In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Punctuated Equilibria

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Classic Papers
  • Foundations
  • Application to other Disciplines

Evolutionary Biology Punctuated Equilibria
David Sepkoski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0006


In 1972, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a paper titled “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism” (Eldredge and Gould 1972, cited under Classic Papers), in which they argue that the fossil record supports a model of evolution in which new species appear in sudden bursts of evolutionary change, followed by lengthy periods of “stasis” in which lineages undergo relatively little outward modification. In this paper, they argue that their model does not contradict Darwinian evolutionary theory, and draw heavily on Ernst Mayr’s theory of allopatric speciation—during which significant evolutionary change takes place rapidly in small, geographically isolated populations—as the major mechanism. Since 1972, this theory has been debated widely in paleontological, biological, and philosophical literature. It has also been connected to wider debates about the nature of evolutionary patterns and trends, and has produced a number of spin-off arguments, including species selection, exaptation, and macroevolutionary hierarchy theory. While opponents on both sides have frequently declared the matter settled, punctuated equilibria—along with associated concepts—continues to be a lively source of empirical investigation and theoretical debate.

General Overviews

There are many available overviews of punctuated equilibria, written both for specialized and general audiences. However, the best have been written by the scientists most directly involved in the debate. Stanley 1979 is the first book to attempt a general overview of new paleontological approaches to macroevolution, and focuses in particular on punctuated equilibria and species selection. Eldredge 1995 is a semipopular account of the debates surrounding punctuated equilibria, and presents an argument for a unified macroevolutionary theory based on a hierarchical approach. Gould 2002 is the massive, often frustrating, but equally insightful summation of Gould’s life’s work. The chapter on punctuated equilibria alone is more than three hundred pages long.

  • Eldredge, Niles.1995. Reinventing Darwin: The great debate at the high table of evolutionary theory. New York: Wiley.

    A semipopular presentation of Eldredge’s evolutionary views, this book situates punctuated equilibria as part of a larger, hierarchical revision to Darwinian theory. The best example of Eldredge’s programmatic agenda for paleobiology.

  • Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

    This is Gould’s magnum opus, which sums up his hierarchical, macroevolutionary reinterpretation of Darwinism, presented as a complement, rather than an alternative, to the Modern Synthetic theory. The central chapter is a three hundred-plus-page exposition of punctuated equilibria, an excellent (although partisan) account of the development, implications, and debate surrounding the theory.

  • Stanley, Steven M. 1979. Macroevolution: Pattern and process. San Francisco: Freeman.

    This book offers a textbook overview of challenges offered to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory by theories like punctuated equilibria and species selection. It was the first book-length exposition of the new, paleobiological approach to macroevolutionary theory, and remains an accessible introduction to many of these concepts.

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