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Gould’s “Wonderful Life” no longer PC


The new buzz is, evolutionary biologists can SO predict evolution—over short periods.

From Quanta Magazine:

But lately, evolution is starting to look surprisingly predictable. Lässig believes that soon it may even be possible to make evolutionary forecasts. Scientists may not be able to predict what life will be like 100 million years from now, but they may be able to make short-term forecasts for the next few months or years. And if they’re making predictions about viruses or other health threats, they might be able to save some lives in the process.

“As we collect a few examples of predictability, it changes the whole goal of evolutionary biology,” Lässig said.

Actually, predicting evolution over short periods has never been especially difficult. A rising tide floats all boats—and sinks all houses. It’s not difficult to predict.

Now, on to the business of dethroning Gould’s Wonderful Life , via lizard studies:

If Gould were right, the pattern of evolution on each island would look nothing like the pattern on the other islands. If evolution were more predictable, however, the lizards would tend to repeat the same patterns.

Losos and his students have found that evolution did sometimes veer off in odd directions. On Cuba, for example, a species of lizard adapted to spending a lot of time in the water. It dives for fish and can even sprint across the surface of a stream. You won’t find a fishing lizard on any other Caribbean island.

For the most part, though, lizard evolution followed predictable patterns. Each time lizards colonized an island, they evolved into many of the same forms.

Well, of course, because they had the same problems to deal with, and there is a limited number of viable solutions to any problem. This tells us nothing about whether Gould would be right 100 million years into the future. (We think, probably not, but that is a story for another day.)


Beyond its practical value, Lässig sees a profound importance to being able to predict evolution. It will bring the science of evolutionary biology closer to other fields like physics and chemistry. Lässig doesn’t think that he’ll be able to forecast evolution as easily as he can the motion of the moon, but he hopes that there’s much about evolution that will prove to be predictable. “There’s going to be a boundary, but we don’t know where the boundary is,” he said.

Yeah. Physics envy again. A demand for the results, without the rigor.

One curious sidelight: Gould has been a target of the fans of Nicholas Wade’s Troublesome Inheritance (reviving Darwinian racism?).
But this probably isn’t another car on that train.

See also: Re Nicholas Wade: It’s hard to prove an untestable theory. And some of this stuff tends to get overthought

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Who says lizards on these isles changed because of selection? Its possible other mechanisms are at work. that explaining the same results just as well. Robert Byers

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