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Sleeping beauties: Dormant innovations in nature and culture

Innovations in biological evolution and in human culture  – from science to the arts – arise by processes with multiple parallels. 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. I plan to write a book that brings these sleeping beauties to the attention of the general public. The book will cover multiple and diverse examples from all levels of biological organization biology. They range from the evolution of grasses to the emergence of new antibiotic resistance and the origin of new genes. The book will also cover many examples from science and technology,  such as the discovery of energy conversation, the development of linear algebra, the invention of the cardiac pacemaker, and the discovery of radar. These examples will illustrate that an innovation’s innate quality may not suffice in ensuring its success in the natural world or in a marketplace. They will 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. They will also illustrate that innovating successfully is beyond an innovator’s control. Taken together, these examples may also harbor lessons for human innovators who are faced with a lack of success of their own creative products.


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Journal Article

Karve, Shraddha and Andreas Wagner. 2022. Environmental complexity is more important than mutation in driving the evolution of latent novel traits in E. coli. Nature Communications, 13(1), 5904.

Journal Article

Wagner, Andreas. 2022. Adaptive evolvability through direct selection instead of indirect, second‐order selection. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution, 338(7), 395–404.


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