Thursday, November 10, 2016

Friday Thinking 11 Nov. 2016

Hello all – Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.
In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.
Jobs are dying - work is just beginning.

“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9


The Strange Inevitability of Evolution

This tells us two crucial things about the RNA sequence space. First, there are many, many possible sequences that will all serve the same function. If evolution is “searching” for that function by natural selection, it has an awful lot of viable solutions to choose from. Second, the space, while unthinkably vast and multi-dimensional, is navigable: You can change the genotype neutrally, without losing the all-important phenotype. So this is why the RNAs are evolvable at all: not because evolution has the time to sift through the impossibly large number of variations to find the ones that work, but because there are so many that do work, and they’re connected to one another.

These findings uncover a property of biological systems even deeper than the evolutionary processes that shape them. They reveal the landscape on which that shaping took place, and they show that it was only possible at all because the landscape has a very specific topology, in which functionally similar combinations of the component parts—genes, metabolites, protein or nucleic-acid sequences—are connected into vast webs that stretch throughout the whole of the multidimensional space, each intricately woven amidst countless others.

One might argue that the original creative act of the living world was the generation of the components themselves: the chemical ingredients, such as amino acids and sugars, that comprise the molecules of life. But this now seems like the easy part, the kind of happy accident that chemistry can supply given the right raw materials and environment. The harder question is how one can get beyond that passive soup to kick-start Darwinian evolution. Manrubia thinks that this primal creative step might itself be a consequence of the richness and intimate interweaving of neutral (or quasi-neutral) networks. This means that, even for random, abiotically generated RNA sequences, there is a significant chance of finding ones that perform some useful function. “In a sense, you have function for free if the phenotypes are sufficiently represented in sequence space,” she says. And her computer simulations show that such RNA sequences aren’t rare. “So sufficiently good solutions to act as seeds of the evolutionary process might arise in the absence of the evolutionary process itself.” In particular, there’s a fair chance of hitting on sequences that can replicate—and then you’re up and running. “Natural selection can very quickly turn mediocre solutions into fully adaptive ones,” Manrubia says.

Some bacteria seem to undergo more mutations than is “wise” for the individual, if most mutations decrease fitness. An overly simplistic explanation is that many mutations are nonetheless good for the population as a whole because they offer more options for adapting to new environmental challenges. But mutations on robust networks have more chance of being neutral—a feature that is good both for the individual (because it has less chance of incurring deleterious mutations) and for the population (because it provides new ways to adapt when the need arises).

The more complex they are, the more rewiring they tolerate,” says Wagner. Not only does this open up possibilities for electronic circuit design using Darwinian principles, but it suggests that evolvability, and the corollary of creativity or innovability, is a fundamental feature of complex networks like those found in biology.

These ideas suggest that evolvability and openness to innovation are features not just of life but of information itself.

The Strange Inevitability of Evolution

The discussion of a guaranteed livable income seems to be emerging as an important perhaps inevitable foundation for the digital political-economy of the 21st century.

Banker Wahlroos: Basic income only viable solution in face of massive job losses

Björn Wahlroos, Finnish banking magnate and chairman of the board for multiple big-name companies in the Nordics, says robots are slowly replacing skilled labour in the marketplace. He predicts that many Finnish residents will soon be faced with two alternatives: low-paid work or unemployment.

This is full of portents and omens - it is relevant to all political-economies in the 21st century representing a phase transition into new attractors of efficiency. This is reason for a serious effort to transform Internet Access into both a human right and a public infrastructure - a new commons for common wealth.

Shut Down the Internet, and the Economy Goes With It

Government leaders who turn off the Internet as a means of censorship are shooting their economies in the foot.
Governments damage their economies when they shut down Internet applications and services, according to a new analysis.

During the past year, 81 disruptions in 19 countries cost those economies at least $2.4 billion, according a study by Darrell West at the Brookings Institution that estimates the cost of disrupting a nation’s online activities.

Governments can cut off citizens’ Internet access for a variety of reasons, including to quell dissent or force a company to comply with a law. In 2011, the Egyptian government shut down access for five days to prevent communication between protesters, while more recently, Brazil blocked the messaging app WhatsApp after it refused to comply with requests for user data.

As economic activity increasingly relies on the Internet, these kind of disruptions are “very counterproductive,” says West.

