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(a) Is evolution an open-ended process of unlimited potential, or is it more constrained and predictable? The former worldview was espoused by Steven J Gould, and exemplified in the thought experiment whereby multiple re-runs of the “Tape of Life” would yield radically different outcomes. The latter worldview was promoted by Simon Conway Morris, and evidenced by numerous examples of convergent evolution. If the process of evolution has inherent directionality, then this has resonances with certain elements of older teleological thinking with implications for our understanding of our place in the natural world.
(b) Our project is needed in order to distinguish between these two world views. There is remarkably little mainstream scientific work in this area, and nothing on the scale that we propose.
(c) We ask whether we can we identify general laws in macroevolution. In particular, we will address the anatomical complexity of animals over the last half billion years. Maximum complexity has certainly increased over time – from sponges to humans – but this increase might simply reflect passive drift from a minimum. Can we find evidence that increasing complexity is a driven and predictable process, occurring throughout many independent branches of the tree of Life?
(d) We will investigate two major animal groups: arthropods (e.g., insects) because they are super diverse, and tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates) since they contain ourselves. We will test whether complexity is a help or a hindrance to the evolution of biodiversity. We will explore the status of this and other macroevolutionary laws in conjunction with philosophers.
(e) We will produce high impact research papers, archive the underpinning data, deliver talks at international conferences, supervise four PhD students to completion, generate online video, write popular articles, give talks at schools and churches, significantly increase academic interest and change public perception/understanding.