Human Exaptation of Genes

“Much of the rest is ‘junk’…[consisting] partly of now defunct genes–that once carried instructions that are no longer relevant. For instance, in humans, the stretch of DNA that told our bodies to grow thick long hair all over is no longer useful, but, instead of being deleted, remains alongside a DNA message that disables it.” (Weinberg, 114-115)

This entire process is exaptation. As we learned from Johnson, exaptation is taking something, here a gene, and defining its role. The example he gave was birds’ wings used for flight instead of warmth.

Similarly here, the gene that programs for thick hair all over out bodies is not deleted or modified. Instead it is given a partner to work with. The partner gene allows the original hair gene to still exist, while also giving the modern human body the normal image. A new purpose is given with the aid of a newly (well, relatively) developed partner gene.

Before this example, I didn’t fully understand how exaptation worked in humans, or how it was different than evolution. Now I understand that exaptation in humans works to address a very specific genetic code. The partner gene process was developed to help in the evolution of humans.

If the gene were deleted instead of redefined in purpose, we would not be humans or advanced primates. Similarly, if the wings of a bird were deleted instead of redefined in purpose, they would not be birds.

Human Exaptation of Genes

DNA: A Platform and Exaptation

After reading Chapter 2 of Pointing from the Grave, I found it very interesting that Weinberg discussed Helena’s participation in the biotechnology industry in great detail. It is interesting that she works in this industry while also being a part of a court case in which their is a great value to the use of DNA. One idea that struck me was the fact that Weinberg stated,

“It was Kohne who had developed a revolutionary new method for diagnosing infectious diseases, using DNA probes instead of traditional cultures. . .  She had been following the developments in DNA as they rolled through the scientific literature like a snowball on virgin snow, and she knew it was the way the biotech industry was heading” -Weinberg, p21.

After reading this sentence, I immediately related this new innovation of a DNA probe that is being used in the medical field to the ideas that Johnson suggested in his novel, Where Good Ideas Come From. Essentially, DNA is the building block that paves the way for many new innovations to arise. In this sense it could be understood that this DNA probe is an innovation that arose from the properties and prior uses of DNA – an exaptation. However, it can also be understood that this new probe is a platform that will allow other innovations that arise from it to reach the fourth quadrant. Just like Helena suggested that this is a new discovery snowballing and leading to others, the DNA probe can be a platform or stack in which a new innovation will come about. Overall, I thought it was interesting to see the complexity of DNA and the technologies associated with it that arise through platforms or exaptations.

DNA: A Platform and Exaptation

Law in Science or Science in Law

When Helena mentions she wants to be the bridge or connection between those that work in suits, which is referencing those working in the law field with people that work in her science based field. I wondered if she meant she would want to use her knowledge in science to improve the way law works, or did she mean she wants to use the ideas used in the field of law to improve her knowledge in her job field. From this speculation I realize that many different ideas can contribute to both fields i.e DNA. Since this discovery, the world of forensics was discovered, I wonder if any more connections between the two can help revolutionize ideas used in either field.

Law in Science or Science in Law

Reconciling Business and Science

“It was Kohne who had developed a revolutionary new method for diagnosing infectious diseases, using DNA probes instead of traditional cultures. Helena liked them, and needed little persuading to accept their offer. She was excited about the technology– she had been following the developments in DNA as they rolled through the scientific literature like a snowball on virgin snow, and she knew that it  was the way the biotech industry was heading, with Gen-Probe leading the rush.” -Weinberg 21

Helena Greenwood lands this job heading up the marketing department of Gen-Probe because the co-founder of this biotech company had seen her at international markets “present papers to scientists and salesmen alike and was impressed” (Weinberg 21). In short, Helena got the job because she was so efficient at being a scientist and salesperson. In her description of Helena, Weinberg presents her as passionately interested in science, but also as wanting to improve the field of biotechnology itself, by reconciling the business and science aspects of it, and improving the efficiency of the relationship. This is what inspires her to get into the marketing side of biotechnology to begin with.

