Cambridge Researcher Finally Proves One of Darwin’s Evolution Theories

On the Origin of Species Book Shelf

A first edition of On the Origin of Species on the bookshelf in The Old Library at St John’s College, Cambridge. Credit: Nordin Catic

Scientists have proved one of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution for the first time — nearly 140 years after his death.

Laura van Holstein, a Ph.D. student in Biological Anthropology at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and lead author of the research published today (March 18) in Proceedings of the Royal Society, discovered mammal subspecies play a more important role in evolution than previously thought.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in his later years. Credit: Julia Margaret Cameron

Her research could now be used to predict which species conservationists should focus on protecting to stop them from becoming endangered or extinct.

A species is a group of animals that can interbreed freely amongst themselves. Some species contain subspecies — populations within a species that differ from each other by having different physical traits and their own breeding ranges. Northern giraffes have three subspecies that usually live in different locations to each other and red foxes have the most subspecies — 45 known varieties — spread all over the world. Humans have no subspecies.

Laura van Holstein said: “We are standing on the shoulders of giants. In Chapter 3 of On the Origin of Species Darwin said animal lineages with more species should also contain more ‘varieties.’ Subspecies is the modern definition. My research investigating the relationship between species and the variety of subspecies proves that sub-species play a critical role in long-term evolutionary dynamics and in future evolution of species. And they always have, which is what Darwin suspected when he was defining what a species actually was.”

The anthropologist confirmed Darwin’s hypothesis by looking at data gathered by naturalists over hundreds of years — long before Darwin famously visited the Galapagos Islands on-board HMS Beagle. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was first published in 1859 after Darwin returned home from a five-year voyage of discovery. In the seminal book, Darwin argued that organisms gradually evolved through a process called ‘natural selection’ — often known as survival of the fittest. His pioneering work was considered highly controversial because it contradicted the Bible’s account of creation.

Laura van Holstein’s research also proved that evolution happens differently in land mammals (terrestrial) and sea mammals and bats (non-terrestrial) because of differences in their habitats and differences in their ability to roam freely.

Darwins On The Origin of Species

Charles Darwin’s seminal book On The Origin of Species. Credit: Nordin Catic

Laura van Holstein said: “We found the evolutionary relationship between mammalian species and subspecies differs depending on their habitat. Subspecies form, diversify and increase in number in a different way in non-terrestrial and terrestrial habitats, and this in turn affects how subspecies may eventually become species. For example, if a natural barrier like a mountain range gets in the way, it can separate animal groups and send them off on their own evolutionary journeys. Flying and marine mammals — such as bats and dolphins — have fewer physical barriers in their environment.”

The research explored whether subspecies could be considered an early stage of speciation — the formation of a new species. van Holstein said: “The answer was yes. But evolution isn’t determined by the same factors in all groups and for the first time we know why because we’ve looked at the strength of the relationship between species richness and subspecies richness.”

Darwins Hypothesis

Darwin’s hypothesis that was proved by a Ph.D. student at St John’s College, Cambridge. Credit: Nordin Catic

The research acts as another scientific warning that the human impact on the habitat of animals will not only affect them now, but will affect their evolution in the future. This information could be used by conservationists to help them determine where to focus their efforts.

Laura van Holstein explained: “Evolutionary models could now use these findings to anticipate how human activity like logging and deforestation will affect evolution in the future by disrupting the habitat of species. The impact on animals will vary depending on how their ability to roam, or range, is affected. Animal subspecies tend to be ignored, but they play a pivotal role in longer term future evolution dynamics.”

Laura van Holstein, University of Cambridge

Laura van Holstein in the Old Library at St John’s College, Cambridge, with a first edition of Charles Darwin’s seminal book On The Origins of Species. Credit: Nordin Catic

Laura van Holstein is now going to look at how her findings can be used to predict the rate of speciation from endangered species and non-endangered species.

Notes to editors: What Darwin said on page 55 in ‘On the Origin of Species’: “From looking at species as only strongly-marked and well-defined varieties, I was led to anticipate that the species of the larger genera in each country would oftener present varieties, than the species of the smaller genera; for wherever many closely related species (i.e species of the same genus) have been formed, many varieties or incipient species ought, as a general role, to be now forming. Where many large trees grow, we expect to find saplings.”