This is a long article with great infographics and a downloadable pdf.

The Rise of Co-working

A Growing Workplace Movement
Expanding from its beginnings as an experimental office concept for entrepreneurs and technologists, co-working has quickly emerged as an effective workplace strategy for a growing number of corporate organizations. A range of off-site and on-site co-working environments are being explored by businesses to support their ongoing expansion and organisational requirements while accommodating the shifting work preferences and values of an increasingly diverse workforce. Because these shared workspaces often can provide businesses with greater flexibility and efficiency than traditional office leases, the global co-working trend is expected to continue indefinitely. This paper explores the growth and evolution of co-working, including factors contributing to the global movement and specific examples of businesses that are benefiting from co-working strategies within their own organisations. The goal is to equip corporate real estate (CRE) executives with insights and resources to explore co-working as a practical real estate strategy which can contribute to improving an organisation’s overall performance by providing flexible, productive work environments which foster collaboration, innovation, extended networking and passive recruiting. By embracing these progressive ideals, businesses will be well equipped to meet the needs and expectations of their future workforce.

The digital environment has not been kind to pre-digital media - we’ve known this for quite awhile - this article provides a graph that show just how dramatic the decline of print media advertising revenue has been since 2000.

US newspapers lost advertising revenue found

And why the answer to the problem is not about scale.
Everyone in media in the US saw the graph a couple of years ago showing the cliff that the newspaper industry has fallen off with respect to advertising revenue since the beginning of the first decade of the 21st Century thanks to a simple bit of graphing by Mark J. Perry.
Now, media watchers have added the numbers and shown where that money went. Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog added in Facebook’s revenue rise to show one reason why newspapers in the US are facing even greater headwinds, even as the US economy starts to show a little more life. Thomas Baekdal took it one step further, adding in Google’s revenue. It almost mirrors the decline of newspaper advertising, although Google’s rise seems a bit steeper.

This is a very interesting dystopian perspective of the future of cities - there is a 5 min video that is worth the view.

Bizarre leaked Pentagon video is a science fiction story about the future of cities

Cities in 2030 will be hives of scum and villainy (plus Bitcoin and Anonymous).
This short, untitled film was leaked to The Intercept after being screened as part of an “Advanced Special Operations Combating Terrorism” course convened by Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). Originally made by the Army, it's about how troops will deal with megacities in the year 2030. What's surprising is that it acknowledges social problems that the US government usually ignores or denies.

Two interesting links based on the work of data scientist Cesar Hidalgo (whose work also involve the Atlas of Economic Complexity). The first article is a visualization of the famous Clinton emails. This is interesting more for what can be done with emails than the particular data set. The article has an interactive visualization that demonstrates in a relatively accessible way how a person’s knowledge network can be seen and explored. For anyone interested in knowledge management and understanding how work gets done in an organization this is a must view.

This is what Clinton’s circle of trust looks like from her emails

The MIT Media Lab created a visualization showing connections between the tens of thousands of emails sent by the candidate from a private server when she was secretary of state.
A lot has been said in recent months about the content of Hillary Clinton’s emails and whether they put national security in danger. Thousands of journalists and groups worldwide have dug into the correspondence distributed by Wikileaks, some fueling the controversy, and others defending her from it.

Clinton Circle, a new analysis made by the Macro Connections group from MIT Media Lab is the first graphic proposal that shows the relationships behind email interactions and also, facilitates reading these emails.

Using a tool they had previously created called Immersion, researchers loaded nearly 30,000 private mails sent or received from the Hillary Clinton email address--which have already been published by WikiLeaks.

This article discusses the above data visualization, what was learned in creating it and the experiences of publishing it - worth the read.

What I learned from visualizing Hillary Clinton’s emails

….the whole point of making this tool is that you can use it to come up with your own interpretation of the data. That said, you might be curious about mine, so I’ll share it with you too.

So what I got from reading some of Clinton’s email is another piece of evidence confirming my intuition that political systems scale poorly. The most influential actors on them are spending a substantial fraction of their mental capacity thinking about how to communicate, and do not have the bandwidth needed to deal with many incoming messages (the unresponded-to emails). This is not surprising considering the large number of people they interact with (although this dataset is rather small. I send 8k emails a year and receive 30k. In this dataset Clinton is sending only 2K emails a year).

