Cytochrome C Oxidase. Source
Cytochrome C Oxidase. Source

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 Americanmy 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.