“The idea that social systems can change over time is not anathema to the idea that things evolve,” Rodrigo says.
“There are certain fundamental principles that apply to living organisms that also apply to other systems. If we think about evolution as Darwin conceived it, we think about inheritance, populations of individuals, and survival in the next generation--competition and reproductive success--you can start to think about how these processes apply to other things.
“Take language, for example,” he adds. “We know language changes and exists in a number of different forms. We know its changes are inherited over time, and may potentially compete because some phrases and words will gain favor over others, so it’s natural to think about the evolution of language in the same way as we do biological organisms.”
In fact, evolutionary thinking is becoming so commonplace that it is starting to penetrate disciplines like literary criticism, Rodrigo says. For example, Tyler Curtain, associate professor of English and comparative literature at UNC Chapel Hill, studies evolutionary theories of language, linguistics, philosophy of language with center support.
“We welcome this,” Rodrigo says. “We have a place for people interested in understanding the processes of evolution. Also, biologists can see that evolution transcends the natural sciences.”
In the natural sciences, center researchers are involved in a number of research projects. One recently released study of 50 million year-old cricket and katydid fossils, for example, traced the evolution of the insect ear, showing how insects have evolved ears at least 17 times in different lineages. Another study found how drought-resistant grasses evolved using a unique way of harvesting energy from the sun that works more efficiently in hot, arid conditions. Another linked super-sized teeth in prehistoric predators to beefier arm bones. Still another examined the growing evidence that noise created by humans is bad for birds, and that some species are harder hit than others, in particular, bigger birds with low-frequency songs.
“There also have been studies that have come out of our working groups that have looked at aging, compared to other primates that show we aren’t that unique in the way we age in relation to other primates,” Rodrigo says. “It tells us where we are unique, and where we are similar--and establishes our place on the evolutionary tree of life.”
Some of the work has practical applications today, such as in conservation efforts. The study about birds and noise, for example, could have important environmental implications. “If you are, for example, putting in a sawmill, this kind of work can help you figure out what might happen to the biological community around it,” Rodrigo says.
Beyond new ways of analyzing data, center scientists also are seeking “new opportunities to elucidate new and interesting things,” Rodrigo adds. “Looking at data across the evolutionary tree of life allows us to make broad statements about processes taking place in the natural world, and potentially, in other worlds as well.”