Aims of this website
The Map of Life website brings together diverse examples of evolutionary convergence and presents them not as a glorified shopping list, but as robust, cross-referenced database. In doing so, it aims to provide a resource for students, academics and any other readers curious to learn about convergence in the living world. Our goal is to promote growing awareness and understanding of this intriguing aspect of evolution, through the presentation of material that is engaging and as scientifically accurate as possible. The format of the Map of Life allows for interactive exploration, so learning about viviparity might take you to lizards and so to teeth, or camera eyes to octopus and so to tool use, all of which are convergent. From this point-of-view, evolution takes on new perspectives. Does evolution have favoured directions? Why is convergence so ubiquitous? Can it tell us anything about extraterrestrial life?
... and the message?
First, that evolution is true. Forms of life change over time, or evolve, as successive generations inherit genetic, epigenetic or cultural information that is modified relative to their ancestors. Features of the changing environment in which organisms live favour differential survival of individuals with the most suitable (or ‘adapted’) modifications for living there. This leads to change in species over time, or their extinction if the environment changes too fast for ecologically well-adapted variants to become established. Of note, the science of evolutionary biology is NOT consistent with the central tenet of the “intelligent design” (ID) movement that suggests, contrary to all scientific evidence, that amongst other things organisms were supernaturally created and have remained unchanged since the time of their creation. There is also NO evidence for biological structures being supposedly “irreducibly complex”, arising by non-evolutionary “processes”. Indeed, convergence points in exactly the opposite direction because supposedly “irreducibly complex” structures, such as the bacterial flagellar motor, evolved independently at least twice. Not only that but we understand how each of the component parts became adapted make the complex structure that exists today. The existence of change over time in living things is clearly manifest in the fossil record, and is supported by information from the molecules, form and behaviour of organisms alive today.
Second, that evolution repeatedly navigates to stunningly similar solutions from very different starting points. Through the surprisingly ubiquitous process of convergent evolution, organisms as distantly related as moths and birds, ciliates and worms, when inhabiting similar environments, have developed similar features as adaptive solutions to life there. This suggests that evolutionary outcomes can be much more predictable than generally thought, and raises interesting questions about how patterns of convergence arise.