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

Why do some of nature’s marvels have to wait millions of years for their time in the sun?

Life innovates constantly, producing perfectly adapted species – but there’s a catch.

A TIMES AND TELEGRAPH BEST BOOK OF 2023

'Hopeful and fascinating.' THE TIMES

Many animals and plants eke out seemingly unremarkable lives. Passive, constrained, modest, threatened. Then, in a blink of evolutionary time, they flourish spectacularly. Once we start to look, these ‘sleeping beauties’ crop up everywhere. But why?

Looking at the book of life, from apex predators to keystone crops, and informed by his own cutting-edge experiments, renowned scientist Andreas Wagner demonstrates that innovations can come frequently and cheaply to nature, well before they are needed. We have found prehistoric bacteria that harbour the remarkable ability to fight off 21st-century antibiotics. And human history fits the pattern too, as life-changing technologies are invented only to be forgotten, languishing in the shadows before they finally take off.

In probing the mysteries of these sleeping beauties, Wagner reveals a crucial part of nature’s rich and strange tapestry.

Andreas Wagner is a professor and chairman at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich. He is the author of four books on evolutionary innovation, including Life Finds a Way, which is also published by Oneworld. He lives in Zurich.