Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity by Andreas Wagner
Basic Books, 2019 | $25.98 | 5 stars
Review by Kelsey May
This year, I’ve been diving into nonfiction and science books more than ever, thanks, in part, to my husband’s interest in reading about animals and trees, which hooked me. So when I walked past a display of science books at Grand Rapids Public Library, I couldn’t help but snag one. Dr. Andreas Wagner’s Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity has a stunning cover — a mosaic of brilliantly-colored moths. I sat down in a chair and was engulfed in the profund insights Dr. Wagner offers. If you don’t get any farther than this first paragraph, let me say that I highly recommend reading this book.
At first, I thought this book was a “how-to” book — how to be creative, how to tap into creativity, how to use ideas from evolution to be more creatively productive. Instead, this book delves into how everything living has evolved in a time-old ballet of creativity, innovation, and trial-and-error. I learned so much about biology, genetics, atoms, and how our minds work, and I finished the entire book (over 200 pages of heavily scientific text) in five days.
“On the tiny Galápagos Islands, a single founding colony of finches diversified into fourteen different species, some of which Charles Darwin discovered when he visited on the HMS Beagle in 1835. On Hawaii, at least thirty species of nectar-feeding honeycreepers evolved, and on the Canary Islands off the African west coast, twenty-three new plant species appeared in the genus Echium — relatives of the blueweed, a modest flowering plant with an eye-catching blue inflorescence. More than 90 percent of one thousand species of flowering plants and more than 98 percent of five thousand species of insects found today on Hawaii have emerged there.
Even more remarkable than these numbers is the explosive speed at which evolution created them. The oldest islands in both the Galápagos and Hawaii have been around for barely five million years, about the same time that separates humans from chimpanzees — a brief moment in evolutionary time that sufficed to create thousands of new island species. But nature’s creativity is not just about speed and the number of species. Many new island species also have new lifestyles. The first finches on Galápagos fed on soft insects, but some of today’s species have evolved oversized nutcracker-like beaks to crush the hardest seeds to be found. On the Canary Islands, some relatives of the modest blueweed have evolved into eighteen-foot-high wooden giants supported by a drought-resistant root system and crowned by a gaudy cylindrical infloresence beloved by gardeners.”
Dr. Wagner does a fantastic job of explaining complicated scholarly ideas, and in the last section, he applies the principles and thinking he’s detailed to education, immigration, technological advancement, and play, asserting that, more or less, we’re doing it all wrong. Rather than rewarding competition, conformity, and practicality, Dr. Wagner insists that we’ll be a more innovative, kinder world by encouraging mistakes, collaboration, and geographic mobility. His well-argued ideas remind me of Ms. Frizzle’s wise adage: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
Life Finds a Way has not gotten entirely positive reviews, and I suspect it’s because it’s an intellectually-challenging book and might be off-putting to those who lack scientific experience. I frequently found myself re-reading sections on mutations of ACGTs or atomic bonding forming bucky-balls, trying to reach back across the years to my high school science classes. Even though my efforts were not always successful and I sometimes missed nuggets of information, my overall takeaways from this book were powerful, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in physics, biology, scientific discovery, and history.
Thank you to Tia and Liz at Basic Books for the review copy! Images courtesy of the Galápagos Conservation Trust.