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The University of Southampton

World’s largest project to expand our understanding of evolution

Published: 7 April 2016
Templeton grant
The study aims to expand our understanding of evolution.

A University of Southampton academic will participate in the world’s largest project to expand and update our understanding of evolutionary biology.

Dr Richard Watson, associate professor of Electronics and Computer Science and the Institute for Life Sciences at Southampton, is part of an international multi-disciplinary team of 50 world-renowned experts, from eight institutions in the United States, Great Britain and Sweden. The £7.7m project is supported by a £5.7m grant from the John Templeton Foundation, an organisation promoting the advancement of science and philosophy, with a further £2m contributed by the participating institutions.

The collaboration seeks to expand the theory of evolution with new perspectives on the relationships between genes, organism, and environment. It centres on the ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ (EES) – a new way to think about evolutionary biology aimed at tackling some of its toughest problems. The EES does not replace traditional thinking, but deployed alongside it, aims to stimulate new research within evolutionary biology.

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

For example, in the EES, a number of complex biological phenomena are recognised not merely as products of evolution, but as playing a key role in shaping the direction and rate of evolution. For example, in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), the evolution of developmental organisation changes the variation that selection can act on; and in evolutionary ecology (evo-eco), the evolution of ecological organisation changes the selective pressures that act on that variation.

Dr Richard Watson
Dr Richard Watson


Dr Watson will lead two sub-projects that aim to expand our understanding of both these evolutionary feedbacks using theoretical tools from computer science. “When the products of evolution modify the processes of evolution in this way, this causes problems for current evolutionary theory,” he explains. “But in computer science, these feedbacks are well-understood in the framework of learning systems.”

Dr Watson’s recent work, which was featured as the front cover story in New Scientist last week, defines the formal links between evolution and learning that enable results to be transferred from computer science to update our understanding of biological evolution. He said: “This work suggests that these feedbacks are not just ‘a complication’ but change the capabilities of Darwinian evolution; specifically, evolution is smarter than we realised.”

The grant, entitled “Putting the extended evolutionary synthesis to the test”, is one of the largest to ever be awarded to evolutionary research. It funds 22 inter-linked projects in total – including theoretical development and empirical experiments – and supports a wide range of additional activities that will promote interaction and collaboration between institutions. The other institutions supported by the Templeton grant are Clark, Indiana and Stanford universities, and the Sante Fe Institute, in the U.S.; Cambridge and St. Andrews universities in Great Britain; and the University of Lund in Sweden. Research on the project will start in September 2016.


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