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Context is everything: Why key developments often sit unused

Context is everything: Why key developments often sit unused

Waiting for the right moment —

The book Sleeping Beauties looks at everything—biology, skills, ideas—that lies latent.

Sleeping Beauties book cover.”>

Enlarge / Mock-up of Sleeping Beauties book cover.

Andreas Wagner is interested in evolution, that of molecules, species, and ideas. He’s 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 mutations in DNA. But he also knows that these occur all the time. He is interested in deeper questions: Which mutations succeed, and why? In his newest book, Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture, he argues that “where” and “when” might be more salient questions than “why.”

Innovation comes easily

Genetic mutations constantly churn out molecular changes. “Innovation is not precious and rare, but frequent and cheap,” is how he puts it. Wagner says that most of these mutations are ultimately detrimental to the organism that harbors them; a few are beneficial, and many are neutral. But some of these neutral ones may become beneficial millions of years hence, when conditions change. These are the sleeping beauties of the title, just lying there, unknowingly waiting to be awoken by a kiss from Prince Charming.

Mammals had all of the genetic requisites to thrive in place for a hundred million years before we did so; we just didn’t get the opportunity to take over the planet until the dinosaurs were wiped out, the Earth warmed up, and flowering plants diversified. Grasses didn’t immediately become the dominant species blanketing the Earth, and ants didn’t instantly radiate into 11,000 different species; it took 40 million years after each burst onto the scene for them to flourish, although each had the biochemical tools to do so for all that time. And bacteria resistant to synthetic antibiotics existed millions of years ago—possibly even before humans did—but this trait didn’t benefit them (and threaten us) until we started throwing those antibiotics at them last century.

Evolution is not an upward progression toward an ultimate goal, the way it is depicted on that T-shirt that culminates with the picture of that guy slumped in his desk chair. Natural selection works not through survival of the best, but survival of the fittest, and the fittest depends as much on external circumstance as on any innate merit. Black peppered moths aren’t inherently superior in any way to white peppered moths; they only became fitter, and thus survived more often, after the smoke from industry coated the tree trunks upon which the moths rested in soot, rendering the black moths invisible to predators.

“No innovation, no matter how life-changing and transformative, prospers unless it finds a receptive environment. It needs to be born into the right time and place, or it will fail,” Wagner writes. “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, which Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann founded in order to study complex systems and the myriad ways their individual components interact. Perhaps it was there, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, that he was inspired to apply his idea of sleeping beauties to technological and artistic innovations along with biological ones.

So Wagner places capabilities like reading, writing, and math alongside traits like antibiotic resistance. Our brains didn’t create these skills afresh, he says. All of the neural structures that enable them were in place for millennia, Wagner argues. These sleeping beauties just weren’t awoken and put to those particular purposes until external circumstances rendered them beneficial. In this case, that external circumstance was the agricultural revolution. There are still human cultures that have not yet developed calculus, he notes, because they haven’t needed to. And they’re doing just fine.

Our brains and bodies did not evolve in order to do the things they now do, be it blowing glass or choreographing a ballet. The fact that they can do those things, but not others, is because culture put pre-existing brain structures to those particular uses, activating a subset of our latent talents. Other cultures on other worlds may have elicited other ones.

Wagner places 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 even—shockingly, ironically—the wheel. These were not “successful”—which Wagner defines as garnering a place in the historical record—when first generated, but only became so once the world caught up with them. The cure for scurvy and the wheel, among other innovations, were even discovered repeatedly, in different times and places, before they landed in a time and place that was suitable for them to take hold and make an impact.

In some ways, they’re just like C4 photosynthesis, which grasses developed long before carbon dioxide levels in the air dipped enough to render it beneficial.

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

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Wagner also insists that analogies themselves are sleeping beauties—that our brains’ ability to link seemingly unrelated concepts can “help 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 obviously connected in reality, like comparing a love affair to a journey. He writes that these sleeping beauties “are hidden relationships among objects. Such relationships lie dormant until we discover an analogy or metaphor that reveals them to us… these relationships remain hidden, inaccessible to us, until a brain circuit has revealed them.” E.g. until someone thought them up.

This seems like a stretch. It makes sense that linear algebra would have to wait for technology to develop that would demonstrate its value, and thus would have a dormancy period. But analogies and artworks don’t exist outside of their creators in the way that natural laws and biological traits do. Applying evolutionary principles designed to explain biological traits and diversity to ideas and behaviors lends them an external realness, an independence and inevitability, that they don’t have in the way that phenotypes do.

Wagner ends with advice for would-be innovators to up the chances of their innovations successfully becoming integrated into the annals of history: listen to the world to find out what it wants, then provide it, like Jonathan Strange did when he built magical roads for Wellington’s soldiers in Spain. Alternatively, generate the environment that your creation needs to succeed. That may be the mark of true genius.

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