Sleeping Beauties: Dormant innovations in nature and culture – STIAS webinar by Andreas Wagner

17 August 2021

“Innovations in biological evolution and in human culture – from science to the arts – arise by processes with multiple parallels,” said STIAS fellow Andreas Wagner, professor at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. “One of them is that many innovations originate as ‘sleeping beauties’, creative products that are not successful when they first emerge. They become successful only after a long period of dormancy, and then often dramatically so.”

STIAS fellow Andreas Wagner during his public webinar on 12 August 2021

Wagner was presenting the fourth STIAS public webinar of 2021 focused on his current book project.  In a wide-ranging presentation, he discussed multiple and diverse examples from biology ranging from the evolution of grasses to the emergence of new antibiotic resistance and the origin of new genes. He also discussed examples from science and technology, such as the invention of the cardiac pacemaker.

“These examples illustrate that an innovation’s innate quality may not suffice to ensure success in the natural world or in a marketplace. They highlight the crucial role of the environment for an innovation’s success, including abiotic factors and other organisms for biological innovations, as well as social, political and cultural factors for cultural innovations. Taken together, these examples may also harbour lessons for human innovators faced with a lack of success of their own creative products.”

Wagner’s main research interests revolve around how biological evolution brings about innovations or new traits that help life survive. He has authored more than 200 scientific publications and is the author of five books, among them the award-winning Paradoxical Life and Arrival of the Fittest.

“I was advised early in my career not to publish books. I ignored the advice,” he said. “I believe it’s important to paint on a broader canvas and to bring the work of scientists to the attention of the general public.”

“I’m trying to understand how innovation works. I’m interested in understanding how the new comes into being. Important sources of information can be found in the history of life where evolution brings forth variations that are both beneficial and inherited.”

He began by describing his current work with PhD and post-doc students looking at bacterial evolution. “It’s evolution in action in real time,” he said. “Looking at how different bacteria survive and find ways over time to evolve and thrive in toxic environments that would initially have killed them. Such experimental evolution can rapidly create dormant traits. We then do genome sequencing to understand what happens along with mathematical and computational modelling.”

“Although biological evolution is my bread-and-butter work, I find there are many parallels with cultural innovation.”

He pointed to numerous examples of delayed success in the cultural world ranging from poets John Keats and Emily Dickinson to artists Vermeer and Van Gogh. “Keats was unsuccessful as a poet at a time when it was possible to make a good living as a poet – he only sold 200 copies of his works in his life but is now recognised as one of the most famous Romantic poets.”

Macro-evolutionary lags

Pointing to some of many examples from the natural world, Wagner highlighted grasses, which are successful, diverse, cover huge global land swathes, and are crucial for agriculture. “70% of all calories humans consume are produced by grasses,” he said. “In terms of innovation they should have been slam dunks of evolution since their very origin. They grow from the base and produce chemicals that damage the teeth of grazers which protects them from over-grazing. Due to C4 photosynthesis they are drought resistant.”

“We know from the presence of phytolytes in fossilised dinosaur dung that grasses are at least 65 million years old. However, initially they barely eked out a living. They only became successful about 40 million years later when the planet became drier. This is called a macro-evolutionary lag.”

Similarly with Lucinid bivalves – clams that live in anoxic mud on the ocean floor. Wagner explained that they were probably around from about 420 million years ago but only diversified into about 500 species 350 million years later after the rise of the sea grasses with whom they developed a symbiotic relationship.

Mammals, too, existed at least 125 million years ago. Evolution conducted multiple ‘experiments’ with mammalian life-forms like tree living, ground living, and flying, but mammals only became successful about 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs became extinct.

“Evolution reinvents the same kind of life forms multiple times until their time comes,” said Wagner.

He went on to explain that most innovation begins at the molecular level – where genes mutate to produce new features which enhance survival. The huge amount of DNA in a genome essentially constitutes an evolutionary laboratory, in which DNA mutations incessantly create new genes. However, many of these new genes are initially not useful.

“Novel genes can help deal with a changing world but most de novo genes remain dormant and may even disappear before becoming useful. De novo genes are basically a solution waiting for a problem.”

Tapping into dormant potential

Understanding some of these dormant traits could be of benefit to humans. In this regard, Wagner pointed to the development of antibiotic resistance in microbes without previous contact with the antibiotic in question. DNA sequencing on bacterial strains found in the Lechuguilla Caves in New Mexico has revealed the presence of novel antibiotic resistance traits in bacteria with no contact with humanity. A 4 million year-old strain of Paenibacillus isolated from soil samples was found to be naturally resistant to a number of modern antibiotics. “The likely cause is promiscuous enzymes which can change their three-dimensional shapes and catalyse reactions to multiple molecules,” said Wagner. “These traits may be dormant but could be lifesavers.”

Tapping into the dormant potential of the human nervous system has also been a feature of human cultural evolution. Wagner pointed to the example of mathematics developed by humans since the agricultural evolution some 10 000 years ago. “The ability to estimate numbers is present in indigenous cultures without mathematical education. It is also present in other mammalian species ranging from baboons and black bears to honey bees. This is an ancient potential not unique to humans. Cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene and others have shown that estimation of numbers and the processing of mathematics occurs in the same region of the brain so, in a sense, modern maths piggybacked on ancient brain circuitry with huge dormant potential.”

Turning to technology, Wagner highlighted the wheel. “From their figurines we know that the Olmecs – one of the earliest known Mesoamerican civilisations dating roughly from 1500 to 400 BCE – knew about the wheel but its potential for transportation was not used.” Cardiac pacemakers although developed from the late 1800s “were initially dismissed as a gadget – remaining dormant until the 1950s”.

“None of this is exceptional,” said Wagner. “Such delayed recognition can be studied quantitatively through journal citations and patents.”

The awakening of such sleeping beauties is influenced by many factors ranging from climate change, to asteroids, technological developments, political interests and changing contemporary cultures.

“The awakening depends on the environment, and is beyond the innovator’s control. It also cannot be predicted, and often calls the impact of the quality of an innovation into question, because this quality may often matter less than the environment,” said Wagner.

“There are also no obvious patterns – or none that I’ve been able to detect. Grasses responded to changes in the natural environment – climate change and the development of a drier environment. Mammals seemed to need the extinction of the dinosaurs to thrive – they took over a niche that had been occupied by something else. In many other innovations – both in nature and in culture – completely different factors are responsible for an innovation’s awakening.”

‘We need to understand the broader pattern of creative production including that of evolution right back to the origin of life,” he said.

“The challenge for human innovators is to keep on creating in the face of possible failure and to avoid fixating on success when there is not necessarily any way of controlling if the time of the work has come,” he added.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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