, Volume 96, Issue 11, pp 1313-1337

The predictability of evolution: glimpses into a post-Darwinian world

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Abstract

The very success of the Darwinian explanation, in not only demonstrating evolution from multiple lines of evidence but also in providing some plausible explanations, paradoxically seems to have served to have stifled explorations into other areas of investigation. The fact of evolution is now almost universally yoked to the assumption that its outcomes are random, trends are little more than drunkard’s walks, and most evolutionary products are masterpieces of improvisation and far from perfect. But is this correct? Let us consider some alternatives. Is there evidence that evolution could in anyway be predictable? Can we identify alternative forms of biological organizations and if so how viable are they? Why are some molecules so extraordinarily versatile, while others can be spoken of as “molecules of choice”? How fortuitous are the major transitions in the history of life? What implications might this have for the Tree of Life? To what extent is evolutionary diversification constrained or facilitated by prior states? Are evolutionary outcomes merely sufficient or alternatively are they highly efficient, even superb? Here I argue that in sharp contradistinction to an orthodox Darwinian view, not only is evolution much more predictable than generally assumed but also investigation of its organizational substrates, including those of sensory systems, which indicates that it is possible to identify a predictability to the process and outcomes of evolution. If correct, the implications may be of some significance, not least in separating the unexceptional Darwinian mechanisms from underlying organizational principles, which may indicate evolutionary inevitabilities.

This contribution is part of the Special Issue “Beyond the Origin: Charles Darwin and modern biology” (Guest editor: U. Kutschera; see Kutschera 2009).