Life Finds a Way 

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3 stars
An unimaginative case for a more creative world

In Arrival of the Fittest (review), biologist Andreas Wagner made the compelling argument that life “finds its way” to solutions by way of neutral mutations. Through incremental changes, proteins can change shape gradually without losing their original function. As a population diversifies, natural selection can then identify those protein variants that have acquired entirely new, useful functions.

The book challenged a naive view of evolution, in which the vast majority of genetic mutations cause harm, and a small percentage of them confer an immediate survival benefit. The truth is that life needs to “play around” with neutral mutations to navigate the landscape of possible changes that may make a species more or less suited for survival.

In Life Finds a Way, Wagner applies this “landscape thinking” to all types of creative problem-solving. The first half of the book focuses on the concept of fitness landscapes, a limited but useful visual metaphor for how well-adapted specific genes (and the creatures they inhabit) are to their environment. The peaks in a three-dimensional landscape represent high levels of successful adaptation to the environment:

Visualization of a population of individuals evolving to become better suited for survival, i.e. “climbing a peak” in the fitness landscape. (Credit: Randy Olson and Bjørn Østman. License: CC-BY-SA.)

Natural selection marches steadily uphill. What prevents a population from being trapped on a small hill that represents an evolutionary dead end, an adaptation of limited usefulness that can’t be improved? Wagner breaks down how genetic drift (changes in frequency of specific gene variants), genetic recombination through sexual reproduction, and horizontal gene transfer in bacteria help individuals in a population slide or jump across the fitness landscape.

Wagner shows how potential energy landscapes in physics can similarly be used to map the possible configurations of molecules or crystals, and how gravity, thermodynamics and other physical forces push nonliving matter into stable (and often beautiful) configurations that represent valleys in the landscape.

Of mountains and molehills

In the second half of the book, Wagner applies landscape thinking to human creativity. He encourages us to visualize the map of creative solutions to a given problem (even if that “problem” is the composition of beautiful music) as a landscape with peaks and valleys. What does it take for a creative mind to climb mountains and avoid getting stuck on molehills of mediocrity?

The author enumerates many tools creative minds can use to traverse the landscape of ideas without getting stuck, including:

  • dreams

  • play

  • travel and exposure to other cultures

  • work with people from other disciplines

  • drugs.

As a positive model for cross-disciplinary work, Wagner cites the Santa Fe Institute, a renowned cross-disciplinary think tank where Wagner is an External Professor. (One way I hope they won’t be a model: even though the institute was only founded in 1984, its seven founders were all men, something Wagner does not remark upon.)

Into the badlands

Wagner harshly criticizes the obsession with standardized testing in the United States, and the rigid education approaches of South Korea and China. In his critique, he revisits familiar generalizations about “Western” and “Eastern” cultures, and seems to see “Eastern” cultures trapped in rigid uniformity, while situating the pinnacle of individual freedom in the United States.

Nations that want to nurture creative minds, Wagner argues, should reduce the negative consequences of failure—whether it’s for scientists applying for a research grant, or for entrepreneurs starting a business. Creative societies should be accessible to immigrants with diverse backgrounds, and recognize the benefits of diversity and individual freedom.

While Wagner pays lip service to the dangers of inequality, his analysis is stuck in a neoliberal frame of reference. Much more could be written about how an effective welfare state, a vibrant democracy, and alternatives to exploitative capitalism and intellectual monopoly rights (copyright, patents, etc.) are necessary to reap the benefits of human creativity for all people.

Instead, Wagner repeatedly cites Silicon Valley as an example for innovation, with the implicit assumption that the way to make a better world is to create more corporations like Facebook, Apple, and Tesla.

It’s worth remarking that Life Finds a Way was written before the COVID-19 crisis laid bare the utter incompetence of many “Western” governments, including the United States, in managing a pandemic. The landscape of ideas about COVID-19 is dotted with the creative edifices built by anti-vaxxers and ideologues, and landscape thinking alone seems like a very limited tool for getting humanity out of the badlands.

Thankfully, Wagner’s flurry of societal prescriptions is as brief as it is unimaginative. What we’re left with, then, is his argument to apply landscape thinking beyond physics and biology, providing an intellectual foundation for the value of letting our minds roam. That’s all it is—a foundation, one which I do hope other writers will build on.