Improbable Destinies

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

I love books like this. Pure wonder about the living world. The beauty. The mystery. Shattering the myths of Darwinism while still clinging desperately to them.

We learn that Darwinism has retarded evolutionary thought for at least a century because the picture that Darwin gave us (which his disciples followed for over a hundred years) was false. Evolution can be tested. It can be observed within human lifetimes. It doesn’t require the infinitesimal insensible aggregations over millenia previously thought. Evolution can be really really fast. Which ought to be good news for young earth creationists.

We also learn that the oft-heard claim that degree of similarity implies degree of relatedness is false. That some species A looks very much like some species B doesn’t at all mean that they are more closely related than some other species which is visibly different.

Another nail in the coffin.

The Amazon blurb:

A major new book overturning our assumptions about how evolution works

Earth’s natural history is full of fascinating instances of convergence: phenomena like eyes and wings and tree-climbing lizards that have evolved independently, multiple times. But evolutionary biologists also point out many examples of contingency, cases where the tiniest change—a random mutation or an ancient butterfly sneeze—caused evolution to take a completely different course. What role does each force really play in the constantly changing natural world? Are the plants and animals that exist today, and we humans ourselves, inevitabilities or evolutionary flukes? And what does that say about life on other planets?

Jonathan Losos reveals what the latest breakthroughs in evolutionary biology can tell us about one of the greatest ongoing debates in science. He takes us around the globe to meet the researchers who are solving the deepest mysteries of life on Earth through their work in experimental evolutionary science. Losos himself is one of the leaders in this exciting new field, and he illustrates how experiments with guppies, fruit flies, bacteria, foxes, and field mice, along with his own work with anole lizards on Caribbean islands, are rewinding the tape of life to reveal just how rapid and predictable evolution can be.

Improbable Destinies will change the way we think and talk about evolution. Losos’s insights into natural selection and evolutionary change have far-reaching applications for protecting ecosystems, securing our food supply, and fighting off harmful viruses and bacteria. This compelling narrative offers a new understanding of ourselves and our role in the natural world and the cosmos.

152 thoughts on “Improbable Destinies

  1. Mung:
    Losos describes a number of evolution experiments that show that evolution can be both rapid and predictable. Many of these experiments involve within-generation studies. Studies in which organisms “evolve” by “the power of natural selection” even though no heredity is involved. Is this really natural selection then, and is it really evolution?

    Thoughts?

    I could have told you this without you reading the book…

  2. I haven’t yet read Losos’s book, but in the Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics workshop that I co-lead every year, many of our guest lecturers were graduate students of Losos’s, and one year we had Losos himself come as a special guest lecturer. I must have missed the part where all these folks opposed evolutionary biology.

    Much of the workshop is devoted to the use of various models (those of quantitative genetics, models of selection toward a phenotypic optimum, and Brownian Motion models and Ornstein-Uhlenbeck models of change along evolutionary trees). And how to tie those together to have models of within-species change and between-species change. The objective is to use these models to estimate patterns of natural selection.

    Sure, there are lots of assumptions involved. One tries to acquire the wisdom to know which of those assumptions to worry about, and ultimately check.

  3. Mung,

    Losos describes a number of evolution experiments that show that evolution can be both rapid and predictable. Many of these experiments involve within-generation studies. Studies in which organisms “evolve” by “the power of natural selection” even though no heredity is involved. Is this really natural selection then, and is it really evolution?

    Thoughts?

    Yes, it’s natural selection (see Darwin, C., Origin of Species) and yes, it’s evolution (change in allele frequency). You may be confusing selection and fitness.

  4. I have to wonder if Mung has actually read the book. Almost all the studies involve multiple generations. Anyway, it’s evolution if the frequency of alleles changes in the population. If that frequency change is examined over one generation, it’s still evolution.

  5. Joe Felsenstein: I haven’t yet read Losos’s book, but in the Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics workshop that I co-lead every year, many of our guest lecturers were graduate students of Losos’s, and one year we had Losos himself come as a special guest lecturer.

    You love to name drop as much as Salvador, but no one seems to ever point that out. So just to be fair … 🙂

  6. Joe Felsenstein: The objective is to use these models to estimate patterns of natural selection.

    And are these models of within-generation models or inter-generational models?

    To put it another way, and more to the point, what are the patterns of within-generation natural selection that the models revealed?

  7. John Harshman: I have to wonder if Mung has actually read the book. Almost all the studies involve multiple generations. Anyway, it’s evolution if the frequency of alleles changes in the population. If that frequency change is examined over one generation, it’s still evolution.

    I’ve finished Part II, which is “Experiments in the Wild”, so I have a good sample. And he specifically points out experiments which are “within-generation.”

