Abstract

Since the publication of Darwin (1859), the biological meaning of the Cambrian radiation has been debated. Most commentators agree, however, that the Cambrian radiation is fundamentally a time of major metazoan cladogenesis. In and of itself this does not necessarily mean that unique evolutionary processes operated during the Cambrian radiation. Phylogenetic analysis has been used to study the tempo of speciation during the radiation, and thus far there is no need to invoke special rules relating to the tempo of evolution. Instead, what seems unique about the Cambrian radiation is its place as an important episode in the history of life--that is, as the first major radiation of the Metazoa. Although the tempo of evolution during the Cambrian radiation may not have been uniquely high, there were largely unique tectonic events that transpired during the late Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian, such as extensive cratonic fragmentation. Biogeographic analysis of Early Cambrian olenelloid trilobites reveals that these tectonic events powerfully influenced evolutionary and distributional patterns in this diverse and abundant trilobite group. This emphasizes the importance of physical earth history in generating evolutionary patterns. In the general study of macroevolutionary patterns and processes, earth history phenomena emerge as powerful forces influencing the history of life and provide insights into evolution that can best be inferred by paleontological data.

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