Helena’s ability and passion to bring the two aspects of the field together are very interesting to me. It reminds me of Steven Johnson’s observation that most “geniuses” were masters of many trades and had many interests and hobbies: guys like Einstein and Ben Franklin were not only scientists and statesmen but also musicians and hobbyists.

But this leads me to ask of Helena’s great success in life: was it due to her multiple interests? If Helena had never gotten into the business side of biotechnology, would she have continued to climb the ladder? Could she have continued to advance just staying in the research side of things? I think she could have continued researching and with unlimited possibilities simply due to her intellectual capacity. But I think the true genius and the fulfillment of her potential came from her passion to combine the two aspects. I think this is an interesting question to consider regardless, because there are so many “what ifs” that can be asked of great innovators and minds of the past few centuries. Were their ideas worth a lot because they could be exapted, or did the innovator exapt themselves and their skill set and passions to an ever changing world?

Reconciling Business and Science

The Millennial

Millennials are people born between 1977 and 2000. They are a distinctive group of people because they are living in a booming technology era. Johnson defines millennials as the “digital age mode” (pg.172). The brain of a millennial works differently because it has been exposed to various amounts of technology. These amounts of technology are readily available at their fingertips. They are exposed to a large amount of information and are able to find that information fast. Millennials are great at multi tasking, group collaborations and brainstorming. Since millennials are always around fast efficient technology, they to seek to work fast yet efficiently. In addition, millennials are open to new ideas and do not limit their thinking. I think the greatest thing about being a millennial is that we have access to networking. For example my favorite network is LinkedIn, a social network which makes it easier for people to network for jobs.

Millennial Quiz

Millennial-Infographic-Banner-2-730x410

The Millennial

Exaptation

“Apple’s approach, by contrast, is much messier and more chaotic at the beginning, but it avoids this chronic problem of good ideas being hollowed out as they progress through the development chain.” (171)

I found Apple’s chaotic approach to innovation very interesting because people were encouraged to think outside the box, and those ideas were embraced. However, I thought that there could be a side effect of this process, that being could the openness of Apple’s system also side track some of their employees? As in, I feel as though many of their employees could get side tracked with ideas that are simply not feasible at the time, not because their ideas impossible, but they include technology that doesn’t exist yet. Apple has been slowly but surely making their phones thinner and thinner, however, an employee who designs a paper thin phone, as genius and innovative as it is, while not be able to make that dream possible because no technology exists to make it real. Being Apple, they could invest billions into the R &D of said paper thin phone, but they still have other projects that need that money too, making this employee’s design, that may have taken him hundreds of hours, unable to be made.

 

Exaptation

Restriction of Innovation

“Ideas, Jefferson argues, have an almost gravitational attraction toward the fourth quadrant. The natural state of ideas is flow and spill over and connection. It is society that keeps them in chains.” Johnson 241

Ideas in the fourth quadrants are “networked,” meaning that they evolved through collective, distributed processes, and involve a large amount of people. Johnson states that it is society that is holding the flow of non-marketed ideas in the fourth quadrant back, specifically in the form of patents. Are there inventions that could be improved upon or are there instances of exaptation that are being restricted because of patents? After reading this and forming these questions in my mind, I did some more research and found that several collegiate professors at MIT had actually published a study about this. They found that once someone patents his or her research, others tend to drop their research in the same area, thus stopping innovation.

Restriction of Innovation

The GPS Platform

The platform for the GPS system that is commonly found in cars nowadays and most definitely on everyones cellphone was set up over fifty years ago.  It all started with the use of satellites to track the Sputnik in outer space, but Guier and Weiffenbach probably never imagined what would result from it.  This development of satellites for GPS purposes and even other types of timing and tracking is a great example of exaptation.  The general idea for the satellite was to serve one purpose, but its uses now reach in many different fields.  It is used for the times on your phone, geotagging pictures on social media, and even certain apps that children play with on computers or phones.