    And he looks at phenotypic changes and attributes them to natural selection without even knowing if the changes are genetic. And he frequently admits this too. He’s not hiding it. You should be able to find it.

  8. Allan Miller: You may be confusing selection and fitness.

    Me? Surely not! 🙂

    Yes, it’s natural selection … and yes, it’s evolution (change in allele frequency).

    What’s the difference?

    it’s natural selection (FILL IN HERE) … and yes, it’s evolution (change in allele frequency). It’s evolution because it’s changes in allele frequencies and it’s natural selection because …

    And if you ever get the book, how does he know that there was any change in allele frequency in the within-generation cases?

  9. keiths: For example?

    I’m sorry, but if I am going to discuss the book with you, you’ll need to have read it.

    And then summarize it for us in your own words. That will demonstrate that you actually understand what Losos is saying. Having summarized it, if you still don’t (or pretend not to) understand, I’ll help you out.

  10. Because this is Mung’s own thread, I’ve looked at his comments. So he hasn’t actually read the book, as I thought, just part of it. And he’s cherry-picking little bits out of that part to suit his preconceptions. Yes, there are a few one-generation experiments, but the great majority are much longer. Yes, there are a few experiments where it isn’t absolutely certain that the characters being selected have a genetic basis, but the great majority are known to.

    Now, is a one-generation change that doesn’t have a genetic basis natural selection? Maybe. There’s actually a considerable argument in the literature over whether we should consider it to be. I’d say not, myself. Some disagree. But since most of the experiments don’t fit that description, why should we care?

  11. John Harshman: Anyway, it’s evolution if the frequency of alleles changes in the population. If that frequency change is examined over one generation, it’s still evolution.

    What? Now we don’t even need new alleles, we just need different percentages in the population to say something evolved?

    Wow, with a single stroke Harshman just wiped out the problem of novelty!

    And he probably hasn’t even noticed.

  12. Mung: Having summarized it, if you still don’t (or pretend not to) understand, I’ll help you out.

    More importantly, if he pretends he does understand.

  13. Mung,

    Me: Yes, it’s natural selection … and yes, it’s evolution (change in allele frequency).

    Mung: What’s the difference?

    What’s the difference? How long have you been at this game Mung? Allele frequency change can be caused by drift, mutation, drive, drag, linkage effects, gene conversion, recombination, migration, and so on. Oh, and natural selection.

    If you change the frequency of alleles in a population, even if none have reproduced, you change the frequencies going into the next generation when they do.

  14. Futuyma, incidentally (Evolutionary biology, 3rd ed), plumps for NS being in operation even when the differences it operates on are purely environmental – when heritability = 0. I can see some merit in that, but I won’t fight anyone who thinks otherwise. One has to use the term ‘allele’ for phenotypes, in that instance.

    I liken it (oh, how I love an analogy!) to a transmission. The engine (selection on phenotype) spins regardless of whether the clutch is engaged or not (coupling of change in phenotype to change in genotype). Increases in heritability incrementally increase the gearing between the phenotypic process and its genetic effect, over the longer term.

  15. John Harshman: Because this is Mung’s own thread, I’ve looked at his comments. So he hasn’t actually read the book, as I thought, just part of it.

    And yet John, who had not read the book at all, not even part of it, saw fit to comment. At least I’d read part of the book before opening my yap.

  16. John Harshman: But since most of the experiments don’t fit that description, why should we care?

    Why should we care if someone is passing off ignorance and assumption as knowledge and fact. Why indeed.

  17. Mung: You love to name drop as much as Salvador, but no one seems to ever point that out. So just to be fair …

    I cheerfully admit to often name-dropping, but in this case there was a different rationale. I haven’t yet read Losos’s book, but did want to establish that I have heard talks by Losos and have talked with him, and have heard many lectures by his graduate students. In no case did I hear any of them refuting evolutionary biology. Rather they were making interesting and effective use of evolutionary theory.

  18. Mung:

    Joe Felsenstein: The objective is to use these models to estimate patterns of natural selection.

    And are these models of within-generation models or inter-generational models?

    To put it another way, and more to the point, what are the patterns of within-generation natural selection that the models revealed?

    The models are of within-generation selection, applied over many generations and in a multi-species phylogeny.

    The main patterns being examined are selection toward an intermediate optimum phenotype, for example medium-sized lizards being favored because more of the prey they eat is medium-size. Intermediate optimum selection is thought to be very common in nature, and estimates of fitnesses do bear this out.

    In the workshop we look also at multi-species phylogeny, with a view to asking whether there is evidence that the optimum values change through time and become different in different lineages.

  19. So John, having read the book, what is the most impressive example of evolution that Losos discusses?

    Is it the case where light colored mice on light backgrounds survived better than dark colored mice? Was it perhaps the case where dark colored mice on dork backgrounds survived better than light colored mice?

    p.s. I loved his tales about hurricanes mucking with their experiments in the Caribbean. That was timely. I have to wonder how a loving God could have allowed that.

