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Creativity and Exaptation | Nancy Hillis

Creativity and Exaptation | Nancy Hillis


I’m sitting on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, lurching out of Los Angeles at a lugubrious trundle. My partner Bruce is next to me, relaxing and reviewing the last two days of our authors’ conference.

One doesn’t take trains in America to go fast, it’s all about the journey.

Perhaps this is why train travel is appealing to me, as it is very close to my artistic credo. Today it’s a very literal kind of Artist’s Journey.

This particular journey takes us to places you can’t easily get any other way.

The train travels through Vandenberg Air Force base north of Santa Barbara, a patch of geography one is forbidden to drive through or even fly over.

Scrubby open coastal landscape punctuates the gargantuan military installations of mysterious purpose, a few identifiable as launch pads or radar facilities, others only obliquely hinting at the deadly secrecy within.

In the middle of this metal and concrete exigence, a long stretch of track perches on top of coastal bluffs, a stone’s throw from the curling surf.

Far-away islands float over the sparkling Pacific, an ethereal vista on a cosmic scale.

Here more than almost anywhere else, it is easy to imagine the alternate reality, the adjacent possible of a prehistoric California wild and fecund before the deluge of humanity.

Our destination is Salinas, the heart of Steinbeck Country, now a sprawling conurbation of hope and fear and struggle amidst the laser-straight rows of factory farming.

A quick computation of time and distance shows our expected average speed to be all of 32 mph, not much faster than a determined bicyclist.

But trains keep going, day and night, with resolute determination. As Emily Dickinson said,

I like to see it lap the Miles.

A train is like a habit, it keeps doing the same thing mile after mile and it is seemingly all at once somewhere else and far away.

A train ride is a fine place to let the imagination wander since one’s physical self is securely placed on tracks.

Today I’m thinking of the many pathways to novelty and discovery, what I’ve called the adjacent possible in previous blog posts.

An idea originally from evolutionary biology, it is a description of how the system of living things on Earth manifests novelty as new creatures.

Genetic mutations create slightly different offspring from existing creatures, and some of those offspring flourish in an environment that is constantly changing, for reasons including the changing creatures within it.

And, given enough time, the long train ride of evolution creates entirely different creatures.


Since we’re on a roll with concepts from systems biology, here’s another one to join the cast of characters: Exaptation.

It’s a slightly strange concept, as it overlays the processes of Nature with human value judgement as to why things happen and what they are for. But bear with me.

When scientists talk about evolution, they often talk about what some aspect of a creature is for. A cheetah, for example, can run very fast, at least for a short period of time.

One might say that its long skinny legs and light body have evolved for the purpose of chasing down prey.

An exaptation is defined as something that evolved for no clear immediate purpose but comes in handy later. It is related to eventual surprise.

Perhaps the cheetah evolves a certain shape of ear for the purpose of being more streamlined but it also turns out to hear high pitched sounds better.

And perhaps hearing high pitched sounds better confers evolutionary advantage of that cheetah’s offspring over others that can’t hear high pitched sounds. One would say that the change in ear shape is partly an exaptation.

But who are we to say what the purpose of evolved traits is when we can’t even figure out what we’ve evolved for? Did something really evolve for “no immediate purpose” or are we just not smart enough to see the pathway?

But let’s set aside that evolved elephant in the room for a moment and turn our attention to the process of artistic creativity.

In my previous discussion of the adjacent possible, I talked about embracing the unknown in one’s artistic discipline.

The unknown is like mutations in living creatures-we don’t know in advance if they will be useful or not, because each move in an artistic creation changes the relationships with all of the other aspects of the work.

But what we do know is that if “mutations” don’t occur in the exploratory creative process nothing happens.

As Wayne Gretzky, the famous hockey player said,

You miss all the shots you don’t take.

In Nature, many mutations don’t make it. Not all directions of the adjacent possible are fruitful. In fact, most aren’t.

How do you find the good ones?

Nature does it by trying a lot, all the time. This is a good strategy to emulate.

Many Starts

Make lots of starts, but also keep them around for a while. Don’t burn or delete them in a fit of pique.

Remember, you want to cultivate surprise, the ability to surprise yourself in your art.

In a previous blog post on the adjacent possible, we explored ways to cultivate an attitude of being surprise-able.

The Adjacent Possible-Nancy Hillis-The Artists Journey

The Adjacent Possible-Nancy Hillis-The Artists Journey


This is why you don’t want to know ahead of time what’s going to happen. You literally cultivate an attitude of not knowing. 

An exaptation may be hidden therein, but you don’t see it yet because the picture of how it fits into your artistic journey has not yet emerged.

Decades ago, there was a humorist in the US state of Maine named Robert Bryan. His stock in trade was a fictional character named Bert, a lobster fisherman and all-around salt of the earth kind of guy.

Bert got in many adventures and miraculously survived them all, which is much easier if you’re fictional.

In one story, Bert was sailing in a small boat with a friend when a gust of wind blew a page of the nautical chart overboard.

Bert’s friend said, “What are we going to do?”

Bert, nonplussed, replied, “No problem-We just keep on sailing until we come onto the next page, then we’ll know where we are.”

I’ve never found a better explanation of exaptation than this.

As an artist, if you have confidence in your process, you will indeed know it when you see it and can celebrate your arrival onto the proverbial “next page.”

With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Happy Groundhog Day (and Happy Palindrome Day 02-02-2020). If you ever saw the movie Groundhog Day you’ll know that it’s about the concept of eternal return. Perhaps we’ll address this in next week’s blog post.

Nancy Hillis' new book: The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journal

Nancy Hillis’ new book: The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal


Meanwhile, thank you to those of you who have purchased my new book The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal. 

Creativity Reflection Journal-Nancy Hillis

An image from one of my personal art journals. Pair your art journal with my new book: The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal  and watch your creativity soar!


Pair it with the Creativity Immersion Program that you can register for (free) if you have the book. It includes daily creativity prompts and affirmations and artists have told me they love it!

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