Our modern political world is one where a few need to interact with many, so they have no time for deep relationships — they physically cannot. So what we are left is with a world of first impressions and public opinion, where the choice of words matters enormously, and becomes central to the job. Yet, the chronic lack of time that comes from having a system where few people govern many, and that leads people to strategize every word, is not Clinton’s fault. It is just a bug that affects all modern political systems, which are ancient Greek democracies that were not designed to deal with hundreds of millions of people.

Here’s a link to Hildalgo’s work on public data - well worth the view for anyone interested in how data visualization can mitigate the classic problem of information overload.

Data USA

In 2014, Deloitte, Datawheel, and Cesar Hidalgo, Professor at the MIT Media Lab and Director of MacroConnections, came together to embark on an ambitious journey -- to understand and visualize the critical issues facing the United States in areas like jobs, skills and education across industry and geography. And, to use this knowledge to inform decision making among executives, policymakers and citizens.

Our team, comprised of economists, data scientists, designers, researchers and business executives, worked for over a year with input from policymakers, government officials and everyday citizens to develop Data USA, the most comprehensive website and visualization engine of public US Government data. Data USA tells millions of stories about America. Through advanced data analytics and visualization, it tells stories about: places in America—towns, cities and states; occupations, from teachers to welders to web developers; industries--where they are thriving, where they are declining and their interconnectedness to each other; and education and skills, from where is the best place to live if you’re a computer science major to the key skills needed to be an accountant.

Data USA puts public US Government data in your hands. Instead of searching through multiple data sources that are often incomplete and difficult to access, you can simply point to Data USA to answer your questions. Data USA provides an open, easy-to-use platform that turns data into knowledge. It allows millions of people to conduct their own analyses and create their own stories about America – its people, places, industries, skill sets and educational institutions. Ultimately, accelerating society’s ability to learn and better understand itself.

The blockchain and/or distributed ledger technologies are developing ever faster and despite more promise than delivery so far - are an inevitable disruptive technology that is only in it early birthing stages.
A blockchain is a digital ledger that records transactions or other data over time. But records in a blockchain can be made effectively indelible using cryptography, and a blockchain can be designed to be operated by a group of companies or individuals together such that no single entity controls the system or its data.
Apache—and the community of developers Behlendorf nurtured to support it—still powers roughly half of all active websites. He wants Hyperledger’s blockchains to be similarly pervasive, if mostly invisible. “If we do our job right you won't ever hear about us,” he says. “We become plumbing.”

Web Pioneer Tries to Incubate a Second Digital Revolution

Twenty years ago, Brian Behlendorf helped kick-start the Web—now he’s betting the technology behind Bitcoin can make the world fairer.
Brian Behlendorf knows it’s a cliché for veteran technologists like himself to argue that society could be run much better if we just had the right software. He believes it anyway.

“I’ve been as frustrated as anybody in technology about how broken the world seems,” he says. “Corruption or bureaucracy or inefficiency are in some ways technology problems. Couldn’t this just be fixed?” he asks.

This summer Behlendorf made a bet that a technology has appeared that can solve some of those apparently human problems. Leaving a comfortable job as a venture capitalist working for early Facebook investor and billionaire Peter Thiel, he now leads the Hyperledger Project, a nonprofit in San Francisco created to support open-source development of blockchains, a type of database that underpins the digital currency Bitcoin by verifying and recording transactions.

Many governments and large companies are exploring blockchain technology not because they want to use digital currency—Bitcoin doesn’t look likely to become widely used—but as a way to work with other kinds of data. They think blockchains could make things as varied as financial trades, digital health records, and manufacturing supply chains more efficient and powerful.

This is a fascinating piece that focuses on language and moral identity - it open the window on thoughts about how language affects other dimensions of our reasoning selves.

How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language

Fascinating ethical shifts come with thinking in a different language
What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

The dialectic relationship between the sensors of identification and efforts to sustain anonymity continues. There is a link to the original paper in the article.

Researchers trick facial recognition systems with facial features printed on big glasses

In Accessorize to a Crime: Real and Stealthy Attacks on State-of-the-Art Face Recognition, researchers from Carnegie-Mellon and UNC showed how they could fool industrial-strength facial recognition systems (including Alibaba's "smile to pay" transaction system) by printing wide, flat glasses frames with elements of other peoples' faces with "up to 100% success."

