The definition of macro vs microevolution

I agree, those are good additions to what I described. We are both putting macroevolution above the level of species which is probably the division line that most people use.

Linguists face many similar situations (akin to macro/micro evolution and species/language/dialect definitions) and we’ve mentioned them at times on these forums. What is the “boundary” between a language and a dialect? When does dialect evolve to the point that it is no longer classified as part of the “mother” language? And when did Latin transition to Old French?

Many of my students have been confused by the claim that the old-fashioned sounding English of the King James Bible (1611) is, nevertheless, Modern English (aka New English.) For an historical linguist the differences between 1611 English and 2020 English are not great enough to keep them from being part of the same English language (as in species? as in kind?)

Scholars classify Middle English as phasing into modern English as the Great Vowel Shift (late fourteenth century to mid sixteenth century) took place among English speakers. This makes a convenient “dividing point” but nobody can point to a particular year—and the transition varied by region. We humans love to classify and we prefer well-defined boundaries but nature (including Homo sapiens sapiens who speak to one another) simply does its thing, usually gradually and in a sort-of- hard-to-exactly pin-down way.

More than a few times I’ve asked a “creation science” anti-evolution advocate when they think the first English speaker was born and how did his/her language differ from the parents’ language. (And how did that first English speaking child find another English speaker for a simple conversation?)


As a native Dutch speaker it is interesting that if you ‘un-vowel shift’ many English words they sound practically identical to their modern day Dutch equivalents.

Do we understand why the vowel shift happened? Did other elements perhaps intrude into the language on the British Isles that influenced how people pronounced their words? Just speculating, but could it be the spread of French that came with the Normans? There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent thing going on with their cousins across the North Sea.

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Seeing how this thread is already labelled as a “Side Conversation”, I’ll briefly hazard this interesting tangent because it is a great question. Also, many of these factors might be considered analogs to evolutionary processes.

I’m not a specialist in this area at all but it is my understanding that there are about a half dozen theories—and perhaps all or most of them played some role in the Great Vowel Shift. Some think that migrations of country people into urban areas (especially from the north into southern England) brought the shifts in the vowels in the major cities. Some have proposed that the Shift merely reflected what had already happened in German and some other European languages a few centuries before. Others emphasize the significance of Norman French intrusions. (Oddly enough, I also recall a somewhat opposite theory that it was the reaction against French pronunciations that led to the exaggeration of shifting English vowels. Some didn’t want to sound at all like the French.) I can’t recall the two or three other theories.

Less often discussed are the consonantal changes which accompanied the Great Vowel Shift. If memory serves, those mostly involved consonants going silent. I don’t know much about Dutch but I think I recall that the “gh” (as in “ghoul” and “ghost”) spelling was standardized at the time, to where it began to be pronounced much like the “g” in “guest”. [Of course, there are many other uses and histories behind the English digraph “gh”, which can explain why it has an “f” sound in “laugh” and “enough” but has lost its sound in “through.” I recall that early English printers trying to render English letters/sounds which did not exist in the Dutch fonts they purchased in Amsterdam played a role in various “inventive” spellings.]

Those who struggle with English language spellings can blame the Great Vowel Shift for many of their frustrations. For example, meat and meet were pronounced differently and therefore spelled differently before the GVS “homogenized” lots of vowel-combination pronounciations. Modern English language spelling conventions are largely relics of pre-GVS pronunciations. (In other words, English is annoyingly NOT a “say the word like it is spelled” language largely because of the changes brought by the Great Vowel Shift. Of course, this is almost always a hazard of standardized spelling.)

Misleading spellings in the English language can serve as snapshots-in-time of past pronunciations—sort of like fossilized remains.


Lots of theories then! I hope researchers look beyond the confines of English to see what happened with other nearby Germanic languages for comparison.

Interesting examples of the consonant changes. Comparing again with Dutch, the word for laugh is ‘lach’, with the infamous Dutch guttural ‘g’ (as in Scheveningen). And ‘enough’ has both the vowel shift and the consonant shift: the Dutch word is ‘genoeg’. ‘Oe’ is pronounced as English ‘oo’ (vowel shift from ‘oo’ to ‘ou’) and the ‘g’ is again the guttural ‘g’ that changed into a ‘f’ sound (I don’t know why Dutch uses two different spellings ‘g’ and ‘ch’ for the same sound). I wonder what happened to the ‘g’ at the beginning of the word?

If you mentally undo all these shifts it is remarkable how much English then sounds like Dutch!

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I venture to suggest that ‘meet’ was originally pronounced as ‘moot’ - the Dutch word for ‘meet’ is ‘ontmoeten’. Again with the ‘oe’ pronounced as English ‘oo’. Don’t ask me where the ‘ont’ comes from - oddly enough that prefix normally points to something being taken away (as in English ‘de’ - ‘deconversion’).

Vowel shift doesn’t work for ‘meat’, there is no Dutch equivalent. We use the word ‘vlees’, clearly from the German ‘Fleisch’.

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As you probably know,the Frisian language of the Netherlands (and some other areas) is considered the modern living language closest to English. There is a poem which is used to illustrate the similarities:

Frisian: Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk.

English: Butter, bread, and green cheese is good English and good Fries.

This provides yet another analog to evolutionary processes. I’m thinking about mutations, among other things.

