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Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  571 ratings  ·  80 reviews
“Natural selection can preserve innovations, but it cannot create them. Nature’s many innovations—some uncannily perfect—call for natural principles that accelerate life’s ability to innovate.”

Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how useful adaptations are preserved over time. But the biggest mystery about evolution eluded him. As genetics pioneer Hugo de Vries pu
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published October 2nd 2014 by Current
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Clif Hostetler
Apr 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
It's true that evolutionary development of life depends on random mutations, but it's more complicated than that. Nature's building blocks of life (metabolic systems, protein interactions, and gene regulation networks) are unimaginably complex, yet they are endowed with inherent properties that are both innovatable and robust (i.e. progressive and conservative at the same time).

The author makes the point that there is insufficient time in the universe for random mutations acting alone to creat
Eoin Flynn
May 10, 2016 rated it liked it
I really wanted to love this book. I am a scientist. And luckily I am one who happens to love science. And I particularly love the topics this book covers (evolutionary genetics and bioinformatics). It is written with great wit, poise and profound knowledge. Unfortunately for Andreas Wagner, who is clearly a talented author as well as scientist, the topics at hand are difficult to write about without being repetitive and at times, simply rather dull. I just could not love this book, though I tri ...more
Dennis Junk
Feb 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Highly conceptual, “Arrival of the Fittest” walks you through the steps, not just of understanding a difficult question, but of learning a new kind of thinking. The creationist argument that since natural selection only preserves innovative traits and never actually creates them—and so the likelihood of anything as complex as a human body coming about through natural selection is about the same as a 747 being built by a tornado tearing through a junkyard—exploits the limitations of our ready-m ...more
I finished this Thursday night, and I thought about it for a while, and then I listened to the epilogue again Friday morning, and then Friday evening I read a stack of reviews of both the physical book and the audiobook, and I came to a rather disconcerting conclusion. I had no idea what the author was saying. One of the reviews on Audible described this book as "impenetrable for the non-scientist" and another says:
It can be slow going on audio. The author necessarily builds large, complex analo
The philosopher Henri Bergson once wrote that every philosopher only ever really pursues one single idea, continuously reformulated, in different ways. While Andreas Wagner isn't exactly a philosopher, The Arrival of the Fittest is, if nothing else, a condensation of just what it means to take an idea and run with it to the end, hammering it home from just about every other angle. As for the idea itself, it's actually pretty straightforward: because evolution takes place among entire populations ...more
Alger Smythe-Hopkins
Feb 13, 2016 rated it did not like it
Deeply disappointing both as a guide to current thinking and theory in evolutionary theory, and as a popular science book. Wagner is very bad at explaining things, even when those things are his professional opinions on evolution.

A key problem for the reader is that Wagner can't seem to pitch his discussion at a consistent level. He spends far too many pages describing unremarkable and widely understood principles so that he can set these scarecrows up to be knocked down by his sneeringly presen
Ernst Hafen
Dec 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
I am a developmental geneticist and even had the privilege to have contributed a few scientific results discussed in the book. I also know how difficult it is to teach biological concepts and what the author coins the innovability of evolution to first year biology and chemistry students. For me this book has been very inspiring. It provides mathematical insights into how innovability works. Wagner reduces the complexity of this process to three interconnected processes of protein structure, met ...more
Mengsen Zhang
Jan 31, 2015 rated it really liked it
Nice piece! I can see lots of care and courage put into the text. This is the beginning of evolution theory of the "whole" - the animate, the inanimate, and all, have to be seen as deeply connected in order to understand how evolution could possibly work at the observed pace. He has a really neat research paradigm to mathematically formalize and actually get one's hands dirty with the relationship between micro structure and macro function across different scales of the universe as time progress ...more
Mar 22, 2015 rated it liked it
I am having some difficulty in identifying exactly what underwhelmed me about this book. The premise and subject matter are interesting. The research presented is important. Perhaps the metaphor of the library was either overused or not sufficiently elucidating?

