Field of Science

The Future of Evolutionary Theory?

Well... it's been quite a month. This April I (a) successfully defended my PhD thesis, and (b) won a Templeton Foundation fellowship to work with Martin Nowak at Harvard for two years. For those who don't know him, Nowak is one of the world's top researchers in abstract evolutionary theory. Working with him will be a tremendous challenge and opportunity.

So how to respond to this challenge? My vision for the next two years is to begin laying out a new mathematical approach to the study of evolution. Allow me to explain.

Currently, the field of evolutionary theory revolves around the study of models. As I discussed a few posts ago, a model takes a real-world situation and reduces it to those features that are considered essential. The model can then be analyzed mathematically, and hopefully the results tell you something useful about the original real-world problem.

Models are powerful tools for understanding the world, but they have a fundamental limitation: they always depend crucially on the particular simplifying assumptions made at the model's inception. A different set of simplifying assumptions might yield completely different conclusions, and it's often unclear which model is more relevant to the natural world.

This problem is ubiquitous in mathematical biology: a paper might devote pages and pages of mathematical analysis to understanding one particular model, but if that model were changed just slightly, all that analysis would suddenly be invalid. The question in my mind is always "What insight do we gain from our mathematics?" All the technical derivation in the world is of limited value unless it can help us reach broader conclusions.

My vision is to shift the focus of evolutionary research from models to theories. A theory, like a model, rests on certain fundamental assumptions, but in the case of a theory these assumptions are so broad as to apply to any system in question. For example, a theory might specify "Individuals interact, reproduce, and die in some manner", whereas a model would have to specify the particular manner in which this occurs. So a single theory can encompass many (even infinitely many) models. It's like the difference between saying "3+4=4+3" versus "x+y=y+x for any real numbers x and y". Moving from models to theories is a leap forward in abstraction, generality, and power.

Shifting to theories also changes the kinds of conclusions you can reach. Models produce predictions: specific outcomes that would occur if reality indeed conformed to the assumptions of the model. Theories produce theorems: general statements that apply to any system of the type in question. A theorem won't tell you exactly what will happen, but it can characterize of the space of possibilities. And that's what I think is needed in evolutionary theory: a general understanding of what can or cannot result from evolution, and how this depends on the certain features of an evolutionary process.

So that's my research agenda in a nutshell. I'm extremely excited to see where this leads, and I'm looking forward to sharing more in the future.