Welcome to Emerging Futures - Vol 94! Exaptation 3.0 – Affordances, Niche Construction and Innovation...
Good Morning Excessive Becomings,
This week has kicked off our busy summer period – over the next month we will be doing eight different programs with various partners. These will range from research programs on teaching creativity for early childhood, to urban design, and ecological change making. We are literally working with every age group this summer from six years old to high school, college, to professionals and teachers. In all of this we are collaborating with international colleagues in the arts, mathematics, education, urban planning, ecology/sustainability, design, and management. It is an exciting and beautiful month that is ahead.
What is really exciting for us, is that we get to test and evolve our practices for creativity and innovation with many different contexts and collaborators. One of the really good parts about being both academics and consultants is that we are always in these really tight feedback loops between research, and practice. And because of this we are able to test and develop both theory and practice in a really fast iterative cycle with an international group of collaborators at differing scales and in highly varied real world contexts.
What is especially gratifying is that the topics that we are writing about in the newsletter over the last few weeks on Affordances, Emergence, Enaction, Niche Construction, Dispositive, Abstract Machines, Enabling Constraints, Novel Taskspaces, Material Engagement, and Epicycles – are all ones that we are putting to work in highly practical ways this month. And that, in these activities we are collaboratively developing new tools, practices, theoretical concepts and having meaningful impacts in our region and beyond.
Over the last four newsletters we have been exploring how the concept of affordances gives us a unique way into understanding and developing alternative practices for innovation:
This week in the newsletter we want, as promised, to continue from last week with exaptations and affordances – and offer some examples and practical techniques.
And to mix things up a bit – we are going to also get personal and Iain is going to share some of his own backstory to help ground our engagements – both theoretical and practical with exaptation:
Years ago – over thirty years ago, in the mid-late 80’s I discovered the concept of exaptation.
I was in the middle of a thriving experimental art scene – a world of truely experimental dance, cinema, writing, and music on the far North Eastern Edge of the Pacific in Vancouver. The Western Front was going strong, as was the Kootenay School of Writing, the Video In, Proprioception Books – and many many alternative spaces, collectives, and community groups were thriving. And if you volunteered at a couple of spaces you could get into all of them for free – which was ideal for a poor and intensely curious kid.
I was doing experiments deeply influenced by the work of John Cage and his techniques of building abstract generative systems that utilized chance and non-intention to explore the new. These were turning into visual art, writing, cinema, music, political and social activities and on very few occasions dance. It was not that I was doing anything special – far from it – but what was important for me, was that it was an astonishingly rich and experimental moment where it was possible to live very reasonably and explore with a highly diverse and similarly experimental community.
Somehow I came across a book by Stephen Jay Gould and his concept of exaptation. It is hard to recollect how this happened exactly – I was a baker at a restaurant, which was the perfect job – after volunteering at an experimental venue and taking in some amazing event that went late into the night I could bike over to work and start baking for the morning with a stack of cassettes ranging from NWA to Diamanda Galas, John Cage, John Zorn and Sun Ra. Anyway, I think one of the waiters loaned me one of his books by Gould. At the time my interests in reading were not Biology or Evolutionary theory – I was far more interested in Foucault, Deleuze and the arts. But, once I started I could not stop.
The concepts of Punctuated Equilibrium, and Exaptation gripped me. Gould, who coined both of these terms (with Nils Eldredge and Elizabeth Verba), wrote about them in differing ways from popular articles to scientific papers. I read all of it and more.
For the sake of this newsletter and its focus on exaptation we can ignore Punctuated Equilibrium. What at the time was most important and exciting for me about exaptation was that:
Creativity beyond the known:
For me, coming from the world of Cage – whose whole creative project explored and probed questions of how do we create outside of personal intentions and how do we pay attention to the world beyond our sense of good, bad, desire etc. And in this context, Gould’s theory of exaptive processes was both a powerful explanation and an amazing tool:
Here was a way to create without a plan or understanding of what would eventually emerge. And as such it offered a way to make things that went beyond what one could ideate or know in advance. And this both made sense and gave me tools to take this further.