This is still worth reading if you are interested in evolutionary theory. It is not a definitive treatment of the questions it tries to address (it would benefit from a less lofty subtitle). There is a lot more to say about the mechanisms
Edwin Herbert
Jun 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The theory of evolution answers many questions about the growing and winnowing of the tree of life, but it does not answer questions about "innovability" - how advantageous phenotypic changes are initiated in the first place. This book goes a long way in answering that question. Complex at times, but well worth the read. ...more
Alexandru Tudorica
Feb 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful and vivid exploration of the phase space of amino acids, proteins and genes, and how small changes in this enormous multidimensional space are closely interconnected, like a sponge of viable life filled with little holes of death.
William Bies
Oct 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
This recent publication redeems itself from being merely another entry in the seemingly endless series of popular expositions of evolutionary biology and Darwinism by the circumstance that its author, Andreas Wagner, happens to be a professional biologist who can back up his ideas with reference to significant original research, unlike armchair speculators of the likes of Richard Dawkins who have done precious little laboratory work (would we could pass over as unworthy of mention even worse lit ...more
Ryan Young
Sep 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: worldview
now it's a trilogy. in order to understand how life arose on earth:
1. the origin of the species by charles darwin
2. the selfish gene by richard dawkins
3. arrival of the fittest by andreas wagner

Every iteration brings us closer to understanding how it actually works. we can now prove mathematically just how life could have found its myriad forms - and can model the progress of evolution from its origins to its current manifestations.

if you imagine a library filled with every possible configurati
Alex Apffel
Oct 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
In my opinion, Evolution and, more specifically Natural Selection, is the most powerful force in Nature and our understanding of it, starting with Darwin, is probably humanities greatest insight into the world around us. But one thing that Darwin recognized his theory could not explain was where new things, innovations, come from. It would simply take too many random mutations to explore the space of possibilities. Andreas Wagner's book, does an excellent job of presenting the challenge. The sol ...more
Joachim Verplancke
Mar 24, 2016 rated it did not like it
Hardly readable and completely unlistenable. An example of how not to approach popular scientific writing. Any reader with even the slightest experience with popular science will be able to spot where the ghost writer added some flavour to the raw dullness of this text and the editor's fingerprints are all over the book. A real disappointment as the topic is highly interesting. For those who feel courageous and want to know more about innovation in nature: don't bother reading the entirety of th ...more
Dec 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
Interesting concept. I enjoyed reading about various studies and theories, but the author lost credibility when he insulted people who disagree with him. While I too find monotheism impossible, I wouldn't call believers such insults. You aren't going to convert people with name calling. A man of this supposed caliber should be above that. Perhaps the publisher should edit that out in future editions. ...more
May 29, 2015 rated it it was ok
Takes awhile to hit its stride.
Justin Tapp
Sep 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
**I read Wagner's Arrival of the Fittest, John Tyler Bonner's Randomness in Evolution, and David Deamer's First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began subsequently, so my review of this book is meant to be read relative to the other two as all three overlap in subject matter. (This paragraph appears in all three reviews). I am reading these books after reading several on cosmology.* I wanted to move beyond what cosmologists say (with disagreement) about the fo ...more
Jun 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A refresher course on Highschool Biology, but more!

Learning about DNA, RNA, replication, citric acid cycle, ribosomes, enzymes, etc in highschool was mostly just about memorising and being amazed at how complex and organised life is. But I never thought of these in lights of the origin of life.

All the theories like Darwin's evolution, natural selection, Mandellian inheritance, etc. I took for granted, and never once thought of the missing puzzles, of how one theory neatly lies on top of another
Don Albrecht
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the topic. Early on, the author presents what is perhaps the most stunning argument in favor of creationism and goes on to demonstrate the many ways in which that argument has been chipped away by some of the recent findings in systems biology.