The glasses cost $0.22/pair.

This new advance in image recognition and transformation from Google is beautiful and potentially enabling of new art forms - sort of like sampling is to music. The very short video and pictures are worth the view.

Supercharging Style Transfer

Pastiche. A French word, it designates a work of art that imitates the style of another one (not to be confused with its more humorous Greek cousin, parody). Although it has been used for a long time in visual art, music and literature, pastiche has been getting mass attention lately with online forums dedicated to images that have been modified to be in the style of famous paintings. Using a technique known as style transfer, these images are generated by phone or web apps that allow a user to render their favorite picture in the style of a well known work of art.

Although users have already produced gorgeous pastiches using the current technology, we feel that it could be made even more engaging. Right now, each painting is its own island, so to speak: the user provides a content image, selects an artistic style and gets a pastiche back. But what if one could combine many different styles, exploring unique mixtures of well known artists to create an entirely unique pastiche?

Here’s something that may be orthogonal disruption of current computational paradigms - but one that complements rather than displaces.
Research indicates that reservoir computers could be extremely robust and computationally powerful and, in theory, could effectively carry out an infinite number of functions. In fact, simulated reservoirs have already become very popular in some aspects of artificial intelligence thanks to precisely these properties. For example, systems using reservoir methods for making stock-market predictions have indicated that they outperform many conventional artificial intelligence technologies. In part, this is because it turns out to be much easier to train AI that harnesses the power of a reservoir than one that does not.

There’s a way to turn almost any object into a computer – and it could cause shockwaves in AI

The latest chip in the iPhone 7 has 3.3 billion transistors packed into a piece of silicon around the size of a small coin. But the trend for smaller, increasingly powerful computers could be coming to an end. Silicon-based chips are rapidly reaching a point at which the laws of physics prevent them being any smaller. There are also some important limitations to what silicon-based devices can do that mean there is a strong argument for looking at other ways to power computers.

Perhaps the most well-known alternative researchers are looking at is quantum computers, which manipulate the properties of the chips in a different way to traditional digital machines. But there is also the possibility of using alternative materials – potentially any material or physical system – as computers to perform calculations, without the need to manipulate electrons like silicon chips do. And it turns out these could be even better for developing artificial intelligence than existing computers.

The idea is commonly known as “reservoir computing” and came from attempts to develop computer networks modelled on the brain. It involves the idea that we can tap into the behaviour of physical systems – anything from a bucket of water to blobs of plastic laced with carbon nanotubes – in order to harness their natural computing power.

The day of the ubiquitous digital text media is technologically very close - the key barriers no longer being technology but rather incumbent business models.

Bendable electronic paper shows full colour scale

Less than a micrometre thin, flexible and giving all the colours that a regular LED display does, it still needs ten times less energy than a Kindle tablet. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have developed the basis for a new electronic paper. Their results were recently published in the high impact journal Advanced Materials.

The phase transition in energy geopolitics is past the point of no-return - despite ever more desperate hyperbole from incumbents. The graphs in the article are worth the view. We are still only in the very early phase of harnessing all forms of renewable energy - zero-cost marginal energy.
“What I see is we are witnessing the transformation of energy system markets led by renewables and this is happening very quickly,” said Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA. “This transformation and the growth of renewables is led by the emerging countries in the years to come, rather than the industrialised countries.”
“The cost of wind dropped by about one third in the last five to six years, and that of solar dropped by 80%,” said Birol, adding that while the cost of gas had also fallen recently, it was not at the same speed that green energy had become cheaper. “The decline in renewables [cost] was very sharp and in a very short period of time. This is unprecedented.”

Renewables made up half of net electricity capacity added last year

Green energy accounted for more than half of net electricity generation capacity added around the world last year for the first time, leading energy experts have found.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said the milestone was evidence of a rapid transformation in energy taking place, and predicted capacity from renewable sources will grow faster than oil, gas, coal or nuclear power in the next five years.

But the analysts said the outlook in the UK has deteriorated since the Conservative government took power last year and cut support for wind and solar power. The agency’s chief said Britain had huge renewable energy potential and ministers needed to design stronger policies to exploit it.

