How Evolution Really Works

Most people are taught that biological evolution is a linear, slow, and gradual process which leads to change only after incalculably long periods of time. This is mostly inaccurate. While gradual evolution does occur, it is relatively rare. As it turns out, the way evolution really tends to work is through a phenomenon called punctuated equilibrium1 .

The basic idea is this: most of the time, organisms and ecosystems remain in stasis–that is, a state of harmony and balance–with very limited evolutionary change. However, every once in a while, something dramatic will happen to the environment, throwing things out of alignment–say, a new predator will arrive, or maybe there will be a natural disaster that changes selective pressures. As organisms adjust to the change, rapid evolutionary adaptation occurs. It is often swift and brutal. Eventually, a state of equilibrium is reached once again.

In other words, practically speaking, it is rare for the process of evolution (and especially speciation) to be accurately described as slow and gradual. Things mostly stay the same for very long stretches of time, except during periodic disruptions which cause major changes to rapidly occur.

The concept of punctuated equilibrium comes from evolutionary biology, but it also fairly accurately applies to the evolution of technology. One of my favorite examples can be seen in the image below, which shows the mobile phone market before and after the introduction of iPhone in 2007:


Clearly, a new predator had arrived, and selective pressures changed swiftly and dramatically.

1 Read more (from a slightly imperfect source): Punctuated equilibrium


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