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?



Previously Frozen

The thought occurred to me the other day that I’m in danger of becoming a Red Queen –you know, needing  to run faster and faster just to stay in the same spot. I doubt that Lewis Carroll had my particular concerns in mind, and yet there are probably many parallels with 1871 when he wrote the story. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you simply can’t keep up with things.

To be clear, I’m not referring to anything as technical as Moore’s Law and it’s observation that things like computer technologies seem to double every 18-24 months –although that’s certainly too fast for someone my age. Nor, for that matter, can I even claim confusion about the vicissitudes of celebrities, or the vagaries of fashions –I simply can’t be bothered. And anyway, even the most cursory glance at Facebook would likely glut my already overburdened vessel –a surfeit of trifles is seldom healthy.

Except when it is. I often wonder how the important things –albethey in fine print, and sometimes far beneath the purview of the average progressive lens- escape relatively unexamined.

I’m referring, of course, to one of those items of the consumer society that we would not ordinarily include: food. Well, at least I wouldn’t have. At any rate, food slipped in unawares. I thought I knew food; I buy it, I cook it and then I eat it. I didn’t think I needed to study it as well… But when someone who did told me that a fish I kind of liked, orange roughy, was once called slimehead I nodded as if everybody knew that. I now pretend the reason I no longer buy it is that it was also deemed an at-risk species. You have to try to keep up with this stuff.

I read labels –they’re usually pretty big and tarty so they can wink at you from the shelf, but by and large, they don’t tell you much. So I usually search for the much smaller Nutrition Facts rectangle to see how many calories they say there are in one of whatever the package offers… Then I multiply it by the number I figure I’m going to need to eat to feel the effects of why I bought it in the first place. They always try to trick you unless you figure that out.

It’s the same with the Best Befores. I’ve discovered there is a difference between a Best Before, and an Expiry Date… You can die or something if you ignore the latter, whereas you’re allowed to put the former on sale a day before the date and make people think they are getting a deal. They probably won’t die. I Googled a reference to make sure: http://www.cbc.ca/1.3006858

But it’s sometimes hard to stay up to date with food things -the Previously Frozens, for example. I suppose it makes sense that if a food is properly frozen two days before its Best Before date, it should be edible for another two days at the start of the thawing process. But I can never remember when I froze it -and the labels are all covered with frost, anyway.  Definitely Red Queen material.

Of course so is my friend Brien; he has a thing with food but I’m never really sure if he’s serious about his ever-changing opinions on the topic. One moment he will wax eloquent, describing a science article he’s read on Facebook, and in the next breath, descend the staircase into some nutritional hodgepodge he’s found with clickbait. He has that unique gift of being able to hold two or three contradictory notions at the same time and understand none of them.

Take the Previously Frozens –the PFs as Brien calls them. He was sure the term just meant that since they had been frozen once, they were capable of being frozen again –that the PF acted as a kind of endorsement for the freezer, unlike, say, eggs –which are never labelled PF. Or lettuce, which he keeps in the very bottom compartment as a kind of memento mori… a reminder of the diligence required in the absence of any warning labels.

Even with the presence of warning labels, Brien is hyper-alert to the dangers of the post-truth era in which we are embedded. He suspects that False News has crept into the labelling industry as well as Facebook. It was his favourite topic for weeks, until he found a label he said he could finally trust.

I often pass his house on the way into town, and I saw him sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his tree. It was a brisk fall afternoon and the wind was mussing the needles and making the branches wave at him. Brien needs to get out more. At any rate, I thought I’d join him on the porch for a while. That’s when we started talking about the value of really knowing what we’re eating. Of actually reading the labels.

“I’ve started to eat Ancient Grains,” he said, proudly, pointing at a crumpled plastic package at his feet.

“That’s nice,” I responded, not sure what else to say. “Why?”

He looked at me through his eyebrows and slowly shook his head at my naiveté. “It’s what the Neoliths used to eat,” he replied slowly, pronouncing the unusual word carefully in case he got it wrong. When I didn’t congratulate him immediately, he seemed disappointed. “Do you even know what Ancient Grains are? What they do?”

“I’m still working on Neolith,” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “The Grains were what our ancient ancestors decided to eat…” –he hesitated briefly, obviously a bit uncertain about the really early days- “It was when they were changing from hunters into gatherers…” He glanced at Sheda for inspiration. “Anyway, the Grains were growing in a big field so they started to gather them…” He stared at my blank face briefly. “The Grains are thought to be what drove human Evolution.” He sat back in his chair, smiling like a professor who has just explained a particularly difficult concept to a rapt class. “They made us who we are,” he added, reverently.

“I thought it was meat.”


“You know, the extra energy from meat is what made our brains grow. It’s why we’re so intelligent.”

