The Search Function and Evolutionary Novelty

27 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2019 Last revised: 15 Nov 2019

See all articles by Teppo Felin

Teppo Felin

University of Oxford - Said Business School

Stuart Kauffman


Date Written: October 25, 2019


In this paper we address the hard problem of search. Search is a pervasive phenomenon of biological and economic life. But search is hard—especially in uncertain and dynamic environments. We develop a generalized form of question-answer probing as a way of simplifying search, with implications for understanding biological and economic novelty. This form of search simultaneously constrains and enables search spaces in counterintuitive ways. Question-answer probing not only illustrates seemingly mundane search activity (such as foraging for food or looking for a lost item), but it also provides the foundation for explaining the emergence of both evolutionary novelty and economic value. An organism’s (or organization’s) directed search (especially the search for function) supplies a key mechanism for realizing adjacent possibilities and new niches. Our approach contrasts with extant evolutionary and computational approaches to search (such as brute-force, serial processing or Bayesian priors and updating), which lack organism-specific mechanisms. Our approach also contrasts with physics-oriented conceptions of mind, organism and consciousness. Throughout the paper we offer cognitive, biological (e.g., tool making), and economic examples to illustrate our points. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our arguments for economics and innovation.

Keywords: evolution, search, organisms, novelty, innovation, economics

JEL Classification: L23, L14, L22, D20, D21, D22, D51, D52, D92, K1, M2, O33

Suggested Citation

Felin, Teppo and Kauffman, Stuart, The Search Function and Evolutionary Novelty (October 25, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Teppo Felin (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Said Business School ( email )

Park End Street
Oxford, OX1 1HP
Great Britain


Stuart Kauffman

BiosGroup ( email )

317 Pasco de Peralta
Sante Fe, NM 87501
United States

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