And I immediately felt the resonance between Gouolds concept of exaptation and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s approach of always asking:
“We do not even know what a body can do! – What else can a body do?”
Most importantly, the exaptation process was a concept that one could put directly to work. How?
Well, if in a super simplistic sense dinosaurs had feathers that had a purpose – say thermoregulation, and this same feather had many other unintended capacities in the right context to do quite different things, then one could get at these by refusing or blocking the main purpose and experimenting to see what else might be possible.
So, between Cage and Gould I could see a method of:
And for me a whole world opened up and connected in the arts and beyond: Byron Gysin and William Burroughs, Lyn Hejinian, Olipo, Aimé Césaire, Yvonne Rainer… where the exploration of enabling constraints and emergent novel outcomes was central to their work.
The second critical aspect for me was that Gould was directly connecting this concept of Exaptation from the domain of evolutionary biology to human creative practices and philosophy.
Gould had a strong personal interest in contemporary experimental art from Marcel Duchamp onward, and collaborated with a number of contemporary artists. His work references and enters into a meaningful dialog with contemporary philosophy from Nietzsche to Foucault.
In his theoretical writing on Exaptation Gould explored human innovation via architecture: One of his most famous examples of an exaptation was the “spandrels” found under the dome in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice.
For Gould and his collaborator R. C. Lewontin the spandrel was a paradigm example of a critical form of exaptive process: A Spandrel is an unintended architectural feature that is an automatic physical by-product of resting a circular dome on four columns:
It is not an intended feature but the necessary outcome of a physical system (how to resolve the connection of a weight bearing dome meeting a cube). And once the spandrel existed it was quickly exapted (co-opted) to be a new space for very unique artistic interventions.
What was so revelatory and resonant for me, as I made work in a Cagian manner – was that Gould had a way of talking about generative and creative non-intention in human making. And that I (and many others) could develop abstract exaptive systems that would by themselves give rise to a range of astonishing and novel outcomes – none of which were directly the intention of the “author”.
And that the process of setting up a system for generative making could lead to novel practices and the development of new concepts.
What I got by putting Cage and Gould together was that one could develop a clear exaptive method for innovation:
1. As an agent one was always situated in a socio-material context (say a particular art practice). And that in this context there were a series of possible outcomes that related to context relevant goals and purposes.
2. If one carefully disclosed these goals, purposes, practices and material logics one could experimentally “block” a number of them. And in doing so one would be pushed towards exploring the various unintended latent forms and possibilities.
3. One could randomly select an unintended possibility and via a process of active attunement follow it and develop it.
One thing I realized early on in using this technique is that the level of novelty that the process generated is dependent on what you block. If you block something trivial the change will be equally trivial. If you block something more substantive the change will be more likely of a qualitative nature. And to find something substantive to block requires a deeper understanding of the existing logics of a system/structure.
And in this way creativity begins with analytical work. Creative processes do not just begin in experimentation and move forward from there. Without a critical disclosure of the structural logics of what is going on, an exaptive creativity is going to remain trivial.
What needs to be disclosed is the generative infrastructure that is at once social, technical, cultural, and perceptual that works holistically to give rise to a way of being alive. And this, for me a close reader of Foucault and Deleuze prior to reading Gould was something that could be understood as what Foucault termed a Dispositive. The historically specific immanent generative forms of an infrastructure – the dispositive is what needs to be disclosed and understood such that one can start to experimentally block pivotal aspects of it.
In my own journey, over the ensuing decade, because of this understanding of the generative creative quality of historical dispositives and how creativity was a more than human quality, I grew more interested in working collaboratively on questions of the built environment, and community based change making. Art as practiced (as an individual form of subjective creative expression) held ever less personal interest.
This shift led in the late 1990s to the founding with others of the design collaborative SPURSE. Our focus became ecological research, experimental design, and innovation leadership. We developed many distinct ways to probe, catalyze, disrupt and re-imagine systems both large and small. We collaborated with communities, organizations, and individuals from the high arctic to inner city neighborhoods in Bolivia to develop a broad range of creative processes to effect real change: from restaurants, wetlands, wayfinding apps, urban renewal programs, microbiology laboratories, cookbooks, buildings, everyday tools and more. To date we have done over a hundred projects.
