Nature loves to play. Let’s talk spiders. Male spiders of the species Anelosimus studiosus play at sex with females before the females are capable of reproduction. The males, evolutionary biologists Jonathan Pruitt and Susan Riechert tell us, screw around to perfect copulating quickly and effectively. Why? Because the faster they perform with fecund females the less likely they are to be A) attacked by rival males and B) eaten by their female partners. Females also get something out of the foreplay. By the time they’re ready to produce eggs they sense which males have the goods for the most fit offspring.
Andreas Wagner alludes to the randy spiders in this week’s Nautilus article, “Why It Pays to Play Around.” In his new book, Life Finds a Way, Wagner informs us that nature is a playpen for life to mess around in. He ends with an understatement that sounds this month’s Nautilus theme. “The 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas was onto something when he wrote that God created the world in play.”
Wagner is not a philosopher. He’s an exquisite evolutionary biologist and writer who’s helped advance the understanding of evolution as not just survival of the fittest but as the title of his previous book has it, Arrival of the Fittest. Natural selection alone can’t explain life’s extraordinary diversity, Wagner writes. That’s “because natural selection is not a creative force. It does not innovate, but merely selects what’s already there.” Wagner magnifies the chemical reactions and molecules that form the primary colors of nature’s innovations. In Life Finds a Way, he shows how biochemical reactions can be applied to us and our institutions, nations, and schools, to enhance creativity and harmony.
Play is the thing throughout the issue. Indre Viskontas, who has a dual career in neuroscience and opera singing, takes us inside the concert hall to explain how musical ensembles tap into brain wells of creativity and empathy that can’t be reached by going it alone. We also look at a dark side of play. Barclay Bram, a writer and Oxford University Ph.D. candidate stationed in China, shares his everyday experiences with the app WeChat, which nearly everybody in China uses to connect in play and work and everything in between. The WeChat ecosystem, however, bears the fingerprints of forces in nature, namely dominance and control, that stifle the vital evolution of play.
All told, we’re delighted to bring you another diverse issue, at play in the fields of science.Read the Issue