In our micro/macro evolution discussion, it is interesting to consider that the Western Germanic languages were a continuum of dialects united in a trading consortium between historically related tribes. Middle Low German was apparently their trade language (that is, a convenient lingua franca.)

Thus, go back enough centuries and the earliest Old English speakers and earliest Old Frisian speakers could understand each other well enough to conduct routine commerce and probably far more (if they wished to converse over dinner.) It makes one think of diverging populations discussed in an evolutionary biology textbook. Populations in different geographical areas (such as those separated by the North Sea) gradually diverge to where sub-species become species—and dialects become separate languages.

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I ought to understand/speak Frisian because my paternal line of ancestry goes back to Friesland - I have seen the gravestone of my great-great-grandfather in a small Friesian village where he was head of the primary school in the mid-19th Century. But I don’t, because his son moved to the southwest of The Netherlands and we lost touch with the old homeland.

Separation was certainly a factor in the development of new languages, but apparently it doesn’t have to be. In the East of The Netherlands they speak Low Saxon, which is considered a dialect of either German or Dutch (or both, I’d say!). We lived there for some years and when the locals started talking to themselves I couldn’t understand a word of it. I’d say incipient speciation. It is probably dying out though, unless some political upheavals ringfence it off from the surroundings. Unlikely, but after Brexit I think you can’t rule anything out - Friexit? Saxit?

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What do we do with the “category” problem?: Two or more sub-groups that are virtually isolated from each other in the reproductive sense … can evolve in ways that make these groups truly incompatible, even though the evolutionary changes may be practically invisible?

There could be a change in a blood protein, or in how meiosis creates the germ cells for the next generation.

Macro-evolution has to start with what isolates one group from another.

And once we have separate groups that no longer successfully inter-breed, then we are back to micro-evolution!

I for one do not know what question you’re attempting to ask here. Could you try it again?

How does this apply to asexual organisms?

How does this apply to fossil species that are separated in time?


Naturally, it would have very little bearing on asexual organisms (in the deep past or now), nor on species that have left us only fossil evidence.

Recognizing different species for these other categories you mention has always been a somewhat subjective matter, wouldn’t you agree?

Lions and Tigers are “easily” differentiated as separate species … not because they really are, but because there is little likelihood that social lions are not likely to interact and mate with solitary Tigers. But the plethora of Ligers and Tions tell us that these hybrid matings ARE possible.


For example: are tiger stripes a macro-evolution that marks a new species? Or is it merely micro-evolution?

The fact we can have fertile LIGERS and TIONS suggests that stripes for a Tiger is a micro-evolutionary step… not one that marks a truly separate species. Wouldn’t you agree?

I think you are confused about what species are and about what macroevolution is.

Very much so. It is also in keeping with the point @swamidass was trying to make, that there are several definitions for species and they are valid within certain contexts.

For me, it isn’t a question of if they can produce fertile offspring but do they. What we are trying to explain is how divergence between populations occurs, and our definitions of speciation need to serve as an explanation for that observation. If we burrow down into legalese definitions of species we can lose sight of what we are really trying to do which is explain how nature works.

I would point to the divergence of the two gene pools as macroevolution. That process would involve the accumulation of different microevolutionary events in each population.

here is a simple definition of created kind: any group of creatures that were able to reproduce in the original creation. macro evolution is basically any evolution of a new complex structure.


So, consistent with your point made above, you are comfortable with the idea that a Tiger’s STRIPES would be a MACRO-evolutionary event?

Mr. T., you would agree with this then?: It is a dramatic distinguisher for a species … even if Tigers satisfy only a part of the usual definition of “species”.


There are many examples of macro-evolution that are not necessarily COMPLEX!

For example, proto-whales had arms and legs.

Eventually, these proto-whale populations no longer retained their lower limbs. This is certainly not a COMPLEX development.

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No, a tiger’s stripes are not a macroevolutionary event, nor do they have anything to do with speciation. You also mistake the definition of biological species. Hybridization in captivity doesn’t prevent two populations from being separate species. Even a little bit in the wild doesn’t, as long as the populations remain distinct. It’s more difficult to decide when populations are allopatric, as are lions and tigers.

Macroevolution is best defined in reference to processes. It’s macroevolution if it involves a macroevolutionary process, and a macroevolutionary process is one that can’t be reduced to allele frequency changes in populations. Species selection is the most common example: differential speciation or extinction resulting from fixed differences.

“A big change” is not the usual definition of macroevolution.

Stripes would be a microevolutionary event that adds to divergence (i.e. macroevolutionary event) between the tiger and lion populations. To use an analogy, imagine two people walking together. They are each taking the same stride and travelling in the same direction. At some point they start to walk in different directions. They are still taking the same strides, but are moving apart from one another. The steps would be microevolution and the parting of ways resulting in separation would be macroevolution.

It’s tough to say what a “dramatic distinguisher” would be. We humans seem biased towards flashy coloration when such changes may very well be quite minor. There may be other morphological features that are just as important. There are massive coat color differences between house cats and yet they are considered to be within the same species.


Okay… so now that you have dug your hole…

[1] Are you asserting that Lions and Tigers are, indeed, separate species? Do I have that part right?

[2] I think we agree that a lot of micro-evolutions are sufficient to create speciation, right?

[3] So what differences between Lions and Tigers would constitute the most significant difference?
Maybe the answer to [3] should be: "nothing in particular… the sum total of the little micro-evolutions that have occurred between the two groups of felines. < ? Yes, agreed?