While the number of projects, or the exact logic is not that important for this discussion, what is, is that always central to our innovation methods was working with exaptation processes – and the inventing of new exaptation processes that could work in different contexts and logics.
As we began to lay out last week, Gould during the same period further developed the logic and model of exaptation. We could call this exaptation 2.0. His careful explication of the total “exaptive pool” became for us a critical tool to understand what was all possible as forms of experimental exaptation.
And this in turn became an invaluable resource in regards to innovation practices because of its explicit nature. We could experimentally, in any situation address any and all aspects of the total logics of the exaptive pool.
It is worth taking a moment to walk through this diagram. Gould understood exaptations coming from physical aspects of bodies and environments (but there is no reason not to expand this to concepts, practices, and processes, etc.).
Physical things can be divided up by how they came about. This is the upper rectangle in the diagram (see below). There are three possibilities, and if one starts from the right and moves left:
And from the careful paying attention to these one could begin to ask “what else can they do?” And for Gould the possible pathways could be summed up in the following diagram. And that this diagram could encompass all of the ways in the creative evolution of biological life novelty emerged.
We find that the best way to gain an experimental facility with exaptations is to do two things:
Here are some suggestions on how to get started:
There is a lot of problematic talk of exaptation as a process by which one exaptation leads a novel outcome in and of itself (Exaptation 1.0). The often quoted example of the evolution of feathers for temperature regulation and display, which were then repurposed for flight is a good example of this problem, as is the way we talk about microwaves, viagra and other innovations as linear two step processes. Nothing has ever emerged because of one exaptation and then an “adaptation process”.
This is why it is critical to look deeply at actual examples. Think of a great human example – the development of Hip Hop – which this year we are celebrating its 50th year. It is both a qualitatively new approach to making music (via sampling and other practices) and an all encompassing larger cultural practice of worldmaking that is profoundly innovative.
So what roles did exaptation play in its development? Its emergence involved a significant number of exaptative processes. If we focus on the musical aspects a number of these involve the co-opting of the record player from being a device to play recorded music to being an instrument in and of itself (this is connected to the exaptation of the record as well – scratching, etc.). Rapping emerges from a convergence of other exaptations – the sermon, the MC, etc.
Now no one would say that any one of these key exaptive things was radically repurposed to produce hiphop. Imagine the absurdity of saying “exapting the record player produced hiphop” – this equally the absurdity of saying “exapting the feather led to flight”... Many coordinated exaptations, and other practices had to take place in a highly networked manner. This is no different in biological evolution or in the development of any other innovation.
Exaptation is a process that is part of other processes – and it is these processes that ultimately lead to the emergence of some novel way of being alive such as those that involve flight.
Evolutionary theories are theories of creation and creativity. They are some of the most far reaching and powerful theories of creativity that we have. And as such it is an astonishing resource to draw from for both understanding and practical application – which is something that we have been doing for over thirty years.
Evolutionary theories, while they can often seem arcane and of little practical application, should be of great interest to everyone engaged in creative practices. So while what follows can certainly feel arcane, it is anything but in regards to human creative practices and innovation:
As one might expect, Exaptation has undergone quite radical shifts since it was introduced just over 40 years ago – this is primarily because evolutionary theories have not stood still. Over the last two decades there have been many interesting developments in how causality, agency and change have been theorized in the field.
When exaptation was introduced, it (1) focused on the creature to the exclusion of the environment, (2) how its physical features could be co-opted for new purposes., as well as (3) how single acts of exaptation could lead to a process of adapting to the purpose/activity.
The focus on the creature and the metaphors of “fitting”, and “adaptation” in early evolutionary theory and the original development of the concept of exaptation reinforced a clear separation between a creature and its environment. Fitness literally articulates a process of how a creature needs to fit a pre given environmental niche. And adapting becomes the evolutionary process to do this. The environment does not change, but the creature changes and adapts to it.
