A New Agenda for Evolution
March 29, 2013 - March 25, 2016
Core Funding Area:
Director: Professor Simon Conway Morris FRSInstitution: University of Cambridge
The central aim of this project is to effect a renaissance in evolutionary biology by asking the following Big Question: Is there an inherent direction to evolution, and if so, what are the implications? This will be via both targeted projects, tackling major but tractable questions, and public outreach. Concerning the former, we will ask (a) Is evolution constrained in its outcomes? and (b) What (if any) limits are there to biological complexity? How constrained evolutionary outcomes might actually be will be addressed by the search for fundamental similarities in the distribution of homoplasies (effectively convergences) in widely disparate phylogenies, combined with the construction of hypothetical phylogenies that will assess the functional credibility of counterfactual forms. The investigation of biological complexity intends to determine whether upper limits can be identified to complex biological systems, and to what extent a given system can be described as optimal. Both are huge areas, but we are confident that by keeping the fundamental questions in focus then we can identify principles that are central to our understanding of evolution. Public outreach will focus on a bespoke website and an ambitious range of associated activities, designed to give crisp summaries of what we do know and as importantly address the unsolved problems. Specific outputs will include a book, about eight peer-reviewed papers and a major e-space footprint to provide a fresh face to evolutionary debates. The project aims to reshape both the scientific and public perception of evolution. In doing so it will redefine the “evolution wars”, emphasizing questions that too often are “off-limits” and so helping to re-engage a sceptical public. Thus in terms of enduring impact we aim at a sea-change in the way evolution is viewed, both by the professional community and by the public at large: the former will be invited to re-visit some cherished assumptions, the latter encouraged in serious engagement.
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