Andreas Wagner is interested in evolution, in molecules, species, and ideas. He is a biochemist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zürich, so he knows that the engine of evolution is random DNA mutation. But he also knows it happens all the time. He is interested in deeper questions: Which mutations succeed, and why? In his new book, Sleeping Beauty: The Mystery of Sleeping Innovations in Nature and Culturehe argues that “where” and “when” may be more important questions than “why.”
Innovation comes quickly
Genetic mutations often cause molecular changes. “Innovation is not precious and rare, but frequent and cheap,” he put it. Wagner says that most of these mutations are ultimately harmful to the organism that harbors them; some are useful, and many are neutral. But some of these neutrals may be useful millions of years hence, when conditions change. These are the sleeping beauties of the title, just lying there, unknowingly waiting to be awakened by a kiss from Prince Charming.
Mammals had all the genetic requirements to thrive in the area for a hundred million years before they did; we just didn’t have a chance to take over the planet until the dinosaurs were gone, the Earth was warming, and the flowers were diversifying. Grasses did not immediately become the dominant species covering the Earth, and ants did not immediately blossom into 11,000 different species; it takes 40 million years after each eruption on the scene for them to develop, although each has the biochemical tools to do so all the time. And bacteria resistant to synthetic antibiotics have been around for millions of years—maybe even before humans—but this trait didn’t benefit them (and threaten us) until we started throwing those antibiotics at them. in the last century.
Evolution is not an upward progression towards an ultimate goal, as is depicted in the T-shirt that ends with the picture of the man slumped over in his desk chair. Natural selection does not work through the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the fittest, and the fittest depends on external conditions as much as any inherent merit. Black peppered moths are not inherently superior in any way to white peppered moths; they became better, and thus survived more often, after the smoke from the industry covered the tree trunks where the moths settled on the charcoal, making the black moths invisible to predators.
“No innovation, no matter how life-changing and transformative, thrives unless it finds a receptive environment. It must be born in the right time and place, or it will fail, ” wrote Wagner. “No innovation succeeds on its own merit.” Whether or not an innovation succeeds all comes down to terroir.
Changing neuronal firing patterns instead of DNA
So far so good. But Wagner also spent time at the radically interdisciplinary Santa Fe Institute, founded by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann to study complex systems and the myriad ways their individual components interact. get along. Perhaps it was there, at the foot of the mountains of Sangre de Cristo, that he was inspired to use his idea of the sleeping beauties of technology and artistic innovations with biological ones.
So Wagner placed capabilities like reading, writing, and math alongside traits like antibiotic resistance. Our brains don’t recreate these skills, he says. All the neural structures that enable them have been in place for millennia, Wagner argued. These sleeping beauties are not simply awakened and put to specific purposes until external conditions render them useful. In this case, that external circumstance is the agricultural revolution. There are human cultures that have never developed calculus, he says, because they don’t need to. And they are just fine.
Our brains and bodies didn’t evolve to do the things they do now, whether it’s blowing or choreographing a ballet. The fact that they can do those things, but not others, is because culture has put old brain structures to particular uses, activating a subset of our hidden talents. Other cultures in other worlds may have acquired others.
Wagner put a lot in this category: linear algebra, the law of conservation of energy, the cure for scurvy, the paintings of van Gogh and Vermeer, the poetry of Dickinson and Keats, the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. And yet – shockingly, ironically – the tire. It was not “successful” – which Wagner describes as having earned a place in the historical record – when it was first created, but only became so once the world caught up with them. The cure for scurvy and the wheel, among other innovations, were discovered again and again, in different times and places, before they landed in a time and place suitable for them in take hold and make an impact.
In some ways, this is similar to C4 photosynthesis, in that grasses developed long before carbon dioxide levels in the air dipped enough to make them useful.
Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Nature’s Sleeping Innovations and…
Wagner also insists that analogies themselves are sleeping beauties—that our brain’s ability to connect seemingly unrelated concepts “helps explain why our culture overflows with innovations .” He uses analogies and metaphors as indicators of the human capacity for abstract thought—our ability to make connections in our brains between things that are not clearly connected in reality, such as comparing a relationship of love to a journey. He writes that these sleeping beauties are “hidden relationships between things. Such relationships are dormant until we discover an analogy or metaphor that reveals them to us…these relationships remain hidden, beyond our reach, until a brain circuit reveals them. Eg until someone thought of them.
This seems like a stretch. It is reasonable that linear algebra should wait for the technology to develop to show its value, and thus have a period of sleep. But analogies and works of art do not exist apart from their creators in the way that natural laws and biological characteristics do. The application of the principles of evolution designed to explain biological characteristics and the diversity of ideas and behavior gives them an external reality, a freedom and inevitability, which they do not have in the way created of phenotypes.
Wagner concludes with advice for would-be innovators to increase the chances of their innovations being successfully integrated into the annals of history: listen to the world to find out what it wants, then give it, like Jonathan Strange did when he built roads for Wellington’s soldiers in Spain. Alternatively, create the environment your creation needs to thrive. That may be the mark of true genius.