Further, in answer to the question “How does a creature respond in a novel manner?” The answer of Exaptation 1.0 is that the creature co-opts some existing feature (exaptation) that it has and adapts it to some novel end such that it fits into a new environmental niche. This is the classical story of the dinosaur’s bodily feature: the feather/wing evolving via adaptation for a purpose of staying warm in cold environments and being then co-opted (exapted) for gliding which allowed it to fit via further adaptation into a new environment.
The problem is that we have come to realize that none of this is quite right. While the core abstract logic of Darwinian natural selection (inherited features vary + environments have limitations + different creatures use the environment differently = we have differing numbers of differing offspring) is correct – but it needs to be augmented.
The critical augmentation comes from radical niche construction theory which begins by noting that creatures neither live in “external” environments, nor do they adapt to pre-existing environments. This has come to be called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.
Living beings live in a dynamic relational landscape of affordances (affordances are a relation between embodied skills and context relevant aspects of the environment that give rise to specific possibilities for action). Two creatures can live in the same physical reality but be in entirely different landscapes of affordances. Thus environmental niches do not pre-exist an organism – they are co-specifying and co-determining. To talk of an organism is always to talk of a co-determining environment.
Thus, “”adaptation” is not the process in which the external environment molds passive form. Rather it is a process by which the organisms response to, and in the process, create their own system of affordances” (Denis Walsh).
This is both true of biological evolution and human creative evolution – we are always experimentally developing our own system of affordances. This is what Foucault was calling a dispositive and we have been calling worldmaking.
Therefore any change to practices, bodies, and/or tools will change how the environment shows up and vice versa: changes to the environment will impact specifically how bodies are enacted, practices take shape and tools emerge.
Creatures make specific “experiential niches” (this is a wonderful term that Sonia E. Sultan develops). These are affordance landscape – they are actual environments, dispositives, and taskspaces. Exaptation only makes sense in light of affordances. Exaptations are not neutral physical aspects of bodies, objects or environments – but the excessive and often unintended possibilities for action that affordances generate (Exaptation 3.0).
Evolutionary theory has taken this further: all living beings are involved in co-shaping and co-determining their niche – their landscape of affordances at all levels from the physical to the conceptual. And this leads researchers like Richard Lewontin, a strong critic of the metaphors of fitness and adaptation, to propose a “constructivist” set of metaphors as being more appropriate than “adaptation”. Creatures do not adapt to a pre-existing niche – they are co-constructing their niche as this niche is constructing them.
This is what we see in the emergence of HipHop, the microwave, or dinosaur flight. We see a radical feedforward process of novel niche construction not one exaptation plus an adaptive process.
Exaptation 1.0 is wrong.
Exaptation in this context is then no longer a physical feature but part of how the potentials for action of an affordance always exceeds current use or the potential for the construction of a novel affordance by changing aspects of the relation. Additionally, Exaptation as a process within the affordance process, is a process within the processes of niche co-construction.
After having directly experimented with exaptation processes for over thirty years I can attest to the real value for human innovation in understanding and pragmatically utilizing the processes of exaptation. Our critique of Exaptation 1.0 is about developing a real, robust, effective approach to innovation that learns from practice, the continued development of the sciences, and our own theoretical speculations.
Our contention is that we should understand (and utilize) exaptation as one of the creative (evolutionary) processes involved in how novel affordances and their co-enacting relation between agent and specific environment move towards radically new modes of being alive. Exaptation is not a stand alone process for innovation.
Exaptation, in close connection with other processes, is critical to radical innovation because it allows for the emergence of novel ways of being that are not reliant on any form of pre-existent determinate plan.
Ultimately, we would argue that exaptation is best understood as a one of the sub-processes that can lead to innovation only because it is necessarily embedded in a larger series of integrated processes that are directly involved in the production of novelty.
Exaptation must be understood in the light of affordances and niche construction. This is why over the last four weeks we have focused on Affordances. Understanding affordances changes everything about innovation. And it gives us a new and far more effective way to connect the key innovation process of exaptation to other processes and logics to develop a holistic effective innovation methodology.
Some of these process in relation to exaptation are more general:
And some of these are more directly involved:
Next week we will look at these and lay out a set of helpful resources to explore Affordances and Exaptation 3.0 further – so you can fold these practices into your own innovation practices.
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