Social movements and exaptation

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, Klaus P. Japp has a chapter on new social movement in Problems of Form, edited by Dirk Baecker. He writes that

the new social movements do not enact protest by starting from a contested issue. On the contrary, they first consolidate the “form of protest”–the collective readiness for opposition that can be shared by a community–and then seek issues through which society can be criticized, that is, through which one side of the form of protest can be designated. Self-rationalizations then reverse this course in that they externalize internal reasons for the emergence of protest (protest communication) with the help of issues. One is then prompted by topical issues and does not recognize the triggering function of a predisposition for protest. (156)

This idea of readiness relates to the theory of exaptation,

a trait, feature, or structure of an organism or taxonomic group that takes on a function when none previously existed or that differs from its original function which had been derived by evolution. Bird feathers are a classic example: initially they may have evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted for flight.

Exaptation used to be called preaptation, but that term suggested teleology in evolution. To take another example, the lungs of vertebrates did not evolve because animals needed to breath air; they evolved first in fish, and then later a use was found for these organs on land. Darwin speculated that lungs evolved from swim bladders of fish, but recent research suggests that both lungs and swim bladders evolved from an earlier lung-like organ in fish. But the point is that lungs did not evolve in response to the need to breathe air. If that were the case, the animal would die before ever taking a breath. It would take too long. It’s the same with technology. Some tool or object is lying around, and someone finds a new use for it . They don’t invent the tool ex nihilo in direct response to an urgent need.

If we look at the civil rights movement, the social system did not evolve to fight for racial equality. A social system first developed in African American churches, and then later the church communities found a new use for themselves outside of the church. When a social system consolidates itself in this way, it can quickly turn its attention to new issues as they arise. It retains his readiness to act. For instance, Martin Luther King, in the last few years of his life, found that the civil rights community could fight not just for civil rights, but also also against poverty and the Vietnam War.

Another example of exaptation–The post-War II growth of university enrollment, thanks to the GI Bill and post-industrial developments, provided a site for anti-Vietnam War protests. The universities, of course, weren’t established to provide a site for an anti-war movement, but they just happened to be a convenient site.


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