Evolution might explain how we have come to be the way we are, but locomotion plays a starring role in the story of life on Earth, as zoologist Dr Matt Wilkinson explains at the University of Cambridge’s Science Festival on March 16.

It has famously been said that ‘nothing in biology makes sense unless in the light of evolution’, but it is also the case that little makes sense unless in the light of locomotion.

Matt Wilkinson

Most of us take for granted the ease with which we move from place to place, yet - according to zoologist Dr Matt Wilkinson – it is thanks to locomotion that life on Earth looks as it does. Without it, he argues, we would still be “nothing more than odd patches of complex chemistry, on the ocean floor of an otherwise dead planet.”

At his upcoming talk at the University of Cambridge’s Science Festival, the largest free science festival in the UK, he will trace the remarkable 3.5-billion-year journey from our earliest single-celled ancestors to the plant and animal kingdoms of today, explaining how the need to move around has always been a directing force in evolutionary history. From photosynthesis to sex, brains to breathing, we owe it all to life’s Olympic spirit.

“We attribute our present condition to the action of evolution but this only begins to answer the question,” he explains. “It has famously been said that ‘nothing in biology makes sense unless in the light of evolution’, but it is also the case that little makes sense unless in the light of locomotion.”

For humans, it’s easy to see how our anatomy and behaviour have been shaped by the need to move. But it’s easy to forget that we are unusual: unlike our primate cousins, we use two limbs rather than four to move; unlike horses and cats, we make contact with our whole foot instead of permanently standing on tiptoe; and, unlike  other groups that, like primates, mostly live in trees, we never experimented with flight.

In fact, the influence of locomotion on our biology extends far beyond our legs to other parts of our bodies – even to our thumbs. Their opposable movement has given us the capacity to make and use tools. Other primates also have opposable thumbs and yet their scope for tool-making is rudimentary at best. Wilkinson explains our dexterous digit as follows: “The clue is our ancient habitat. Our primate ancestors were tree dwellers, whose opposable thumb was a locomotory adaptation: useful for holding on to branches and the like. It was the later origin of two-legged movement that freed the hands from their propulsive role and opened the door to tool-making.”

Wilkinson is writing a book that peels back the layers of our history, to explain how the ‘guiding hand of locomotion’ has dominated the evolution of life. He describes how he first became aware of its importance while working on a fossilised pterodactyl named Anhanguera as a research zoologist in Cambridge: “its wings were enormous, spanning nearly 5 metres, and yet its weight was only 10 kilograms. With this build, to get airborne it must have launched itself from cliffs and spent its airtime soaring on thermals over calm tropical seas. Because they couldn’t risk alighting on the water to feed, they may even have attacked other flying creatures on the wing.

“So, by looking at Anhanguera’s locomotory design, I could see why it had evolved to be the way it was. And I began to realise that flight is not unique in its power to shape the adaptation of form and function.”
One of the most dramatic chapters in the story of life on Earth was the colonisation of land – a happy accident of locomotion, says Wilkinson. “400 million years ago, the world’s vertebrates were well adapted to a watery existence. The transition happened because, in one group, fins were transformed into limbs as an adaptation for underwater locomotion. It so happened that these new appendages were also good for propulsion on land.”

And the list goes on: Wilkinson believes that our eyes, bones, symmetry, perception, behaviour, intelligence and even sex would not exist without self-propulsion. “With movement came encounters and interactions, and the discovery of new energy sources, including the Sun.

“We have been forged and reforged by the need to move. We are a living embodiment of the countless journeys made by our ancestors.”

Matt Wilkinson’s talk ‘The evolutionary Olympics’ at Cambridge University Science Festival will take place at 2pm on Saturday 16 March 2013 at Arts School Room A, New Museum Site. Age 12+. No need to book.

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