Convergent evolution as natural experiment: the tape of life reconsidered

Interface Focus 5 (6):1-13 (2015)
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Abstract
Stephen Jay Gould argued that replaying the ‘tape of life’ would result in radically different evolutionary outcomes. Recently, biologists and philosophers of science have paid increasing attention to the theoretical importance of convergent evolution—the independent origination of similar biological forms and functions—which many interpret as evidence against Gould’s thesis. In this paper, we examine the evidentiary relevance of convergent evolution for the radical contingency debate. We show that under the right conditions, episodes of convergent evolution can constitute valid natural experiments that support inferences regarding the deep counterfactual stability of macroevolutionary outcomes. However, we argue that proponents of convergence have problematically lumped causally heterogeneous phenomena into a single evidentiary basket, in effect treating all convergent events as if they are of equivalent theoretical import. As a result, the ‘critique from convergent evolution’ fails to engage with key claims of the radical contingency thesis. To remedy this, we develop ways to break down the heterogeneous set of convergent events based on the nature of the generalizations they support. Adopting this more nuanced approach to convergent evolution allows us to differentiate iterated evolutionary outcomes that are probably common among alternative evolutionary histories and subject to law-like generalizations, from those that do little to undermine and may even support, the Gouldian view of life.
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