Wagner (Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies/Univ. of Zurich; The Origins of Evolutionary Innovations, 2011, etc.) lucidly explores the natural principles that accelerate life’s ability to innovate and thus evolve.
“How does nature bring forth the new, the better, the superior?” asks the author. “How does life create?” Since it is exceedingly complex, he takes a winding road to approach his goal, but he has the gift of J.B.S. Haldane and Loren Eiseley in that he never slips past his audience’s grasp. Wagner is there with readers throughout the journey, from modern synthesis, with its emphasis on the genotype, to evolutionary developmental biology, which sought to “integrate embryonic development, evolution, and genetics,” to the relationship between genotype and phenotype, to nature’s creativity, active before sentient life existed. The author clearly reveals how organic molecules could have evolved from inorganic matter, how catalysts give metabolism a kick in the pants, the wonders of deep-sea vents and the otherworldly beauty of the citric acid cycle’s creating two molecules from one. Even if we do not know how life evolved in all its complexity, we do know that innovation needn’t be created from scratch to have profound effects: Small changes in amino acids allow geese to fly higher, cod to swim deeper and eyes to see color, just as they allow bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics and cells to become resistant to cancer drugs. From the vast library of possible amino acid strings—“hyperastronomical” in number—we find different string arrangements capable of doing the same job and genotype networks “ideal for exploring the library, helping populations to discover texts with new meaning while preserving old and useful meaning.” In this swarming complexity, nature is like Einstein’s hair, which “doesn’t just tolerate disorder. It needs some disorder to discover new metabolisms, regulatory circuits, and macromolecules—in short, to innovate.”
A book of startling congruencies, insightful flashes and an artful enthusiasm that delivers knowledge from the inorganic page to our organic brains.