A thoughtful search for parallels between biological and human innovation.
No slouch at addressing big ideas, Wagner (Evolutionary Biology/Univ. of Zurich) took the first step in Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle (2014), which explained life’s spectacular transformation over 4 billion years since its origin. Summarizing that earlier book, he emphasizes that “every one of the millions of species alive today is the most recent link in a nearly endless chain of creative achievement that goes back all the way to life’s origin. Every organism is the product of countless innovations, from the molecular machines inside its cells to the physical architecture of its body.” 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.
Combining evolutionary biology with psychology to explain creativity is a stretch, but Wagner makes an ingenious case.