Commonalities in biological and technological evolution through exaptation

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Analogies between biological evolution and the evolution of technology have been drawn since Darwin proposed his theory. However, these commonalities have been seen by some as too tenuous to be considered interesting. Through his research, Professor Gino Cattani of Stern Business School shows how strong analogies can be drawn between mechanical and biological evolution through modern evolutionary concepts such as exaptation. Through this understanding of technological evolution, he uses this analogy to shape business strategies for innovation, to give corporations a competitive advantage.

Exaptation is one of the essential mechanisms in the evolution of species, ecosystems, and technologies. However, it remains one of the most understudied and least understood processes in evolutionary history. Exaptation refers to the process of shifting functions in an organism or technology.

Exaptations come into being through moments of chance or serendipity. One common example of exaptation in evolutionary biology is the change of the function in feathers from most likely a thermal insulation purpose to the purpose of flight in birds. From a technological standpoint, an example could be the creation of the microwave oven, when the creator of the microwave noticed a chocolate bar melted when the bar was close to a radar magnetron, and this chance occurrence sowed the seed for the invention of the domestic appliance as we know it today.

Professor Cattani traces examples of exaptation across biology into
technology and mechanics. Nomadsoul1/depositphoto.com

Through his essential work, Professor Gino Cattani, Stern Business School, aims to introduce the concept of exaptation to a broader audience, promote its significance, and offer explanations in how evolutionary exaptation occurs in innovation and is analogous to biological innovations. His rich body of work includes multiple papers on the analogies in exaptation from a natural to artificial viewpoints and exaptation as a source of creativity and innovation.

Exaptation as a concept

Sometimes referred to as pre-adaptation, exaptation is an evolutionary process in which characters evolved for a particular function are ‘co-opted’ for use in another. It is distinct from adaptation in that adaptation is the continuous improvement, by natural selection, in a selected function of a biological trait. In contrast, exaptation is a discontinuous process of functional change, which could lead to an entirely new evolutionary pathway.

There are similarities in how these same processes take hold from a technological evolution standpoint. Adaptation in technological innovation is developing a specialised tool or advancement through a direct response to finding a solution to a problem. In comparison, exaptations come from the inherent creative potential of technology in the form of novel functions for which the technology was not originally designed.

The purpose of feathers – changing from insulation to flight – is a prime example of exaptation in evolutionary biology. CoreyFord/depositphoto.com

Exaptation seems to be very common, even though it is understudied as a concept. Most biological traits and new technologies started their lives as something else and, through chance or serendipity, became something new. Furthermore, an appreciation of exaptation in technological evolution can enhance our understanding of how novel technologies emerge and increase our likelihood of making these novel discoveries.

“Exaptation is one of the essential mechanisms in the evolution of species, ecosystems, and technologies.”

Similarities between biological, cultural, and technological evolution

Through his most recent research papers, Cattani (2019, 2020) brings insight to the vast similarities between biological, cultural, and evolutionary evolution. Scientists have since time immemorial tried to create analogies between Darwinian evolution and more abstract human constructs such as culture, economics, and technologies. However, although there are similarities in these processes, some would argue that the structures and processes between natural and artificial evolution are too different to draw comparisons.

Cattani, in his papers, shows how these analogies, which have hitherto been considered tenuous, can be regarded as valid when modern understandings of evolutionary biology are taken into account. Specifically, when both exaptation from a modular viewpoint and horizontal gene transfer (HGT) are considered.

A biological example of horizontal gene transfer is when a bacteria takes pesticide-resistant genes from another bacteria. katerynakon/depositphoto.com

HGT is the transfer of genes non-linearly (not from parent to offspring) and involves sharing genes from one single cell or multicell organism to another. A modular exaptation is an exaptation that occurs on a single module (a part of an entity, which is distinct from other features). Modular exaptation happens on single components of technologies, such as in the advantageous development of the microwave from a part of the radar megatron. Or in biology, through the development of the respiratory system from a fish flotation bladder.

HGT occurs biologically when one organism incorporates genetic material from another. An example of this is when a bacteria takes pesticide-resistant genes from another. An analogy to this technologically is the turbojet (Cattani, 2019). It required the combination of two technologies – heat resistant turbines and high compression compressors – which were not developed for the jet turbine. These two artefacts’ novel functions emerged when they were ‘horizontally transferred’ to perform a new function that resulted in a new radical innovation (ie, the turbojet).

Through these modern interpretations of evolution, Cattani (2019, 2021) has drawn clear parallels between biological and technological evolution. These clear comparisons confirm that there are indeed analogies between environmental and biological adaptation, which should convince the broader scientific community that these analogies are valid and merits further study and intrigue.

