What makes a great new trait evolve and then stay dormant for years? Andreas Wagner's new book explores the innovations of nature – and human culture
THE world’s grasses waited a long time for their day in the sun. They evolved in the late Cretaceous, not long before the dinosaurs were wiped out. But for tens of millions of years, they were rare. Only relatively recently have parts of Earth become dominated by sweeping grasslands.
Sleeping Beauties: The mystery of dormant innovations in nature and culture argues that, in both evolution and human technology, innovations must often wait a long time before they find a use and become commonplace.
It is a fascinating argument, told in an engaging and clear style, that reminds us just how creative evolution can be. The author is Andreas Wagner, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, whose most notable previous book was Arrival of the Fittest in 2014. There, he set out to explain why evolution is so good at producing new and useful traits, even though genetic mutations occur at random. His answer was twofold: there are many ways to solve the same problem and biological structures are often relatively resilient to minor changes.
Wagner’s new book builds on this. He explains that evolution is so creative it commonly endows organisms with traits they don’t need, which can linger for generations and become useful if circumstances change – the “sleeping beauties” of the title. This is true in human culture too, he says, as people can invent technologies (often many times and independently) decades or centuries before they are successful.
Grass is one of Wagner’s favourite examples of a sleeping beauty. Crucially, the turning point was an environmental shift, not an evolutionary change in the plant.
We often think an innovation only spreads once it has been perfected. Sometimes that is true: smartphones were pretty niche until the first iPhones with easy-to-use touchscreens. But often, Wagner writes, the innovation is fine, but the environment is wrong.
It is possible to quibble with some of his arguments. Wagner suggests, for example, that the visual processing centres of human brains were primed for reading long before alphabets. He cites experiments showing that most letters in most alphabets use lines and angles common in the natural world, and which our brains are therefore adapted to perceive.
I don’t doubt the experiments, but they tell us that people tend to devise alphabets with characters we can easily distinguish. This doesn’t mean our brains were primed for reading’s core challenge of making links between abstract shapes, sequences of sounds and meanings.
However, this doesn’t affect Wagner’s central arguments. He says the key to nature’s inventiveness is the sheer number of organisms and mutations that arise every year, which means a useful innovation is likely to turn up somewhere. And while we tend to see biological molecules, such as proteins, as having a core function, most can do many things, giving evolution even more scope. The same is true of technology, notes Wagner, with many ways to build a refrigerator.
The fecundity and versatility of biochemistry is also important for the origins of life, a question he only touches on. Many researchers are preoccupied with the idea that life’s mechanisms are precise and interdependent. This makes it hard to envision a simple, primordial organism: stripping away many systems ought to be fatal, but the multifunctionality of most biochemicals suggests that this is less of a problem than it seems.
It may be that Wagner’s sleeping beauties aren’t just essential for understanding recent evolution, but for understanding how evolution began in the first place.
Michael Marshall is a writer based in Devon, UK