Datasets: Most of the data is from Wilson and Reeder’s Mammal Species Of The World, a global collated database of mammalian taxonomy. The database contains hundreds of years’ worth of work by taxonomists from all over the world. The current way of “doing” taxonomy goes all the way back to botanist Carl Linnaeus (1735), so the accumulation of knowledge is the combined work of all taxonomists since then.

Reference: “Terrestrial habitats decouple the relationship between species and subspecies diversification in mammals” by Laura van Holstein and Robert A. Foley, 17 March 2020, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.2702

26 Comments on "Cambridge Researcher Finally Proves One of Darwin’s Evolution Theories"

  1. Shamefull to generalize this statement, there are so many questions against evolution, which wont be published by this biased scitech. But would do it gladly when silly explanations come up to support evolution. Biased !!!

  2. LOL! These people haven’t “proven” anything. Supposition and guess work is all we have here. There is still no proof a subspecies evolves into a new species.

  3. What a load of nonsense! Almost everything I’ve ever read about Darwinian Evolution is a completely biased anti Biblical attack! There’s zero empirical evidence in this article to support the presupposition that life formed due to Naturalistic circumstances, nor have I ever seen any empirical evidence of such a thing in my lifetime! Until then, any further science done regarding a Naturalistic origin of life on Earth is complete speculation and guesswork

    • At one time the assertion that the earth revolves around the sun was considered anti Biblical attack. And those ‘peace loving’ Christians even persecuted and killed people for those beliefs.
      Just because an idea is against Bible doesn’t mean it is not true.

  4. @Dion What empirical evidence have you seen that supports the Bible’s stories? You appear to be demanding more evidence from Science, but seem perfectly OK with the absolute lack of evidence supporting Biblical stories.

    • Science deals with things you can see, touch, feel or prove. Until Darwin’s speculations can be reproduced in a lab, you are dealing with faith, not science.

      You have faith that inside a vacuum, nothing, starting with nothing produced a big bang from nothing and produced all the complexity of life we know today. I need a lot more faith to believe that than any other fairy tale I have heard

      • The big bang has nothing to do with evolution. In trying to equate the two you are invoking the incredulity logical fallacy.

        The Evolution hypothesis is well tested, and is a firm scientific hypothesis. There is an abundance of evidence, testable, repeatable, and supported by multiple scientific disciplines.

        • “The big bang has nothing to do with evolution….”
          Please quit while you are behind. Both theories are religious points of view that presuppose that life and the whole universe arose by accident without the intervention of an intelligent being. In other words, some cosmic accident created matter and life from nothing and created the order we see in life from disorder.

          “…The Evolution hypothesis is well tested…”
          Big fat lie. Show me a lab experiment where a Petri dish of amino acids and carbon molecules with or without intelligent intervention converted themselves into an organism as simple as a blade of grass. All you have is supposition and speculation of how your great grandmother evolved from some primordial goo.

          • Darwin’s theory says that evolution happens over many million years. If you can live that long, you’ll be able to see evolution happening – in a big enough petri dish.

            Talking about evidence – anyone see that guy who apparently created the sun and the earth? And then forgot about which revolves around which?

      • The “lab” in case of Darwin’s theories is nature. Fossils, similarities of DNA of different species, junk DNA we carry with no purpose, and various other evidence should have confidence to any rational person that Darwin’s theories are true.

        Contrast this with what you have – a book of dubious origin about a supposed guy whose presence can’t be felt. Worse, this supposed creator of everything gets basic facts wrong – like whether the earth or the sun revolve around the other.

  5. Let me try to understand this drivel, a big bang happened from nothing and produced Carbon, Nitrogen, Hydrogen, and other elements that over billions of years formed some goo, which formed some unicellular organisms that magically transformed to some deformed ape called Lucy in the East African Rift valley that magically transformed into their great grandmother. Where I come from that is called superstition and requires a lot of faith in nothing.

    Statistically, it is more likely that a big bang in a print shop would produce Shakespear’s Julius Caesar than all the theories of how nothing came to produce the complexity of the life we know today, all without the intervention of an intelligent being.

    • Except that particles do pop out of vacuum all the time – and that can be shown through experiment.

