Wagner Lab Research

University of Zurich

Institute of
Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies




Books and Other Publications




Wagner, A. (2011) The origins of evolutionary innovations. Oxford University Press. [OUP]

The history of life is a nearly four billion year old history of transformative change. This change ranges from dramatic macroscopic innovations such as the evolution of wings or eyes, to a myriad molecular changes that form the basis of macroscopic innovations. We are familiar with many examples of innovations but have no systematic understanding of the principles that allow organisms to innovate. This book proposes several such principles as the basis of a theory of innovation, integrating recent knowledge about complex molecular phenotypes with more traditional Darwinian thinking. Central to the book are genotype networks: vast sets of connected genotypes that exist in metabolism and regulatory circuitry, as well as in protein and RNA molecules. The theory can unify innovations that occur at different levels of organization. It captures known features of biological innovation, including the fact that many innovations occur multiple times independently, and that they combine existing parts of a system to new purposes. It also argues that environmental change is important to create biological systems that are both complex and robust, and shows how such robustness can facilitate innovation. Beyond that, the theory can reconcile neutralism and selectionism, as well as explain the role of phenotypic plasticity, gene duplication, recombination, and cryptic variation in innovation. Finally, its principles can be applied to technological innovation, and thus open to human engineering endeavours the powerful principles that have allowed life’s spectacular success.


Wagner, A. (2005) Robustness and Evolvability in Living Systems. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ [PUP]

Living things are unimaginably complex, yet they have withstood a withering assault of harmful influences over several billion years. Such robustness is surprising, because complexity suggests fragility. If you have ever built a house of cards, you know what I mean: The house eventually comes tumbling down. Why is an organism not a molecular house of cards? Why does it not collapse under the slightest perturbation? Is this robustness itself a consequence of past evolution? What role does natural selection play in it? And how does it affect evolvability, the potential for future evolutionary innovation? These are some of the questions that this book addresses.


"This is a major contribution, addressing what are perhaps the central questions in the subject of complex adaptive systems: What makes systems robust and how does selection at different levels of organization act to shape robustness." Simon Levin, Princeton University

"Wagner contributes significantly to the emerging view that natural selection is just one, and maybe not even the most fundamental, source of biological order." Science.


Books for a General Audience


Andreas Wagner (2023) Sleeping Beauties. The mystery of dormant innovations in nature and culture. OneWorld. [OneWorld]

To appear in 2023.  


Andreas Wagner (2019) Life Finds a Way. What evolution teaches us about creativity. Basic Books. [amazon]

From the back cover: How does life—human or otherwise—create? The answer lies in one of the most important and least-understood concepts in science: the adaptive landscape. An adaptive landscape is a topographical map of all possible forms that life could take, and of the likelihood that those forms would endure. In Life Finds a Way, biologist Andreas Wagner does two remarkable things. First, he shows us how to read the adaptive landscape to understand how evolution navigates all its possibilities. Then he shows that the processes that help evolution explore this vast landscape are the same processes that underlie human creativity, from the composition of a song to the invention of a better mouse trap to the creation of a painting like Picasso’s Guernica. Wagner's book can help to explain the role of diversity in human affairs. It can also help us realize our creative potential as individuals and as a society, improving how we teach children, manage creative businesses, educate future leaders, and govern nations that encourage technological innovation. Ultimately, Life Finds a Way offers us a new framework for understanding growth and change in art, business, or science—that is, in life. 

Andreas Wagner has again cut through to the heart of a vital question. The notion that genomes are set up to explore, through trial and error, in the hope of leaping across the adaptive landscape to new peaks is a fresh concept. Wagner draws out fascinating parallels with the way innovation works in human society. Matt Ridley, author of The Evolution of Everything and How Innovation Works

Wagner has done it again. This is a wonderful, mind-expanding book. Prepare to be surprised, enlightened and awed as Wagner reveals the sources of human and natural creativity. Alice Roberts, author of Tamed: Ten Species that Changed our World 



Andreas Wagner (2014) Arrival of the Fittest. Penguin Random House. [amazon]

From the back cover: Darwin's theory of natural selection was a monumental step in our understanding of evolution, explaining how useful adaptations are preserved over generations. However, Darwin's great idea didn't - and couldn't - tell us how those adaptations arise in the first place. This book presents the missing piece of Darwin's theory. Full of fascinating examples, Arrival of the Fittest presents an answer to the mysteries of life's rich diversity.

"A truly revolutionary book" The Independent

"Elegantly explores the cunning shortcuts nature uses to achieve the seemingly impossible" Sunday Times, Best Science Books of the Year

"Brilliantly polarizes scientists research into the mystery of life itself" Financial Times, Readers' Books of the Year

"Arrival of the fittest should be mandatory, corrective reading… mindbending… tremendously exciting." BBC Focus


Andreas Wagner (2009) Paradoxical Life. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT [YUP]

What can a fingernail tell us about the mysteries of creation? In one sense, a nail is merely a hunk of mute matter, yet in another, it’s an information superhighway quite literally at our fingertips. Every moment, streams of molecular signals direct our cells to move, flatten, swell, shrink, divide, or die. This ambitious book explores a hidden web of unimaginably complex interactions in every living being. In the process, it unveils a host of paradoxes underpinning our understanding of modern biology, contradictions that are gatekeepers at the frontiers of knowledge. Though we tend to think of concepts in such mutually exclusive pairs as mind-matter, self-other, and nature-nurture, the book argues that these opposing ideas are not actually separate. Indeed, they are as inextricably connected as the two sides of a coin. Through a tour of modern biological marvels, the book illustrates how this paradoxical tension has a profound effect on the way we define the world around us. Paradoxical Life is thus not only a unique account of modern biology. It ultimately serves a radical—and optimistic—outlook for humans and the world we help create.

Gold medal, best Science books, Independent Publisher Book Awards 2010

Silver medal, best Philosophy books of 2009, ForeWord Magazine

"A highly unusual, stimulating, and comprehensive book about paradoxical concepts intrinsic to biological systems, nature, and knowledge itself." Choice

Wagner presents a new way of looking at the relationship between science and ourselves, and of thinking about some very old arguments. This is a book for readers of Douglas Hofstadter, Karl Popper, and Richard Dawkins.” Jonathan Kaplan, Oregon State University




5 QuestionsAndreas Wagner. In Evolutionary theory: 5 Questions; (2009) p 223-229. Edited by Oftedal, G., Olsen, J.K.B., Rossell, P., Norup, M.S. Automatic Press / VIP, Copenhagen.

Evolutionary Theory: 5 Questions is a collection of short interviews based on five provoking questions presented to some of the most influential and prominent scholars in biology and philosophy. They present us with their views on evolutionary theory, its aim, scope, use, the future direction of evolutionary theory and how their work fits in these respects. [Preprint request] preprint request