Four Misunderstandings of Exaptations in Creative Processes

Opening a bottle of beer with a lighter

What are the major misunderstandings of Exaptations in creative processes?

As exaptation becomes recognized as critical to innovation there are a lot of misunderstandings of the process. Here is a brief overview of some of these shortcomings so you can avoid them.

Four Main Misunderstandings of Exaptations

1. Exaptations Are a One-Off or One Step Process

Most examples of innovation are given as if it was a one step process, e.g. birds have feathers for some other purpose (warmth, sexual selection, protection) & something happens (they fall off a cliff) & voila we have flight. Or an engineer is working on radar, has a chocolate bar in pocket, bar melts, microwave heating is discovered. Dirty petri dishes left out, fungi lands & eats bacteria, this is noticed and then we have penicillin. But, it is never a one step linear process with just one exaptation changing everything. It is a non-linear process, that involves many exaptive processes at differing scales & in differing forms. With dinosaur flight we have environmental exaptations as well as bone, muscle, feather, beak… exaptations that all participated in the transformation. Exaptive Innovation is an eco-systemic process not the change of one trait or design feature.

2. Exaptations Are About Re-Purposing in the Sense of Purpose Switching

How many times have you heard exaptation explained as using something other than a bottle opener to open a beer bottle, or a wine bottle, or how we use a chair as a provisional ladder. These are all examples of the most conservative and least creative type of exaptation – they just move things from one existing purpose to another. But the qualitatively new does not emerge via switching from one known purpose to another known purpose. Exaptations are involved in creative processes of developing qualitatively novel ways of being alive utilizing multiple different unintended aspects of things. Novel Purposes are invented in this process.

3. It Is in the Thing Awaiting Discovery

For example, flight is “in” the feather – just lingering around awaiting its final discovery and activation by an unsuspecting dinosaur. But flight or any ability is not “in” anything – it is a relational property of a system. And that system is what must be invented via a feedforward cycle. In this regard exaptations are best understood as a type of affordance – an unintended affordance. And as such they involve changes to bodies, abilities, and aspects of the environment.

4. Exaptations Are Only in Unique Cases of Innovation

Exaptations are claimed as being only in some very distinct cases of invention. But exaptive processes play numerous critical roles in all life. They are a fundamental feature of action -- of doing. As such they play a role in all innovation. It is just that our focus is on our intentional role such that we neither see nor acknowledge how much we rely on the unintended…

Interested in more? Explore our extensive collection of writings on exaptations for innovation and creativity.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

Delivered Every Friday