salmon spawning

When faced with environmental stressors, some species respond (evolutionarily) by adapting to the new conditions or by evolving into multiple species. Others take a more unusual path, evolving complex life investment strategies with the ability to reproduce into various forms, or requiring multiple environments to complete a lifecycle.

SFI Omidyar Fellows Justin Yeakel and Eric Libby want to know why organisms like brown algae, Pacific salmon, and various parasites go to all the trouble.

This week an eclectic group of experts – including ecologists, evolutionary biologists...even a philosopher – are gathered at SFI to explore this question from a number of perspectives.

Yeakel, who studies ancient food webs, approaches the question with larger organisms in mind, while Libby, an evolutionary biologist interested in the origin of multicellularity, seeks answers relating to Earth’s smaller life.

Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith (City University of New York and University of Sydney) brings ideas about what constitutes individuality and how we might make distinctions among individual organisms, super-organisms, and groups of organisms.

“We have a nice, diverse group of people in terms of their model systems,” Libby says. “We are hoping to uncover general principles of why organisms might adopt such complex strategies when there is overwhelming opportunity to choose simpler strategies, or to speciate.”

Developing deeper understandings of how – and why – life on earth has evolved in the ways it has is important for several reasons, says Libby. “It’s incredibly useful for understanding what we might expect if we were to ever find life elsewhere in the universe,” he says.

It’s also important in making decisions about managing life on earth. If an organism has multiple life stages and something happens that interrupts one of those stages, that change could have implications not only for that organism, but for other species that have evolved alongside it.

Complex strategies are also fundamentally interesting, says Libby. “If all the [additional effort] has payoff, it’s absolutely fascinating to understand what the payoff is, to understand why it’s being done, and why we might expect it to exist in other parts of the world.”

More about the invitation-only workshop here.