There are all kinds of successful life forms – animals, plants, even genes – whose success was delayed for millions of years. The first ants, for example, go back 140 million years, but ants did not begin to branch into today’s more than 11,000 species until forty million years later. Mammals with various lifestyles – ground-dwelling, tree-climbing, flying or swimming – originated more than 100 million years before they became successful. And a family of saltwater clams had to wait for 350 million years before it became well enough established to diversify into the many species that thrive today.
These life forms are the sleeping beauties of biological evolution. They cast in doubt truths about success and failure that we hold dear. And they lead us to question the role that the quality of a new life form – or of any other innovation – plays in its success.
In Sleeping Beauties, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner explores findings about evolution that molecular biology has recently revealed, and applies them to understanding how biological evolution creates new solutions to life’s problems. New work in the biological sciences – some of it no more than a decade old – is turning much of what we think is fundamental to evolutionary innovation on its head. By exploring a four-billion-year-long record of innovation in biological evolution, Wagner discovers the often-surprising rules that govern which innovations succeed and which fail.