  20. John:

    Anyway, it’s evolution if the frequency of alleles changes in the population. If that frequency change is examined over one generation, it’s still evolution.

    phoodoo:

    What? Now we don’t even need new alleles, we just need different percentages in the population to say something evolved?

    Poor phoodoo thinks that if new alleles aren’t involved, it isn’t evolution.

    Crack a book, dude.

  21. Joe Felsenstein: Sure, there are lots of assumptions involved. One tries to acquire the wisdom to know which of those assumptions to worry about, and ultimately check.

    O’RLY? What’s new in the theory that is a scientific fact…
    Assumptions abound… lol

  22. Mung:

    I’m sorry, but if I am going to discuss the book with you, you’ll need to have read it.

    And then summarize it for us in your own words. That will demonstrate that you actually understand what Losos is saying. Having summarized it, if you still don’t (or pretend not to) understand, I’ll help you out.

    Mung is referring to this:

    Mung,

    Alan’s review barely touches on what I think are the most important ideas in the book: those concerning the “libraries”, the “networks”, and the extent to which the networks extend across the libraries.

    How about summarizing those ideas for us in your own words? That will serve the dual purpose of 1) filling a gap in Alan’s review and 2) demonstrating that you actually understand what Wagner is saying.

    Having summarized those ideas, if you still don’t (or pretend not to) understand the implications for ID, I’ll help you out.

    That was in February, and Mung is still smarting from it.

  23. keiths: Poor phoodoo thinks that if new alleles aren’t involved, it isn’t evolution.

    Poor keiths thinks that if alleles aren’t involved, it isn’t evolution.

  24. Given the frequent confusion here at The Skeptical Zone over the differences between artificial selection and natural selection I thought I’d share some what Losos has to say on the matter. Losos admits that natural selection and artificial selection are not the same.

    For the most part, pick any trait that varies in a population, impose artificial selection, and you will get an evolutionary response.

    Artificial selection … as an analogy to the natural evolutionary process … is incomplete.

    First, when we think of evolution, we think of what goes on over thousands and millions of years.

    The second unnatural – artificial – aspect of lab and agricultural studies is that selection is usually directly imposed by the investigator or breeder. … This is a great means of studying the power of selection to produce evolutionary change, but it’s not what goes on in nature.

    Another way that lab selection is unnatural is that, in nature, selection is usually not consistent through time.

    – pp 225 – 228

  25. Mung,

    Given the frequent confusion here at The Skeptical Zone over the differences between artificial selection and natural selection I thought I’d share some what Losos has to say on the matter.

    Not so much confusion, as disagreement. I don’t see it as an analogy. If Losos thinks otherwise, good luck to him; nothing much hinges on it. Artificial selection causes change in allele frequency in the population in a manner correlated with the alleles’ effects. That is pretty much a description of NS too.

  26. I bought the Book.

    Just read the preface and introduction so far. Losos writes well, neither turgid nor breathless. An early admirer of Gould (he took classes with him), he sets his own stall out as an examination of the difference in view between Gould’s contingency and Conway-Morris’s determinacy. He promises to flesh this out building on experiments and field work concentrating on anole lizards (his life’s work) to demonstrate how similar microniches produce convergent species from antecedents who may not be closely related.

    So far, Losos writes as if he is bang in the middle of the mainstream of evolutionary biology.

  27. Alan Fox: So far, Losos writes as if he is bang in the middle of the mainstream of evolutionary biology.

    Of course. 🙂

    Doesn’t mean he does not write what I say he writes in the book.

    For example, keep an eye out for his claims about how Darwinism has retarded evolutionary thought. He mentions it a few times.

    And now that you have the book, if you ever hinted at the possibility that I was misrepresenting what he wrote now would b a good time to back that up with some evidence.

  28. Mung: For example, keep an eye out for his claims about how Darwinism has retarded evolutionary thought. He mentions it a few times.

    For the record I think Losos is wrong here, that he sets up a straw man based upon an equivocation. I think Darwin well knew that populations could “evolve” in short amounts of time based on his familiarity with breeding.

    Darwin’s evolution was more long term.

  29. Mung: Of course. 🙂

    Doesn’t mean he does not write what I say he writes in the book.

    I’m sure the text of your quotes is accurate. I can now form my own opinion as to what he intends to convey in his writing.

    For example, keep an eye out for his claims about how Darwinism has retarded evolutionary thought. He mentions it a few times.

    Darwinism and Darwinian evolution are not the same. Remember Darwin did not tackle speciation and had no real idea about genetics. Darwinian evolution to me suggests adaptation. Again, I’ll find out for myself.

