If you were creating a universe, how would you go about it? Chances are, you’d do it the way you create anything. You would do a little planning then just create it to your specs. So of course, that’s how people tend to think God did it—just thought it up and created it.

But is that really how you create anything? Where do you get your ability to plan? How do you get your tools? Where do the materials come from? Even creating something small and trivial doesn’t all happen in one fell swoop.

Take baking a cake. In a way, it takes only an hour or so. In another way, every cake you bake has taken millennia. Your recipe, cooking utensils, stove, flour, shortening, baking powder, chocolate are all products that evolved over time by trial and error. It turns out it’s not the baker who bakes the cake, it’s the bake-off—years of sifting and refining the cake-baking materials that are now at your disposal.

How then do we talk about who made the cake? Just you, or all history’s cake-baking pioneers and innovators?

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Rather than saying it was made by just you or by a long line of winning bakers, we can talk about three cooks in collaboration, the three necessary forces in any creative or evolutionary process.

Biologists say that evolution occurs by variation with selective retention, which is just another way of saying trial and error but emphasizing the non-error—the winning varieties that are selectively retained. Evolution’s three necessary forces are therefore variation, selection, and retention:

Variation: Individuals differ.

Selection: Because of their differences and given the particulars of their environment’s demands, some survive longer than others.

Retention (sometimes termed replication or repetition): The ones that survive longer get a chance to replicate themselves, making more individuals that, though differing somewhat, nonetheless retain or carry forward traits that enhance survival.

Psychologist Donald Campbell argued that it’s not just biological evolution that employs these three cooks: “A blind variation-and-selective-retention process is fundamental to all inductive achievements, to all genuine increases in knowledge, to all increases in fit of system to environment.” He founded my field of research, evolutionary epistemology, which can be described as the study of parallels and contrasts between the way mother nature and humans solve problems, make choices, and come to fit their opportunities and constraints more snugly. It treats knowledge as an evolutionary process. It treats biological adaptation and human learning as similar processes.

Among the most obvious parallels between adaptation and learning is the prevalence of trial and error. The Superbowl, American Idol, getting into medical school, becoming a millionaire, writing the great American novel, baking a cake; all of these follow the logic of variation with selective retention, generating variety and then sifting the variety by some selective standard and then generating more variety from what sifts through.

Even within a single act of creation, the three cooks are present. To make them more familiar, I’ve given them three nicknames:

Lax (variation): Loose, open to anything, it’s all good, constantly coming up with wacky ideas only a few of which are workable, but Lax wouldn’t know. Lax just blindly generates variety.

Axe (selection): Mercilessly discerning, thumbs up, thumbs down, giving the axe to whatever doesn’t fit.

Ox (retention): Stolid, lumbering on with whatever worked in the past, tradition bound, loath to give up anything already in hand.

In the act of writing, for example, Lax is the wildly creative one, Axe is the editor, and Ox is the one who hates seeing cherished prose removed by Axe. A skillful writer knows how to balance and sequence these three characters, not bringing in Axe too soon and cramping Lax’s style; letting Ox hang onto some cherished prose but not all of it. Not letting Lax’s kinky new ideas overwhelm Ox just before deadline.

It takes skill, because the three cooks are all at odds with one another. Lax wants variety; Ox wants to keep things the same. Lax is inclusive; Axe is exclusive. Axe will cut something long cherished; Ox hates it when that happens.

Unlike a monolithic God who creates from a single coherent divine plan, evolution’s three cooks are a wrangling, contentious pantheon, which seems a wasteful way to create. Trial and error generates so much error! Why not have all creation just pop out perfect from the start? It would be so much more efficient!

Well, for one reason, because if it pops out perfect, then it ain’t really from the start, unless you’re willing to say the divine plan was never conceived, it just is and always was. The instant-creation approach sidesteps the question of where all creation comes from. Instead, it imagines a moment before which there was absolutely nothing and after which there was absolutely everything (conceived, if not yet manifest) and doesn’t venture to explain how it happened.

The Hindu faith in some of its forms seems to map smoothly onto the three-cooks approach. Its three primary gods are

Brahma, the creator (variation, Lax)

Shiva, the destroyer (selection, Axe)

Vishnu, the preserver (retention, Ox)

And some versions of monotheism seem to borrow from the three cooks approach too. When God and the Devil are fighting over souls one by one, match by match, and one of them will eventually win the great contest, there’s certainly selection choosing between two alternatives.

Unfortunately, the two alternatives are good and evil, not retention and variation, and that’s always been the challenge for those who believe that it’s God vs. the Devil: How can you tell what’s God’s and what’s the Devil’s doing? Sometimes the devil’s in a new temptation, and sometimes in an old habit. But then that’s a problem for all of us. We are all selective agents as we cook up our own lives, deciding when it’s out with the old and in with the new, and when, instead, it’s best to continue our established virtuous habits and resist fresh new vices.