Beyond Darwin: Niche Creation And Creative Evolution

A fish with a faulty swim bladder.

A fish with a faulty swim bladder.


A fish with a faulty swim bladder.

There is a famous image from Darwin’s thoughts. He likened evolution to a dirt floor filled with wooden wedges hammered into them. New species were new wedges hammered into a crowded floor, crowding out old wedge-species. The crowding captured the limitation of resources that drove natural selection.

I think Darwin, who always stuns me, was nevertheless only partially right, and where wrong wonderfully wrong.

In contrast to Darwin’s wedge image, I think biological evolution is a far richer story of the creation without selection of ever new “adjacent possible” empty niches, (see below), that become filled by newly evolved species that create, without selection, yet more new empty adjacent possible niches, filled by yet more new species. This niche creation via the expanding Adjacent Possible expands Darwin’s wedge filled floor with ever more wedges! Life keeps making more room for itself! Competition tempers this expansion.

More, I think that, on average, each new species, alone or with others, creates more than one new empty Adjacent Possible niche, generating a self amplifying, “supracritical” explosion of ever new species occupying the ever new niches they create without selection. The biopshere explodes in interwoven diversity. This explosion process is interrupted by small and large extinction events.


Because the creation of new niches does not reflect selection “acting,” this becoming is what I want to call “Creative Evolution.”

Exactly the same thing is happening in supracritical economies that generate both an ever new and increasing diversity of new goods and productions capacities, and, typically with no human intent or foresight, ever new economic Adjacent Possible empty niches into which entrepreneurs create new goods and find a new way to make a living. Thus the evolution of the econopshere is also creative.

I will repeat myself, but ask forgiveness for so doing. I think these issues are fundamental to our view of evolving life and human life.

I’ve described before Darwinian preadaptations, where an unused causal feature of part of an organism finds a new use in a different environment. I repeat my oft said example for concreteness and continuity. Some fish have a swim bladder, whose ratio of air and water controls neutral buoyancy in the water column. Paleontologists think the swim bladder evolved from the lungs of lung fish. Water got into some lungs, now a sac was partially filled with air and water, hence poised to evolve into a swim bladder.

At this point I always ask: 1) Did a new function come to exist in the biosphere? Yes, neutral buoyancy. 2) Did the swim bladder change future evolution? Yes, new species with swim bladders, new proteins, and new adjacent possible empty niches for one or more newly evolved species, for a worm or bacterium or both, could evolve to live in only in the swim bladder. I return to this in a moment. 3) Can you prestate all possible Darwinian preadaptations in the next 3 million years just for humans? We all say No.

The last, third, issue, discussed in “The End Of A Physics Worldview: Heraclitus And The Watershed Of Life”, and on line Phys ArXhiv and in press with G. Longo and M. Montevil as “No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biopshere”, implies that we cannot prestate the ever newly relevant variables, e.g. swim bladders, so cannot write Newton-like laws of motion for the evolving biosphere. Nor do we know ahead of time the empty Adjacent Possible niche which constitutes the boundary condition on natural selection, so could not integrate the equations of motion, which we do not have anyway. Hence no law entails the evolution of the biosphere. If true, this is the end of reductionism “at the watershed of life.”

But in this post, my main focus is on an astonishing fact, in point 2 above. The newly evolved swim bladder constitutes a new empty adjacent possible niche, for a worm or bacterium or both might evolve to live only in swim bladders. Now here is the critical issue: did Natural Selection “act” to create the swim bladder as a new empty adjacent possible niche? NO! Natural Selection presumably acted in a population of fish to evolve a good swim bladder from the lungs of lung fish. But no selection “acted” to create the new empty Adjacent Possible niche that the swim bladder, once evolved by selection, constituted!

But that means that without selection, evolution builds its own future possibilities of becoming! Evolution creates, without selection, an ever expanding Adjacent Possible. And if each new species yields more than one new niche, e.g. both the bacterium and the worm can evolve to live in the swim bladder, then this process explodes in diversity “supracritically”.

This seems to be true. Thus, Darwin’s crowded dirt floor with wedges hammered into it is wrong, for by the expanding Adjacent Possible New Empty Niches that evolution keeps creating, without Natural Selection “acting” to do so, the “area of the floor” keeps growing.

Organisms are Kantian wholes, in which the parts exist for and by means of the whole and the whole for and by means of the parts. Kantian wholes literally make their worlds together, providing functionalities for one another in the very expanding Adjacent Possible “floor” where they keep creating rooms for themselves. Then evolution is not just Natural Selection and the winnowing of less fit forms in the struggle for survival, it is also just this co-creation of niches without Natural Selection and adaptation to them by Natural Selection. Moreover, selection acts on quantum acausal mutations that are heritable variation. Then the new niches do not cause, but enable the bursting growth of the biosphere.

This is Creative Evolution. It is all “natural magic”. The world, Horatio, is richer than all our dreams.

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