      Meanwhile, if everyone believed everything written in every book, then that would lead to contradictions. The creation myths of various religions differ. What makes you think your myth is the correct one?

  6. Show me the transition-species fossils!

  7. Terrible headline. The author doesn’t seem to understand what a theory is, or what proof means in a scientific context.

  8. Letter to Evolutionists
    Laura Van Holstein, I pray to our Creator that simple faith (belief) of truth and fact in a God that caused “big bangs” will be realized within your de-volving being that is appointed to death like your god, charles darwin. You are spending vain time researching books that fill the libraries that are simply unbelieving of truth and fact.You cannot truthfully believe that the books that you are studying (though about disbelieving absolute truth) came into existence by a big bang instead of being written by weak-minded unbelievers in fact and truth, categorized as baseless theories.You are simply failing in NOT researching the oldest of all research books, the written Holy Bible which itself was likened to a subspecies in your understanding (physically written by man) though (in reality) inerrantly dictated to man by God and miraculously preserved by Divine Intervention over thousands of years, the Highest form of all species, the Everlasting, Eternal, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Living Word who will abide forever. God’s Truth will never devolve nor evolve because it remains constant, the same yesterday, today, and forever. According to the Bible, you are confusing subspecies with diverse species of animals simply clarified in God’s Word (which you may not want to read because you may fear knowing the real truth) that would correct your erring theories. Nevertheless, there is simply no subspecies of man because humanity is the the lowest species of man who was created in God’s own image. Until you experience faith (belief) in this fact of truth, you will never experience a relationship (the missing link) of absolute truth from your very Creator who you do not yet realize. This is really the missing link that you are searching for in all the wrong places—places of unbelief in an eternal, intelligent designer, our Heavenly Father. Hebrews 2:7 states that God made man “a little lower than the angels” thus in your terminology a “subspecies of angels” though in reality a diverse creation of God in His image! Where you are confused is not acknowledging factual truth but rather lies of previous created beings that rebelled against factual truth because of envy, jealousy, and pride entering the mind and heart of those who refused to be in submission to their Highest Power, a God of Love and a just preserver of righteousness. In Genesis 1:26 (if you would so desire to research and support truth—not theory), God stated “Let Us (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three eternal beings of God who agree in one as stated throughout the holy scriptures) make man after our image” (male and female). Gen. 1:25 stated, “God made the beast of the earth after his kind”, clearly defining several species of animals who were not made after the image of God. It would do you well to study truth rather than error of a lying creation of God who have devolved because of rebellion and disobedience because of envy and pride of admitting and repenting of their sin to their just and holy God. In closing, you can experience this great faith in Creator God and get to know the Author of All Truth, God Almighty by simply believing in the Father, His Son, and His blessed Holy Spirit. Hebrews 11:6 states, “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” I pray that you will seek for the Divine Way, the Truth, and the Life that is found in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, through believing him through obedience to all He is and does in righteousness.

    In the grace of our Lord and Savior,

    Gordon Allen

  9. May be some analysis, at best. We don’t believe in the theory of evolution at all.

  10. What you said Gordon. You go boy.

  11. The author of this article makes two conjectures that a more experienced person likely would not.
    1. – Proof : a reader made a good observation that more helpful verbiage would be a ‘hypothesis is claimed confirmed’, and another reader suggests the term ‘supporting evidence’. Peer review might require a statistical ‘2 sigma’ confidence level and supporting testable data. 2. – A reference to Darwin compared to the Biblical account of creation was unnecessarily included, and moreover was claimed contradictory. This does highlight a giant problem about false ‘facts’ leading to unnecessary societal polarization on the topic. This article seems to be for a general media blitz and to originate at – . It is helpful to look at the March ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society’ for a more informative introduction,

    Here are some ‘acts’ of Darwin for ‘facts’ from his ‘Origin of the Species’. Darwin wrote “Creator” nine times, “God” once, and quoted a statement including “God”; all in a positive light. His famous 60 word closing statement in “Origin” is often gutted of 19 – 20 important words by atheists, bracketed: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,[having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that], whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” The phrase “by the Creator” was not in the first edition. In all five subsequent editions, Darwin was more specific, including “by the Creator”. It refers to the key Genesis 2:7 verse, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

