cover image Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity

Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity

Andreas Wagner. Basic, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4533-2

In this intricate but accessible work, evolutionary biologist Wagner draws a fascinating analogy between how nature innovates to optimize itself and how human creativity works. He introduces a conceptual tool from his discipline, the “adaptive landscape,” a graphic resembling a “topographic map of a mountain range,” which organisms “climb” by evolving. Strict natural selection can allow one to reach the nearest peak—a beneficial characteristic—but doesn’t tolerate backward steps, making other, possibly higher peaks inaccessible. However, other climbing strategies—recombination through alternative splicing of DNA and through sexual reproduction—allow more landscape to be traversed. Wagner then moves the model to algorithmic problem solving, describing “genetic algorithms” that use multiple starting points and random mutations. Applying his model to creativity, he shows how mental landscapes are built similarly, by exploring different realms of knowledge and making “unusual combinations of experience and expertise” akin to DNA recombination. A brief foray into cultural implications—which recommends the cultivation of diversity and autonomy instead of hypercompetition in education and academia—is comparatively ill-developed and out of place. Nonetheless, this enjoyable popular science book, easy to follow without ever becoming oversimplistic, provides an intriguing new perspective on the mechanisms of innovation, whether molecule or symphony. Agent: Lisa Adams, Garamond Agency. (June)