Finding easter island

Hence to an explanation for the title of this first chapter. Easter Island is the remotest speck of land on Earth, surrounded by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. At first sight it seems quite extraordinary that it could have been encountered by the seafaring Polynesians, however audacious. Surely, one would suppose, it was a chance discovery, perhaps by mariners who had been blown far off course, which led to the prows of the first canoes accidentally grating onto a beach of Easter Island perhaps some 1500 years ago. Another quirk of history? Very probably not. Easter Island may have marked one of the furthest points in this great human diaspora, but its discovery was inevitable given the sophisticated search strategy of the Polynesians. As Geoffrey Irwin has shown,42 not only were these people superb navigators, but they developed a method of quartering the ocean that aimed to find new lands. Century by century their net of exploration widened. When a particular season failed in the objective they had a sure way of finding their way home to safety. Their vessels were designed for protracted journeys, but the key to their success was to head against the prevailing winds on the outward journey. At the limit of their range on any one journey, the sternward winds rapidly returned them towards their home and safety. And how was home, another speck in the ocean, arrived at? In the sky above the boats the net of stars provided the clues to celestial navigation, and as the constellations fitted into place so an increasingly familiar starlit sky provided the beacons for a successful homecoming.

So, too, in evolution. Isolated 'islands' provide havens of biological possibility in an ocean of maladaptedness (Fig. 1.4). No wonder

figure 1.4 A metaphorical view of protein 'hyperspace', in which functional proteins project above an immense 'ocean' that submerges non-functional alternatives. (Reprinted from Journal of Molecular Biology, vol. 301, D.D. Axe, Extreme functional sensitivity to conservative amino acid changes on enzyme exteriors, pp. 585-596, fig. 5. Copyright 2000, with permission from Elsevier Science, and also with the permission of the author.)

figure 1.4 A metaphorical view of protein 'hyperspace', in which functional proteins project above an immense 'ocean' that submerges non-functional alternatives. (Reprinted from Journal of Molecular Biology, vol. 301, D.D. Axe, Extreme functional sensitivity to conservative amino acid changes on enzyme exteriors, pp. 585-596, fig. 5. Copyright 2000, with permission from Elsevier Science, and also with the permission of the author.)

the arguments for design and intelligent planning have such a perennial appeal. Whether it be by navigation across the hyperdimensional vastness of protein space, the journey to a genetic code of almost eerie efficiency, or the more familiar examples of superb adaptation, life has an extraordinary propensity for its metaphorical hand to fit the glove. Life depends both on a suitable chemistry, whose origins are literally cosmic, and on the realities of evolutionary adaptation. The chemistry is acknowledged but largely ignored; the adaptation is often derided as a wishful fantasy. As with the audacious and intelligent Polynesians, so life shows a kind of homing instinct. Its central paradox revolves around the fact that despite its fecundity and baroque richness life is also strongly constrained. The net result is a genuine creation, almost unimaginably rich and beautiful, but one also with an underlying structure in which, given enough time, the inevitable must happen.

To conclude this chapter - and to anticipate the main theme of this book - let us accept that the genetic code must be spectacularly efficient, driven to a one-in-a-hundred-million alternatives by the remorseless action of selection. All life shares this one code, but this commonality has not stifled the creative potentials of life, as both the fossil record and the exuberance of the living world so clearly demonstrate. Yet for all this exuberance and flair there are constraints: convergence is inevitable, yet paradoxically the net result is not one of sterile returns to worn-out themes; rather there is also a patent trend of increased complexity. Some cosmologists like to speculate that the Universe is designed to be the home of life, to which some biologists might add 'Yes, and not only that but we have a pretty shrewd idea of what was on the cards.' But to see how the hand is played, we need first to see how life itself might have originated - and a very odd story is now emerging.

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