Exaptation of the Guitar

Michael Garfield
11 min readDec 14, 2022

On Evolution, Improvisation, Music, and Art

Picasso — The Guitar Player

In all the years I studied evolutionary biology in school, there was one word I can hardly believe I didn’t learn. It figures so prominently into my understanding of the evolutionary process and creativity in general that I am amazed it isn’t in the lexicon of every biology student (much less the whole human race, for we all are students — if not outright disciples — of biology, in one way or another). It so neatly rebuts some of the flawed interpretations of evolution that so fetter our culture’s full appreciation of its beauty. And it also has a growing personal significance for me and the way I understand the whole cosmic creative affair — not just as it operates on the unfurling and ever-editing of genetic material.

I understand my own role as a musician and songwriter as it appears within the context of a unified and harmonic universe, as a gesture of the same omnipotent principles that express everything. As a spark of the bonfire of the Big Bang, I burn as the same flame that sings at every scale. So whenever I can get my head around a new biological concept, it shivers my entire grasp of what it means to be and do life and art. The word I wish I’d learned in college continues to yield to my contemplation, rewarding me with an ever-subtler appreciation of living as a human artist.

And like all really good words, it’s the quickest way short of telepathy to communicate something truly tremendous, something that fought through the haze of the barely imaginable for years before it landed in our world with a faerie footstep. To me, a word is the faint reduction, the tiniest tip of a flaming angelic archetype, the tendrilous extension of its infinite body reaching into the limit of our low-resolution physical world. I love words for this reason: because each is one voice in the hill of voices on which we live our lives. Each word is the toeprint of something much larger and more foliate than we can even know from the perspective of a human brain.

For this reason, and because I do insist on my brain’s perspective (most of the time), I am bemused and indignant for not having been given this word sooner; and so part of my motivation for writing about all of this is my desire to set things straight and spread the utility of an excellent construct. But it is also a concession to my idealism, to indulge for a moment in scandalous idolatry of this one facet of the divine. I am giving my proper respects, kissing the toes of whatever hermaphroditic gleaming angel squid, whatever slumber-stirred postmodern ishtadeva explodes fully-formed from the forehead of the word “exaptation.”

In this world, anyway, we owe the legendary paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba for “exaptation,” which premiered in their 1982 paper, “Exaptation — A Missing Term In The Science of Form.” Before I can explore the impact of this beautiful and lucid term on my music, I have to savor its Latin etymology (or “the truth of the word”): “ex” as in “out of;” “apt” as in “fitted” (past participle of “apere,” “to fasten”); and “ation” as an action or its consequences.

Exaptation is function following form, making do with the tools at hand, loving the one you’re with. On one end of the spectrum, exaptation is defending yourself with that rock just within reach. On the other end, it is taking the infinite abundance of every superimposed possibility at the root of manifestation, and using it to forget yourself in a world of frustration and constraint. In both cases, the creative medium (the rock, or the pleroma) contains no set of instructions, no essential purpose. It is “good for” whatever it happens to be good for, determined by the tumbling lock of relationship we call natural selection.

Gould took serious issue (in a paper with Richard Lewontin) with the rampant fondness of some other biologists for assigning purpose to the various characteristics of organisms. Even today, decades after Gould wrote so eloquently against it, we read textbooks making dubious claims that a giraffe’s long neck is “for” reaching the high branches of trees and the enormous eye of a giant squid is “for” seeing in the ocean’s darkest depths.

We do this in anthropology, too: any mysterious artifact is immediately declared a religious icon. (It’s become kind of a joke among scholars.) And we can see this at work in our daily lives: we succeed or fail to “make the most” of our convoluted existences, according to what interpretations we inject into them after the fact. It’s little wonder that we immediately assume the religious import of archeological anomalies, when we ourselves are total slaves to the religious impulse, filling every unexplored nook and cranny with the mortar of some stable answer.

