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Journal: Interface focus


This paper briefly describes process metaphysics, and argues that it is better suited for describing life than the more standard thing, or substance, metaphysics. It then explores the implications of process metaphysics for conceptualizing evolution. After explaining what it is for an organism to be a process, the paper takes up the Hull/Ghiselin thesis of species as individuals and explores the conditions under which a species or lineage could constitute an individual process. It is argued that only sexual species satisfy these conditions, and that within sexual species the degree of organization varies. This, in turn, has important implications for species' evolvability. One important moral is that evolution will work differently in different biological domains.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Evolution, Biology, Organism, Life, Species, Ontology


Evolution has produced an astonishing array of organisms, but does it have limits and, if so, how are these overcome and how have they changed over the course of time? Here, I review models for describing and explaining existing diversity, and then explore parts of the evolutionary tree that remain empty. In an analysis of 32 forbidden states among eukaryotes, identified in major clades and in the three great habitat realms of water, land and air, I argue that no phenotypic constraint is absolute, that most constraints reflect a limited time-energy budget available to individual organisms, that natural selection is ultimately responsible for both imposing and overcoming constraints, including those normally ascribed to developmental patterns of construction and phylogenetic conservatism, and that increases in adaptive versatility in major clades together with accompanying new ecological opportunities have eliminated many constraints. Phenotypes that were inaccessible during the Early Palaeozoic era have evolved during later periods while very few adaptive states have disappeared. The filling of phenotypic space has proceeded cumulatively in three overlapping phases characterized by diversification at the biochemical, morphological and cultural levels.

Concepts: Gene, Natural selection, Evolution, Biology, Life, Species, Phenotype, Phylogenetics


A central feature of Darwin’s theory of natural selection is that it explains the purpose of biological adaptation. Here, I: emphasize the scientific importance of understanding what adaptations are for, in terms of facilitating the derivation of empirically testable predictions; discuss the population genetical basis for Darwin’s theory of the purpose of adaptation, with reference to Fisher’s ‘fundamental theorem of natural selection’; and show that a deeper understanding of the purpose of adaptation is achieved in the context of social evolution, with reference to inclusive fitness and superorganisms.

Concepts: Scientific method, Genetics, Natural selection, Evolution, Evolutionary biology, Population genetics, Kin selection, Charles Darwin


State-of-the-art computer vision systems use frame-based cameras that sample the visual scene as a series of high-resolution images. These are then processed using convolutional neural networks using neurons with continuous outputs. Biological vision systems use a quite different approach, where the eyes (cameras) sample the visual scene continuously, often with a non-uniform resolution, and generate neural spike events in response to changes in the scene. The resulting spatio-temporal patterns of events are then processed through networks of spiking neurons. Such event-based processing offers advantages in terms of focusing constrained resources on the most salient features of the perceived scene, and those advantages should also accrue to engineered vision systems based upon similar principles. Event-based vision sensors, and event-based processing exemplified by the SpiNNaker (Spiking Neural Network Architecture) machine, can be used to model the biological vision pathway at various levels of detail. Here we use this approach to explore structural synaptic plasticity as a possible mechanism whereby biological vision systems may learn the statistics of their inputs without supervision, pointing the way to engineered vision systems with similar online learning capabilities.


Owls are an order of birds of prey that are known for the development of a silent flight. We review here the morphological adaptations of owls leading to silent flight and discuss also aerodynamic properties of owl wings. We start with early observations (until 2005), and then turn to recent advances. The large wings of these birds, resulting in low wing loading and a low aspect ratio, contribute to noise reduction by allowing slow flight. The serrations on the leading edge of the wing and the velvet-like surface have an effect on noise reduction and also lead to an improvement of aerodynamic performance. The fringes at the inner feather vanes reduce noise by gliding into the grooves at the lower wing surface that are formed by barb shafts. The fringed trailing edge of the wing has been shown to reduce trailing edge noise. These adaptations to silent flight have been an inspiration for biologists and engineers for the development of devices with reduced noise production. Today several biomimetic applications such as a serrated pantograph or a fringed ventilator are available. Finally, we discuss unresolved questions and possible future directions.

