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History of Biology Seminars

2023 Seminar: Replaying Life’s Tape: Historical Contingency in the Life Sciences

History of Biology Seminar 2023 Photo by Jennifer Daly
Thu, May 18, 2023 - Tue, May 23, 2023
Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA

Please note - this seminar is full, so we are no longer accepting applications.

Seminar Timeline: May 18th – 23rd, 2023

Arrivals on May 17th and Departures on May 24th.


"If we must marvel, let it be at our presumption in imagining for a moment that
we understand the many complex contingencies on which
the existence of each species depends."   
--Charles Darwin, Origin

"I call this experiment “replaying life’s tape.” You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened [during the history of life on Earth],
 go back to any time and place in the past... Then let the tape run again
and see if the repetition looks at all like the original." 
  --Stephen Gould, Wonderful Life

There has been growing interest in, and exploration of the extent to which the living world depends on seeming accidents of the past—chance mutations, chance migrations, chance extinctions and more—unforeseeable happenstances that turn out to be very consequential for life as we know it. To some, the history of life resembles the vagaries of human/civil history; and areas of study such as evolutionary biology, palaeontology, biogeography and ecology are viewed more and more as “historical sciences” resembling the discipline of “history” insofar as their practitioners place great weight on developments in the past that might well have been otherwise. As Stephen Gould remarked in his characterization of the historical sciences, “The essence of history [civil as well as natural history], its name is contingency.” Gould’s now famous “replay thought experiment” (quoted above) was intended to illustrate his own position about the history of life—it’s unpredictability. His anticipated outcome: “any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.”

Anomalocaris canadensis

Different positions, with different emphases now appear in books by scientists for broad  audiences: Gould’s Wonderful Life with an emphasis on paleontology, Jonathan Losos’s Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution with an emphasis on evolutionary ecology, Alan de Queiroz’s The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life with an emphasis on biogeography, and science educator Kostas Kampourakis’s Turning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development.

During our week together, we will consider developments in 19th, 20th and 21st century evolutionary biology, palaeontology, biogeography and ecology, in which the importance of chance happenings has been explored and contested. At issue will also be changing conceptions of science, in particular the category of “historical science.” We will also address alleged/contested value implications of less vs. more deterministic views of the history of life. For example, increasing emphasis on contingency in community ecology arguably has significant implications for preservation, conservation and restoration efforts.

Photo of the 2023 MBL ASU tshirt
John Beatty, University of British Columbia
James Collins, Arizona State University
Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University/MBL
Karl Matlin, University of Chicago/MBL
John Beatty, University of British Columbia
Alison McConwell, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Additional images
MBL Graphic