Was the Ediacaran—Cambrian radiation a unique evolutionary event?
The extent of morphologic innovation during the Ediacaran—Cambrian diversification of animals was unique in the history of metazoan life. This episode was also associated with extensive changes in the redox state of the oceans, in the structure of benthic and pelagic marine ecosystems, in the nature of marine sediments, and in the complexity of developmental interactions in Eumetazoa. But did the phylogenetic and morphologic breadth of this episode simply reflect the unusual outcome of recurrent evolutionary processes, or was it the unique result of circumstances, whether in the physical environment, in developmental mechanisms, or in ecological interactions? To better characterize the uniqueness of the events, I distinguish among these components on the basis of the extent of sensitivity to initial conditions and unpredictability, which generates a matrix of possibilities from fully contingent to fully deterministic. Discriminating between these differences is important for informing debates over determinism versus the contingency in the history of life, for understanding the nature of evolutionary theory, and for interpreting historically unique events.