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Institute of Advanced Study

Exaptation, Uncertainty and Technological Change

Dr Pierpaolo Andriani (Marseille)

Professor Bob Layton (Anthropology)

Exaptation, i.e. "characters, evolved for other usages (or for no function at all), and later "coopted" for their current role..." (Gould and Vrba 1982), is one of the most important yet little studied mechanisms in the evolution of species, ecosystems and technologies. Exaptation arises from the indefinite, but rarely explicit, range of potential functions of existing objects/ideas (D'Arcy Thompson, 1942). Feathers were probably selected for thermal insulation and their use in flight was therefore an exaptation. Microwave ovens certainly originated as radar magnetrons. Principles of social organisation such as producer co-operatives have been applied to numerous resources beyond those for which they were first devised. We need to understand how the leap to new function -prior to the adaptational trajectory- can be conceptualized other than as accident or contingency. The transfer of known techniques and materials to new contexts can effect substantial savings and eliminate risks. The dynamics of co-evolving technologies, markets and societies are driven by recombinant and exaptive innovation mechanisms. These mechanisms also appear integral to the emergence of a Paretian Long Tail. We propose to study the emergence of long tails via cases including agricultural co-operatives and the emergence of the quality sector in Brazilian coffee. Can the dynamics of exaptation enhance our understanding of creativity and innovation?

We propose a cross-disciplinary discussion of three propositions:

  1. Exaptation is critical in the emergence of new niches in ecology, economics, institutions, technological systems, and ideas.
  2. History shows that innovation and serendipity are linked. Serendipity has regularities, if not rules.
  3. The emergence of a Paretian Long Tail creates conditions under which numerous innovations and recombinations of existing strategies compete for success, as in a rugged fitness landscape.

The discussion will be conducted within two contexts:

One-day seminar
11th February 2012 (Saturday) Anthropology Seminar Room (Dawson 104)
An inter-departmental workshop in which representatives from interested departments discuss the concept of exaptation and its application in their fields in a relatively informal fashion, presenting initial position papers for discussion. This workshop will follow up issues raised at a preliminary meeting held during the initial planning stage for events to take place during 2012-13. Participating departments will include: Anthropology, Biological Sciences, Business School and Education, with the possibility of contributions from other schools and departments, including Archaeology, Engineering and Medicine.

Two-day conference
19th-20th March 2012 (Monday and Tuesday) Dawson Lecture Theatre D 110
A 2 day conference at which departments will present papers suitable for publication stating the contribution their discipline can make to the study of exaptation. Invited speakers will respond with their own assessment of the current state and future prospects for the inter-disciplinary study of exaptation. Departmental papers will be circulated in advance to visiting speakers. Visitors who have confirmed attendance include Prof. Mike O'Brien (University of Missouri), Prof. Paolo Saviotti (Université Pierre Mendès-France, Grenoble), and Prof. Alex Bentley (Bristol University). 

An edited volume on exaptation, to be submitted to Cambridge University Press or Routledge is planned.

Speakers will include:

Durham University Staff

  • Anthropology: Rob Barton, *Bob Layton and Jamie Tehrani
  • Archaeology: Greger Larsen and Gary King (Visiting Fellow)
  • Biological Sciences: Phil Stephens and Shane Richards
  • Business School: *Pierpaolo Andriani
  • Education: Stephen Higgins
  • Linguistics: Federico Federici
  • Musicology: Mieko Kanno

Invited external speakers

  • Archaeology: Prof. Mike O'Brien (University of Missouri)
  • Anthropology: Prof. Alex Bentley (University of Bristol)
  • Architecture: Greg Keefe (Professor of Sustainable Architecture, Leeds School of Art, Architecture and Design)
  • Biological Sciences: Prof. Steve Lindsay (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
  • Business Studies: *Pierpaolo Andriani (formerly Durham University Business School, now Euromed Management, École de Commerce, Marsellies); Prof. Peter Allen (School of Management, Cranfield University); David Snowdon (Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge); Giuseppe Carignani (University of Udine and ISIS Malignani, Italy)
  • Economics: Prof. Pier Paolo Saviotti (Université Pierre Mendès-France, Grenoble) - IAS Visiting Fellow, Durham

Pierpaolo Andriani is co-organiser of the Exaptation theme.

Conference Registration Page