Can we predict evolution?

Is evolution random, or predictable?

But Gould had a deeper question in mind as he wrote his book. If you knew everything about life on Earth half a billion years ago, could you predict that humans would eventually evolve?

Gould thought not. He even doubted that scientists could safely predict that any vertebrates would still be on the planet today. How could they, he argued, when life is constantly buffeted by random evolutionary gusts? Natural selection depends on unpredictable mutations, and once a species emerges, its fate can be influenced by all sorts of forces, from viral outbreaks to continental drift, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. Our continued existence, Gould wrote, is the result of a thousand happy accidents.

If Gould were right, the pattern of evolution on each island would look nothing like the pattern on the other islands. If evolution were more predictable, however, the lizards would tend to repeat the same patterns…For the most part, though, lizard evolution followed predictable patterns. Each time lizards colonized an island, they evolved into many of the same forms. On each island, some lizards adapted to living high in trees, evolving pads on their feet for gripping surfaces, along with long legs and a stocky body. Other lizards adapted to life among the thin branches lower down on the trees, evolving short legs that help them hug their narrow perches. Still other lizards adapted to living in grass and shrubs, evolving long tails and slender trunks. On island after island, the same kinds of lizards have evolved.

The article also discusses Lenski’s work with the evolution of E. coli. He has a fantastic blog that you should be reading if you care about evolution at all.

A big theme in behavior right now is prediction – how well can we guess what an animal will do based on what it’s done in the past, and what it’s experienced? It turns out on an individual level, you can do a lot better than you’d think.

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