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Humanity is the most recent chapter in a four-billion-year history of life on Earth. The driving force behind this history is the immense creative power of evolution. However, evolution is constrained by the time and resources available on planet Earth. To date, evolutionary biology lacks a quantitative account of how the incredible variety and complexity of life-forms arose within the finite time available. Indeed, our recent work has shown that simple models of mutation and selection alone cannot explain the origin of new, complex innovations within a plausible timeframe.

We propose to establish a theory of evolutionary time—the “why” behind the “when” in biology. We hypothesize that there are mechanisms for innovation, within the theory of evolution, that allow the efficient discovery of new capabilities. Our project will identify these mechanisms and demonstrate mathematically how they facilitate extraordinary feats of evolutionary creativity.

Since the story of life is inseparable from the history of our planet, our mathematical models will couple evolutionary, geological, and oceanic dynamics. We will test the hypothesis that geological events are responsible for major milestones in the history of life, including the Great Oxygenation Event leading to the Cambrian explosion.

With the advent of humanity came a new mode of evolution: the cultural evolution of ideas and behaviors, which has rapidly transformed human civilization. We aim to prove mathematically that cultural evolution is not only faster than biological evolution, but qualitatively different in its timescale. In other words, cultural evolution can produce innovations that would be infeasible for biological evolution within a limited timeframe.

Our aim is to spur a new branch of evolutionary theory dealing with the question of time. We will communicate our findings through a variety of media, including scientific research articles, a textbook, a lay-audience book, and public lectures.