    And now that you have the book, if you ever hinted at the possibility that I was misrepresenting what he wrote now would b a good time to back that up with some evidence.

    I think the only previous comment I’ve made was to say Losos seems an excellent field biologist judging by his CV.

  30. Alan Fox,

    What Losos said is that one of Darwin’s many ideas, the notion that evolutionary change is generally so slow as to be imperceptible over human time-scales, was wrong and may have prevented him and others from performing real-time selection experiments in the wild. That’s not at all what Mung is saying.

  31. John Harshman: That’s not at all what Mung is saying.

    In context that’s exactly what I’m saying. But since you have me on Ignore you can’t see that. You can only see what others quote. That’s one of the dangers of having people in Ignore and then commenting on something that someone else quotes.

    If you’re going to have me on Ignore please do me the courtesy of not commenting on things that you think I wrote.

    Can someone quote this post so John can see it, lol.

  32. John Harshman:
    Alan Fox,

    What Losos said is that one of Darwin’s many ideas, the notion that evolutionary change is generally so slow as to be imperceptible over human time-scales, was wrong and may have prevented him and others from performing real-time selection experiments in the wild.

    Having now read the book, I think that is one of his main themes. Apart from anole lizards, Losos talks of field observation and controlled experiment with guppies, deermice, the Park Grass experiment, island populations (real and simulated by sundry artificial barriers), sticklebacks, Lenski and the LTEE, Pseudomonas and Paul Rainey. Not seeing anything like “shattering the myths of Darwinism while still clinging desperately to them”.

    That’s not at all what Mung is saying.

    Cue Mung! 🙂

  33. Why would Darwin say that about human time scales, when he starts his book with a discussion of Artificial selection?

    I would guess that evolution in the wild is slow because draconian selection scenarios most likely lead to extinction. Whereas human breeding scenarios involve feeding and other measures to protect against extinction.

  34. Alan,

    Did you read why Losos thinks artificial selection and natural selection are substantially different and what do you think of what he had to say about it?

  35. I recently attended a lecture Losos delivered at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This was two weeks ago, with soft focus conferred by a single Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, so my recall is a bit impressionistic. The lecture was very well attended, a full auditorium on a Friday evening, which I find heartening. The structure of his talk was exactly as laid out by Alan above:

    Alan Fox: he sets his own stall out as an examination of the difference in view between Gould’s contingency and Conway-Morris’s determinacy. He promises to flesh this out building on experiments and field work concentrating on anole lizards (his life’s work) to demonstrate how similar microniches produce convergent species from antecedents who may not be closely related.

    So far, Losos writes as if he is bang in the middle of the mainstream of evolutionary biology.

    Losos deployed LIfe’s Solution and Wonderful Life as poles of his presentation. Pace Conway-Morris he observed that convergence is far more common than previously believed and presented many fascinating examples. He attributed that to the fact that there are only so many optimal solutions to various problems of living and that selection repeatedly finds those solutions. This occurs more often in closely related species due to a combination of shared constraints and shared, historically contingent resources. Yet he further cited many examples of entirely unique adaptive solutions that lack convergent analogs elsewhere, even given similar environmental challenges. He ultimately (IIRC) endorsed Gould’s view that no particular evolutionary outcome is inevitable and disputed the notion that something very like human beings was an evolutionary inevitability.

    I haven’t gotten around to his book as yet. When I do I’ll shelve it exactly between Wonderful Life and Life’s Solution. But that will have to wait, as I am wading through Russia against Napoleon and, having viewed both the first half of The Vietnam War and Twin Peaks: The Return, am quivering with derived PTSD (the trivial variety you get from watching harrowing television).

  36. Reciprocating Bill: Losos deployed LIfe’s Solution and Wonderful Life as poles of his presentation.

    That’s consistent with his book. And he, without making a huge issue, takes a middle view. I too have Wonderful Life though haven’t read any Conway-Morris first hand. The Hallucigenia fossil misinterpretation is a classic illustration of how obvious obvious stuff is in hindsight!

  37. Reciprocating Bill,

    You referred to “optimal solutions,” so you must be saying that evolution searches for optimal solutions to problems. Mung will insist that you disagree with my post “Evo-Info 3: Evolution Is Not Search,” no matter how much effort you put into explaining to him that you actually agree. He’s got evidence, you know. And he hasn’t yet added emphasis. Watch out. You’re liable to be jailed for perjury.

  38. “Evolution repeats itself sometimes, but often it doesn’t.”

    – JBL

    Evolution repeats itself, except when it doesn’t. Ought to be able to make a coherent theory out of that.

  39. Mung,

    Evolution repeats itself, except when it doesn’t. Ought to be able to make a coherent theory out of that.

    Weather repeats itself, except when it doesn’t. I guess meteorology is incoherent, according to Mung Logic™.

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