Biologists have long thought that coevolutionary interactions between species help to generate greater biological diversity. This idea goes all the way back to The Origin of Species, in which Darwin proposed that natural selection generated by competition for resources helped cause species to diverge over time:
Natural selection, also, leads to divergence of character; for more living beings can be supported on the same area the more they diverge in structure, habits, and constitution, of which we see proof by looking at the inhabitants of any small spot or at naturalised productions.
—Darwin (1859), page 128.
In the twentieth century, this idea was extended into suggestions that coevolution between plants and herbivores or flowers and pollinators helped to generate the tremendous diversity of flowering plants we see today. In general, biologists have found that strong coevolutionary interactions are indeed associated with greater diversity.
Yet although there is a well-established association between coevolution and evolutionary diversification, correlation isn’t causation. Furthermore, every species may coevolve with many others, and diversification that seems to be driven by one type of interaction might actually be better explained by another. It has even been suggested that coevolution rarely causes speciation at all.
One step toward determining how often coevolution promotes diversification would be to identify what kinds of coevolutionary interaction are more likely to generate diversity. This is precisely the goal of a paper I’ve just published with Scott Nuismer in this month’s issue of The American Naturalist. In it, we present a single mathematical model that compares a wide range of species interactions to see how they shape diversification, and that model shows that coevolution doesn’t always promote diversity [PDF].