    Darwin never removed any of his statements about the Creator or God from his book. He likely died an agnostic due to theodicy concerns after the loss of a young daughter. This reveals a central struggle in this over 150 year-old discussion, and it continues. Archaeological discoveries of script used in paleo-Hebrew provide better letter and word values that make the creation story very comfortable with nature then, and especially with the science of nature we know now. The Jewish Diaspora and Christian Dark Ages caused great loss of meaning. This is a frontier of recovery for good rigor in both Bible and nature. Today, Evolutionary Extended Synthesis [EES] uses genetics pioneered 70 years ago by Barbara McClintok, Nobel Laureate. Its mobile transposable elements in genes, retrotransposons, and other ubiquitous components of DNA in many eukaryotic organisms have much in common with epigenetics.

    They give mechanisms for ‘jumps’ in the fossil record, during catastrophic times. It and the Biblical creation show progression of life, and correspond well if using good paleo-Hebrew values becoming available. The context is Design in Biblical revelation and in nature; open to ‘falsifiable’ testing, with measurement and math. That is a huge step for Both ‘sides’ to rationally fill a chasm, not do a spasm.

    Keep it up, St. John’s. I hope Laura van Holstein can add a link to an abstract and data! My farmer relatives are proud of the bovine namesake, and I of St. John! Reliable work joins Bible and nature.

    Steve Huffey – put my name with Darwin for a more informative sourced blog about Darwin above.

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  13. CLIFFORD STANFIELD | February 15, 2021 at 1:02 pm | Reply

    Roman Catholic Church says that evolution does not conflict with the Creation narrative:

    “WORD THAT Pope Francis on Monday said that faith and creationism aren’t at odds with one another may have shocked many Americans, but the comments don’t actually reflect any deviation from long-standing church teaching.

    ‘”The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it,” Francis said, speaking at a ceremony in the Vatican Gardens inaugurating a bronze bust in honor of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. “The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”‘

    • The Pope is being smart and practical. He doesn’t want to fight a battle that is already a lost cause.
      The question remains though – if Big bang ‘exacts’ creation, then why wasn’t it mentioned in the holy texts? Among the thousands of words, a few could have been spared for this critical detail. Instead, where there were details, those were proved to be false. If the creator is trying to be unconvincing, he is doing a great job.

  14. There’s a lot of discussion here about evolution vs. religion. Even if evolution is false (it isn’t – no evidence found thus far contradicts it), it still doesn’t add an iota of credibility to religious myths. In particular, claims in Bible has been proven to be false, thus undermining that particular story of creation.

  15. Mr (Dr) J Hewett | March 15, 2023 at 7:10 am | Reply

    A lot of comments here taking sides on the “science versus religion” debate, some strongly worded snipes against the claim of the article that one of Darwin’s theories has been proved correct, as people wrongly assume this is claiming “evolution has finally been proved!”. Few people seem to have actually read and understood what the article is actually saying:

    Darwin supposed that for any genus (family of similar species) that has many species you would expect to also see many subspecies, and for a genus with only a few species the opposite is true – because if conditions favour the formation of new subspecies they will also favour the formation of new species

    It seems to make logical sense, but this was the first study to actually trawl through all the data looking at every single genus to see how many species and how many subspecies, and to crunch the numbers to prove that the ones with more species have more subspecies as well and vice versa

    PS. An example of a situation where lots of species/ subspecies are forming:
    E.g. Lots of isolated populations of a particular species on a group of islands will relatively quickly (still millions of years) become different from each other and eventually form new subspecies and then new species as they become more and more different over time, whereas for a creature that lives in the open ocean there’s not necessarily any barriers between any individual finding and mating with another so you get less new subspecies forming and also less new species forming.
    The Galapagos Islands are a great example of conditions where lots of brand new species and subspecies are forming – the islands are volcanic and so relatively newly formed, just a few types of animals, birds etc got blown off course/drifted on logs and ended up there early on, and have evolved to take advantage of the different habitats/niches there, e.g. some iguanas have learnt to make the most of the seaweed just off the coast and are able to hold their breath a long time to eat as much as possible – these are marine iguanas and there are several subspecies on the different islands. There are also 3 species of iguanas which feed on dry land, and various subspecies of those too.

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