Not that I condemn this. In fact, quite the opposite. I cherish this half of the dialectic, the post facto deciding of things, the naming and the poetry, the revelation of how to feed ourselves with our own hands and that moment of “Yes! This is what they do!” But I, like Gould, don’t lightly suffer the persistent mistake of confusing this construction of meaning with the discovery of some fundamental, intrinsic, and specific use. A rock might make a great weapon, but if we were to be good statisticians, we would admit that on average it is mostly “for” just sitting there. That’s what it does best. Same with the multiverse: how presumptuous is it of us to assume that making universes is the quantum vacuum’s métier? Maybe it’s only moonlighting.

Kaki King — Playing with Pink Noise

Although I’m relieved to see that Berkeley’s Integrative Biology Department is includes exaptation in their introductory tutorials, their website’s definition still paints what seems to me to be a contorted distinction (apparently hailing all the way back to Gould and Vrba’s coinage) between exaptation and adaptation. According to its (hardly) common use, an adaptation was “produced by natural selection for its current function,” whereas an exaptation was “produced by natural selection for a function other than the one it currently performs and was then co-opted for its current function.”

But, uh, doesn’t this fall into the same pit trap the authors were trying to avoid? Beyond merely differentiating between the first and subsequent uses of a single form, this kind of wording still suggests that natural selection produced the trait (when in fact natural selection only operates on the creative input of variation), and that there are adaptations that are not exaptations.

Why does it seem so easy for us to understand exaptation in one context, but so difficult in another? If traits persist due to their successful functioning, and function is determined by the form’s fit to its environment, then every adaptation is the marriage of two moments of creativity: making it, and then figuring out what to do with it.

Just because we have displaced the whole “x exists for f(x)” thinking back a step doesn’t mean we have gotten rid of it. To say that the feather first evolved “for” insulation, only later to be exapted “for” flight, is just as much nonsense as claiming that we apply our brains and thumbs to ends that “God did not intend.” Right…like He had any more idea what He was doing the first time!

Whether it evolved in this generation or the millionth generation before it, every single novelty is born again in every moment without ultimate reason or utility. Even if the feather appears to be used for the same thing in fledge after fledge of birds, each bird rediscovers what to do with its body uniquely, originally, for the first time. Every adapation is a hypothesis, the projection of meaning onto whatever we’re given. And so, mathematically speaking, exaptation and adaptation are sets that contain each other.

So how do I exapt exaptation to inform my creative process? What does this boon from biology mean for music?

It means that every creative act includes a moment of decision, a deliberate projection of function and meaning onto the artist’s environment. And this is what blows my mind the most about exaptation: When I pick up my guitar and play, I’m agreeing that this is an instrument, that this is a guitar, that I play the guitar, and that I play the guitar in some specific way. That this is what it’s “for.”

But there are an infinite number of ways for the universe to express itself through the functional relationship between a human being and a guitar. It was a definite act of creation when my friend dipped his hand into the sound hole of my friend Kate’s guitar and rolled his eyes back in his head to communicate his attraction to her.

Pat Metheny and the Pikasso Guitar

Jimi Hendrix — with the help of LSD, that unparalleled sire of iconoclasts — communicated something by burning his guitar that could never have been said by strumming it. And that’s just with the same old guitar that you and I know — luthiers have done some incredible things with the design of the instrument itself, like Manzer’s “as many strings as possible” Pikasso Guitar, commissioned for Pat Metheny (pictured above).

And so it is for this feisty young man, privileged or burdened as I am with unceasing progressive inclinations, that many of my favorite musicians prefer to consider themselves as practitioners of music in general rather than the tradition of their specific instruments. As I love to remind people, the great bassist Victor Wooten insists that his medium just happens to be the bass, and that he is not a “bassist,” any more than a self-consistent practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings would actually declare himself to worship “Buddhism” (“or,” in the words of Ferris Bueller, “any other ism for that matter.”)

Likewise, Kaki King grew up on the drums before translating those sensibilities to the acoustic guitar. In her early interviews made it plain that her whole agenda was to “fuck with” people’s ideas of what the acoustic guitar even is. Never mind that she wasn’t the first to play it like a percussion ensemble; there’s no such thing as being completely original, anyway, unless you’re willing to grant all phenomena the same courtesy. On even the most newly-poured volcanic island of thought, there are as many exaptations as there are participants. There is something utterly unique in even the most mundane copycat playing. There is something wild and new about every instant’s spontaneous perspective on the fact of the previous moment.

