Source: Kirkus Reviews, Jun 2019
Most readers associate evolution with Darwinian natural selection, but Wagner points out its limited creative capacity.
In natural selection, a better adapted organism produces more offspring. This preserves good traits and discards bad ones until it reaches a peak of fitness. This process works perfectly in an “adaptive landscape” with a single peak, but it fails when there are many—and higher—peaks.
Conquering the highest—true creativity—requires descending into a valley and trying again. Natural selection never chooses the worse over the better, so it can’t descend.
Wagner devotes most of his book to the 20th-century discovery of the sources of true biological creativity: genetic drift, recombination, and other processes that inject diversity into the evolutionary process.
His final section on human creativity contains less hard science but plenty of imagination. The human parallel with natural selection is laissez faire competition, which is efficient but equally intolerant of trial and error.
Far more productive are systems that don’t penalize failure but encourage play, experimentation, dreaming, and diverse points of view.
In this vein, American schools fare poorly, but Asian schools are worse.
“Exploratory play,” remarks Wagner, “is about creating a diversity of experiences or ideas, only some of which will eventually lead somewhere and be successful.”
Failure is key to success, Wagner insists, and it should be embraced as a necessary part of the creative process. “If we are honest with ourselves, we understand that we are failing more often than we are succeeding, and that is a very Darwinian concept,” he says. “Even very successful scientists have a lot of failures.”
as Life Finds a Way shows, not all solutions are equally good. To evolve from a suboptimal solution to a superior one usually involves several steps through intermediary solutions that are even worse, something that natural selection acts against. So how does evolution overcome such obstacles?
What if a population ends up on a suboptimal peak? From the image you can see that, unless you can do it in a single step, you cannot just descend one peak, move through a valley, and up the other peak. Natural selection will eliminate those individuals who “try”
how does nature get off suboptimal peaks? Biological traits are ultimately coded for by DNA and as biologists know, life has other options to change DNA than single mutations such as genetic drift and recombination.
The former is the chance disappearance of certain genes when all individuals carrying it die, something that is statistically much more likely in small populations.
The latter is the wholesale exchange of chromosome regions during meiosis, the cell divisions that creates sperm and egg cells. Drift is dangerous and can push whole populations away from fitness peaks and into extinction (this is why conservation biologists are so concerned about habitat fragmentation).
Wagner likens recombination to nothing less than teleportation; it allows offspring to take large leaps to a completely different part of an adaptive landscape.
Most combinations will be nonsensical, but many will not. Interestingly, Wagner’s computational work suggests that the number of viable genes or proteins encoded by these possibilities is vast. There are many possible solutions to a problem. So many, in fact, that they form networks. Wagner called it a hidden architecture that accelerates life’s ability to innovate.
Here too, finding better solutions sometimes requires big leaps, which can be brought about by play, daydreaming, or other means.