To predict evolution is to predict the impossible. Such a feat would benefit more from pure guess work than any amount of computer processing power. Either that, or have the knowledge of a god…
Having only popped downstairs to get something to eat, I was drawn into the living room by sincere and profound observations emanating from the television. There I was moments later, watching a TV program called What Darwin Didn’t Know on BBC Four, presented by evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Marie Leroi.
I am often comprehensively absorbed by most science and technology discussions and this was no exception. A topic that is to me probably the most fascinating of all is the investigation into the origins of life.
And then there was life!
Back in May 2008, I wrote an extensive two part discussion on the possibility of there being life elsewhere in the universe. It is my firm belief that life is an inevitable function of the universe itself and that life is abundant throughout the whole of the universe, though mostly in the form of simple, less complex bacteria-like organisms, confined to shallow warm oceans on the scared and rock-strewn surface of far off worlds.
My opinions of life aside, we still have much to learn about life and its origins. In the closing section of this excellent documentary, Professor Leroi talked of predicting evolution.
As he noted himself, we are challenged to predict the weather three weeks hence, and can only speculate in general terms about the nature of the climate on Earth in three hundred years hence. The climate is but one system, yet to predict evolution we would need an unequaled mastery of knowledge for all systems on Earth.
As a system itself, one could argue that evolution is reactive, rather than proactive. I say this because the evolution of many animals is as an adaptation to their environment. So in that sense, evolution is susceptible to the many perturbations of all other environment systems.
To anticipate the unknown — predicting evolution
So to begin the challenge of predicting evolution we would first need to understand in detail almost all other systems, such as the climate, geology, volcanism, the oceans, plate tectonics, the list goes on.
Since we clearly know very little about the mesmeric complexities of the climate in so far as predicting with any degree of accuracy the weather from one week to the next, the the best we could hope for is a generalization. And the story is much the same for all other systems.
But this is only the beginning of the problems for predicting evolution — even if we did have a solid understanding of these systems, we would then need to understand how each of these systems interact with each other. As you can see, this is to all intents and purposes utterly unrealistic.
Of ursoids, randomness and viruses
But things get worse. Let us assume (erroneously, of course) that we have in our possession a god-like understanding of all natural forces and phenomena. We, as the immovable object, are pitted against the unstoppable force of the sheer and unadulterated force of random circumstance.
Consider the ursus maritimus, otherwise known as the polar bear. Of all the animals, we choose to predict the evolutionary path of this majestic animal of the frozen north. Sadly, before we can even consider the sly and vastly complex subtleties of speciation, our entire population of polar bears has been decimated (here I’m referring to the proper use of the phrase, where one in ten are killed), while the remainder of the polar bear population have fled south in an attempt to evade the fate of their now dead kin.
But why this sudden death and subsequent mass migration? A virus. Quite random and completely unexpected. You see, the question is: in our quest to predict evolution, where do we begin and where do we end our search?
We obviously didn’t start our quest with the very small, or we may have seen the virus mutation that wreaked havoc amongst our polar bear population.
The female of the species
Quite aside from the chaotic and sublime mutability of our Earth’s many natural systems, and the microscopic mayhem in the world within most living things, we now have to consider the capricious vagaries of animal societies.
Upending evolution itself, the tastes and fancies of the female of many species has dictated certain male characteristics, leading to physical adaptations in an attempt to appease and ultimately win their favour.
So how do we predict what a female shrew may prefer in her potential suitor two million years hence? We can’t, certainly not with any realistic degree of accuracy. Instead, we are at the mercy of the world around us, as are all living things…