Brien likes new ideas, but he seemed genuinely puzzled. He thought about it for a moment. “Then why don’t lions walk upright, eh?”

I stared at him and blinked. I had the feeling I was being led somewhere. “Uhmm…”

“Because the Grains have lots of omega-3 which wildebeest carcasses don’t,” he said smugly, confident he’d solved the mystery for me.

I have to say I didn’t know that, and picked up the crumpled package to see if that’s where he had found these words. And sure enough, as authoritatively as Wikipedia, and written in what I assume Big Agro thought would be ancient cursive, there was Brien’s argument brightly embossed beneath the label. “So, has it worked yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you evolved more intelligence?” I said, pleased at my cleverness, and put the empty package back on the floor as respectfully as I could. Unfortunately, at that moment, a gust of wind blew it over the railing before I could stop it.

Brien looked at me and mounted a wry smile. “Well,” he answered, pointing at the package now scurrying over the grass, “it never blows away when I put it down…”




The History Lesson

I have a question: when does the past stop… or do I mean start? It’s all very confusing. When I started out, everything seemed to be now –or at least that’s what everybody told me- but now all of that same stuff is classified as the past. So what’s up? Were they lying to me?

I think its time we had a once-and-for-all definition of the Past to help those of us who don’t know when we are. Historians, for example –how do they know what to study? Do they find themselves scooped every year, or is there maybe a grace period? Otherwise, everything that they write would be outdated. It must be hard for them.

But of course I’m not being altruistic here –it’s a hard, cold place for us retirees, too. Nobody thinks about it like that, though. Oh no, it’s a forgone conclusion that we are a part of that mythical Past –that other world. So I ask again: where is the boundary?

As I write this, sitting on my porch with the sun playing hide and seek above my head and the wind gently riffling the keys, I feel the dimorphic guilt of an expat: I’m apparently from the past, and yet here I am, enjoying an exile in my recent home, the present. It muddies the water to be sure because I can’t for the life of me figure out whether it makes me, an inter regnum or a memory. Or do I qualify as an honorary regnum as long as I stay in the background?  I need to know just where the past stops so I can get on with my life.

Just as I was commiserating with my dog about where we belong, Brien dropped by for a beer. In fact, he just wanted to talk to somebody –anybody- but he felt he needed an excuse. And also, I think I’m the only anybody he knows. I’ve offered to lend him my dog, but he says he’s not there yet…  Anyway, Brien, like me, lives alone and has just retired; but Brien, unlike me, does not want to live alone or be retired. This is a problem, because apparently neither party wants him back. That’s why he wants to talk.

“So,” he said, all neighbourly and curious as he climbed the wooden steps, “What are you writing about?” Before I could answer he walked into the kitchen and helped himself to a beer in the fridge. I try to keep a couple in there for him.

I could tell by the faraway look on his face that he was not interested in an answer, so I didn’t.

“Last time I was over here, you were going on about the past being a problem for you,” he said, settling into a lawn chair underneath one of the hanging plants. It wasn’t actually what we’d been talking about, but I let him continue. “Boy, it sure got me thinking. Adele was certainly a problem.” Adele was his wife and she’d left him right after he retired. “Said I’d changed…” He took a quick swig from the bottle and fixed me with his famous spotlight-on-stage stare. He did that whenever he said something I was expected to reassure him about. I’d only known him for a year or two, so I had no idea whether she’d been right, so I clamped a reassuring smile onto my lips and blinked.

“I mean, we all change don’t we? Isn’t that what the past is for –it has to be different, or we might not be able to recognize the present, right…?”

Maybe he thought he was being profound, but I was having difficulty following the logic. I raised an eyebrow.

He, in turn rolled his eyes at my density. “We evolve, over time –it’s a Darwinian fact- so of course I’m going to be a different man from the one she married. If nothing else, we age, and guys… well, stuff changes as we get older.”

I fully expected him to wink, but he blushed instead.

“Isn’t that what you said the last time I came over –that we cross a boundary, or something?”

Well, at least he remembered some of the words. I decided to probe. “I was actually wondering if there was a boundary between Past and Present, and if so, where it lies. Is it different for each of us, or is there some rule, some algorithm that others –younger people- use…?”

“In shorter words, you mean when do we get old?” He finished the bottle and put it on the porch deck at his feet. “Adele figured I was pretty old when she left, so I don’t know about any rules…”

I tried to disguise a sigh and decided to give it one more try. “So… Adele is in your Past, right?” He nodded more vigorously than I thought the question deserved, but I took it as a yes. “And when she left, is that when your past ended, do you think?” He nodded again, but I could see he was less certain about it. “And everything that has happened since then is in your Present?” I merely got a quizzical stare like I was trying to trick him on that one.

