SGU Episode 617

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SGU Episode 617
May 6th 2017
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SGU 616                      SGU 618

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


MR: Marc Randazza

Quote of the Week

We must trust to nothing but facts: These are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.

Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • 12 year anniversary.
  • May the 4th be with you.
  • Toy guns not allowed in school

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

What's the Word (4:04)[edit]

  • Exaptation

S: Cara, What's the Word?

C: So the word this week was actually recommended by Elizabeth Vermullen, who reached out, I think via Facebook, and told me that she heard it in her biology lecture. And that word is exaptation. Have you guys heard the word exaptation?

S: Oh yeah.

C: Yay! All right, so exaptation is a physical or behavioral feature that has a function for which it was not originally adapted or selected via evolution. So it really falls into line with some of the conversations that we have had on the show about convergent evolution, divergent evolution, like homologous structures. A good example of an exaptation is that a bird or a dinosaur feather likely evolved at the beginning for temperature regulation, but was later adapted for flight.

Exaptation in some ways, or in some uses is synonymous with the term co-option, as in, those feathers were co-opted for flight. You'll often hear writers use it that way. And so the etymology - this is a cool one, because it was coined only in 1982 in a paper published by Steven Jay Gould, and Elizabeth Verba. And it was published in the journal Paleobiology. They coined this term as an offered alternative to the long-standing use of pre-adaptation, which really is a teleological argument (we've talked about teleology on the show as well). That, the argument stands that traits or structures were destined for a specific function, and that's how a lot of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists actually talked about traits! They talked about them being pre-adapted.

And so, Steven J. Gould, and Elizabeth Verba said, "We need a new word for this." So they started using the term "exaptation." It's an amalgamation of ex, meaning out, and adaptation, which can further be broken down into its constituent roots. Ad is towards, and aptare is to fit, as in, you know, apt, the word apt. So, this is an out adaptation. And really, what we're talking about is - all the time, this happens in biology - specific things, specific behaviors, specific traits, specific morphology, being utilised for something other than that which it was originally adapted for.

And in a way, because of what we know about evolution, pretty much, we can say almost everything was an exaptation, because there are so many small, gradual changes. And so, some biologists don't like the word, because they think it doesn't have a clear enough definition. Like, at what point can we call it an exaptation? But some of them still use it.

S: I think it's an absolutely critical concept of evolution, and

B: Oh my god, yes.

S: like, that's the one thing that is almost universally missing from creationist nonsense. Like, how could half a wing be useful? Because they weren't using it for flying.

C: Yeah

S: And it totally has this hindsight bias of, it was evolving towards a wing. No it wasn't! It was just what it was. And they were using it for whatever they were using them for. And nature is messy. Reality is messy. You can use things for other purposes, other than the thing for which it was, you know, how many times have I used a screw driver as a hammer? Because I don't have a hammer.

C: Yeah!

E: (Chuckles) Right.

S: It's not a great hammer, but it gets the job done!

C: (Laughs) It gets the job done! (Laughs)

S: That's just the way it is! Anyway, yeah, exaptation. That's a very key concept, absolutely.

C: Yeah

E: Cool

News Items[edit]

Exercise Metabolism (7:38)[edit]

Earliest Humans in the New World (14:28)[edit]

Cancer Evolution (23:21)[edit]

David Young Dies (32:26)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (35:32)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Oscilliscope Music (It makes pictures and music at the same time)

NECSS Announcement (39:21)[edit]

Commercial at 41:25

Interview with Marc Randazza (42:50)[edit]

  • First Amendment Lawyer
  • Alex Jones claims to just be an actor

Science or Fiction (1:16:50)[edit]

Item #1: New research finds that being bilingual increases one’s ability to estimate the subjective passage of time. Item #2: In a recent large study, social smokers had as much of an increase in cardiovascular risk factors as daily smokers. Item #3: Scientists report in a recent study that honey bee hives are healthier in the presence of traditional agriculture compared to non-agricultural areas.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

"We must trust to nothing but facts: These are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation." - Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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