The GPS Platform

Plate Tectonics and the Brain

Courtesy Piled Higher and Deeper

This video not only discusses the relationship between brain folding, diseases and intelligence, it also gives great examples of exaptation. It’s amazing to see the different fields that we can pull information from to better understand how the brain develops. Who would have thought math had anything to do with the way the brain is shaped? It also ties in nicely with previous discussions of surface area to volume ratios and how the human body employs wrinkles and folds in various organs brain, lungs, digestive tract, testes to fit them into small spaces and provide a greater surface for biological processes such as diffusion, absorption, gametogenesis and the processing of neural signals to occur.

Plate Tectonics and the Brain

The Essence of Exaptation

“A tool that helps you see in one context ends up helping you keep warm in another. That’s the essence of exaptation” – Johnson, p157

This quote came right after Johnson’s example of having a match to light up a dark room, which in turn helps you find a room with a fireplace, where the match can have a completely different use (lighting a fire). I thought this quote really captured what Johnson was trying to convey to his readers in this chapter because it gives a clear example of what exaptation is. Personally, I see exaptation occurring all the time in my life, even though before reading this chapter I did not know there was a word for it. Even small things such as learning information in my macroeconomics class that I can apply in my speech pathology courses, or even at the dinner table with my friends, exaptation is at work. I was able to take that information that I learned in economics and apply it to other contexts and broaden my knowledge even further.

The Essence of Exaptation

Exaptation and Gaming

Since I was a kid, I have loved to play video games. I really enjoy watching games evolve, and I marvel at how games went from simple simulations like Pong to such varied experiences as Super Smash Bros and GTA. In many (if not most) of these games, exaptations serve as a key method to making a game feel fresh and exciting. One of my favorite games, Undertale (which released last year), takes the traditional style of an RPG like Final Fantasy and merges it with the tactics of a completely different style of game, bullet-hell shooters (games where you have to shoot or avoid a large amount of fast-moving particles, such as Galaga or Super Hexagon). Undertale uses these fast-paced mechanics to solve a problem that many gamers had with the RPG genre; namely, that there was not enough challenge and that fights quickly became repetitive and boring. This is only one way in which exaptation is used in the modern era.

Exaptation and Gaming

Coffeehouse Fortress

“If open and dense networks lead to more innovation, how can we explain apple, which on the spectrum of openness is far closer to Willy Wonka’s factory than it is to Wikipedia”(Johnson, 169).

We all know the scenario, we get our special whatever order at starbucks, and we look over and see a group of people with laptops and ipads talking about who knows what. It may seem annoying, but this is small scale “coffee” liquid business networks at work. So much in recent times can seem ot be tied with these kind of meetings. So what happens when a company closes it’s doors to the outside world like apple? Well as it turns out, there can be an internal “coffeehouse” thinking of good ideas. But it also takes fire and passion, when concepts come out, it is so futuristic and innovative, that by the time it comes out it is barely an upgrade. apple has mostly been able to avoid this and stay with teh adjacent possible. Which raises the question of why companies aren’t putting as much fire and passion to push the limit of the adjacent possible.

 

Coffeehouse Fortress

Liquid Networks

Cities, then, are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways.  -Johnson 162

Are suburbs or more rural communities also suited for exaptation? I grew up in both Georgia and Delaware, two very rural and idle communities. I believe that we have liquid networks there as well, in the form of more personal relationships than people would have in a huge city. Though I have never lived in a bustling, such as NYC, I couldn’t imagine that its chaotic environment and its seemingly infinite number of residents could produce more exaptations than in a more personal and settled community.

Liquid Networks

False Interpretation

In this chapter it was mentioned that the idea of ‘exaptation’ is central to the idea that animals develop certain adaptions and physical prowess for a specific use. Following that point, it is mentioned that after years of research on a specified animal, the function that we had thought the animal had grown a certain adaption for was for something else. For example, for decades we thought that birds had developed feathers for warmth, but it turns out that a birds feathers have many more functions that we had thought in the first place, like air regulation and flight stimulation. What I got from this idea brought up in chapter 6 was it may be possible that birds could have used this unknown trait for the specified uses stated for many years, we just hadn’t known about it. All in all, I feel that certain theories are solely based off of human idea, not biological evidence.

