When I research Darwin's abominable mystery, the abrupt origin and rapid diversification of the flowering plants during the Cretaceous, I read different conclusions about whether it has been solve or not. The following 4 articles are the top results I googled for the subject.

  1. New light shed on Charles Darwin's 'abominable mystery', published 23 January 2021 said "In short, no. "One hundred and forty years later, the mystery's still unsolved," says Prof Buggs. "Of course, we've made lots of progress in our understanding of evolution and in our knowledge of the fossil record, but this mystery is still there."


  3. Darwin's abominable mystery, published May 24, 2017 said "many of the solutions we are seeking for the mystery today - such as pre-Cretaceous angiosperms - even if they were found, would simply restore the mystery to the depth that it appeared to have for Darwin. They wouldn't solve it."

  4. The meaning of Darwin's “abominable mystery”, published 01 January 2009 said "it is worth briefly addressing whether Darwin's “abominable mystery,” specifically with respect to angiosperms, has been “resolved” in the interim between 1882 and the present."

So has Darwin's abominable mystery been solved or not?

BTW, I asked a related question at history SE "How often was the 'abominable mystery' used to attack Darwin's evolution theory?"

  • $\begingroup$ Why would you think the rapid diversification a plant that evolved a completely new way to exploit animals, thus decreasing its need for gamete production at the same time drastically increasing the efficiency of its seed spreading mechanism, would need special explanation. Its like asking why there is a rapid diversification of animals once they evolve the ability to lay eggs on land. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 9, 2023 at 21:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I am a layman and that is why I asked. $\endgroup$
    – Qiulang
    Mar 10, 2023 at 1:29

1 Answer 1


Short answer:

No, it has not been solved.

Long answer:

To briefly summarize:

  • 2/4 of your citations (1,3) definitely state that the mystery is unsolved.
  • 1/4 definitely states that the mystery is solved (2).
  • 1/4 does not provide a clear answer (4).

Looking more into your citation (2), it refers to this paper (Simonin and Roddy, 2018, PLOS Biology). However, it does not look like that paper actually resolves the problem, that appears to be a journalistic exaggeration. What the paper actually does is present some hypotheses for how a hypothetical angiosperm ancestor's genome might have been well-disposed for rapid diversification. The pop science article also somewhat misstates what the mystery itself is: "why angiosperms replaced gymnosperms so abruptly", as opposed to "how angiosperms diversified so rapidly" (the paper itself appears to more or less accurately summarize the mystery). So we can probably discount the reference that claims that it is solved, because it is a somewhat overhyped presentation of interesting but incremental work.

I think that your citations 3 and 4 comes the closest to a nuanced view here, neither of which appears to be very optimistic about a solution, and both of which appear to be quite skeptical of claimed solutions of the mystery. This is a classic case where the more you know, the more confused you get.

Overall, it's worth noting that "solving" the mystery is probably not something that we can do beyond a general inferential fashion, at least without a time machine. The early evolution of angiosperms (or dicots, with respect to your citation 4) happened a very long time ago, we can't directly observe or measure it. We are obliged to look at the fossil record and make guesses based on that.

Our guesses might be very good and highly quantitative, but they're still just guesses based on a very incomplete and non-representative dataset. And that's ok! That's what a lot of paleontology is, you can get very far with that kind of analysis (for example, we are now quite sure that birds are dinosaurs). But "how did this extremely complex evolutionary process occur?" is a much more difficult question than "how can I best classify this object?".

For these reasons, we are unlikely to ever get a complete picture of the process by which angiosperm radiation occurred. What we might achieve is a good general idea of when the radiation's major events occurred, what its major lineages are, and a statistical guess at the causal factors behind it.

Based on your references, I think that we have a good idea of the major lineages and the timing of the radiation, but the causes of the radiation are still very up in the air.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering my question but other than my citations is there any consistent conclusion in science community ? $\endgroup$
    – Qiulang
    Mar 10, 2023 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Qiulang I think that the consistent conclusion is what you've already found: no we have not. The sophisticated commentators that you've found go on to say that we probably can't solve this mystery, you yourself have quoted the relevant passages. We don't know why or how the radiation of angiosperms/dicots happened. As I say in my last sentence, we have more paleontological data points but do not know much about causes. Claiming to solve this kind of question is a good way to hype up your work, so people make those claims (as with your citation 2). But those claims appear to be unfounded. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 17:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .