We often speak of human innovations as “ahead of their time”: think Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines, Ada Lovelace’s computer language, or Bi Sheng’s tenth-century movable type. But evolution, we’re told, has an eye on the clock, innovating only in response to environmental conditions. In his new book, Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture, SFI External Professor Andreas Wagner (University of Zürich) urges us to consider another possibility. “What if,” he asks, “many innovations arise before their time,” in nature just as in human culture?
Take the human hand, whose nearly fifty bones and muscles allow us to write, perform surgery, or play complex musical instruments — all skills that the earliest primates, whose hands bore similar physical structures, could not have anticipated. Or consider ancient bacteria whose DNA was preserved in permafrost and recently discovered, already carrying genes that would have allowed the bacteria to resist modern antibiotics. Like our manual anatomy, this bacterial DNA is a “sleeping beauty”: a structure that emerges many years before its unique capabilities can help its species truly thrive.
Whereas Wagner’s 2019 book, Life Finds a Way, explored evolution and creativity, Sleeping Beauties investigates how and why the products of that creativity — natural or manmade — must sometimes wait for their moment in the sun.
In Wagner’s analogy, it’s not a charming prince who performs the pivotal “waking,” but the environment itself. Subtle changes to our finger bones allowed early humans to grip better than our nearest primate relatives, but it wasn’t until the emergence of human culture that our hands’ myriad other abilities could be exploited. Meanwhile, the genes for antibiotic resistance in ancient bacteria were “solutions in search of a problem,” coding for proteins that were powerful but useless until the “right enemy” appeared. Sleeping Beauties offers other examples, from the earliest plant-eating insects to the grasslands of medieval Mongolia to experiments in his own Zürich laboratory and the success of Led Zeppelin.
Wagner’s emphasis on the fundamental serendipity of success resonates for scientists, humanists, and artists alike. If the fifty-part human hand can prove so versatile, “what about a brain with nearly a hundred billion neurons? What other skills lie dormant within, skills we have not even dreamed of?”
Read “Sleeping Beauties” by Andreas Wagner (Oneworld Publications; 2023)