What Daedalus told Darwin about the struggle for existence


Charles Darwin’s Dilemma: His theory of evolution required variation, which he acknowledged that he could not explain. Until recently, it was taboo to ask whether random variation and environmental selection through “survival of the fittest” had any limitations. But simple logic shows that Darwinism does not fully explain how or why evolution’s arrow points toward complexity. Bacteria multiply in profusion and are fit survivors, so why didn’t evolution just stop there?

Darwin’s Dilemma harks back to Darwin’s famous admission that he couldn’t explain variation, evolution’s source of novelty – evolution’s creative process of inventing. What could Daedalus, the mythic Inventor, possibly tell Darwin? Nothing, I thought.

ZannGill-DtD-cover-1-16Darwin’s dilemma was that he could not explain variation, the source of creativity in evolution. What could human creativity at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree — an idealized archetype — possibly say about a lowly random mutation? How could Daedalus shed light on Darwin’s dilemma?

I had my ideal job at NASA (or so I thought) and I envisioned developing a research platform to study collaborative intelligence as a systematic design process, and how to make collaborative teams effective. When Bush era politics unraveled this work, deciphering the message was the thread that led me out of the labyrinth back into the world. I pressed on. Lawrence Durrell spoke to me through Justine: “Somewhere in the heart of experience there is an order and a coherence that we might surprise if we were attentive enough, loving enough, or patient enough. Will there be time?”

I’d gone quite far down my path when an aha struck. I realized that what was missing in my translation from evolution to human creativity was not merely “lost in translation.” It had been missing from the start.

I realized that our well-accepted theory of evolution was incomplete. At this moment my twenty-year path came full circle. The cycle bit its tail. Daedalus and Darwin were two complementary faces of a single dilemma and shed light on each other.

Daedalus had something to say to Darwin after all and their imagined dialog evolved into the book

What Daedalus told Darwin: Darwin’s Dilemma & the Struggle for Existence

which describes the thought process that led to the conclusion that two complementary concepts, generally taken for granted, are wrong in theory, and destructive in practice, jeopardizing our capacity to address the great ecological problems that life on Earth now faces.

Darwin’s finches, though summoned to confirm the traditional view of Darwinian evolution, rapid adaptation through survival of the fittest, may also tell a different, complementary story.
Darwin-FinchesTraditional evolutionary studies have observed finches over time, analyzing changes in finch populations under differing environmental conditions. In contrast, Clifford Tabin argues that, because evolution is itself a process of synthesis, to uncover its principles requires synthesis in the laboratory. Beak studies in the Tabin Laboratory illustrate how, through facilitated variation, birds develop uniquely adapted beaks in response to environmental demands. Abzhanov’s experiments suggest that the developmental process is surprisingly adaptable to respond to a single genetic mutation. Every part is constrained to be interoperable with every other. Each genetic change triggers a cascade of developmental, accommodating changes. For example, if a genetic mutation changes the width of a bird’s beak, developmental, relational mechanisms to make beak width and skull width “interoperable” will adjust the width of the skull such that the width of the beak and width and the skull will correspond without requiring any genetic change (Abzhanov 2004; Kirschner 2005).

In the traditional view the radiation of variations from the seed-eating finch could be completely explained by the environment selecting the fittest to survive. In the revised view, the environment still plays a key role, but not the only role. Life itself, through its behavioral choices drives the innovation from which the environment selects.


What Daedalus told Darwin starts each chapter with a dialog between the historical scientist Charles Darwin and the mythical designer-inventor Daedalus. The process of writing those dialogs was a discovery tool that enabled me to probe Darwin’s writings, imagining that Darwin was being asked the questions Daedalus poses.


If the mythical character Daedalus were to meet the great scientist Charles Darwin with the hindsight of today’s knowledge and technology, would Darwin dismiss Daedalus: “You’re a designer, inventor, architect — a myth. What can you possibly tell me about Nature’s creative process?” The dialogs precede and introduce each chapter:

Darwin: What does this mean?

Daedalus: I don’t know….it has to do with not knowing. We need a place to hide our thoughts, so they can’t get out to shout rude comments at the day. A place like a castle, a place like a cage, a place to imprison our dreams, where we can take care of them and visit them sometimes….a place built of secrets.

Darwin: A labyrinth?

Daedalus: Which we will never finish. Walls and halls and rooms. But no roof. Wherever we are, when we look up, we’ll always see the sky.

diceDarwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. The human species is, in a word, an environmental abnormality. Perhaps a law of evolution is that intelligence usually extinguishes itself.
  — Edward O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson’s reference to Darwin’s dice in the quote above substitutes evolution for an anthropomorphic God, playing dice (or not). Darwin acknowledged that he could not explain variation, or how new species originate. His breakthrough was toward explaining extinction, and how effective adaptation occurs. To reconcile the origin of novelty in evolution with his theory of evolution was Darwin’s dilemma, which today draws from evidence in molecular biology, unavailable in Darwin’s time, suggesting that the traditional interpretation of evolution is incomplete.


Reviewer comments on the book, pre-release
Debates Addressed in the Book
Quotes from the Book





Gill, Zann. 2012. A Response To Darwin’s Dilemma: A-PR cycles and the origin of design in nature. In: Seckbach J, Gordon R, and Swan, L (eds) The Origin of Design in Nature. Dordrecht, Springer.
Gill, Zann. 2011. Collaborative Intelligence in Living Systems: algorithmic implications of evo-devo debates. GECCO 2011. International Conference on Genetic and Evolutionary Computation (combining the 20th International Conference on Genetic Algorithms ICGA and the 16th Annual Genetic Programming Conference. July 12 – 16. Dublin, Ireland.