In 1990, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould posed an intriguing question. What would happen if we were able to re-run the Tape of Life? Would small perturbations to the starting conditions yield radically different outcomes, or would the course of evolution follow a familiar path, differing only in its details? The first worldview sees evolution as an essentially open-ended process of unlimited potential, while the second regards evolution as more predictable. If the latter is true, can we make any generalisations about the manner in which evolution is likely to precede on the largest scale? Which ‘macroevolutionary rules’ – if any – withstand scrutiny and allow us to elevate evolutionary biology from a historical to a predictive science?
In his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology, Matthew Wills considers some possible answers to these questions, drawing upon his own work and the broader field. He explores how most major groups evolve according to a common template and whether there is evidence for actively driven trends in morphological complexity on macroevolutionary scales. He also considers whether there are rules governing the demise of species at mass extinction events, and asks whether evolution in deep time can teach us anything about the likely effects of the current biodiversity crisis.