In an era of rapid climate change there is a pressing need to understand whether and how organisms are able to adapt to novel environments. Such understanding is hampered by a major divide in the life sciences. Disciplines like systems biology or neurobiology make rapid progress in unravelling the mechanisms underlying the responses of organisms to their environment, but this knowledge is insufficiently integrated in eco-evolutionary theory. Current eco-evolutionary models focus on the response patterns themselves, largely neglecting the structures and mechanisms producing these patterns. In this project we aim to set up a new, mechanism-oriented framework that views the architecture of adaptation, rather than the resulting responses, as the primary target of natural selection. This change in perspective will yield fundamentally new insights, necessitating the re-evaluation of many seemingly well-established eco-evolutionary principles.
We aim to develop a comprehensive theory of the eco-evolutionary causes and consequences of the architecture underlying adaptive responses. In three parallel lines of investigation, we will study how architecture is shaped by selection, how evolved response strategies reflect the underlying architecture, and how these responses affect the eco-evolutionary dynamics and the capacity to adapt to novel conditions. All three lines have the potential of making ground-breaking contributions to eco-evolutionary theory, including: the specification of evolutionary tipping points; resolving the puzzle that real organisms evolve much faster than predicted by current theory; a new and general explanation for the evolutionary emergence of individual variation; and a framework for studying the evolution of learning and other general-purpose mechanisms. By making use of concepts from information theory and artificial intelligence, the project will also introduce various methodological innovations.