This book is the outgrowth of the Arthur M. Sackler colloquium on “Adaptation and Complex Design,” which was sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences on December 1–2, 2006, at the Academy’s Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California. It is the first in a proposed series of Sackler colloquia under the umbrella title “In the Light of Evolution.” The chapters that follow illustrate a wide variety of current scientific perspectives and methodological approaches directed toward understanding the origin and maintenance of complex biological adaptations.
In the opening chapter of this volume, Francisco Ayala develops the thesis that the Darwinian Revolution in effect completed the Copernican Revolution by extending from physics to biology a notion that the universe operates by natural laws that fall within the purview of rational scientific inquiry. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium celestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which introduced the idea that the earth is not at the center of creation and that natural laws govern the motion of structures in the physical universe. This thesis was bolstered and elaborated by the scientific discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and others during the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was left to Darwin in the 19th century to discover that natural laws and processes also govern the emergence of apparent design in biological systems.
Subsequent chapters in this volume then illustrate the wide variety of current scientific avenues for exploring the nature of complex adaptations. Chapters are arranged into three parts, each immediately preceded by a brief editorial introduction. Authors in Part II set a conceptual stage by addressing epistemological issues related to biotic complexity from several disparate scientific perspectives including population genetics, information theory, and systems biology. In Part III, authors address the evolution of biotic complexity in a hierarchy of contexts, from the ontogenetic programs underlying particular phenotypes to the cooperation and conflicts often associated with multicellularity, social behaviors, and symbiotic associations. Chapters in Part IV provide additional case studies of how genetic, developmental, ecological, and other biological phenomena are now being dissected for complex phenotypes ranging from beetle horns to human adaptations for high-altitude hypoxia. Overall, the collection of ideas and data in this volume is highly eclectic but nonetheless broadly illustrative of modern scientific attempts to understand the evolution of complex adaptations.
These scientific endeavors are coming at a time of resurgent societal interest in supernatural explanations for biological complexity. Especially in the United States, proponents of intelligent design (ID)—the latest reincarnation of religious creationism—argue that biotic complexity can only be the product of a supreme intelligence (i.e., God). In the closing chapter of this volume, Eugenie Scott and Nicholas Matzke examine the