Evolutions Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity

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Evolution's Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity

Past transitions demonstrate how this might be organised. Extrapolating the trajectory further would see the continued expansion of the scale of cooperative organisation out into the solar system and beyond. Wherever possible, this expansion would be likely to occur through cooperative linkage with other living processes, rather than by "empire building".

The possibility of life arising elsewhere seems high, and while the details of evolution on other planets are likely to differ, the general form of the evolutionary trajectory would be universal. If the trajectory continued in this way, the scale of cooperative organisation would expand throughout the universe, comprised of living processes and intelligence from multiple origins. As it increased in intelligence and scale, its command over matter, energy and other resources would also expand, as would its power to achieve whatever objectives it chose.

What might organised life and intelligence do with this increasing power? One possible answer was developed as an attempt to solve the "fine-tuning problem" — the enigma of why the fundamental laws and parameters of the universe seem to be fine-tuned to support the emergence of life, with even slight changes leading to a universe in which life is unlikely to emerge. Supposing the trajectory of evolution eventually produces life and intelligence with sufficient power and knowledge to reproduce the universe itself?

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This intelligent universe would fine-tune "offspring" universes so that they are even more conducive to the emergence and development of life and intelligence. And so on. According to this scenario, our universe itself is embedded in larger evolutionary processes that shape universes. And life including humanity has a function and purpose within these larger processes in the same sense that our eyes have a purpose within the evolutionary processes that have shaped humanity.

Not all organisms that evolve to humanity's current stage will go on to participate in these large-scale evolutionary processes. Up to our stage, evolution has been driven along its trajectory by competition and selection. But these pressures weaken as a global society begins to emerge, because this society will not be in direct competition with other global societies. From this point on, evolution will continue to advance only if the emerging global society decides to advance the evolutionary process intentionally. The society must awaken to the possibility that it is living in the midst of a directional evolutionary process, realise that the continued success of the process depends on its intentional actions, and then commit to actively move the process forward.

Organisms that complete this transition to intentional evolution will drive the further development of life and intelligence in the universe. Those that do not will be failed evolutionary experiments. They will be eggs that never hatched. Humanity is fast approaching the threshold of this critical evolutionary transition.

This is a condensed version of his paper "The meaning of life in a developing universe" which is in press for a special issue of the journal Foundations of Science. The Quarterly Review of Biology; 82 4 : Cooperation trumps selfishness Mainstream biology has been slow to accept that evolution moves towards increasing cooperation.

Evolution's Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity

Crucially, this removes any conflict between self-interest and cooperation. Universal trajectory Extrapolating the trajectory further would see the continued expansion of the scale of cooperative organisation out into the solar system and beyond. Intentional evolution Not all organisms that evolve to humanity's current stage will go on to participate in these large-scale evolutionary processes. Then an animal with a spinal column evolved, and then one with a column surrounded by bony vertebrae. A recent branch to split from the tree blossomed into humans.

For example, an analysis of the waves, or sutures, in shells of extinct mollusks called ammonoids—snail-like sisters to nautiluses—shows that their designs became eight times as complex over million years. I arrived on the second day of creation. Laurie Barge had invited me to spend the day in her lab, modeling the origin of life. Before the advent of rapid, accurate, and inexpensive DNA sequencing technology in the early s, biologists guessed that genes would provide more evidence for increasing complexity in evolution.

Instead, their assumptions of increasing complexity began to fall apart. First to go was an easy definition of how complexity manifested itself.

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After all, amoebas had huge genomes. Now, DNA analyses are rearranging evolutionary trees, suggesting that the arrow scientists envisioned between simplicity and complexity actually spins like a weather vane caught in a tornado. A fter genome sizes failed to fit notions of simplicity and complexity, researchers hypothesized that gene number—genes being the sections of the genome that encode proteins—might instead reflect them.


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For a few years, that seemed about right. Humans have about 22, genes while the mosquito Anopheles gambiae has about 14, Then, in , an international team of researchers sequenced the genome of the plant-like sea anemones, marine creatures that lack muscles, heads, rear-ends, and brains. To their surprise, anemones had more genes than insects, including some genes that humans possess but flies do not. Even more perplexing: Sea anemones evolved before flies and humans, some million years ago. That meant animals might have been genetically complex from the start.

Then molecular analyses did something else.


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  • They rearranged the order of branches on evolutionary trees. Biologists pushed aside trees based on how similar organisms looked to one another, and made new ones based on similarities in DNA and protein sequences. The results suggested that complex body parts evolved multiple times and had also been lost.

    One study found that winged stick insects evolved from wingless stick insects who had winged ancestors. Late last year, the animal evolutionary tree quaked at its root. If comb jellies evolved before sponges, the sponges might have lost the complexity that the ancestor uniting them and comb jellies possessed.

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    Or, that ancestor—the ancestor of all living animals—had the genes to build brains and muscles, but did not form those parts, and neither did sponges. If this is true, then comb jellies deployed the genome they inherited to build a brain, nervous system, and muscles, independent of other animals. Both hypotheses run counter to scenarios in which organisms evolve to be increasingly complex. In one, a complex nervous system and muscles were lost in the sponges.

    In the other, the sponges had the genetic capability for complex features but stayed simple, while a more primitive group, the comb jellies, acquired brains and muscles that help them chase down prey. Furthermore, the idea that complex parts like a brain and nervous system—including nerve cells, synapses, and neurotransmitter molecules—could evolve separately multiple times perplexes evolutionary biologists because parts are gained one at a time.

    The chance of the same progression happening twice in separate lineages seems unlikely—or so biologists thought.


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    • W ith comb jellies at the base of the tree, evolution suddenly seems less like a march towards complexity and more like a meandering stroll. The results suggest that reductions in complexity should evolve more easily than increases in complexity.

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      Without pressure from the environment, teeth would have stayed simple. The fact that they did not means mammals with complex teeth were at a sizable advantage. Jernvall speculates that these mammals feasted on flowering plants that their pointy-toothed sisters could not grind. The sheer number of features for any given organism makes complexity an ineffable trait to grasp, says Dan McShea, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, N. Furthermore, he says, people often choose to define complexity by what puts humans on top.