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?



Excuse Me?

You know, by and large I’m pretty content with being old… Well, not old as in wrinkly and cane-bound -more like calendarially acquisitive. However, there is one thing that I have lately discovered that greatly inhibits my social intercourse –a design flaw, I think: hearing.

It’s not that I can’t hear things –I am very attuned to volume and the background melee in which they seem invariably embedded -it is more the interpretation thereof. Indeed, the backcloth seems to swallow words, and dissolve them into a meaningless pap that I am forced to process later at my leisure like a cow. You would think that Evolution would have issued ear-cuds, or something, but I suppose Darwin couldn’t think of everything.

Evolution takes time of course, and yet I’ve learned it sometimes also takes short cuts; that gives me hope. Exaptations they’re called –the use of a pre-existing mechanism for something other than its original function. Jury-rigging it. Feathers, for example, which once-upon-a-time probably served only for thermoregulation and maybe sexual attraction, were then adapted, as time and circumstance allowed, for flight –a kluge. Why design something new, eh? So, given that I didn’t get in on the feathers, I figured maybe I’d be up for second prize.

I realized quite recently that most of my trouble with interpretive hearing loss tends to be self-inflicted, however -it seems particularly bothersome when I wander into people-infested areas. Starbuck’s springs to mind… Brien, too -when he’s not receiving visitors on his porch, he consents to meeting me for a coffee every so often. But although he is a man more comfortable with grunts and head nods, I still have trouble making those out from across the table in the noisy room.

So I decided to exapt. I’m actually kind of embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before. And nothing very complicated, or anything –I think it’s better to go basic when you first try something. Sort of feel your way around. The concept I settled on was proximity –if you can’t decipher what someone is saying over there, go over there. I hadn’t counted on Brien’s reaction, though, and as I leaned closer to his face to decipher the sounds, he countered by receding. His back was to the wall, and when he finally realized there was no more room to recede, he pushed me away with a vigour he’d never demonstrated on his porch even when he thought I was reaching for the biggest cookie.

I immediately grasped the fact that not all exaptations succeed –or at least not at first. Proximity needed a little work. But as I thought more about it, I reasoned that since mouths form words, and lips can be seen from a distance, maybe I could fashion my own kluge: translipping, I suppose you could call it -lipping for short. The added advantage is that from a few feet away at least, the person observed thinks you’re really looking in his eyes. This makes him feel you are actually paying attention. I’ve come to realize that it works better with a gender imbalance, though, because when I tried it with Brien in the crowded Starbucks venue a few days later, he again backed away and kept turning his head. He needs to get out more.

But when I was lipping, it seemed to help a bit. I think consonants work best, though – probably because of the need for larger and more demonstrative lip excursions. It reminded me that originally, the Hebrew alphabet was an abjad­ and consisted only of consonants. Maybe they used to have hearing problems in those days too, so they figured they’d make it easier for people in the bazaars, or whatever. Brien didn’t think that was right when I told him my theory, but neither of us are Jewish, so we left it there.

There was some progress, however, so I thought I’d expand the potential and try distance-lipping. Brien encouraged this; he said it would feel like he’d got his face back.

“Try it on that woman over there,” he said, pointing like a child in a supermarket when we were next in Starbucks. His target, when I eventually grabbed his arm and lowered it, was an attractive brunette with long shiny hair and curls that danced on her shoulders each time she laughed. Her eyes were almost as alive as her full, red lips, and every so often I’d earn a hint of sparkling white teeth when she looked with growing concern in my direction. She’d started out with the expected balance of fricatives and labiovelar articulations, but as she began to glance my way, I noticed an increasing frequency of velars and labiodentals. Her eyes, too, began to harden. Soon, I had four lips to practice on, because her boyfriend –I didn’t notice a ring- began to velate. I was right on the cusp of decrypting their meaning when he stood up and swaggered over to our table. Brien pretended to have dropped his little paper napkin on the floor, so he missed the eye-boxing I received.

“Why were you staring at my wife?” the man said angrily.

That was unfair –I mean he wasn’t wearing a ring, or anything. “I…” Actually, I was so alarmed, I couldn’t think of an answer that would defuse the situation.

“He’s almost deaf,” Brien replied for me, coming up from under the table au moment critique. “He’s learning to lip sync..”

“Lip-read,” I corrected him. Sometimes you probably shouldn’t be too pedantic.

The man stared at Brien for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well… practice on somebody else, eh?” he said and walked back, somewhat subdued.

I risked a quick glance at them after he’d sat down again. Their faces were huddled together, but I was pretty certain I could make out lip for ‘handicapped’ before I hurriedly tore my eyes away.

“You’ve got to get a hearing-aid,” Brien said, as soon as they left, but he said it slowly, as if I were foreign to the language, and he opened his mouth like he was singing in a choir and made his lips over-perform with each syllable. I hate that.

Anyway, I’m okay on his porch when the only other sounds are Sheda, his tree, rustling in the wind, and the occasional rattle of his dentures when he eats cookies with nuts. So a hearing aid seems over-kill.

I’m waiting for the ultimate kluge that I read about in the BBC news. I found an article on the brain’s solution for making sense of speech in a noisy room: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38381915  I didn’t understand it really, but I gathered that scientists have found the area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is able to focus on different parts of noise to make it more intelligible. There must be a way of exercising it, I figure -maybe doing purpose-built Sudokus, or being strapped into a specially equipped seat in Starbucks or something. Brien is all for it.