Evolution of the Clap (blush)

Exaptation­ –I’ve loved that word from the first time I heard it. Mind you, I don’t hear it very often and that may be what keeps it so special. Even its sound is pedantic though, don’t you think? Exaptation is a process by which an organ or feature acquires a function for which it was not originally evolved. It was first coined in the early 1980ies (by palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague Elisabeth Vrba) to replace the word pre-adaptation, a word that suggests teleology –purposive directionality- and therefore not random Darwinian selection of the most effective traits on offer. There are legion examples out there, but perhaps the most easily understood one is that of feathers. They started out as heat regulators (on dinosaurs), then served for sexual display (although as yet we have no pictures of dinosaurs doing this), and finally for use on birds for flight.

But a rather unusual example that has lately intrigued me is that of clapping. Who would have thought, eh? It was first brought to my attention by a BBC radio podcast (The Why Factor): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04y3ywf – play

Bipedalism may have encouraged clapping the hands, or whatever you call them on non-humans, by freeing them from the mud. Chimpanzees apparently slap the ground –of course maybe that’s simply because they can; I find it difficult to get down that far unless I’m actually lying on it, but you take my point, I hope. Clapping the hands is a great way to make noise and attract attention without yelling. It can be done in large crowds where its mood can be conveyed by the intensity or tempo of applause, and where individuality is subsumed and effectively represented by the collective. Roman emperors used it as a kind of unofficial poll of their popularity, and so hired clappers to infiltrate crowds in stadia to, well, encourage clapping.

There are many variations of the clap and I won’t go into them at this time except to say that rhythm, cadence, intensity, and type of noise produced all convey unique and recognizable  signals. Much like the contagiousness of a yawn on an elevator, clapping can be infectious, especially if someone else starts it –a form of social permission, I guess.

Clapping varies according to culture or convention –clapping at church, for example, is usually frowned upon even more than falling asleep. You are allowed to clap after an operatic aria but not after the end of a movement at a symphony. Why? Uhmm, you just have to know these things, apparently.

So where, does exaptation fit into the act of clapping? And what, exactly, is being exapted? Well, it would take a rather bold leap to suggest that hands evolved for clapping any more than the knees did. Granted the hands make more noise and everything, but it’s still a stretch. Hands made it through the evolutionary mill because they can grab things –first, branches I suppose, and later, the salt shaker across the table. Fingers persisted because, among other things, they can point at stuff and indicate whether it’s the salt or the pepper you want –co-opting different hands, in other words.

Sometimes ideas are such good ones, I have to wonder why I hadn’t thought of them before. Evolution is one of them of course, but right up there and sitting in the front seat, is exaptation. What a great use of resources –waste not, want not. It makes me realize what a wonderful exapter my mother was –a woman clearly ahead of her time. Who else would have thought to use her hands, not to pick things up, make noise, or climb trees or anything, but to spank? Okay, the exaptation did not originate with her, but she was one of its most vigorous proponents.

I therefore like to think I am not only a genetic repository for her hands, but also their broker. It occurred to me that I could perhaps make use of the idea to fulfill a life-long dream: time on the pedestal -allow others to notice me as much as the mirror does.

Clapping is contagious, remember –but once it starts, you’re just another pair of hands. Stop clapping and nobody would notice. But start the clapping… Then you become the index case -the cause, the instigator, the powerful one. The idea of starting an epidemic like that was intoxicating. Even if there were no credits, no mention of it in social media, I would know. I could even do an anonymous post on Facebook using an avatar of a hand: the sound of one hand clapping, perhaps -the Phantom Clapper.

I decided to start off small -hone my skills. There is often a man playing a guitar on the sidewalk across the street from the Starbucks I sometimes frequent. He’s not very good, and I’ve never seen anybody putting money in his little tin, but sometimes people do stand around –usually at a distance- and watch, hoping he’ll get better, or maybe because they’re just embarrassed for him. Anyway, it seemed like a perfect place to begin.

I practiced my clapping for a couple of hours at home –you have to do the right clap, eh?- and then sidled up to listen from across the street. Two people were smoking at a little table outside the Starbucks, and a group of teenagers, seemingly oblivious to the guitarist, were gathered around a lamppost laughing at something. Nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention to him, however. It is incredibly weird to start clapping about something nobody even realizes is happening, so I decided to buy a coffee and a cookie-in-a-bag, come back outside, lean against a wall so everybody could see me, and wait.

Unfortunately, by the time I came out again, the guitarist was arguing with the teenagers who had now crossed the street to bother him. He was shaking his fist at them and shouting something that, even at a distance, sounded obscene; it was definitely not a clappable moment. Then I saw him kick at one of the kids which, although he missed, I suppose it was another exaptation –the world seems to be full of them.

I leaned back against the wall and sighed, disappointed at my failed debut, but I decided to attempt a little mini-clap at the venue anyway and then go practice my technique at home again. Unfortunately, though, my hands were full. Even so, I did identify one more exaptation that would have made my mother proud: ever hold a bag between your teeth?