Imagine that we could rewind history of life and restart evolution. Would evolution produce a world unrecognisably different to the world we live in today or would the world be populated with similar kinds of organisms making similar kinds of livings. This deceptively simple though experiment underpins radically different world views in which evolution is more or less predictable and the emergence of, for example, consciousness more or less inevitable. Turning the thought experiment into the subject of empirical scientific investigation is one of the major scientific challenges of our age.
Evolution may be an essentially unconstrained process of unlimited potentiality. But this view is challenged by recent work documenting many hundreds of detailed examples of convergence in the evolution of organisms, organ systems and molecules. Biological convergence appears to be ubiquitous, with physical and biotic constraints repeatedly channeling evolution towards a limited set of optimal solutions to the same biological problems. If true, evolution operates something like a search engine, and there is a pressing need to build upon classical neo-Darwinism in our understanding of the history of Life.
How can we translate the corpus of new data on convergence into evolutionary theory? Can we test whether convergence is more widespread than we might expect? Can we predict under what circumstances convergence is likely to occur, and whether convergence is more probable in certain types of characters than in others? This proposal will address these questions for the first time within a rigorous analytical framework, delivering new basic tools such as quantitative measures and associated statistical tests. It will innovatively combine expertise in (and data from) palaeontology, neontology, morphology and molecules at a variety of hierarchical levels in the Tree of Life.