“Well, no… it’s just a more recent version of the past.” He rummaged around inside his head for a more suitable descriptor and then shrugged when he couldn’t find one. Clearly, it was a fairly low priority for him, anyway. “Look, Adele was the one who left me. She was the one who started the past, okay?” He got up and helped himself to another beer, but when he returned, he’d changed his mind. “Actually, she phoned me yesterday…” he said, almost apologetically. “So maybe my past is beginning again…”

An intriguing concept: a Past that could begin again as if were a new day, or something. I was about to comment on how profound that was, when he sent his eyes over to my side of the porch for a moment. But as they hovered over me, uncertain where to land, he called them back. “Does that make Adele my future, then?” He took a very long pull at the bottle and emptied it with one go at it. “Or would she be a new past?”

He had me there. And as he staggered down the steps to leave, I realized I would have to rethink my approach to time. It’s good to talk to other people about the Past when you get old, though –you never know where it might lead…


Grey Glower

I have to admit that I’m puzzled –okay, naïve- but I’m having trouble understanding the agitation over grey hair. Not why achromotrichia occurs –that’s Botany 101 stuff: the flower parts of the hair growing in the follicles no longer need to attract bees, and so they just put out stems instead. It happens, eh? No, what confuses me is the fuss it causes.

I never thought much about it until I got older and discovered that all of my male friends were silvering around the temples, and balding over the rest. The only exceptions seemed to be those whose entire head was suspiciously bald. They were the lucky ones, I guess –they never went grey… This is in distinct contrast to those of my friends who were still female. None of them went bald; none of them went grey either, for some reason. It seemed rather counterintuitive. Unfair, to tell the truth.

But when I thought about it some more, I began to suspect that the answer probably lay in their chromosomes. I have always wondered why females had two Xs. It seemed unduly profligate to a one Xer like myself who has always prided himself on leaving less of a carbon footprint. On using only what I need. Conserving stuff for future generations. But, after I tossed the idea around for a while, I realized that their second X was a spare –you know, for when the original one they’d been using had reached its best-before date. After all, the proof was readily visible on any bus: seeing a woman there with grey hair was like spotting a woolly mammoth in the aisle.

But I couldn’t understand why Evolution would have made such an obvious mistake with men. Eventually, I found an answer of sorts while mousing through the archival section of my Guardian app: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/01/why-women-dare-not-go-grey-politics-of-hair?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Women cheat. I now realize why it was a good thing I stopped commenting on people’s hair at work. I used to be dazzled by lustrous, silky, glowing hair –well, I still am, actually- but the blonds were so golden, so… sunrise, and the browns (I forget, am I still allowed to say ‘brown’ instead of ‘hazel’ or ‘chestnut’?) –the browns were a velvety, deep chocolate, like O’Henry bars only without the peanuts. I could never understand why my hair always seemed so drab in comparison.

I remember wanting to point out my amazement one time to a woman sitting beside me on a crowded bus. She was a stable, matronly person whose wrinkles said sixty but whose curls laughed at the thought. Her hair seemed to sparkle in the sunshine filtering through the dirty window. I was feeling a little bored, and I thought it was a good opening ploy -she was just staring at the person sitting ahead of her anyway. First, of course, I checked her fingers for rings, in case she had a jealous partner with a cane watching her from another seat -there’s a section on buses where you’re supposed to sit if you have a cane. When I had satisfied myself that I was in no danger from a surprise attack, I pretended to look out of the window beside her and put on my best smile. Not my leering one, you understand –I’m older now; I can only manage a pleasantly surprised one nowadays –an elder smile. Anyway, I let my eyes stray from the window and onto her hair as if I were just wandering in a field of flowers, when her head suddenly turned on me like an angry bear.

“What are you doing?” she said in a voice that scattered my eyes like birds from a bush.

“I’m sorry?” I said in a softer voice, pretending innocence by suffixing it with a question mark.

“You were staring at me…” Her voice had dropped a decibel on the off chance that she was mistaken that I was a pervert. Then, when she actually focussed on what was sitting next to her, it descended to a hiss that really attracted attention. “You were trying to hit on me…”

It was now or never; heads were beginning to turn my way. “I…” I lost my courage in her withering glare. I had intended to stray into metaphor, but just as the words were lining up for their fateful jump, I changed my mind. She would have misconstrued even the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at that moment. And besides, I rationalized, glancing at her hair in the now building-besmirched scene outside and parched of its once colour-giving sunlight, her hair was actually the colour of a mouse-pelt and the similes floated away like gossamer on the wind.

So I furrowed my eyebrows like an insulted patriarch and blinked regally at her. “I was merely checking to see if my stop was next,” I said in a flash of inspiration, but with practiced professorial condescension.

She, too, blinked, but I was uncertain whether it was in apology, or because her cataracts were acting up. And for my part, I didn’t deign to look again but pulled the cord and got off at the next stop. In a rare moment of agape, I realized it was probably best for the bus.