Exaptation: The loose link between representation and function

Exaptation: The loose link between representation and function

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I’m a musician. I’ll admit that when I was a teen, I got into it as a way to improve my status with women. I don’t know that it ever helped much; I’m no superstar. Still, I’ve stayed a musician. Music has stayed functional in my life. But now, music represents something other than status with women. What I began in the service of one appetite has migrated to other appetites.

Being a musician stimulates my heart and mind. So much so that it has come to serve in lieu of status with women. Now, when I want sensuality, I reach for the bass. When I want understated intimacy, I call my fellow musicians. When I want to feel in love, I sing old songs about love instead of going out and causing trouble. Singing about romance has become more romantic than romance. Increasingly, I think of sex as music for nonmusicians.

Music has been functional for me for more than three decades, but what it’s for – what it represents and how it serves me – has changed dramatically over that time.

And music is not alone. I’ve carried on relationships with lots of people and lots of things for years and years, but while these relationships have puttered along, the engines driving them have been replaced over and over.

The loose relationship between function and representation shows up everywhere. Take bird feathers. They are for flying, right? Their lightness is representative of the nature of air and gravity and the birds’ need for mobility. But feathers didn’t originally represent anything related to flying. They evolved as a fluffier variation on the reptilian scale, representative of the need to stay warm in cold temperatures. Biologists say that feathers originated for warmth but were “exapted” for flight. Exaptation is a change in representation. Feathers were representative of one need but then became representative of another as well. As long as something remains useful (functional), what it’s useful for (representational) can change.

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Likewise, words remain in a language as long as they are functional, but their meanings – what the words represent – can change with time. Words get exapted often. They gain new meanings (representation) and lose old ones, sometimes accumulating representations, sometimes replacing them.

The word “shadow,” for example, keeps its original meaning but new ones have been added (shadow government, shadow of doubt, in the shadow of his father, follow like a shadow). But other words lose their original meanings as new meanings take over.

In the 1200s, “nice” meant foolish. In the early 1300s it meant timid, in the late 1300s, fussy, in the 1400s, dainty, in the 1500s, precise, around 1800, agreeable. Only after the 1830s did the meaning of “nice” settle into what we hear in it today, very far from “foolish.”

Some words disappear because what they represent gets taken over by something else. A “gabion” was a wicker-work cylinder filled with earth or stones and used for building fortifications and harbor bars. Our relationship with the word was lost when what it came to represent was transferred to such structures as girders and cement pilings. It’s like the loss of love when partners transfer what the relationship had represented – their hopes and affections – to someone or something else.

Exaptation happens all the time in business. World War One ends, leaving Kimberly-Clark with 750,000 pounds of unused bandage dressing. What do its people do? They exapt this leftover material to create Kleenex and Kotex. Function was maintained, but what the product functioned for – what it represented – had changed.

From the evolution of organisms to the evolution of words to the evolution of your relationships – with things, words, habits, people, products, organizations – indeed in all evolutionary realms, you will see this vital capacity to shift both in and out of functionality and between representational references. This intrinsic ambiguity is among the most important distinguishing features of life.

Noticing this can breed peace of mind. I used to panic when I would uncover in myself some dastardly motive. Now it concerns me less. A bad motive does not translate directly into a bad deed. You can start doing something for a bad reason and end up doing it for a good one.

The reverse is also true. Mission drift, a change in motives midcampaign, has caused many a virtuous endeavor to careen catastrophically. The roads to heaven and hell are paved with good and bad intentions all cobbled up together. It pays to take your investigations into motives with a grain of salt. A good motive does not a good deed make, nor a bad motive, a bad deed (see Onetrusations).

If there’s anything to have faith in during trying times, it’s exaptation. When life gives you dilemmas, try to find alternative meanings. In general, practice reinterpreting bad news as good; good news as bad (see Hybrid Vehicle). As the Tao Te Ching says, “The master makes use of all circumstances.” In other words, consider a variety of representations. We can’t always get what we want, but sometimes, with a bit of creative ambiguity, we can reinterpret our losses to represent unexpected gains, and discover we want what we got.