There have been some discussion about how carbon-based energy is still a growing proposition. Not only are renewables accelerating in implementation but the continued decline of renewable costs is reversing recent commitments to older forms of energy. This doesn’t bode well for incumbents seeking to build more oil pipelines.

China Halts Construction On 17 Gigawatts Of Coal-Fired Plants

The Chinese authorities have halted construction on 30 large coal-fired power plants with a combined capacity of 17 GW — a figure that is greater than the entire coal fleet of the United Kingdom — underscoring the country’s desires to minimize its reliance upon coal-generated electricity.

Greenpeace’s Energydesk reported the move, referring to Chinese-language news reports that also claim China is dramatically downscaling plans for transmitting coal-fired electricity from the west of China to the coast, via a network of long-distance transmission lines.

On top of that, a further 30 large coal-fired power plants are also being scrapped — ten of which were already under construction.

There are many forms of renewables. In a healthy ecology all outputs are inputs elsewhere - if not they are a toxin and a waiting niche opportunity.

This material is stronger, cheaper and greener than plastic. And it's made from pollution

By weight, AirCarbon is about 40% air and 60% greenhouse gas. No oil. No fossil fuels. Just air and captured carbon emissions that would otherwise become part of the air, combined.

AirCarbon is a special material. It is produced in most known living organisms, from humans to tigers to trees; an evolutionary ancient molecule that is used to store carbon. It is biodegradable, as strong as plastic, and it can be melted and formed into shapes.

Over the past thirteen years, we figured out how to make it from air and greenhouse gas. Around the clock at this plant, our team watches, and adjusts, and optimizes.

In the past 15 months, Newlight has signed £74 billion of AirCarbon in off-take purchase or licensed production agreements: global scale agreements that will create significant value by reducing cost for consumers, moving oil out of our products, and reducing the amount of carbon in the air.

And another innovation transforming our trash.
“Imagine that the tons of metal waste discarded every year could be used to provide energy storage for the renewable energy grid of the future, instead of becoming a burden for waste processing plants and the environment,” said Cary Pint, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University.

Making high-performance batteries from junkyard scraps

Take some metal scraps from the junkyard; put them in a glass jar with a common household chemical; and, voilà, you have a high-performance battery.

To make such a future possible, Pint headed a research team that used scraps of steel and brass – two of the most commonly discarded materials – to create the world’s first steel-brass battery that can store energy at levels comparable to lead-acid batteries while charging and discharging at rates comparable to ultra-fast charging supercapacitors.

The secret to unlocking this performance is anodization, a common chemical treatment used to give aluminum a durable and decorative finish. When scraps of steel and brass are anodized using a common household chemical and residential electrical current, the researchers found that the metal surfaces are restructured into nanometer-sized networks of metal oxide that can store and release energy when reacting with a water-based liquid electrolyte.

And of course the inevitable realization is. The graph included in the article reveals that South Korea and EU nations are top recyclers.

We can recycle everything we use, including cigarette butts and toothbrushes. So why don’t we?

Within the broad range of sustainability concepts and activities, recycling is without doubt the most easily understood and accessible: individuals and groups, old and young, communities and institutions can participate.

When we buy a candy bar, we own the wrapper after the short life of the product; doing something with that branded possession, rather than adding to waste, feels good. Recycling is empowering to consumers and, in the case of traditionally recyclable materials such as glass, paper, rigid plastics and certain metals, economically viable. Recycling not only diverts potentially valuable materials from landfills and incinerators, it also offsets demand for virgin materials, helping to keep carbon in the ground. Recycling aligns human consumption with nature’s activities.

But as human-generated waste streams continue to evolve in diversity and volume, the global community faces the mounting challenge of developing viable recycling and waste management solutions at a comparable pace.

There might be nothing new under the sun - but here’s something I didn’t know about the moon - in fact I think few people knew how unique and erratic the moon’s orbit really was. The graphic explains the situation very clearly.

New model explains the moon's weird orbit

Simulations suggest a dramatic history for the Earth-moon duo
The moon, Earth's closest neighbor, is among the strangest planetary bodies in the solar system. Its orbit lies unusually far away from Earth, with a surprisingly large orbital tilt. Planetary scientists have struggled to piece together a scenario that accounts for these and other related characteristics of the Earth-moon system. A new research paper, based on numerical models of the moon's explosive formation and the evolution of the Earth-moon system, comes closer to tying up all the loose ends than any other previous explanation.

