It’s a Wonderful Life

I’ve sometimes been asked whether the idea of the LTEE was inspired by Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life. In this bestseller, Gould put forward the idea of “replaying” evolution to explore the idea of whether evolution is repeatable. He wrote (page 48): “I call this experiment ‘replaying life’s tape.’ You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past—say, to the seas of the Burgess Shale. Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.”  However, Gould then went on to say: “The bad news is we can’t possibly perform the experiment.”

Gould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist as well as an historian of science and prolific author, and he had in mind replaying life’s tape on a planetary scale over millions of years. The Burgess Shale is a geological formation in western Canada that contains fossils from about 500 million years ago. The fossils include exceptionally well-preserved early animals, many of which have body plans that are unlike any modern animals. Building on his thought experiment of replaying life’s tape, Gould pondered the potential outcomes: “If each replay strongly resembles life’s actual pathway, then we must conclude that what really happened pretty much had to occur. But suppose that the experimental versions all yield sensible results strikingly different from the actual history of life? What could we then say about the predictability of self-conscious intelligence? or of mammals?”

Of course, Gould’s experiment is impossible at a paleo-planetary scale. But at a more modest scale, one of the main goals of the LTEE is to study the repeatability of evolution. And so, I often quote from Wonderful Life when I’m giving talks about the experiment. Thus, it’s only natural that someone might wonder if Gould’s book had inspired me to start the LTEE.

In fact, though, Wonderful Life was published in 1989—a year after the LTEE began. I think I first heard about it when Mike Travisano shared some passages with me that were relevant to a paper we were writing on the roles of adaptation, chance, and history in evolution.

So, while Gould and I were thinking about similar issues, we were imagining them at vastly different scales. It’s one of the fascinating aspects of evolution that these broad categories of causality—adaptation by natural selection, chance events from mutations to asteroid impacts, and the effects of past history on future opportunities—play out at these different scales.

I was lucky to meet Gould and discuss these issues with him several years later, as I’ll describe in a future post.

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