As a pop-science book, it is extremely approachable. In fact, I probably would have appreciated a bit more depth on the information theory side of the text. The repetition in the process of exploration could h
Scott Lupo
Jan 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The premise is that the Theory of Evolution describes 'survival of the fittest' (that's a very overly simplified meme-like explanation) but not the 'arrival of the fittest'. In other words, evolution describes adaptations as they exist but not how they came to exist. Wagner argues that random mutations in DNA, genes, proteins, amino acids, etc. cannot be the driving force behind evolution's adaptations because 3.8 billion years is not enough time. There must be another mechanism that nature uses ...more
Val Dusek
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book gives a clear, readable presentation of genetic and biochemical networks.

The book is valuable in informing a layperson about very recent developments in evolutionary theory going beyond pure natural selection with random mutations alone.

The first 40 pages are a basic primer on biology along with some potted history. Someone with such basic background do be well to skip to p. 40 or so. There the action really begins and is well worth following.

The only fault, I would say, is that in mak
Zach Elfers
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
An interesting, conceptual treatise on how innovation happens at the genetic level. Wagner demonstrates how mutations are not as "random" as conventionally thought, but are informed by what he describes as a "genetic library" which informs the ways in which the coding of enzymes and proteins may change and innovate while still maintaining the overall fitness of the organism, what Wagner calls "innovability." Because the ideas he discusses are fundamentally mathematical in nature, trying to find ...more
Oct 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobook, audible, review
Interesting results, but strikes me as too self-fascinated. Also suffers from the modern scientific-era problem of an obsession with models (if the model says something will be true, then it must be true, etc.). The primary insight - one phenotype can be generated by multiple robust genotypes - is worthy enough and interesting as a theory of how natural selection works, but Wagner - who writes well! - gets a bit carried away with his metaphor (libraries of genotypes) and loses the reader in the ...more
Vivify M
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: general-interest
It would be fair to criticize this book for being long winded, and for repeating the same theme multiple times, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
I don't know that I understood very much of it, but I felt engaged and inspired the whole way through. It resonated with my interest in topics of complexity and emergence.
Going off topic occasionally to describe his personal history, felt slightly jarring, but was ultimately very satisfying to me. I particularly enjoyed reading about the characters th
Ellie Mok
Jan 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very informative book on different aspects which contribute to the innovability in evolution. It is also interesting to get to know more about how scientists carry out research on this topic. It is almost impossible to expect researching on a topic without the help of other scientific knowledge and techniques, e.g. the importance of mathematical and computational calculations stated in this book.
Apr 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Arrival of the fittest provides structural insight on what happens under the hood in evolution and does so in a captivating and very accessible manner.
Occasionally, I find Wagner's use of metafors a bit overwhelming and time-consuming, but it helps in making things more clear.
I was disappointed by the discussions on RNA: some popular speculations of particular tribes in the origins of life literature are presented as absolute facts.
I have a biology degree and a love for evolution and I found this book tedious. I started it prior to a vacation and could not bring myself to finish it when I got back. It is long-winded with little payoff, rambling and feels like it drains all the enjoyment out of the science. Also, the audiobook made me feel like napping so that may not be the way to go.
May 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating book, even though I didn't quite grasp all of it with my rudimentary scientific education.
There are chapters that need to be re-read. Why are nature's basic building blocks pre-planned mathematically? Look up Plato's Cave and you will get more of an understanding of this mystery. Wonderfully written and I look forward to reading more of the lay science books on this topic.
Arni Fannar
Informative, but ultimately it didn't feel like it delivered on its big promise. From a casual reader's perspective, I didn't grasp what Wagner's contribution to the theory of evolution was supposed to be. ...more
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Andreas Wagner is Professor in the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Zurich and an award-winning science writer. He received his PhD from Yale and has held research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The author of more than 150 scientific papers published in leading journals including Nature and Science ...more

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