Evolution as tinkerer, not engineer: need help

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Apr 22 03:25:19 UTC 2010

I've come across several statements that amount to "Nature/Evolution
is a tinkerer, not an engineer". These are most often ascribed to
Stephen Jay Gould, who is the Mark Twain of evolutionary biology. Yet,
a quick (not exhaustive) search produced not one place of anyone
actually /quoting/ Gould saying anything even remotely like this. The
only place where the analogy appears is in Panda's Thumb (1980), but
there Gould attributes the following statement to Fran├žois Jacob:
"Nature is an excellent tinkerer, not a divine artificer".

A little more searching reveals the exact context of Jacob's
insight--and this is the second line of attribution of the statement.

>    The action of natural selection has often been compared to that of an engineer. This comparison, however, does not seem suitable. First, in contrast to what occurs during evolution, the engineer works according to a preconceived plan. Second, an engineer who prepares a new structure does not necessarily work from older ones. he electric bulb does not derive from the candle, nor does the jet engine descend from the internal combustion engine. To produce something new, the engineer has at his disposal original blueprints drawn for that particular occasion, materials and machines specially prepared for that task. Finally, the objects thus produced de novo by the engineer, at least by a good engineer, reach the level of perfection made possible by the technology of the time.

Jacob, F. (1977) Evolution and Tinkering. Science 196:1161-1166.
Jacob, F. (1994) from The Possible and the Actual, reprinted in
Evolution Extended, Connie Barlow ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (USA)

The book (1994) just includes the previously published article and
Panda's Thumb came out (1980) between the two.

Shockingly, the actual line "Evolution is a tinkerer, not an engineer"
appears in a math book (I might even have a copy of vol. 1 in Russian
translation, but it's in storage 950 miles away). The volume is
initially dated by GB to 1968, but that's likely the year of the
inaugural publication instead.

Some mathematical questions in biology
[Volumes 10-11 of Lectures on Mathematics in the Life Sciences].
American Mathematical Society, 1968. p. 85
> ... adaptations are not "designed" by nature as an engineer. Rather, they are jury-rigged from material available at the time. Evolution is a "tinkerer," not an engineer.

Sure enough, an identical snippet--not just the quote--shows up for
what appears to be volume 10 of the same journal, but this one's dated


Searching for "copyright" in the latter confirms that 1979 is indeed
the correct date.

Sure enough, I came back to search for "Jacob" in the volume. It gave
two hits--page 85, although the snippets do not overlap, and p. 86
which cites the above paper, but dates it to 1978.

To make this even more complicated, GB has another only partially helpful hit:

The city and its sciences. By Cristoforo Sergio Bertuglia, Giuliano
Bianchi, Alfredo Mela. Physica-Verlag, 1998
> Adaptations are not designed /de novo/ by nature. Rather, they are jury-rigged, using the material available at the time. Evolution ... is a 'tinkerer' not an engineer. (Oster and Wilson, 1984)

I am quite certain that neither Jacob nor Gould were behind the 1968
quotation (but it would help if I had the book). And either Oster or
Wilson were the authors in 1979, or the authors of The City and Its
Sciences missed the attribution or Oster and Wilson are
plagiarist--the modification from the '68 quote to the '84 quote is
minimal and would not get past courts if push came to shove. I don't
believe the last one to be likely. Since the two quotations are not
identical, it seems unlikely that the 1984 paper is a reprint of the
1979 one (if that's the original date).

So, at the moment, I have multiple attributions to Gould and Jacob who
wrote entire articles that can be summed up with the requisite
statement, but likely never wrote the actual statement, one /exact/
quote from authors unknown from 1968, and another identical quote from
yet another pair of authors in 1984. So this one should be fun.

Final twist. Oster does have a paper (but with Rocklin) on p. 21 of
the same vol. 10. And there is a citation to "Oster and Wilson (1978)"
on pp. 61, 67 and 68, since only three locations are identified with
snippets even if there are more, it is possible that this is the same
paper and the citation also shows up at the end.

I'd put this one in the queue and get to it later, but I have a full
place right now (regular work plus at least eight extended searches),
so if anyone wants a crack at this to antedate this definitively,
there is still room. I only ask to see the results. ;-)

The precise language should not be too difficult to establish, but
that may or may not be the end of the search.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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