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Lessons from Exaptation: How to adapt creatively from available resources

We want to adapt according to our environment and develop in order to solve arising problems.

The first principle of adaptation is that it is useful. Useful adaptations are well suited to life, and they increase your ability to be successful in that life. Beyond biology, adaptation to succeed for humans can be about power and recognition, the freedom of choice, spiritual enlightenment, and peace. However, a fundamental component of success must be that it involves benefit.

One such concept from evolutionary biology about adaptation using resources you already have is “Exaptation”. There are a lot of concepts & opportunities that already exist in your world. We don’t have to start from scratch with adaptation. We have to repurpose what we already have or know.

The term “exaptation” was first 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.

For example, today most birds use their feathers to fly but feathers were first emerged not for flight. Feathers first emerged in dinosaurs for the purposes of insulation or attracting mates, not flight; allowed them to survive and reproduce. Later on, however, feathers also became useful for flight as observed in the modern bird. Once the structure was present, the function of flying became possible. The structure did not emerge for the purposes of flying, but it was repurposed to support this new use. It was an exaptation.

In 9th Century Baghdad, Persia lived Three Brothers known as The Banū Mūsā brothers wrote the Book of Ingenious Devices on automata (automatic machines) and mechanical devices. The book was a catalog of machines, including a self-trimming lamp, an automatic flute player, and also introduced a concept of the programmable machine- “The Instrument Which Plays by Itself,”. A detailed design for a hydraulic organ that played music notes triggered by small divots in a pinned cylinder. They “programmed” the machine via the instructions on the cylinder without human intervention.
This innovation generated in the pursuit of this entertainment was the foundation of the frequency-hopping technology so essential to our wireless age in the form of cellular phones, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

During World War II in the 1940s, German submarines were sinking Allied boats resulting in devastating losses. Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actress, and George Antheil, a composer, teamed up to try to do something about it. Their goal was to invent a remote-controlled torpedo to attack German submarines. One of the main challenges was the vulnerability of the frequency used to control the torpedo as a single frequency meant that it could be easily discovered and jammed.

They were greatly benefitted by exaptation when they invented ways to remote control and “frequency hop” in synchrony with their torpedoes. Together they developed a device by synchronizing a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals. They drafted designs for the frequency-hopping system, which they patented. The instructions for frequencies were encoded in two perforated ribbons where the holes in the piano roll signaled a musical note, the holes in the ribbons signaled a frequency change.

For almost a thousand years we had that meta-tool [programmability] in our collective toolbox and we did nothing with it other than play music. And then we branched out with this tool. We started programming textile looms, torpedoes, and computers. Programmability in all the functions in which we use it today has become indispensable, and we can pretty much guarantee this wasn’t what the Banu Musa had in mind when they came up with that original ingenious device.

When faced with a challenge, where does one look for inspiration? Usually, you start with concepts you already understand, and materials you already have. This is the essence of exaptation. Sometimes isolated knowledge & concepts provide a foundation for innovations that were not at all anticipated.

The history of commercial products is littered with exaptations.

  • When Radium was discovered by Madam and Pierre Curie no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals.

  • Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 by Alfred W. Fielding and Marc Chavannes by sealing two shower curtains together and capturing bubbles of air on the inside. They tried to sell it as wallpapers.

  • In the 1970s and 80s, Botox was a form of the toxin used by both ophthalmologists and neurologists to treat eye disorders, facial, eyelid, and limb spasms, etc. In 1987, Jean Carruthers, an ophthalmologist, inadvertently discovered cosmetic uses for Botox when a patient mentioned how her eye treatments were relaxing her face.

Exaptation is fundamentally about flexibility. We don't know what stressors we will face in the future. What we will need is a set of lenses and tools that can be used for multitudes of ways to face the future. Some will be useless and some will be priceless. The survival of a business often depends on being able to change quickly. You can’t do that if you have to start from a blank slate every time environmental pressures push you to develop and innovate.

"Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are."

We must not underestimate the options we have at our disposal. In fact, one of the tests used to measure creativity by psychologists is to ask people to come up with as many uses as possible for an everyday object like a brick. The more exaptations someone can envision, the more creative they’re considered. The knowledge we’ve accrued, the lessons we’ve learned, are all available to us at any given moment to forge new paths in the environments we are in.

Exaptation happens on two levels.

There is the conscious one, where you look around at what you have and actively search out what you can repurpose. But these abilities also manifest on an unconscious level.

Like the bird, who did not say, “Hey, maybe I can use these feathers to fly,” but instead had feathers that influenced its behavior in situations they were not originally selected for, we too navigate our world differently the more knowledge and skills we can draw on in any given situation.

Things to consider:

We get stuck in “functional fixedness,” a mindset where we see in things only their intended use, rather than their potential use. Having to know the benefit of everything before you begin leads to missed opportunities.

Time and place also matter for exaptation. Exaptation is all about context.

A use that might be perfect in one country might seem irrelevant in another. Or a product marketed at one point in history may fall flat but succeed at another time. If they’d tried marketing bubble wrap as wallpaper in the 1970s when wacky wallpaper and plastic clothing were a trend, it might have taken off. If birds hadn’t faced environmental pressures to fly, feathers may have remained as a form of insulation or evolved to serve a different function.

We see strength as an immediate advantage that we don’t want to compromise. Eventually, your competitors will match your strength or find innovative ways to neutralize it.

However, it’s not strength that survives, but adaptability.

Real success comes from being flexible enough to change and learning tools of the known multidisciplinary lenses in order to creatively find solutions & thrive in the future.

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