cover image Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture

Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture

Andreas Wagner. Oneworld, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-86154-527-8

Evolutionary “innovations” can lie dormant for millions of years before they become useful, according to this excellent study. Wagner (Life Finds a Way), a biology professor at the University of Zurich, explains that as environments change, gene or protein mutations that previously had no functional value can become transformational. Bacteria, for example, can resist antibiotics neither they nor their ancestors have ever encountered. Additionally, grasses struggled to survive for millions of years until the drying of Earth 23 million years ago provided ideal conditions for the plant to flourish and spread across the globe. Wagner posits that latent adaptations have played a crucial role in human development and cites studies that found the “ancient neural circuitry” implicated in recognizing tools and landscapes is also activated by reading, suggesting written language is the incidental outgrowth of those neural processes. The accessible prose ensures even excursions into molecular biology are comprehensible, and Wagner finds surprising depth in evolutionary history, as when he suggests that the independent discovery of agriculture by human communities across the globe—as well as by ants, which cultivate fungi—casts doubt on individual-centric notions of genius and innovation. This is the rare volume that general readers will enjoy as much as specialists. (May)