Evolution through natural selection is an overarching principle of science. It is central to all of biology, but it also plays an important role in computer science (as an optimization heuristic), linguistics (to interpret commonalities and differences between languages), and medicine (as the driving force of cancer), among other fields. But how substantial is this theoretical principle? Are there laws of evolution, like there are laws of thermodynamics - laws that apply to diverse systems and capture universal statistical regularities? What are these laws?
Starting in 2018, the Structure of Evolution group will study these topics from a variety of disciplinary angles. Our overall ambition is to embed the classical view of evolution as competition between alleles into a broader theoretical landscape linking the mathematics of extremes, the physics of coarsening, and the biology of cancer. A widespread view, eloquently expressed by Scriven (Science 1959), is that
"[Evolution's] great commitment and its profound illumination are to be found in its application to the lengthening past, not the distant future: in the tasks of explanation, not in those of prediction."
We do not buy this. Nobody can deny that evolutionary biology has been exceedingly successful at reconstructing the history of life on Earth—but we still want to understand what evolution predicts generally, irrespective of the contingent conditions prevailing on our "pale blue dot".
- Smerlak M. & Youssef A. 2017. Universal statistics of selected values. EPL. 117: 50003.
- Smerlak M. & Youssef A. 2017. Limiting fitness distributions in evolutionary dynamics. J. Theor. Biol. 416: 68–80.
- Hatton I.A., McCann K.S., Fryxell J.M., Davies T.J., Smerlak M., Sinclair A.R.E. & Loreau M. 2015. The predator-prey power law: Biomass scaling across terrestrial and aquatic biomes. Science. 349: aac6284.