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3 days @ Lake Garda, thinking about exaptation

By Dave Snowden  ·  September 7, 2009  ·  Musings
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Today was a bit of a saga travel wise, but the destination was worth it. My day started at 0815 persuading my wife to take me Swindon Station. from thence to Paddington, Circle Line to Liverpool Street and the Stanstead Express. After the normal queues in Britain's worst airport the Ryan Airflight to Milan Bergamano was OK, I got the front row seat with plenty of leg room. On landing it was the bus to the local station, train to Brescia, then a quick left out of the station to the SIA centre to get the bus to Gargnano on Lake Garda arriving at 2035 so over 12 hours of travel. The amazing thing was that each connection after landing was made with no more than one minute to spare. It often works like that in Italy, but only if you don't worry and go with the flow; worry about things and nothing works out!

The event is a three day academic conference looking at exaptation, also known as preadaptation, more fully explained below. We are located in the Palazzo Feltrinelli which was the centre of Mussolini's puppet regime for the last 18 months of his life. Prof. Peter Allen (pictured and I am cheating a bit as its over breakfast and this post is going to be dated Sunday Monday) has his original bedroom and has promised access to Il Duce's sleeping place tomorrow. e is also threatening to make speeches from the Balcony if the spirt moves him. In contrast I am in the servants quarters upstairs! The garden where we ate this evening is on the shores of Lake Como and we were treated to the incredible site of moon light shimmering on the lake - I will attempt a picture tomorrow. Of course this is an Italian conference, so while the agenda is packed from early morning no one expects us to work in the afternoon, and of course the menu is a feature of the event. Dinner on arrival was Risotto alla Milanese followed by Saltimbocca alla Romana not to mention real coffee. Much as I love South Africa, two weeks without proper expresso resulted in withdrawal symptoms.

For those not familiar with the term exaptation, it was coined by a great hero of mine, Stephen Jay Gould and refers to an unexpected (one might say serendipitous) change of function during evolution. Feathers evolve for temperature regulation (and adaption) but are then used for flight (an exaptation); the are coopted (cooption is also used as a term here). There has been a lot of work on this in language, but little in social systems, something we collectively intend to rectify over the next three days. Darwin in his day talked about traits appear to be imperfectly designed, in effect they are jury-rigged from available material. I like that sense of accidental discovery, it confirms that life is messy even on geological timescales. Francois Jacob writing in 1977 called it tinkering which is a lovely phrase, no longer the divine watch maker with clockwork efficiency, but tinkering with what is there, finding the odd surprise and making do.

There is some evidence that human intelligence is an example of an exaptation process, also known as a free-loader in evolutionary psychology. The idea here is that a property arises for one purpose, but then proves to have unexpected utility in another area and changes the flow of evolution. I've heard this stuff called post-Dawinian from time to time, but it seems to me that the old man, while he may not have had the language, anticipated many of the more modern ideas associated with evolution.

More on this over the next few days before I return to UK Wednesday evening for a two day Cognitive Edge strategy session, coupled with a board meeting to approve our last set of accounts. I still can't get used to the idea that we are company with a good financial track record, no VC money, year on year growt., taking on new staff etc. etc. Much of the credit for that to Steve and more recently Michael who have provided business focus coupled with conceptual understanding of the ideas and of course our growing network.

Ironically we discovered the other day that SenseMaker™ could act as a corporate blogging tool. A half way house between the over structured use of Sharepoint and the total free flow of social computing. It wasn't designed for that , its a new application; an example of exaptation.