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In a special issue, the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B takes an SFI-inspired approach to understanding innovation. The idea for the themed issue emerged from a 2014 SFI working group that initiated investigations into unifying principles of biological innovation, and whether they can also apply to innovation in culture and technology.

Innovation happens in biological, cultural, and technological systems. It often manifests as an unpredictable and qualitative change to a structure or process that increases efficiency or output, or might develop or expand a niche. In biology, the evolution of multicellularity was a kind of innovation, and from there, the evolution of mechanisms like eyes and wings and processes like photosynthesis. In human culture, major examples of innovation range from harnessing fire and domesticating plants to the creation of technologies like telephones and computers.

In order to assess how innovations emerge, spread, and impact the surrounding environment, the special PTRSB issue draws together contributions from experts who observe innovation in the domains of evolutionary biology, ecology, genetics, molecular and microbiology, cultural evolution, cognition and behavior, and biological computation.

Several contributors are SFI researchers, and the issue was assembled and edited by external professors Michael Hochberg, Pablo Marquet, Robert Boyd, and Andreas Wagner.

Here's a lineup of entries written by SFI scientists:

  1. (Introduction) "Innovation: an emerging focus from cells to societies" by Michael Hochberg, Pablo Marquet, Robert Boyd, and Andreas Wagner
  2. (Research) "Information theory, evolutionary innovations, and evolvability" by Andreas Wagner
  3. (Review) "The topology of evolutionary novelty and innovation in macroevolution" by Douglas Erwin
  4. (Research) "Nascent life cycles and the emergence of higher-level individuality" by William Ratcliff, Matthew Herron, Peter Conlin and Eric Libby
  5. (Research) "Non-adaptive origins of evolutionary innovations increase network complexity in interacting digital organisms" by Miguel Ángel Fortuna, Luis Zaman, Andreas Wagner and Jordi Bascompte
  6. (Research) "Inferring processes of cultural transmission: the critical role of rare variants in distinguishing neutrality from novelty biases" by James O'Dwyer and Anne Kandler
  7. (Research) "Innovation and the growth of human population" by Vanessa Weinberger, Cristobal Quininao, and Pablo Marquet


Read the full issue, "Process and pattern in innovations from cells to societies," in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (December 5, 2017; published online October 23, 2017)