Logo of pnasPNASInfo for AuthorsSubscriptionsAboutThis Article
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1994 Jul 19; 91(15): 6758–6763.

The role of extinction in evolution.


The extinction of species is not normally considered an important element of neodarwinian theory, in contrast to the opposite phenomenon, speciation. This is surprising in view of the special importance Darwin attached to extinction, and because the number of species extinctions in the history of life is almost the same as the number of originations; present-day biodiversity is the result of a trivial surplus of originations, cumulated over millions of years. For an evolutionary biologist to ignore extinction is probably as foolhardy as for a demographer to ignore mortality. The past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in extinction, yet research on the topic is still at a reconnaissance level, and our present understanding of its role in evolution is weak. Despite uncertainties, extinction probably contains three important elements. (i) For geographically widespread species, extinction is likely only if the killing stress is one so rare as to be beyond the experience of the species, and thus outside the reach of natural selection. (ii) The largest mass extinctions produce major restructuring of the biosphere wherein some successful groups are eliminated, allowing previously minor groups to expand and diversify. (iii) Except for a few cases, there is little evidence that extinction is selective in the positive sense argued by Darwin. It has generally been impossible to predict, before the fact, which species will be victims of an extinction event.

Full text

Full text is available as a scanned copy of the original print version. Get a printable copy (PDF file) of the complete article (1.2M), or click on a page image below to browse page by page. Links to PubMed are also available for Selected References.

Selected References

These references are in PubMed. This may not be the complete list of references from this article.
  • Alvarez LW, Alvarez W, Asaro F, Michel HV. Extraterrestrial cause for the cretaceous-tertiary extinction. Science. 1980 Jun 6;208(4448):1095–1108. [PubMed]
  • Dodson P. Counting dinosaurs: how many kinds were there? Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1990 Oct;87(19):7608–7612. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Sepkoski JJ., Jr Periodicity in extinction and the problem of catastrophism in the history of life. J Geol Soc London. 1989;146:7–19. [PubMed]
  • Raup DM. A kill curve for Phanerozoic marine species. Paleobiology. 1991;17(1):37–48. [PubMed]
  • Jablonski D. Extinctions: a paleontological perspective. Science. 1991 Aug 16;253(5021):754–757. [PubMed]
  • Raup DM. Extinction from a paleontological perspective. Eur Rev. 1993;1(3):207–216. [PubMed]
  • Raup DM. Large-body impact and extinction in the Phanerozoic. Paleobiology. 1992 Winter;18(1):80–88. [PubMed]
  • Sepkoski JJ., Jr A compendium of fossil marine animal families, 2nd edition. Contrib Biol Geol. 1992 Mar 1;83:1–156. [PubMed]
  • Jablonski D. Background and mass extinctions: the alternation of macroevolutionary regimes. Science. 1986 Jan 10;231(4734):129–133. [PubMed]
  • Raup DM, Jablonski D. Geography of end-Cretaceous marine bivalve extinctions. Science. 1993 May 14;260:971–973. [PubMed]
  • Sheehan PM, Fastovsky DE, Hoffmann RG, Berghaus CB, Gabriel DL. Sudden extinction of the dinosaurs: latest Cretaceous, upper Great Plains, USA. Science. 1991 Nov 8;254(5033):835–839. [PubMed]

Articles from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America are provided here courtesy of National Academy of Sciences


Related citations in PubMed

See reviews...See all...

Cited by other articles in PMC

See all...


  • Cited in Books
    Cited in Books
    PubMed Central articles cited in books
  • PubMed
    PubMed citations for these articles

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...