[eg-zap-tey-shuh n], noun
1. The process by which natural features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected.
2. A cognitive model as well, describing the repurposing of ideas in other fields.
3. The ah-ha moment in which we suddenly realize that something we thought applied in only one context has important implications in a completely different domain.
If you want to learn more about the concept's origin in biology check out Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba's "Exaptation - A Missing Term in the Science of Form." To read about the repurposing of the concept to human innovation (exaptation's exaptation), check out Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From or listen to the talk.
We've curated some of our favorite cognitive exaptations below.
Predator/Prey I Organized Crime
Political scientists and anthropologists used ecological models to understand organized crime in urban settings. Katherine Hirschfeld's "Ganger States" used models from the study of predatory-prey relations to predict the conditions under which crime syndicates evolve and intrude into formal political systems. Brantingham, Tita, Short, and Reid's "The Ecology of Gang Territorial Boundaries" used territorial ecological models to understand how territorial boundaries foment competition and violence among gangs.
Badminton I Spaceship One
The first private space plane, designed by Burt Ratan, reenters the atmosphere using wings inspired by a badminton birdie. Reentry was a stability problem. The badminton bridie (a.k.a. shuttlecock) immediately orients itself during flight. Interestingly, Ratan trumpets the importance of gut feel as a designer, alongside training as an engineer.
Wine Press I Printing Press
Gutenberg invented the printing press after visiting a winery and seeing how juice was squeezed from grapes by a wine press. Screw press technology was antiquated even in his day but had been widely employed in agriculture for applying pressure on a flat surface. Gutenberg applied the idea to printing, while improving the technology for that purpose.
Music I DNA
Data visualization created by Martin Wattenberg for visualizing patterns in music are repurposed to visualize gene sequences, among other string data. Geneticists hearing Wattenberg speak in 2011 quickly realized that gene sequences, like music, are series of letters and asked for help using the technology. Wattenberg expanded his understanding of arc diagrams to encompass visualizing the structure of strings in general.