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Sleeping Beauties

The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture

Andreas Wagner

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

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.

  • Publication date: April 6, 2023
  • ISBN: 9780861545278
  • RRP: £20.00
  • Pages: 352


'Hopeful and fascinating.'

The Times

'A fascinating argument, told in an engaging and clear style, that reminds us just how creative evolution can be.'

New Scientist

‘[An] excellent study… The accessible prose ensures even excursions into molecular biology are comprehensible, and Wagner finds surprising depth in evolutionary history... This is the rare volume that general readers will enjoy as much as specialists.’

Publishers Weekly, starred review

‘Accessible and compelling... [Sleeping Beauties is] a fascinating perspective on dormancy’s abundant and critical role in evolutionary innovation.’


Andreas Wagner

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.

Author page

More books by Andreas Wagner

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