Exaptation – copy & paste in the evolution of tech and culture

Just got a name for something I have grasped for a long time. I used to call it accidental by products of evolution, and had this idea when I was doing biology aged 15. EG the piano is a by product of the evolution of fingers. We as humans have gone beyond what was biologically fittest, accidental by-products just heaped upon themselves and interacted with each other to enable creativity and consciousness.

From What Technology wants by Kevin Kelly page 50: “These inadvertent anticipatory inventions are called exaptations in biology.”

“Exaptation is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe a trait that has been co-opted for a use other than the one for which natural selection has built it.”

“It is a relatively new term, proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba in 1982 to make the point that a trait’s current use does not necessarily explain its historical origin. They proposed exaptation as a counterpart to the concept of adaptation.

For example, the earliest feathers belonged to dinosaurs not capable of flight. So, they must have first evolved for something else. Researchers have speculated early feathers may have been used for attracting mates or keeping warm. But later on, feathers became essential for modern birds’ flight.

It is a relatively new term, proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba in 1982 to make the point that a trait’s current use does not necessarily explain its historical origin. They proposed exaptation as a counterpart to the concept of adaptation.

For example, the earliest feathers belonged to dinosaurs not capable of flight. So, they must have first evolved for something else. Researchers have speculated early feathers may have been used for attracting mates or keeping warm. But later on, feathers became essential for modern birds’ flight.

(Perry, 2013)

In the evolution of technology and culture it is all exaptation. The reason is that the basis of tech and cultural evolution are not genetic, the information is carried by social means. Thus nothing goes extinct, and all innovations can be resurrected. In other words we can cut and paste to make new things, that process is far faster and more efficient than evolution in the biological sphere. Sexual reproduction is a form of cut & paste, but still far more primitive than what we can do with our inventions.

For example: Id love to graft the Graffiti handwriting system from the dead Palm onto a current smartphone.


Parry, Wynne. (2013, September 16). Exaptation: How evolution uses what’s available. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/39688-exaptation.html

How to start a movement

I have been thinking (fairly useless activity) about ideas, being fairly useless. The video a few posts back with Rose and Dawkins made something clear to me. The ideas or the code are nothing on their own, they need to be fertilised, and take hold. The ideas are like sperm, they need an egg that will actually hatch. Another way of putting it is that culture is to ideas as is the petri dish to the cell. Things don’t grow in a vacuum, but only under very specific conditions.

“Men make their own history,’’ wrote Karl Marx, ‘‘but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’’

This video, which I’d seen before, is well introduced here:

Influential Marketing Blog: How To Start A Movement:

Some ideas are a banquet. They go on and on, and invite us to consider what they really mean for hours or days – or sometimes much much longer. Then there are the flashes of insight. The quick sparks that we immediately react to and understand when we hear or see or touch them. These are the types of ideas I wish I could find and share more often. Ideas that inspire in a moment. Starting a movement, for most people, is much more complicated than just having an idea. If you happen to work in a place where this is part of your goal, your questions are often about stakeholders and messages and creating something “viral.” We are all seeking the formula that turns that idea into a movement.

This weekend I saw a short 3 minute video presentation from Derek Sivers at TED that presented an irreverent conclusion – that leadership, your idea and even your “strategy” may be the most overrated elements of creating any kind of movement. Here’s the video:

Evolution of the Good

More on evolution and the basis for altruism.  I heard this show ages ago, I can recall listening to it while scrambling up a steep loose rockface!  (Miles reminded me about it on Facebook) The kinship theory makes total sense to me, but it does not mean the group theory is wrong does it?  Why the either/or here?

The Good Show – Radiolab:

In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another? The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today’s plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness … or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?

Copy of the audio:
The Good Show


Steven Rose & Richard Dawkins (Video)

Further to the last post, look at this video (thanks Josh)

Steven Rose by blindwatcher

It seems to me they all agree on the question where does “good” come from. Steven Rose is systemic in his thinking, Dawkins more reductionist.

