Evolution: Like any other Science it is Predictable – Simon Conway Morris

Apologies for the sparsity of posts here in recent days,  but while I’m finishing another post on Pleistocene extinctions, I hope this linked essay and the related papers will be of more than temporary interest to readers here. As part of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations, they have just made available online a series of papers, Personal Perspectives in the Life Sciences for the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary, as explained here:

This is a collection of personal perspectives by leading scientists on topics of high current relevance and interest written specifically to mark the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. The authors were selected on the basis of their knowledge and experience in a topical area of life sciences research and they were invited to present their personal analysis of the status of the topic, promising and less promising approaches being used at the moment and, where possible, some bold conclusions. The topical areas highlighted were those that were mentioned most commonly by Royal Society Fellows and University Researchers as being of high interest and importance for future study. These topics range from environmental sustainability, including relevant areas of economics, ecology and behaviour, through complex process related to gene function and neural processing, to applications of stem cell research, social cognition and ageing.

I spotted this essay by Conway Morris and chose it as he has in the past had some pretty interesting things to say about evolutionary convergence and constraints, with particular reference to what kinds of intelligent life we might one day encounter in an extraterrestrial context – he surmised in a documentary, ‘What We Still Don’t Know – Are We Alone?, (video 49 mins) that if by chance we do ever come face to face with alien civilisations, we might find their citizens to be oddly similar to ourselves – to wit:

“I think wherever you go you’ll open the hatch and somebody will be looking back at you…. It’s difficult to think it won’t have a head, the nervous system is a jolly good invention. Quite a big brain. The eyes have got to be close to the brain. Eerily similar. As soon as we get under that alien skin, we’ll realise it’s us all over again”

I wonder to what extent that feeling of eeriness would be a useful analogy when considering how anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals felt when they first began to encounter each other in Upper Palaeolithic Europe, the extinction of the latter species notwithstanding.

This snippet from the linked paper argues:

Here, I will suggest that one central tenet of the current neo-Darwinian synthesis, that evolution is for all intents and purposes open-ended and indeterminate in terms of predictable outcomes, is now open to question. Thus, not only is life suspended between permanently uninhabitable regions that are either locked into crystalline immobility or in continuous and chaotic flux, but that the lines of evolutionary vitality thread through a landscape that leaves evolution with surprisingly few choices.

The basis of this view relies on the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence. This concept is, of course, not only entirely familiar to evolutionary biologists, but also provides some of the strongest arguments in favour of adaptational explanations. However, much less appreciated is the ubiquity of this convergence, with examples spanning the entire biological hierarchy from molecules to social systems and cognitive processes. In support of this thesis, which I explore at far greater length elsewhere, I briefly touch on (i) what, if any, key steps in the evolution of life are entirely fortuitous and (ii) what, if any, biological innovations are unique?

It’s always good to see someone thinking on their feet, and although the topic of alien life might not be to everyone’s taste, or even considered relevant here, I definitely think it’s well worth taking a look at our own experience of life on this planet and extrapolating how it might have evolved elsewhere, especially if it turns out that the laws which govern life on Earth are within universal constraints that give rise to similar life forms across vast distances, on the galactic and universal scale.

I’m a little pushed for time, and so can’t do justice to the linked paper, or the others featured in the Royal Society Biological Sciences special edition, but as ever, I expect at least some of the topics therein will be covered here in the future, whatever it may hold in store.

Reference: Evolution: Like Any Other Science it is Predictable – Simon Conway Morris, doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0154    Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B  12 January 2010   vol. 365  no. 1537  133-145

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