False Interpretation

Apple’s Approach

In a professional world, we tend to steer away from chaos, for we see it as unproductive. But…

“Apple’s approach, by contrast, is messier and more chaotic at the beginning, but it avoids the chronic problem of good ideas being hollowed out as they progress through the development chain” (Johnson 171)

I understand this reasoning because more ideas are available at the start of the project, and yes it might be chaotic, but great ideas can bounce off of the many ideas that are flowing through a department in the beginning, messy stages. So many devices can be created in the beginning because the ideas are fresh, and open to exaptation.

Apple’s Approach

Exploring New Possibilities

“If mutation and error and serendipity unlock new doors in the biosphere’s adjacent possible, exaptations help us explore the new possibilities that lurk behind those doors” (Johnson, 156).

Exaptation is going beyond the adjacent possible. It is using outside knowledge and applying it to something else. This idea of sharing ideas seems very beneficial, and I think many people can agree with Johnson’s claims here. Everyday we witness the sharing of ideas in the classroom. Students raise their hands, answer questions and bounce ideas off of their teacher and peers. Exaptation is especially noticeable in our class. All of us in Biotechnology exhibit signs of exploration and the desire to discover new possibilities through the questions we submit on Moodle and the ideas we talk about during our discussions. 

Exploring New Possibilities

Macrocosms

“Exaptation. An organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function” (Johnson 154).

Beyond the world of genetics I believe this word still has application in our daily lives. When exaptation occurs in the natural world, a trait created by genetic change, ends up having a purpose that was not the driving force behind the mutation. Like the feathers on prehistoric dinosaurs that led to flight, we often find second or third uses for goods in our lives. Creativity seems to be a cliche word used to describe someone but the human race in itself is exceptional at exapting uses beyond the intended purpose. I am interested in this reoccurring of biological processes repeating themselves in macrocosms in the world.

Macrocosms

Exaptation and Ideas

After reading Chapter 6 of Where Good Ideas Come From, I thought it was very interesting to discuss the way in which ideas arise through a term often used in evolutionary biology. Johnson describes an exaptation as when

“an organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function” (p154).

Essentially, Johnson is suggesting that ideas come from the a change to a trait that was originally exhibited. I think a controversial word here is “hijacked.” I believe that traits are shared and understood but new ones rise based on what is favored or how it is seen that a new idea or trait can be used – the trait is not necessarily stolen, but rather used as a basis for a which in which a new trait can have a new function. This relates a lot to my Evolution course I took. We often discussed how ancestors have shared traits however on a phylogenetic tree, it is seen that new traits arise from those older ones and evolution or change over time among populations is seen. Thus, relating back to the real world, I think sharing ideas give way for new ideas to be proposed and used in a different way. Overall, I thought relating this chapter to the ideas of evolution was a great way to describe how new altered ideas arise from ones previously seen. Like Johnson states,

“exaptations help us explore the new possibilities that lurk behind those doors” (p156).

Therefore, new ideas arise from ones that previously exist, but these new ideas are used in a different way than the original.

Exaptation and Ideas

Is Music Exaptation?

In Chapter Six, “Exaptation”, exptation is described as a trait that was developed for one purpose, but is eventually used for another unrelated purpose. When I first read this, I thought of how this has affected humans. The appendix was used as an asset to the digestive system, but is not considered obsolete; one does not need it to survive. However the appendix, to me, was not a solid example because while it was designed for a purpose that it not longer performs, it did not adopt another purpose.

Because I am not well versed in biology, I could not think of another scientific example. But when I started to read about how the vacuum tube was created “to make signals louder”, and was eventually used in the Fender guitar amp in the fifties, I started to consider how music could be exaptation. (Johnson, 157)

If exaptation is the development of a trait from one purpose to another, then isn’t a shared chord between songs simply exaptated? Are Sweet Home Alabama, Werewolves of London, and All Summer Long just exaptations of each other? Or, to take it a step further, isn’t every song an exaptation because it is just a rearrangement of notes that another song has used?

Is Music Exaptation?