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What can human creators learn from grasses, the 'sleeping beauties' of our natural world?

By evolutionary standards, grasses are the winners of life's lottery – but success didn't come quickly. We can learn from that, says biologist Andreas Wagner

A hand grasping some grasses

Image: Kasia Kozakiewicz

Quick, what are the most successful organisms on planet Earth? Apex predators like tigers and great white sharks spring to mind. Some people will name birds, insects, bacteria, or even those seemingly indestructible cockroaches. But few people will mention a family of plants right up there with the best: grasses. Yes, humble grasses. They meet at least two criteria for spectacular success. The first is abundance. Grasses cover the North American prairies, the African savannahs, the Eurasian steppes and countless other lands. The Eurasian steppes alone span 8,000km, grasses waving in the wind from the Caucasus all the way to the Pacific. A second criterion is the number and diversity of species. Since the time grasses originated in life’s evolution, they have evolved into no fewer than 10,000 species in an astonishing variety of forms, from centimetre-high tufts of hair grass adapted to the freezing cold of Antarctica, to the towering grasses of northern India that can hide entire elephant herds, and to Asian bamboo forests, with ‘trees’ that grow 30 metres tall. 

But grasses weren’t always so spectacularly successful. For tens of millions of years – most of their evolutionary history – grasses barely eked out a living. They failed to flourish by any standard. The origin of grasses dates back to the age of dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago. But for many millions of years their fossils are so rare that they cannot possibly have been abundant. And they did not become today’s dominant species until less than 25 million years ago, more than 40 million years after their origin. 

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Why did grasses have to wait 40 million years for their proverbial spot in the sun? Grasses are not unique in this way. They are among myriad new life forms whose success – measured in abundance or diversity of species – was mysteriously delayed for millions of years. The first ants, for example, appear on the scene 140 million years ago. However, ants did not begin to branch into today’s more than 11,000 species until 40 million years later. And a family of salt-water clams had to wait for a whopping 350 million years before it hit the big time, diversifying into 500 species. 

These and many other new life forms remained dormant before succeeding explosively. They are the sleeping beauties of biological evolution. They fascinate me no end, because they cast doubt on the truths about success and failure that we hold self-evident. And these doubts apply not just to the innovations of nature but also to those of human culture, where many technological breakthroughs and artistic revolutions started out as sleeping beauties. They include technologies like radar – discovered, forgotten, and then rediscovered – neglected scientific bombshells like Gregor Mendel’s genetic laws of inheritance and artistic works like Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, which languished in obscurity for over a century. 

I am a biologist and my life’s aspiration is to understand how biological evolution creates new solutions to life’s problems. I want to understand how nature creates. We are blessed to live in a time where this distant goal is closer than ever. And what I learned applies to both nature and culture.  

First, innovation is not precious and rare, but frequent and cheap. Yet most innovations fail, at least at first. Their ubiquity shows that innovations cannot stand on their own. They must be born into a world that’s right for them. Second, sleeping beauties – creative products without apparent merit, value or utility, but with the power to transform life given enough time – are everywhere in both nature and culture. The sleeping beauties of nature can help us understand why creating may be easy, but creating successfully is beyond hard. It lies outside the creator’s control. 

What comfort can struggling creators draw from this? Both in nature and culture, every creative product is just a ticket to life’s grand lottery. Buy as many tickets as you can afford – create as much as you can – and you will maximise your chances of success.  

But just like in a lottery, most of your creations will fail. A problem, sure, but only if you are fixated on success. Curiously, many highly successful creators are not. Novelist Naguib Mahfouz says, “I love my work more than I love what it produces,” and writer Richard Stern states: “At your best, you’re not thinking, how am I making my way ahead in the world by doing this?”      

When psychologist Donald Campbell talks to young people he recommends: “Don’t go into science if you will not enjoy it even if you do not become famous.” In a world replete with sleeping beauties and names writ in water, the reward for your unrecognised gems lies in the joy of creating them. 

Sleeping Beauties cover

Sleeping Beauties: The Mysteries of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture by Andreas Wagner is out now (Oneworld, £20).

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