Quantifying exaptation in scientific evolution - CSH

Quantifying exaptation in scientific evolution


Rediscovering a new function for something can be just as important as the discovery itself. In 1982, Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba named this phenomenon Exaptation to describe a radical shift in the function of a specific trait during biological evolution. While exaptation is thought to be a fundamental mechanism for generating adaptive innovations, diversity, and sophisticated features, relatively little effort has been made to quantify exaptation outside the topic of biological evolution. We think that this concept provides a useful framework for characterising the emergence of innovations in science. This chapter explores the notion that exaptation arises from the usage of scientific ideas in domains other than the area that they were originally applied to. In particular, we adopt a normalised entropy and an inverse participation ratio as observables that reveal and quantify the concept of exaptation. We identify distinctive patterns of exaptation and expose specific examples of papers that display those patterns. Our approach represents a first step towards the quantification of exaptation phenomena in the context of scientific evolution.


M. Ferreira, N. Reisz, W. Schueller, V. Servedio, S. Thurner, V. Loreto, Quantifying exaptation in scientific evolution, in: C. La Porta, S. Zapperi, L. Pilotti (eds), Understanding Innovation Through Exaptation, The Frontiers Collection, (2020) Springer, Cham

This publication was supported by the following project(s):

  • FFG, Project No. FFG 857136