Friday, March 06, 2015
Can Cities Change Earth's Evolution?
[NPR] When Charles Darwin first taught us how to think about evolution, he also was teaching us to think about time. By allowing natural selection to work over millions of years, what might seem like a divine miracle (the creation of a new kind of animal) became something much more grounded (though equally wondrous).
But what if evolutionary change could operate much faster? What if evolution could dance to the same beat as something like ecology — the interaction of life with changing environments? This idea of "eco-evolutionary dynamics" is a relatively new one that, on its own, is stunning enough. But include the possibility of rapid, evolutionary change a la the Anthropocene — the brave new human-dominated world we're creating — and things can get really interesting.
Eco-evolutionary dynamics in a rapidly urbanizing world is the subject of a new paper by Marina Alberti, a professor at the University of Washington's College of the Built Environment. I first met Alberti a couple of years ago, as my own research into "the physics of cities" began. What is fascinating about her Urban Ecology Research Lab is the breadth of its efforts — and I've been happy to learn and collaborate with them. As an astrophysicist, what intrigues me about the new paper is that its perspective takes rapid urbanization as not just a social phenomena, but also as a planetary one.
Over the past decade or so, Alberti argues, scientists have recognized that changes in ecosystems can drive changes in evolution, such as the emergence of new species' traits. And as these traits rapidly evolve, novel ecosystem functions will appear as well. As Alberti puts it: "There is significant evidence that changes in ecological conditions drive evolutionary change in species traits that, in turn, alters ecological interactions." Read More