Life finds a way, book cover, by Andreas Wagner

Both nature and the human mind are imaginative problem solvers. A moth’s wing color will darken over time to prevent visibility against smoke-stained bark. A single gene in a strand of DNA will somehow code for multiple different proteins at different times. A composer will shuffle and recombine musical phrases in search of the perfect melody for a sonata. As disparate as this trio seems, the moth, the gene, and the composer all use similar mechanisms of innovation in the service of survival and success, according to a new book by SFI External Professor Andreas Wagner.

In Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity, Wagner compares the tools of biological evolution with those of human innovation to make sense of the creative process that is happening in our minds all the time. “This book,” says Wagner, “was an attempt to amalgamate a very abstract and general concept that is really important in all of science with something that is very human that we don’t feel is abstract at all.”

On a molecular level, Wagner explains how the shortcomings of natural selection and its relentless forward momentum are overcome by mechanisms that allow for short-term failure in the service of long-term success, such as genetic drift and DNA recombination. These processes shake up the gene pool of a population, allowing for a diversity of features, both good and bad, and the potential for a breakthrough that can benefit an entire species. “Sometimes things need to get worse before they get better,” Wagner writes.

Human creativity is also not a simple march to the top. To paint Guernica, an expansive mural depicting the aftermath of war, Picasso first created many small sketches, in which he abandoned some ideas, introduced others, and made surprising choices. Instead of steady, gradual progress, we see an artist playing around with images that were then fine-tuned, reconfigured, or thrown out altogether. “Exploratory play,” remarks Wagner, “is about creating a diversity of experiences or ideas, only some of which will eventually lead somewhere and be successful.”

Failure is key to success, Wagner insists, and it should be embraced as a necessary part of the creative process. “If we are honest with ourselves, we understand that we are failing more often than we are succeeding, and that is a very Darwinian concept,” he says. “Even very successful scientists have a lot of failures.” In its lessons on how we think about innovation and creativity, Life Finds a Way has insights for us all, whether we are scientists, artists, or dark-winged moths.

Read Wagner's op-ed, "Why it Pays to Play Around," in Nautilus (June 6, 2019)