The example of Corning glass illustrates that a firm’s skills may have more applications than were originally foreseen. uvaduf68@gmail.com/depositphoto.com

Research and development strategies through exaptation

A key component in building a business strategy is discerning how companies can maintain a competitive advantage in a quickly changing technological landscape. Typically, firms look at their research strategy regarding whether luck or foresight was at play in innovation. The work of Cattani aims to examine how both of these forces interact in explaining how some corporations can innovate more effectively than others.

“This subject deserves further study in diverse fields to further understand how the innovative power of exaptation can be harnessed.”

Cattani approached this subject by looking at how companies develop technical knowledge and apply it to new markets (Cattani, 2005, 2006). He found that companies’ historical technological advancements may have intangible ties to how a firm’s knowledge can be applied to new areas unknown at the point of the initial stage of development. To demonstrate this, in one of his research papers (Cattani, 2006) he uses the Corning glass company as an example, which leveraged their long history of knowledge in speciality glass to pioneer loss-low glass fibre for long-distance communications, and later gorilla glass, which is used in mobile phones.

The example of Corning glass illustrates that the a firm’s knowledge base has more applications than it is currently utilising. By evaluating the potential in pre-existing technologies, Cattani shows how possible a functional change in existing technology is, and that the study of novel applications of existing technologies should be considered in all companies’ research and development business strategies.

EdZbarzhyvetsky/depositphoto.com

Harnessing the power of exaptation for R&D

This vital research from Cattani contributes to the strategic innovation literature by examining how novel technologies are generated and how the evolution of these new technologies are analogous to biological evolution through exaptation. Throughout his research, he has confirmed that exaptation is not solely a biological evolutionary process but has commonalities and is comparable with technological evolution. Furthermore, he shows how each technology has an inherent potential to perform a function for which it was not created, and these new functions can develop entirely new industries.

This research should allow companies to further understand how radical innovations occur and develop strategies that exploit this knowledge, as it is clear exaptative processes are an essential agent in producing innovations. They could explain higher levels of technological novelties in diverse social systems, such as large universities, silicone valley, or large laboratories. This subject deserves further study in diverse fields to further understand how the innovative power of exaptation can be harnessed and drive technological advances for a competitive advantage.


Do you believe the study and exploitation of already existing technologies will reduce costs in research and development for novel innovations?

As research adopting an exaptive lens has shown, many innovations, some of which are radical, consist of functional shifts of existing technologies. This implies that new applications for a firm’s existing technologies very often are available at no extra cost to the firm. Particularly for internally developed technologies no extra investment in research (the ‘R’) is needed for exploiting them in new applications. Only the costs of developing a market around a new function (the ‘D’) must be incurred should the firm decide to do so.

 

References

  • Cattani, G, Mastrogiorgio, M, (2021) New Developments in Evolutionary Innovation: Novelty Creation in a Serendipitous Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198837091.001.0001
  • Andriani, P, Brun, C, Carignani, G, Cattani, G, (2020) Exaptation and beyond: Multilevel function evolution in biology and technology. Understanding Innovation Through Exaptation, Springer, Cham, pp.69-84, 2020, The Frontiers Collection.
  • Carignani, G, Cattani, G, Zaina, G, (2019) Evolutionary chimeras: A Woesian perspective of radical innovation. Industrial and Corporate Change, 28(3): 511–528. doi.org/10.1093/icc/dty077
  • Andriani, P, Cattani, G, (2016) Exaptation as a source of creativity, innovation, and diversity: introduction to the Special Section. Industrial and Corporate Change, 25(1): 115–131. doi.org/10.1093/icc/dtv053
  • Cattani, G, (2006) Technological pre-adaptation, speciation, and the emergence of new technologies: How Corning invented and developed fiber optics. Industrial and Corporate Change, 15(2), 285–318. doi.org/10.1093/icc/dtj016
  • Cattani, G, (2005) Pre-adaptation, firm heterogeneity and technological performance: A study on the evolution of fiber optics, 1970-1995. Organization Science, 16(6): 563–580. doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0145
DOI
10.26904/RF-139-2138304609

Research Objectives

Professor Gino Cattani draws compelling analogies between mechanical and biological evolution through modern evolutionary concepts such as exaptation.

Collaborators

  • Pierpaolo Andriani
  • Christine Brun
  • Giuseppe Carignani
  • Mariano Mastrogiorgio
  • Giusi Zaina

Bio

Gino Cattani joined New York University Stern School as an Assistant Professor of Management and Organization in September 2004. Professor Cattani’s research is primarily focused on technological innovation and competition, interfirm mobility, creativity, and social networks.

Gino Cattani

Contact
4 West Forth St,
Tisch Hall Suite 7–14,
New York 10012
NY (USA)

E: gcattani@stern.nyu.edu
T: +1 212 998 0264
W: www.stern.nyu.edu/faculty/bio/gino-cattani

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