Exaptation

Steven Johnson goes beyond the Adjacent Possible to talk about another amazing yet simple and elegant principle called Exaptation. I had never heard of this word before reading this book, and I’m a nerd, so it has to be a rare word.

Here’s the gist: An animal starts to develop feathery like…um…feathers, and they’re useful for keeping that animal warm, and then generations later, suddenly the animal starts to be able to glide a little farther on each jump because the feathers are helping them be more aerodynamic.

The point of exaptation is that something which develops for one purpose is accidentally or surreptitiously repurposed for another purpose. Feathers which evolved for warmth become useful for flight.

Now, I’m not saying that’s exactly how evolution worked in that instance, but the concept is clear and many evolutionary biologists cite it. Accidents happen. Things are repurposed. Exaptation helps to explain the process toward complexity.

How does this relate to innovation and product development? Johnson explains how things like the internet and computers were created for one purpose (defense communication) have slowly become used for others (facebook, porn). It’s a fascinating chapter in the book.

My take-away – you never know where your idea will end up. Keep tinkering. Keep exploring. Don’t be afraid to repurpose something, deliberately or accidentally.