Martin Nowak & the Math of Evolution’s Origin

Scientific American has just published my piece on Martin Nowak, who directs the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University. Nowak can predict the future. He can predict, for instance, the rate at which English verbs evolve and where a cancerous tumor might grow. He can tell whether people will succeed by working together, or whether it pays to be selfish. Now, he’s turned his attention to the past, using math to explain the origin of evolution and what he calls “prelife.” His model of life’s origin was published on Friday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
After years studying replication—how HIV and cancer cells replicate in people’s bodies, how genes are passed to offspring—Nowak wanted to know whether there can be some degree of evolution without replication: Can there still be selection and mutation? And how does replication emerge? In other words, asks Nowak, “what leads from no life to life? We’re trying to describe that system mathematically.” For answers to these questions, check out the story online at SciAm. —Heather Wax

Category: Evolution


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