If I can stay wide open enough to hold every creative moment in the light of an ever-present and ever-renewing genesis, each instant is an equally wild idea. It is absolutely creative because it happened at all. If we take the past as a given and define it according to the standard of the present, we deny it as a moment creative in itself, and rig the game in favor of our current interpretation. “My, how we’ve grown.” “What were we thinking?” “Behold primitive man, living as a savage…the poor heathen.”

And so to cherish the unique exaptation of every moment in this way is not half-blind futurist zealotry, disrespectful of tradition — it’s more like telling a girl that you like her eyes, when you know that everyone else compliments her on her breasts. It’s an attempt to appreciate the whole package, past, present, and future, inside and out.

But that’s a hell of a lot to appreciate, and I can rarely do it for long. Like everyone else with limited energy and attention, I deserve to be convicted by a jury of myself for identifying with a particular set of preferences and positions, relative to a single observation platform floating one way across time. I still often make the mistake of declaring the so-called “progressive” art forms to be more creative and therefore more interesting than their predecessors — perpetuating the false distinction between exaptation and adaptation, as if to play the guitar fretboard like a piano is a more fabulous idea than playing it like a normal freaking human being. (Kaki King: “Are we to have another century of guitar when the best instrument in the world is still the piano?”)

Consequently, maybe nine out of my ten favorite guitarists are doing things on the guitar that were unimaginable fifty years ago. These people have carved out their homesteads on the freshly exposed terrain of that new island. They have my respect for being its first inhabitants, collectively discerning (and deciding) the rules of this new land that is just now peeking over the splashy boundary of unconsciousness.

As a male mammal, I will always have a special place in my heart for the journeyers, the rogues and rovers, the wanderers and frontier families. My love for the music coopted from its original context is just one incidence of a broader pattern in my being: a love of reclamation, the same reconstructive postmodern desire that fuels the creation of urban gardens and beautiful graffiti murals, all manner of tattoos and piercings, circuit-bent instruments, remixes, redefinitions, and reimaginations of literature (such as Julie Taymor’s film production of Shakespeare’s Titus and stage production of The Lion King, and chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s performances of Aphex Twin’s often-aggressive electronic music).

I can hardly call this “ownership,” because we have inherited all of it and we will all sooner or later pass it on to someone else. But it is beautiful and affirmative, restorative and inspiring to know that we are capable of exapting our world to the meaning and purpose we see for it now.

In this spirit, I encourage you to look upon the world with fresh eyes, to see it and feel it, not as some rigid predestined machine, but as a gift of creative jubilance inviting us to assist in the unfurling form and function of everything we know and are. Don’t assume that you know what that guitar is when you pick it up, or that pen, or that hand. Don’t assume you know what you’ve got riding in your chromosomes, or that their full potential has been explored.

Every instant is a new world, with new opportunities. It falls upon us to learn how to avoid the hamster wheel of endless adaptation to external fortune by exapting the world and playing with the flux instead. This is a profound change of perspective. If you have found your purpose, don’t refuse opportunities for amendment. If you still haven’t found your voice or calling, relish in the flexibility of an undetermined existence.

Find a new meaning for your guitar, and maybe — just maybe — you’ll find a new meaning for your self.

Originally published at Guitar International in 2010.

Podcaster, illustrator and essayist by day, avant guitarist by night, Michael Garfield is intent on demonstrating that everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice. Not content to merely push the boundaries of guitar technique, Michael draws from a world of traditions past, present, and future to deliver music both totally original and strangely familiar — and writes on the intersections of music, science, culture, and philosophy at Substack and for a variety of web outlets. Follow him on Patreon.



Michael Garfield

Here to help you navigate the accelerating weirdness! Biologist turned philosopher, host of #FutureFossils & #ComplexityPodcast, ex @sfiscience ex @longnow.