Here is some great news for travellers and probably a little later for libraries and all organizations and homes with ‘inventories’ they want to track.

RFIDs are set almost to eliminate lost luggage

No nasty surprises at the carousel
HAVING bags go astray on a flight is rare but infuriating. Indeed, according to a study by Skytrax, lost luggage was passengers’ number-one complaint last year, beating even flight delays and cramped seats. That frustration could become rarer still. The aviation industry is increasingly using radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs, pictured) to track bags. Airlines have begun to attach these RFIDs to luggage tags. Doing so could significantly reduce the number of bags that are mishandled.

Research by SITA, an IT firm, and the International Air Transport Association, an industry association, found that a widespread adoption of RFIDs could allow 99% of bags to be tracked successfully. Already, other new technologies have cut the number of mishandled bags in half since 2007. RFIDs could reduce that number by a further 25% over the next six years, even as volume continues to increase.

...when might RFIDs become the norm? On Delta, the process is already well underway. The airline invested $50m in RFIDs this year and has equipped 84 American airports with the technology to add them to its tags; international airports are expected to follow soon. Delta has also launched an app  that enables passengers to track their bags on a map, so they can confirm that their luggage is headed to the right place (or discover its whereabouts if it isn’t).

The theory of evolution is also evolving in very important ways - this is an excellent article exploring the complexity of the gene pool and DNA as we continue to learn and domesticate evolution itself. This is a longish article - but well worth the read for anyone interested in how evolution works. Even more importantly is the issue that optimal solutions are less important than simple viable solutions - in the continual evolution of life - evolution as an eternal ‘beta’ world that transforms all participants into eternal ‘newbies’.
Exactly which genes you have may not matter so much (within reason), because the job they do is more a property of the network in which they are embedded.
The same explosion of combinatorial options happens for proteins, which are molecules made up of many tens to hundreds of amino acids bound together in chains and folded up into particular molecular shapes. There are 20 different amino acids found in natural proteins, and for proteins just 100 amino acids long (which are small ones) the number of permutations is 10130. Yet the 4 billion years of evolution so far have provided only enough time to create around 1050 different proteins. So how on earth has it managed to find ones that work?
…. a “dirty secret” behind the success of the so-called modern synthesis of Darwinian evolutionary theory and genetics. How does evolution find workable solutions when it lacks the means to explore even a small fraction of the options? And how does evolution find its way from an existing solution to a viable new one—how does it create? The answer is, at least in part, a simple one: It’s easier than it looks. But only because the landscape that the evolutionary process explores has a remarkable structure, and one that neither Darwin nor his successors who merged Darwinism with genetics had anticipated.
These ideas suggest that evolvability and openness to innovation are features not just of life but of information itself.

The Strange Inevitability of Evolution

Good solutions to biology’s problems are astonishingly plentiful.
You don’t have to be a benighted creationist, nor even a believer in divine providence, to argue that Darwin’s astonishing theory doesn’t fully explain why nature is so marvelously, endlessly inventive. “Darwin’s theory surely is the most important intellectual achievement of his time, perhaps of all time,” says evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich. “But the biggest mystery about evolution eluded his theory. And he couldn’t even get close to solving it.”

What Wagner is talking about is how evolution innovates: as he puts it, “how the living world creates.” Natural selection supplies an incredibly powerful way of pruning variation into effective solutions to the challenges of the environment. But it can’t explain where all that variation came from. As the biologist Hugo de Vries wrote in 1905, “natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” Over the past several years, Wagner and a handful of others have been starting to understand the origins of evolutionary innovation. Thanks to their findings so far, we can now see not only how Darwinian evolution works but why it works: what makes it possible.

A popular misconception is that all it takes for evolution to do something new is a random mutation of a gene—a mistake made as the gene is copied from one generation to the next, say. Most such mutations make things worse—the trait encoded by the gene is less effective for survival—and some are simply fatal. But once in a blue moon (the argument goes) a mutation will enhance the trait, and the greater survival prospects of the lucky recipient will spread that beneficial mutation through the population.

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