Background to this discussion:

Steven Rose – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Research and scientific controversies With Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin, Rose championed the “radical science movement.”[3][page needed] The three criticized sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and adaptationism, most prominently in the book Not in Our Genes (1984), laying out their opposition to Sociobiology (E. O. Wilson, 1975), The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins, 1976), and other works promoting an evolutionary explanation for human social behaviour. Not in Our Genes described Dawkins as “the most reductionist of sociobiologists”. In retort, Dawkins wrote that the book practices reductionism by distorting arguments in terms of genetics to “an idiotic travesty (that the properties of a complex whole are simply the sum of those same properties in the parts)”, and accused the authors of giving “ideology priority over truth”.[4] Rose replied in the 2nd edition of his book Lifelines. Rose wrote further works in this area; in 2000 he jointly edited with the sociologist Hilary Rose, a critique of evolutionary psychology: Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology. In 2006 he wrote a paper dismissing classical heritability estimates as useful scientific measures in respect of human populations especially in the context of IQ.[5] Rose was for several years a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s ethics debating series The Moral Maze.[1] Rose is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.

Die for the group and spread your genes

I enjoyed this essay:

Where does good come from? – The Boston Globe: Instapaper

On a recent Monday afternoon, the distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson was at his home in Lexington, talking on the phone about the knocks he’s been taking lately from the scientific community, and paraphrasing Arthur Schopenhauer to explain his current standing in his field. “All new ideas go through three phases,” Wilson said, with some happy mischief in his voice. “They’re first ridiculed or ignored. Then they meet outrage. Then they are said to have been obvious all along.”

Wilson is 81, an age at which he could be forgiven for retreating to a farm and lending his name to the occasional popular book about science. Over the past year he’s tried his hand at fiction writing, publishing a novel about ants — his scientific specialty — and landing a short story in The New Yorker. But he has also been pressing a disruptive scientific idea, one he reckons is currently in phase two of the Schopenhauer progression: outrage.

The idea is that if the group that benefits from altruism, the tribe will live to spread the genes. This “outrageous” idea by Edward O Wilson is not so silly.  Nor is it new.  It is the bread & butter of what I learned at the University of Canterbury in the 60s from Dr Bigelow.
I enjoyed his classes and book. He taught the simple idea that the unit of evolution is the “gene pool”, not the individual carrier of the genes. Amazon

Social cooperation, which leads to the Golden Rule and what we call the highest human qualities, was demanded by what we call the lowest of human qualities: the ferocity of human enemies. Shakespeare’s two opposed foes that still encamp us therefore evolved together. They were not even two different sides of the same coin, but were as intimately interdependent as our brains and hearts are. Cooperation was not substituted for conflict. Cooperation-for-conflict, considered as a single, hyphenated word, was demanded — for sheer survival.

page 7 & 8 The Dawn Warriors.

Researching this a bit more, it is evident that Wilson is adhering closely to Darwin:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection (Darwin, 1891, Vol. I: 203; italics added).

Found that quote in an interesting paper on the history of these ideas while searching for Robert Bigelow AND Edmund O Wilson: Human Evolution and the Origin of War: a Darwinian Heritage

[A fitting post for Easter Sunday!]

“emergence, through evolution, of a higher level of organization”

This Wikipedia entry links to my current wave of enthusiasm for the evolution of dialogue. We inherit forms that are hard to change. Finding a new way of sitting to talk is a big deal.

I thought about this in watching the movie 2012 (not that I really want to mention that movie or that year). In a UN meeting of heads of state some are in the room and some are on screens – it hardly matters. Technology has advanced, but the science of communication has not – the process is much the same as the old inherited voting system, combined with a bit of power-play.

Yet I think we can hasten and improve the means of generating creative intelligence. Process design. People are talking about it a lot!

Metasystem transition – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

A metasystem transition is the emergence, through evolution, of a higher level of organization or control. Prime examples are the origin of life, the transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms, and the emergence of symbolic thought. A metasystem is formed by the integration of a number of initially independent components, such as molecules, cells or individiduals, and the emergence of a system steering or controlling their interactions. As such, the collective of components becomes a new, goal-directed individual, capable of acting in a coordinated way. This metasystem is more complex, more intelligent, and more flexible in its actions than the initial component systems.