by Evolution News and Views

In 1904, genetics pioneer Hugo de Vries quipped that “natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” In 2014, Andreas Wagner thinks it can. His new book, reviewed by Mark Pagel in Nature, is titled Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle. What is that “greatest puzzle”? The ability to work miracles. That’s right: Pagel begins his review:

You inhabit something of a miracle, in engineering terms. Your body consists of trillions of cells, woven together into something whose complexity far outstrips that of the most sophisticated objects our best engineers can produce, from computers and skyscrapers to space shuttles. A relatively simple outer form belies a teeming society of chemical reactions and protein engineering. This must maintain itself within strict temperature and physiological limits while enduring a complex and frequently unpredictable external environment. And, to achieve its long lifespan, it must avoid the sort of catastrophic breakdown that plagues human-engineered objects. (Emphasis added.)

With this glorious opening, Pagel praises Wagner for solving evolution’s greatest puzzle. It’s so simple, it’s astonishing nobody thought of it before:

All the breathtaking innovation required to produce this complexity rests on two pillars of evolution that are, for the most part, either ignored or unappreciated. These are robustness and evolvability, which together grant what evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner calls “innovability” in his engaging and intelligent Arrival of the Fittest. Wagner’s message is that these two foundation stones of evolution exist because of an unexpected and remarkable degree of neighbourliness (not his term) that seems to characterize life — a neighbourliness that allows species to innovate more rapidly and successfully than previously imagined.

This makes about as much sense as a wizard telling a pile of rocks, “Go forth and innovate! Let evolvability grant thee engineering power! Be thou robust forthwith, and with thy neighboring rocks at thy aid, bring forth! Bring forth!” Pagel and Wagner have just ascribed godlike powers to material objects, as if the incantation “natural selection!” can make an albatross out of a squid. Invent a phrase with magical powers that can do anything. That’s natural selection.

Read the rest of the article here.