Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

Exaptations

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Graph from page 51

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 50-51
Author’s Note: (from page 10) “I dislike inventing words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in ‘technology accelerates’).

… Sometimes a trait advantageous for one problem will turn out to be advantageous for a second, unanticipated problem. For instance, feathers evolved to warm a small, cold-blooded dinosaur. Later one, these same feathers, once installed on limbs for warmth, proved handily for short flights. From this heat-conservation innovation came unplanned wings and birds. These inadvertent anticipatory inventions are called exaltations in biology. We don’t know how common exaptations are in nature but they are routine in the technium. The technium is nothing but exaptations, since innovations can be easily borrowed across lines of origin or moved across time and repurposed.

Niles Eldredge is the cofounder (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the theory of punctuated, stepwise evolution. His professional expertise is the history of trilobites, or ancient arthropods that resemble today’s pill bugs. As a hobby he collects cornets, musical instruments very similar to trumpets. Once Eldredge applied his professional taxonomic methods to his collection of 500 cornets some dating back to 1825. He selected 17 traits that varied among his instruments—the shape of their horns, the placement of valves, the length and diameter of their tubes—very similar to the kinds of metrics he applies to trilobites. When he mapped the evolution of cornets using techniques similar to those he applies to ancient arthropods, he found that the pattern of the linages were very similar in many ways to those of living organisms. As one example, the evolution of cornets showed a stepwise, progress, much like trilobites. But the evolution of musically instruments was also very distinctive. The key difference between the evolution of multicellular life and the evolution of the technium is that in life most blending of traits happens “vertically” in time. Innovations are passed from living parents down (vertically) through offspring. In the technium, on the other hand, most blending of traits happens laterally across time-even from “extinct” species and across lineages from nonparents. Eldredge discovered that the pattern of evolution in the technium is not the repeated forking of branches we associate with the tree of life, but rather a spreading recursive network of pathways that often double back to “dead” ideas and resurrect “lost” traits. Another way of saying the same thing. Early traits (exaptations) anticipate the later linages that adopt them. These two patterns were distinct enough that Eldredge claims one could use it to identify whether an evolutionary tree depicted a clan of the born or of the made…

But by far the greatest difference between the evolution of the born and evolution of the made is that species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct. A close examination of as supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the modern urban world but quite common in the developing rural world. For instance, Burma is full of oxcart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa hand spinning is still thriving in Bolivia. A supposedly dead technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for ritual satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities, or fanatical vinyl record collectors. Often old technology is obsolete, that is not very ubiquitous or is second rate, but it still may be in small-time use.

 

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Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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