Julidochromis ornatus
Tropheus brichardi
Bathybates ferox
Cyphotilapia frontosa
Lobochilotes labiatus

Melanochromis auratus
Pseudotropheus microstoma
Ramphochromis longiceps
Cyrtocara moorei
Placidochromis milomo
ABOVE: Distantly-related cichlids from Lake Tanganyika in West Africa and Lake Malawi in East Africa have evolved to become uncannily alike. The fish demonstrate how morphological resemblance may have little correlation with genetic closeness or evolutionary lineage (phylogenetic relationship). It appears that evolution repeatedly discovers the same solutions to the same ecological challenges.

TOP of PAGE: Castel Gandolfo, the God-haunted landscape that George Innes painted in 1876, features Lake Albano and, in the upper right corner, the papal summer residence surrounded by a tall wall. Immersed in the ideas of the religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, Innes uses soft light to convey a diffuse sense of the human spirit. The lake and the surrounding hills appear as interlocked geometric segments of nature as if to reveal a hidden unity. In the catalog for the 2003 National Academy of Design exhibition, “George Innes and the Visionary Landscape,” Andrienne Baxter Bell speculates that the painting captures the artist’s desire “to create a new pictorial expression of nature’s divine order.”

© Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Helen Thurston Ayer Fund.

The exploration of issues of evolution in the context of possible evidence for constraints imposed by a deeper structure is being undertaken in full cognizance of the prevailing paradigm amongst biologists that evolution is ungoverned by general principles or laws. The normative position does not maintain that evolution is free of physical principles, such as gravity, Reynolds numbers, or the four-power law of fluid-flow in pipes, but apart from the broad envelope of physico-chemical constraints, biologists generally hold that everything (or nearly everything) that has evolved is, in the final analysis, the result of random processes. Put crudely, the widely accepted scientific worldview is that human beings or any other product of evolutionary diversification is accidental and, by implication, incidental. Add the sheer diversity of the biosphere (both past and present) and the random nature of mutations to the occasional environmental disruption, be it bolide impact, snowball Earth, or sudden greenhouse, and the overwhelming impression is of an evolutionary process that could have gone in a myriad of separate directions.

In one sense, of course, evolution is predictable in that, for all intents and purposes, it is the result of Darwinian mechanisms. So far as there is an over-arching principle, it is that to the first approximation organisms are adapted to their environment. But even this notion has been challenged in various respects, and the role of exaptation and spandrels has received considerable (if, perhaps, undue) attention. One counterpoint to such a frankly anti-adaptionist program is the investigation of possible optimal states and the related theme of symmorphosis—the concept that structural design is very well matched to function. But at present these investigations suffer from a concentration on vertebrate model systems and a reluctance to adopt an integrated approach that could move beyond the admittedly important areas of physiology and biomechanics. It seems that a coherent approach to the origin and evolution of adaptive complexes, not only in terms of classical functional morphology but also across all levels of biology (from proteins to societies), is also lacking. The effectiveness and integration of biological systems is little less than startling. Yet in scientific circles, there is a very deep-seated distrust of teleological language, even though researchers may occasionally use the word “design” in an attempt to grapple with the often astonishing adaptive complexes they study.

The purpose of this symposium is not to dispute the orthodox model, but to inquire whether it is sufficient and, if it is not, to consider what we need to know and ultimately how we might discover the requisite information with one or more research programs. The thirteen participants, scientists, philosophers, and theologians, who gather at the Vatican Observatory, are focusing on seven clusters of questions:

Can we speak of a universal biochemistry? Are there viable alternatives, and do “decisions” at key points then pre-determine further evolutionary stages in a particular direction? If these “key points” do exist, how do we define them? Are there genuine “frozen accidents” of evolution? Are pre-biotic circumstances incidental, or central, to subsequent organic development?

How do levels of complexity emerge, and are they inevitable? Can we envisage other types of complexity? Will any biosphere show features such as endosymbiosis, multicellularity (or indeed cells!), communication (including quorum sensing), ecological guilds, nervous systems, and societies? If so, are those on Earth of any wider significance?

Can we properly define evolutionary constraints? Can we envisage genuine alternatives at any level of evolution? Do “decisions” at one level predispose evolution in particular directions? What is the role of evolutionary incumbency? Is it correct that any biosphere will be utterly unlike any other that exists? In other words, how are biological “hyperspaces” to be “navigated”?

What does convergence tell us about evolution? How do we define convergence? How variable are evolutionary trajectories leading to similar outcomes? Is convergence at molecular levels significant? Are developmental pathways convergent? Does convergence at one biological level depend on convergence at another?

How do we explain integrated adaptive units? Is symmorphosis a viable concept? Does concerted convergence have a general applicability? Is specialization always a “dead-end”? Are there general rules concerning the invasion of new adaptive zones?

What do we mean by intelligence? Is intelligence an inevitable product of evolution? How many alternatives are there? Can we define an intelligence “space”? Is intelligence necessarily neural? Do particular intelligences have necessary co-adaptations?

Is there a deep structure to biological systems? If there is, or potentially if we have reason to believe so, where do we go from here? Is a landscape metaphor redundant? How can we model hyper-dimensional biological spaces? Are there inevitable end-points? Are there optimal systems?

The conversation amongst the participants is taking place under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation. Our local host is the Rev. Dr. George V. Coyne, S.J. The observatory he directs is on the grounds of Villa Barberini, the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, a town in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome.

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