Last week I attended the annual Peter Yodzis Colloquium in Fundamental Ecology in Guelph, Ontario. This year’s theme was “Applied Evolution: Understanding the Past, Predicting the Future.” There were several top-notch talks, mostly focusing on how adaptive evolution can be observed happening right now in extant species, and the discussion after each talk was particularly lively. But, despite the title of the conference, I didn’t learn much about specific events that are likely to occur in the future.
This isn’t really surprising; biologists are not soothsayers, after all. But at the same time, it seems like evolutionary theory should be able to help us better understand the consequences of our actions, with powerful applications in conservation, medicine, and agriculture. Someday, perhaps, predictions of future evolutionary trajectories might be somewhat accurate. However, maybe the more important role of evolutionary thinking is to remind us that we can’t predict the future as well as we’d like. Just when you think you understand a biological system well enough to say what it will do next, it might evolve on you and start obeying different rules. The presentation by Dr. Graham Bell at the conference illustrated this best: we can make predictions about how oceanic algae will absorb some of the excess carbon dioxide that we are pumping into the atmosphere, but if the algae evolve in response to the increased CO2 levels, as they do in lab experiments, all bets are off. Similarly, evolution can throw off our expectations about everything from the efficiency of antibiotics and pesticides to the number of pounds of fish we can harvest from the sea. Evolution adds some uncertainty to our predictive equations, which we ignore at our peril.
When I left Canada, I had to explain to the border guard what I had been doing in the county, including the name of the conference. “So where are we going?” he asked. I explained that I was going to spend that evening in Ann Arbor. “No, where are we as a species going?” he clarified.
“It turns out that it’s not so easy to predict the future, after all,” I replied, and drove into the U.S.