Expanding our understanding of evolutionary biology

Brain scan

A University of Southampton professor is taking part in the world’s largest project to expand our understanding of evolutionary biology.

Dr Richard Watson, Associate Professor of Electronics and Computer Science, is part of the 50-strong team of world-renowned experts from the UK, the United States and Sweden.

 The multidisciplinary team are looking to expand the theory of evolution by providing new perspectives on the relationships between genes, organisms and environment. The £7.7m project centres on the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES), a new way of thinking about evolutionary biology which tackles some of its toughest problems. The EES does not replace traditional thinking, but aims to stimulate new research within evolutionary biology.

Project leader Professor Kevin Laland, from the University of St Andrews, says: “The main difference from traditional perspectives is that the EES includes a greater set of causes of evolution. This shifts the burden of explanation for adaption and diversification away from a one-sided focus on natural selection, and towards the constructive processes of development.”

Richard will lead two sub-projects that aim to develop our understanding of these causes of evolution, using theoretical tools from computer science. His recent work defines the formal links between evolution and learning that enables results to be transferred from computer science to update our understanding of biological evolution. This work recently appeared as a front-cover story for New Scientist. 

Richard says:

This work suggests that these interactions between evolution development are not just ‘a complication’, but change the capabilities of Darwinian evolution; specifically, evolution is smarter than we realised.

The project is supported by a £5.7m grant from the John Templeton Foundation, an organisation which promotes the advancement of science and philosophy. The grant is one of the largest ever to be awarded to evolutionary research.

 

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