Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 43! Defining Exaptations...
Good Morning fellow experiments in novel becoming!
Today is our final day of this trip to Europe. After ten days it is time to head home. We have managed to swim in a few alpine lakes, scramble some beautiful mountains, and drink some wonderful bio-dynamic wines with old friends — but most of all we have been doing workshops on creativity and innovation.
It has been interesting to dig into new practices for qualitative change and worldmaking with different groups. We are always learning quite a bit in these situations — developing new tools, exercises and practices. This time was no exception. We will share more on this in the coming weeks.
But now we are somewhere just South-West of Iceland far above the Atlantic.
Last week in the newsletter we introduced Darwin and the problem of half a wing. This is the classical problem of how does a qualitative change emerge in a quantitative and incremental world.
His solution — that the wing did not originally evolve for flight and that flight is an unintended by-product of the wing and feathers evolving for other purposes — is a brilliant insight into the nature of creativity. Darwin called this possibility that haunts all features a “pre-adaptation”. It has been since renamed exaptation — a more fitting name for the unintended possibilities in all things — they are truly outside of purpose.
Last week we gave you a brief overview of the story of the evolution of the feather and bird flight and brought to light some of the many exaptations involved in this journey. If you are new subscriber or skipped over last weeks newsletter (it happens) we encourage you to go back and take a look before proceeding with this newsletter.
This week we want to dig a bit deeper into exaptations and offer some technical insights and nuances the multiple forms of exaptations take in the wild (next week we will look at the process).
Before digging into exaptations and unintended capacities — we need to make the connection between an agent, what they are doing and the immediate environment they are in.
Creatures like ourselves are embodied and situated agents embeddeded in a meaningful environment that we shape while at the same time it shapes us (enactive sense-making). In our activities we engage with things that afford us unique capacities to act meaningfully — from shoes to pens to smartphones, to our hands, elbows and the soil in between our toes.
Four key aspects of this are:
Let’s take a brief moment to define exaptation and its related terms:
Feature: A potential for action
Aptation: Any feature that affects the function/fit of an organism in a specific (co-shaped/shaping) environment (niche).
Adaptation: Any feature produced via a developmental process (natural selection in evolution) for its current function — or to do its current purpose better. Adaptive processes are the ones we use everyday to keep things functioning in normal ways — improvements towards known and understood goals/purposes.
Exaptation: Any feature that performs a function but was not produced directly (purposefully) for its current affordance. This is the universe we wish to explore — a universe of possibilities unknowable in advance found in and with everything.
Adaptations form the “outside” and visible form of all things, while exaptations unexpectedly emerge when things are put to new or unintended uses.
To understand how this happens let us turn to things...
Things: What is a thing? Every action and practice involves physical things — this could be our bodies, a tool or some aspect of the environment. In each of these cases a thing has three qualities:
NOTE: While we are discussing physical things we would argue that everything has these three qualities. We will go into more detail on these below.
Features: A feature is any component of the thing that has a function, — also a feature, or causal possibility. Always a subset of all causal possibilities (indeterminate and open)
Let’s now get into Adaptation and Exaptations
Out of things comes intentional and unintentionally properties: the adaptive and the exaptive.
Let’s consider each of these one at a time starting with the intentional features:
NOTE: please zoom in on above diagram
Intentional Features: Consider a coffee mug: You make a handle intentionally on a coffee mug to hold it. The handle is an intended feature. It is deliberately adaptive toward a known and desired end (drinking hot coffee without burning ones hands). Developing this feature is change-in-degree — a quantitative change (e.g. one could make the handle thicker or thinner, longer or shorter, more embellished or less — but in every case it is just a variation of the existing logic of a handle and its purpose).
An intentional feature is created by making a necessary physical property (see above diagram).
Intended Effects: Intentional features can have both intended effects such as allowing one to hold the cup and not burn ones hands and unintended effects:
The most common form of what is considered to be the paradigmatic exemplar of an exaptation is in fact quite conservative from the perspective of innovation: the co-opting of an intentional feature for an existing end but one that was not intended by the maker. Using a coffee cup as a pen holder, or a cookie cutter is a good example. Neither of these two uses was intended by the coffee cup designer. The cup is being co-opted for these uses in a creative manner. But this unintended use is not a novel use — pen holders and cookie cutters exist. Nothing really new has happened, and all that is creative is the ability to co-opt an existing thing form an unintended but already existing purpose.
This is something we do everyday: we are practicing a creative and very pragmatic use-switching of objects: using chairs as ladders, using shoes as hammers, using wine bottles as vases or rolling pins. On the whole we are wonderful at this. This is a necessary everyday coping skill, but it is not leading to any genuinely qualitatively novel.
Now while this is not inherently novel — it has on occasion the potential to lead to something more novel. For example you can use your shoe to open a bottle of wine by putting the bottle in the heel of the shoe and banging the shoe against a wall. Doing this slowly pushes the cork out. It is not a novel purpose but it is certainly a novel approach. Iterating on this approach and using it in experimental practices could lead to something far more novel.
