Field of Science

What would surprise you?

How often do you go "shiiiiiiiiiiit, so that's how it is!?!" What would really shock you? "FUCK! I never thought that would be the case..."

Probably not that often. But those moments are so great, and as a scientist, I'd say we sort of live for them.

I was thinking about this in terms of working in evolution. What would be a really big moment that I could say advanced my understanding of how living things evolve? Most papers I read anymore are incremental advances. Actually, all of them are. When I first started learning about evolution, I was in near-constant shock/revelational mode. It was pure delight to discover what we know about evolution. But now that I know most of it, nothing much surprises me anymore. Which is a shame.

So it got me thinking about where I could search for such moments. Something akin to learning that the Earth is not the center of the universe, or that everything is made of atoms. Or that there were dinosaurs, and that we evolved. The rest seems to be details. Important details, but not revelational.

I do various things in evolution, but my overarching focus is the origin of evolutionary novelty (but I like speciation, too). How do new things come into existence? The first eyes, first brain, first blood. People will then say that those things are derived from previous structures. Eyes from simpler photoreceptors, brains from simple nervous systems, blood cells from other cells. And these systems derived from yet simpler cells, but along the way, something new happened at least at some points that enabled these new systems/structures to form. New proteins were added to the mix, encoded by new genes. So where did these new genes come from? Well, they were derived from other genes, by duplication and neofunctionalization: a new gene is a copy and a refashioning of an old gene. So far so good. Then where did the first gene come from? Sorry, I don't work on origin-of-life stuff.

Is that it? Not quite. There are some major transitions in evolution to be explained. Unicellularity to multicellularity, cellular differentiation, asexual to sexual reproduction, and stuff like that.

But then, I am still left with this feeling at times that there is really nothing that would really upset my world-view (of evolution) much anymore. Still nothing revelational in sight. I hope I'm wrong.


  1. Well, the existence of a shadow biosphere or life on other worlds would be pretty amazing.

  2. Or a different species of homo living undiscovered on an island somewhere...

  3. While discovering a new species of live homo would be very exciting, it's not really going to overturn anything about evolutionary theory, I think. Perhaps if then by studying them we found that evolution actually works in some way that people never knew, but I consider that highly unlikely.

  4. If you knew in advance what would surprise you, then the occasion of the event wouldn't be a surprise anymore. You could't go: "FUCK, I never thought of that!"


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