Concepts: Bird, Aerodynamics, Owl, Aspect ratio, Wing, Aircraft, Trailing edge, Leading edge


Should the tape of life be replayed, would it produce similar living beings? A classical answer has long been ‘no’, but accumulating data are now challenging this view. Repeatability in experimental evolution, in phenotypic evolution of diverse species and in the genes underlying phenotypic evolution indicates that despite unpredictability at the level of basic evolutionary processes (such as apparition of mutations), a certain kind of predictability can emerge at higher levels over long time periods. For instance, a survey of the alleles described in the literature that cause non-deleterious phenotypic differences among animals, plants and yeasts indicates that similar phenotypes have often evolved in distinct taxa through independent mutations in the same genes. Does this mean that the range of possibilities for evolution is limited? Does this mean that we can predict the outcomes of a replayed tape of life? Imagining other possible paths for evolution runs into four important issues: (i) resolving the influence of contingency, (ii) imagining living organisms that are different from the ones we know, (iii) finding the relevant concepts for predicting evolution, and (iv) estimating the probability of occurrence for complex evolutionary events that occurred only once during the evolution of life on earth.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Bacteria, Evolution, Biology, Organism, Life, Species


We discuss a recently proposed approach to solve the classic feature-binding problem in primate vision that uses neural dynamics known to be present within the visual cortex. Broadly, the feature-binding problem in the visual context concerns not only how a hierarchy of features such as edges and objects within a scene are represented, but also the hierarchical relationships between these features at every spatial scale across the visual field. This is necessary for the visual brain to be able to make sense of its visuospatial world. Solving this problem is an important step towards the development of artificial general intelligence. In neural network simulation studies, it has been found that neurons encoding the binding relations between visual features, known as binding neurons, emerge during visual training when key properties of the visual cortex are incorporated into the models. These biological network properties include (i) bottom-up, lateral and top-down synaptic connections, (ii) spiking neuronal dynamics, (iii) spike timing-dependent plasticity, and (iv) a random distribution of axonal transmission delays (of the order of several milliseconds) in the propagation of spikes between neurons. After training the network on a set of visual stimuli, modelling studies have reported observing the gradual emergence of polychronization through successive layers of the network, in which subpopulations of neurons have learned to emit their spikes in regularly repeating spatio-temporal patterns in response to specific visual stimuli. Such a subpopulation of neurons is known as a polychronous neuronal group (PNG). Some neurons embedded within these PNGs receive convergent inputs from neurons representing lower- and higher-level visual features, and thus appear to encode the hierarchical binding relationship between features. Neural activity with this kind of spatio-temporal structure robustly emerges in the higher network layers even when neurons in the input layer represent visual stimuli with spike timings that are randomized according to a Poisson distribution. The resulting hierarchical representation of visual scenes in such models, including the representation of hierarchical binding relations between lower- and higher-level visual features, is consistent with the hierarchical phenomenology or subjective experience of primate vision and is distinct from approaches interested in segmenting a visual scene into a finite set of objects.


The endometrium is the secretory lining of the uterus that undergoes dynamic changes throughout the menstrual cycle in preparation for implantation and a pregnancy. Recently, endometrial organoids (EO) were established to study the glandular epithelium. We have built upon this advance and developed a multi-cellular model containing both endometrial stromal and epithelial cells. We use porous collagen scaffolds produced with controlled lyophilization to direct cellular organization, integrating organoids with primary isolates of stromal cells. The internal pore structure of the scaffold was optimized for stromal cell culture in a systematic study, finding an optimal average pore size of 101 ┬Ám. EO seeded organize to form a luminal-like epithelial layer, on the surface of the scaffold. The cells polarize with their apical surface carrying microvilli and cilia that face the pore cavities and their basal surface attaching to the scaffold with the formation of extracellular matrix proteins. Both cell types are hormone responsive on the scaffold, with hormone stimulation resulting in epithelial differentiation and stromal decidualization.


The primary exchange units in the human placenta are terminal villi, in which fetal capillary networks are surrounded by a thin layer of villous tissue, separating fetal from maternal blood. To understand how the complex spatial structure of villi influences their function, we use an image-based theoretical model to study the effect of tissue metabolism on the transport of solutes from maternal blood into the fetal circulation. For solute that is taken up under first-order kinetics, we show that the transition between flow-limited and diffusion-limited transport depends on two new dimensionless parameters defined in terms of key geometric quantities, with strong solute uptake promoting flow-limited transport conditions. We present a simple algebraic approximation for solute uptake rate as a function of flow conditions, metabolic rate and villous geometry. For oxygen, accounting for nonlinear kinetics using physiological parameter values, our model predicts that villous metabolism does not significantly impact oxygen transfer to fetal blood, although the partitioning of fluxes between the villous tissue and the capillary network depends strongly on the flow regime.


We propose that fungi Basidiomycetes can be used as computing devices: information is represented by spikes of electrical activity, a computation is implemented in a mycelium network and an interface is realized via fruit bodies. In a series of scoping experiments, we demonstrate that electrical activity recorded on fruits might act as a reliable indicator of the fungi’s response to thermal and chemical stimulation. A stimulation of a fruit is reflected in changes of electrical activity of other fruits of a cluster, i.e. there is distant information transfer between fungal fruit bodies. In an automaton model of a fungal computer, we show how to implement computation with fungi and demonstrate that a structure of logical functions computed is determined by mycelium geometry.