More Features Behind the Design of Evolution

Let’s make this a three-fer.

I’ve shown that my hypothesis of front-loading evolution has been supported by the emergence of evo-devo. Then, I showed how the hypothesis of front-loading allowed me to make a prediction seven years ago that is turning out to be correct.

Now we have something from Brandon Keim over at the Wired SCIENCE blog. Kiem identifies three trends in continuing development of evolutionary theory that will help us better grasp the design of evolution:

But to Woese and other scientists, neo-Darwinism isn’t so simple. Change and selection need to be studied at other levels — and there are lots of big, unanswered questions.

Bacteria, for example, engage in what’s known as horizontal gene transfer: Genes drift from one microbe to another without any need for reproduction. What this means for microbiology isn’t yet clear, let alone biological history — how did multicellular organisms evolve, anyway? But it’s hugely important to figure out.

Another mystery is the tendency of some genes to mutate at unusually high rates. The driver appears to be a process called biased gene conversion, which goes against the notion that evolution is driven by random mutations. Natural selection still operates on its outcome, but is not driving the process itself.

Scientists are also studying evolution at levels beyond the single organism. Some insect colonies — ants and honeybees being the best-known examples — can be collectively regarded as individuals, known as superorganisms.

Superorganism dynamics are still a mystery — how, for example, does a colony evolve different traffic rules? — but they may apply to other ecological collectives, including human societies.

When taking this macro-scale approach, some of the trickiest non-Darwinian evolutionary phenomena become apparent. Properties emerge at critical points — known as saltations — in complexity, but again can’t be explained by mutation and selection in a sub-unit of the whole.

As I shall show over the following weeks, horizontal gene transfer, biased gene conversion, and the existence of superorganisms, will all help us to visulaize how evolution could have been shaped by design.

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