Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that once species appear in the fossil record they will become stable, showing little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history. This state is calledstasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another. Punctuated equilibrium is commonly contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the belief that evolution generally occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual transformation of whole lineages (called anagenesis). In this view, evolution is seen as generally smooth and continuous.
In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a landmark paper developing their theory and called it punctuated equilibria. Their paper built upon Ernst Mayr‘s model of geographic speciation, I. Michael Lerner‘s theories of developmental and genetic homeostasis, as well as their own empirical research. Eldredge and Gould proposed that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of mostfossil species.
Stephen Jay Gould (/ɡuːld/; September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at theAmerican Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University.
Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.
Most of Gould’s empirical research was based on the land snail genera Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, andevolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields (or “magisteria“) whose authorities do not overlap.
Gould was known by the general public mainly from his 300 popular essays in the magazine Natural History, and his books written for a non-specialist audience. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend“.