A Blog by Carl Zimmer

How Things Get Complex: My New Story for Scientific American & Quanta Magazine

For a couple years now I’ve been fascinated by some recent ideas about how complexity evolves. Darwin’s great insight was recognizing how natural selection could create complex traits. All that was needed was a series of intermediates that raised the reproductive success of organisms. But recently some researchers have developed ideas in which natural selection doesn’t play such a central role.

One idea, laid out in the book Biology’s First Law, holds that life has a built-in propensity to get more complex–even in the absence of natural selection. According to another idea, called constructive neutral evolution, mutations can change simple structures into more complex ones even if those mutations don’t provide an advantage. The scientists who are championing these ideas don’t see them as refuting natural selection, but, rather, complementing it, and enriching our understanding of how evolution works.

I’ve tried for a while to write a story about these ideas, but it’s been pretty tough. It takes some time for me to wrap my head around the arguments. They require a fair amount of space to explore, and–while I find them intriguing–they don’t have a simple news peg. At one point, in fact, I actually had an assignment from a magazine and got well into the research and writing. But I could see my story just wouldn’t end up right for them, and I withdrew it.

It was around this time that I talked with Thomas Lin, the managing editor of Simonsfoundation.org. The Simons Foundation was getting into supporting science journalism in a big way, especially stuff that might not easily find a home elsewhere. I told him about my obsession with complexity, and soon we were off to the races. I was happy to find that the editing was rigorous, and the fact-checking brutal.

Meanwhile, Lin has been very busy at Simons. Yesterday he launched a full-fledged magazine there, called Quanta. Lin described the project here. I’m thrilled that my story on complexity is their first offering in this new format. You can read it here.

The Simons Foundation is following in the tradition of Pro Publica–not just as a foundation supporting journalism in tricky times, but also finding lots of ways to get journalism in front of as many readers as possible. Thus they’re collaborating with a number of existing publications. So you can also find my story over at Scientific American.

These are uncertain but exciting times for science journalism. I really appreciate that places like Simons are ready to go out on a limb.


6 thoughts on “How Things Get Complex: My New Story for Scientific American & Quanta Magazine

  1. I saw a link to your story last night on Twitter. I am familiar with the Simons Foundation and was pleased to see their new magazine, Quanta.
    I thought your article/story was fascinating. You made a difficult subject easy to understand. It makes sense to me that complexity (through mutations) can arise aside from, and in conjunction with, natural selection.
    In my mind, this issue raises more questions about where human evolution might be headed.

  2. Hey Carl,
    Just wanted to give a plug for SFARI.org, another editorially independent news site of the Simons Foundation focused on autism-related news. It’s been going strong since 2007!

  3. This was very interesting. I also had read your Sci. Am. article on this subject. I do notice, however, that if constructive neutral evolution is real, that it seems to be a process that is interspersed with natural selection. That is, a new structure forms by CNE, but NS dictates whether it will persist, and if it persists b/c it is neutral, then NS still comes into play for later to at least constrain its range of variation.

    [CZ: Absolutely. It’s just that the complexity itself is not the result of natural selection favoring new mutations that raise fitness. Organisms “fall into” complexity according to CNE, and then are trapped.]

  4. I love the new QUANTA site. I look forward to reading more. I wanted to point out that it is often overlooked that one of the original expositions for this idea of constructive neutral evolution came from another Dalhousie alumnus, Arlin Stoltzfus, whose article beautifully laid out the case of irreversible complexity arising due to neutral evolution (PMID:10441669) including but not limited to the retention of gene duplicates due to independent debilitating mutations.

  5. This comment thread seems to be rather critic of the views expressed in your article.


    What is your opinion on that?

  6. Thanks for writing the article! I really enjoyed reading it. I was going to post it outside my office to show my colleagues that some of my work actually gets noticed, but then I realized that there is nothing in the article that points to me. In the future, I hope you will keep me in mind as an expert consultant. My 1999 article on CNE is still the most comprehensive treatment of the topic, and I remain interested in the idea (e.g., http://www.biologydirect.com/content/7/1/35).

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