Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 42! What is the Use of Half a Wing? And Why Ideation Misses the Point...
Good morning — more-than beings!
On Tuesday afternoon we were inside a Unicorn.
Not a living breathing unicorn — we still have not met such a creature — but we know that one is always around the corner galavanting by a creek deep in the forests.
Nor was it a Trojan Unicorn ready to disgorge a hidden army of wondrous singularities.
But nonetheless it was a pretty cool place — the University of Graz’s innovation center, start-up hub and incubator where we led a workshop.
This week (and next) we are in Austria doing a number of workshops, keynotes and innovation curriculum design.
Spaghetti is My Teacher
At the beginning of our Unicorn workshop on Tuesday we asked the group:
“How do you define creativity?”
There was a wide range of responses:
Which led to our favorite question:
If creativity involves doing something radically different and totally new — how can it be ideated?
The realization quickly dawned upon everyone present that the radically new will always exceed what is knowable. But then how can we proceed?
Ironically, Darwin was challenged with a similar question some years ago.
About a decade after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 he was challenged by St. George Mivart a comparative anatomist of great renown and Catholic apologist with a powerful criticism of his model.
Mivart asked a simple and provocative question:
“What is the use of half a wing?”
What Mivart meant by this was — if evolution was slow, novel features like wings had to evolve extremely slowly: one very small step after another very small step — how would you ever get to a wing?
Imagine after quite some time you have evolved half a wing. What good is it? It is incomplete and as such it will not help you to fly in any way — nor to run — you will just crash into things and surely you will get eaten very quickly. And getting eaten is not a great way to pass on your genes.
If the purpose of a wing is to fly it would never have evolved via blind and purposeless evolution. Because of this Mivart believed that there had to be something more than blind evolution — some form of inherent direction or plan. God essentially had to already know what the final form that something should develop towards — otherwise they would never get there.
Mivart pointed to stick insects and their astonishing camouflage, flatfish with eyes on one side of their heads, and whale baleen as further examples of features that could never have evolved via a random process of selection.
This was the criticism that Darwin took more seriously than any other. And in the 6th edition of The Origin of Species (he droped the “On” for this edition) he substantially reworked many sections and added a special chapter (chapter7), Miscellaneous objections.
Darwin proposed a new general logic of evolution and used this to explain each of Mivart’s examples.
Darwin's key point was that no feature evolved for its current use. The current purpose of any feature first emerged as an accidental by-product of an earlier purpose.
Thus, wings never evolved for flight — winged flight was an unintended by-product.
It turns out he was right. Feathers were originally scales which early in the age of dinosaurs, sequestered toxins. As they grew to sequester more toxins, the shape they spontaneously formed was a hollow tube.
This leads us to the key evolutionary and creative question: and what else could these hollow tubes afford dinosaurs?
The answer is that they could unintentionally keep dinosaurs warm. Soon the world was full of feathery furry dinosaurs. The age of feathers had begun (without any connection to flight).
Again we can ask this key creative question:
And what else can this afford?
The unintended possibility of hollow tubes was that they could hold pigmentation — which afforded new forms of sexiness. Big colorful feathers evolved everywhere they did not interfere with movement. This meant that long feathers began to show up along the crest, and behind the arms and legs (just google dinosaurs + feathers — it is crazy wonderful!).
What are big feathers under the arms and behind the hind legs? Wings.
Now we have wings — big and small wings of all types. And thus we entered the age of wings.
What did these evolving wings afford? Many many things: with big insulated wings you could keep many eggs warm, big wings allowed one to look big and scary — or just super sexy. Long tail feathers that could fall off meant that the dinosaur chasing would probably only get a mouthful of feathers!
Were these wings there for flight? Not in any way.
The world was full of highly successful and highly developed feathered and winged dinosaurs. The wing, which to our contemporary eye might have looked like it was there for flight, evolved via a series of sideways purpose switching moves that allowed dinosaurs to successfully live on the land.
The world around the dinosaurs was not static but also evolving — trees and mammals were emerging (and much besides). Trees afford small mammals a great escape from dinosaurs — who with their shorter front legs are afforded less climbing agility and possibilities.
Now flapping wings have the unintended affordance of helping push the dinosaur into the tree trunk and afford a form of “wing assisted incline running” or, WAIR for short.
Dinosaurs in tree canopies needed to get back down. Lots of feathers — including wing feathers afford a reasonable form of parachuting, then gliding and then for some flight.
Thus flight emerges as an accidental by-product of wing-assisted tree climbing.
The critical lesson for creativity — and what we were exploring in our workshop is that while everything has a purpose— every feature affords a desired outcome or activity— nothing is reducible to its ostensible purpose.
We cannot ideate the radically new precisely because in ideation we necessarily conflate thing and purpose.
The radical potential for anything to exceed purpose and identity can only be invented in action— in experimental engagement.
Darwin called this capacity of features to exceed their contemporary use and be co-opted towards novel ends “pre-adaptations.” But this suggests that the future purpose is already there— that the wing was pre-adapted to flight. But far from it— the emergence of winged flight was entirely contingent. Because of this, Elizabeth Verba and Steven Jay Gould proposed an alternative and improved name: “exaptation. Ex — meaning outside of. And aptation meaning an intended function — thus exaptation something outside of its intended function.
All innovation surfs and engages exaptation.
This morning on my walk I came across the most beautiful tiny bird's nest. This wondrous thing was composed of delicate twigs, leaves, grass, plant fluff, knitting wool and seeds.
This little bird surfed the unintended affordances of its environment — what can it do? We find this across the entire spectrum of human inventions as well — every invention involves exaptations.
How do you discover exaptations? They cannot be ideated — if you do this you will only get what you already know. They can only be co-invented via direct experimental engagement.
One asks experimentally: “what else can this do?” “What else can we become together?”
The answer cannot be known in advance, nor will it get interesting until many emergent sideways iterations have happened.
What is an exaptation?
It is an emergent and radically novel affordances…
This fundamentally matters to creativity in that the world around us opens up to us in new and un-pre-knowable ways when we change our practices, ways of sensing, & the tools we use. The world is not fixed or passive but awaiting our experimental engagements — it will afford us new collective lines of becoming…
So from here inside a Unicorn to wherever you are experimenting beyond what can be known — we hope that connected with these two concepts and tools is of great use in your own experimental journey beyond the horizon of the present!
Till Volume 43
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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