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?



The Teleology of Grass

I’ll probably be criticized for my grass again this year –it’s getting rather long. People tell me it’s because I don’t cut it, but I can’t accept that. It’s grass for goodness sakes –it’s meant to be eaten not decapitated.

Perhaps I should explain, before you write me off as some sort of New Age Grassist. I do not worship grass, nor do I sacrifice stuff at its behest. It merely is, as am I. But I suppose that’s not enough is it? We tend to need more than that –teleology springs to mind. We’re all teleologists when you get right down to it. Like children, we ask difficult questions, but we want simple answers. There is a point, however, beyond which because is simply not the answer to why.

So, in an admittedly lay attempt to answer the question Why is grass? I do not wish to fall back onto the theological becauses of which many of us have hitherto been so fond. I wish to posit that the answer is far more terrestrial, far more pragmatic: grass evolved, simply put, because sheep did –post hoc, ergo propter hoc, eh? Or is it the other way around? I get confused with all the hocs.

Anyway, I realize that answer is itself a leaking Pandora’s Box –or, in a more contemporary idiom, a Matryoshka doll, full of dark entendres for other unnamed herbivores. Full, in other words, of an infinite regress of yet more and more whys. And hocs…

I began to see grass as a problem when I was living in the city. It didn’t make any sense for me to grow the stuff in the front yard, only to be forced to cut it down and then throw it away just so I could still see the house from the sidewalk or tell if the kids were near the driveway. So I made the decision to move to the country and commute to work. It was there I had the epiphany: meat did not grow in those little packages in the store; it once had legs, and wandered around… eating grass.

After a quick check with the neighbours who, at the time, were stretching the limits of their knowledge just keeping chickens alive, I decided against any animals they felt would threaten their children. Cows were out, it was explained to me with angry eyes, because they were so big and people that lived nearby were frightened at what effect a stampede might have on their gardens. Having grown up with the same cowboy movies as them, I could readily sympathize with their concerns.

They encouraged me to get a couple of horses -although they’re big, they rationalized, horses have names like Flicka and Dancer. And no horns -apparently that’s important as well. Still, I don’t understand horses, and I was told that you can’t just leave them alone in a field for weeks at a time. Also, I don’t ride, and I have to admit that the idea of taking them for extended walks along a busy road every day was not at all appealing. I also did not relish the size of the disposable bag I would have to carry.

No, it came to me that grass is for sheep, so I bought a flock from a farmer who wanted to move to the city and see what a clean lawn was like. He explained that with his sheep, I could just let them wander around so I wouldn’t have to pet them, or anything. And he never used bags.

After I retired and had time to look, however, I realized I didn’t actually need a whole flock. In no time they’d polish off a field and then stroll around baaing as if their life depended on it -or worse, just lie there staring at my conscience, hoping I’d notice they were chewing on disgusting stuff they’d stored for emergencies in secret intestinal cupboards. There’s not much for them to do in the winter either, so you have to keep buying hay for them, and taking out unfrozen water for them to drink before it freezes again -sort of like Sisyphus… Well, sort of. The obvious lesson in this, though, is that sheep are not much good without grass. So I sold them all –well, they were pretty old, so I actually just gave them away.

I thought about the problem one winter, and realized the answer was simple: buy lambs in the spring, turn them loose on the fields around the house and then, well, send them to other pastures in the fall –and sell the meat. So, an economists dream: they eat the grass for free all summer, and then recoup their initial cost in the fall. It’s win/win all around, although I did not interview the lambs.

This year, however, the idea caught on in the neighbourhood, and so my traditional source of lambs was not available. My usual source of grass was, however, and it got me wondering what our ancestors did with all their grass –before they had animals, I mean… Before they discovered cows and stuff. And certainly long before they realized there were some kinds of grass that they could sell in baked goods in little road-side stands. I imagine green was merely a kind of thick shaggy background for them, and unlike for their prissy descendants, no big deal. It was just something they had to wade through to get to the cave. They had no idea that people would one day be upset if they had to get out of their cars and struggle through it to their houses all the while worrying they might drop the pizza or lose their keys.

Now, it seems, we’ve taken the whole idea to its extreme –if the lawn has any members in it higher than the sidewalk, it’s messy and unkempt. But I reject that position as totally anti-Darwinian and propose a corrective regression to the mean -somebody has to step back and revisit the norm. I feel called to reinstitute a healthy respect for the random -a recognition of what Nature no doubt intended all along. Scattered amongst my knee-high grass is an assortment of flowers: dandelions, foxgloves, daisies… weeds -anything that has seeded there from the neighbouring gardens. The area around the house has become my fallow; I run an equal opportunity yard now. I kind of wish some sheep had applied, though…