grows arithmetically. The inevitable consequence, Malthus reasoned, would be widespread death except for those individuals who could successfully compete for limited resources. Darwin depended on this notion when he built his theory of natural selection. In the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species, he used "survival of the fittest," a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer (another follower of Malthus), as a more accurate representation of his ideas, because it avoided the appearance of design (i.e., nature "selecting" something, as if on purpose).

Darwin "was obsessed with competition," Cardinale says. "He assumed the whole world was composed of species competing with each other, but we found that one-third of the species of algae we studied actually like each other. They don't grow as well unless you put them with another species. It may be that nature has a heck of a lot more mutualisms than we ever expected.

"Maybe species are co-evolving," he adds. "Maybe they are evolving together so they are more productive as a team than they are individually. We found that more than one-third of the time, that they like to be together. Maybe Darwin's presumption that the world may be dominated by competition is wrong."

Cardinale is being tentative with his "maybes" because it's a big deal to contradict the man most scientists view as the greatest biologist who ever lived, whose views are central to debates over design and loom large in battles over school science. But the evidence has spoken. If it proves true with other organisms, it's hard to overestimate the impact of this finding. The work was done by scientists supportive of Darwinism. This is huge! What will our Darwin-lobbying friends at the National Censor for Science Education do now? Oh, just ignore it, of course.

The scientists did not set out to disprove Darwin, but, in fact, to learn more about the genetic and ecological uniqueness of fresh-water green algae so they could provide conservationists with useful data for decision-making. "We went into it assuming Darwin to be right, and expecting to come up with some real numbers for conservationists," Cardinale says. "When we started coming up with numbers that showed he wasn't right, we were completely baffled."

The finding has political consequences as well. The EPA and non-governmental environmentalist organizations tend to focus on saving more distant species, thinking similar ones are redundant.

But if scientists ultimately prove Darwin wrong on a larger scale, "then we need to stop using his hypothesis as a basis for conservation decisions," Cardinale says. "We risk conserving things that are the least important, and losing things that are the most important. This does bring up the question: How do we prioritize?"

Like pulling on a sweater string, this finding threatens to unravel other parts of Darwin's theory. Consider the implications for his famous "Tree of Life" diagram:

Certain traits determine whether a species is a successful competitor or a poor competitor, he says. "Evolution does not appear to predict which species have good traits and bad traits," he says. "We should be able to look at the Tree of Life, and evolution should make it clear who will win in competition and who will lose. But the traits that regulate competition can't be predicted from the Tree of Life."

Cardinale tried to do some damage control by proposing co-evolution and cooperative evolution, but a little reflection shows that such ideas are fundamentally opposed to traditional Darwinism. Cooperation is the opposite of competition. Think of all the political baggage that stemmed from Darwin's doctrine of survival of the fittest. What if all the Social Darwinist regimes had been taught that the way to succeed is to cooperate? The mind boggles at the thought.

To be accurate, the finding allows that competition may work in some cases and not others. Algae may interact differently than mammals or dinosaurs. However this shakes out with further studies, one thing is clear: empirical observations show Darwin was wrong in a case designed to test his theory, and we didn't have to say it. Scientists with every desire to prove Darwin right found out with their own eyes. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of the evidence.

Image credit: Bradley Cardinale/NSF.