The unintended effects of intentional features can also exceed the known. We will get into this below in unintended features.
No longer Used Feature: the lip on the bottom of a cup was placed there to help the cup sit flat if the bottom surface deformed during the manufacturing process. With current ceramic technology this is hardly necessary. But the feature still exists none-the-less and as such has great exaptive potential.
This is what the great evolutionary theorist S. Jay Gould called a “historical unemployment” — a feature that once had a purpose but now has none and thus is open to being radically repurposed. His interest was in blind mole rats and what new purpose their eyes might come to serve.
The development of Hip-Hop took advantage of the record becoming semi-obsolete and exapted it towards a radically new musical practice.
Things do not only consist of necessary physical properties but they also consist of other properties: necessary and chance physical by-products — both of these are the richest sources of qualitatively different and new exaptations (and are thus critical things to experiment with). NOTE: See above diagram.
Necessary Physical By-Products: the thickness of the coffee cup is a necessary by-product of wanting to make a strong and insulating cup. Every thing has many necessary by-products that can be exapted.
This category is perhaps the most interesting and full of novel possibilities (as opposed to intentional features with unintended effects). Steven Jay Gould gave the example of an architectural spandrel is an ideal example:
A spandrel is the a necessary unintended bit of triangular space made when one puts a dome on top of a square.
The space of the spandrel began us something unintended but unavoidable and slowly over the renaissance became a very important space for artistic expression taking on an identity of its own.
Gould’s contention was that most features in living beings began as this form of exaptation.
Chance Physical By-Products: Imagine dropping your favorite ceramic coffee cup. The various shards that it produces — and what you can discover by using them — this is a chance physical by-product. This space of exaptations is the one that is perhaps most under explored.
We can thus summarize the space of exaptations:
Exaptations and the new in general are very hard — if not impossible to see or sense because they sit invisibly inside of the known, the purposeful and the intended. Existing affordances take on the feel of having always been there — of simply being “the way things are”. In the face of this the new that emerges via the unintended is by definition invisible and literally non-existant. We see and sense the affordances of gripping, holding, and sipping from a coffee cup as objective features of reality: a cup full of coffee with a handle.
Exaptations cannot be seen or sensed in the flow of everyday life. Our practices of embodied and engaged sense-making seamlessly allow us to engage in purposeful life — on-going worldmaking — without ever noticing that meaning emerges via a contingent ecosystem of delicately supported actions.
Hoping to sense or perceive exaptations in the flow of everyday life is foolish.
To perceive or sense exaptive possibilities we have to change our practices. Genuinely new practices will lead to new affordances — and these will be exaptations.
Engaging with exaptations in this way is an experimental practice — it is not a careful act of noticing.
What does such an experiment look like: it will involve blocking. This is a practice we have discussed in detail elsewhere. Blocking a tool, practice, or habit forces one to engage with and activate the exaptive. Below we briefly sketch this as a five step process where in step three one experimentally engages with a exaptivity.
We often tell the story of both evolution and innovation in very linear manners. We focus on and elevate singular events—missing links and ah-ha moments.
All human innovations engage exaptive processes and so it is critical to see how many unintended processes at differing scales are coming together:
If we look at our example from the last newsletter of an exaptive process — that of dinosaurs evolving feathered wings (becoming birds):
Parts of the creature (scales, body mass, bones, lungs, etc.), parts of the environment (trees, new land masses, oceans), and other creatures (mammals — and all their exaptations) are meeting in countless ways to form a co-evolutionary dance.
Even in this telling of the story we can fall into putting this into a neat series of sideways steps: scales lead to tubes which lead to sexy feathers which lead to non-flying wings, which lead to tree climbing which lead to controlled falling… This linear sideways story gets at the exaptive nature of innovation, but it betrays it’s multi-modal, multiscalar non-linearity (see above).
But this process is anything but linear! And we need to understand that the process looks more like the diagram below:
The concept of creativity being a singular ideational breakthrough (that mythic lightbulb moment) that involves a noticing of an exaptive potential — is also an impoverished telling of a far richer story.
A careful deconstruction and tracking of actual innovation processes involving humans always reveals multiple exaptations, multiple processes, and multiple scales interacting in very non-linear fashions.
Innovation is a multi-tendriled process that is an ecosystemic dance full of twists, turns, and sideways leaps happening at many scales and in many strange meetings. And in these — all the parts are evolving — co-evolving (people, things, environments, processes, and concepts).
These are much harder stories to tell or visualize — they put our most experimental and avant-garde novels to shame!
Well, we hope that this helps give you a sense of the scope and power of exaptations in creativity. Next week we’ll look more deeply into the process.
Have an astonishing week of exaptive journeys into new and surprising affordances!
Till Volume 44
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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