Evolution as tinkerer, not engineer: need help

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Apr 22 21:49:46 UTC 2010

I think that the phrase "Evolution is a 'tinkerer,' not an engineer"
appears in a 1979 paper by G. F. Oster and S. M. Rocklin. The phrase
is used in reference to Jacob's 1977 paper and is intended to
summarize Jacob's idea. Most of the evidence for this is in Victor
Steinbok's original post.

The same text can be extracted from the two citations in Google Books
that are dated 1968 and 1979. The extracted passage shown below
plainly refers to Jacob's 1977 paper, and therefore the 1969 date is
bogus (as Victor suggested):

There are usually many ways to achieve a strategy and which mechanism
is stumbled on by a species is probably an historical accident.
Indeed, to the extent that evolution is an historical process, it will
remain forever beyond the purview of theory.
    In this connection, Jacob (1977) has emphasized a simple yet
profound, point that is easy to overlook when constructing
evolutionary models. That is, adaptations are not "designed" by nature
acting as an engineer. Rather, they are jury-rigged from the materials
available at the time. Evolution is a "tinkerer," not an engineer.

The text above appears on pages 84 and 85 of both target volumes
according to GB. Information from the table of contents can be
extracted and indicates that the paper is called "Optimization Models
in Evolutionary Biology" by G. F. Oster and S. M. Rocklin. Searching
for this citation yields the following:

Oster, G.F. and S.M. Rocklin. 1979. Optimization models in
evolutionary biology. Lectures on Mathematics in Life Sciences

The page number span indicates that the relevant passage appears
within this citation. There is another version of the cite. But I
think that this citation is simply an alternative name for the same

Oster, G.F. and S.M. Rocklin. 1979. Optimization models in
evolutionary biology.  p. 21-88 in S.A. Levin (editor), Some
Mathematical Questions in Biology, X. Amer. Math. Soc., Providence,

Thanks to Bill Mullins for presenting the relevant passage from the
1984 paper by George F. Oster and Edward O. Wilson (as quoted in the
American Economic Review). Since Oster is a co-author on both papers
he may be responsible for the cogent phrase of summarization.

In Francois Jacob's 1977 paper "Evolution and Tinkering" he cites the
work of Claude Lévi-Strauss when discussing the term tinkerer.
Lévi-Strauss used the French term bricoleur as follows:

Citation: 1966, The Savage Mind‎ by Claude Levi-Strauss, page 17,
University of Chicago Press. (1962 La Pensee Sauvage in French)
(Google Books limited view)

The 'bricoleur' is adept at performing a large number of diverse
tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them
to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured
for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed
and the rules of his game are always to make do with 'whatever is at
hand', ...


Levi-Strauss was discussing thought processes and not molecular
evolution when he used the term bricoleur in his book. Yet Jacob was
inspired to apply the notion of a tinkerer (bricoleur) to evolution.


On Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 11:25 PM, victor steinbok <aardvark66 at gmail.com> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender: Â  Â  Â  American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster: Â  Â  Â  victor steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject: Â  Â  Â Evolution as tinkerer, not engineer: need help
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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 François 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.
>> Â  Â 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.
> http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2008/02/evolution-as-tinkering.html
> 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)
> 1994.
> 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.
> http://fwd4.me/AmN
> 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
> 1979.
> http://fwd4.me/Ami
> 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:
> http://fwd4.me/Amb
> 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.
> VS-)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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