Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Origin of Good Ideas

“Feathers!  Birds have feathers so that they can fly!”  This is a response that I have heard numerous times in response to me asking students what allows bird to fly.  One of the unforeseen by-products of writing a best-selling book on bird identification is being invited to talk to sixth graders during their unit on Flight.  No matter that I share with them that a bird’s fused skeleton, egg laying, hollow bones and concentrated mass all help them fly- for the kids it all comes down to the feathers.

With Europe still abuzz the year after Darwin published “Origin of the Species” Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer unearthed a fossilized feather in a limestone quarry near Solnhofen, Germany.  Within the next few years, German limestone yielded other specimens of this particular animal that lived around 150 million years ago.  Over time, these fossils became known as Archeopteryx and they clearly possessed traits that belonged to both reptiles and birds.  Most notably they included a bird’s calling card: feathers.

Discoveries of feathered dinosaurs continued to trickle into paleontology labs for the next century and a half.  But when a pair of Canadian eyes set their sights on a fossil in a Chinese museum in 1996 a flood of fossils was to begin. “When I saw this slab of silt stone mixed with volcanic ash in which the creature is embedded, I was bowled over" said Phil Currie one of the world’s most prominent dinosaur scientists. Sinosauropteryx was another feathered dinosaur but it wasn’t the only kind that was to be discovered in China’s Liaoning sedimentary rock.  In less than a decade, this region would yield dozens more specimens comprising more than 25 different kinds of feathers dinosaurs.

While many of these specimens do not have the asymmetrical feathers of modern birds or even archaeopteryx, these Chinese fossils showed a clear continuum from filaments arising from the skin to the spitting image of modern flight feathers.  What was also clear was that our contemporary viewpoint on a feather’s raison d’etre needed to be assessed.  These earliest of feathers weren’t for flight at all.

No matter the opinion of sixth graders, even today feathers serve purposes other than flight.  Most notably, feathers serve an important role in keeping birds warm. Like mammals, birds generate their own body heat so it is in their best interests to do their best to conserve it. Even wispy filaments can provide modest thermoregulatory advantages to an otherwise naked animal

Feathers are also used for coloration.  Both the audacious beauty and the deceitful crypsis of certain species is a reflection of the patterns and colours in feathers.  The microscopic structure of the fossilized feathers show cells associated with certain pigments.  Twenty first century textbooks now illustrate these early birds in Technicolor.  While these recent discoveries will no doubt take scientific inquiry down many paths, we are pretty certain that no matter how they are used to this day, feathers were not originally acquired for flight.  That came about as a by-product of feathers designed for colour and warmth.

One of evolutionary biology’s rock stars, Stephen J Gould took note of how finished products in some animals sometimes differ from their original concept.  He gave it a name.  Gould writes,  “we suggest that characters evolved for other usages (or for no function at all) and later ‘coopted’ for their current role be called exaptations.”  The evolution of flight feathers from other purposes is cited as a vivid example of an exaptation.  In that same paper he would give several more examples of this exaptation phenomena from lactation and bone function to the sexual mimicry in hyenas.  He could have just as well used examples of success from our contemporary world as well.

John Pemberton was a first and foremost a tinkerer.  The fact that he was a trained pharmacist meant that he tinkered with plant extracts in order to come up with some health benefits.  Through the 1880s he came up with various hair dyes, pills and medicines.  These did more to promise relief than bring about any healing.  He then looked to copy others success and to follow a trend. He brewed up a tonic.

Hippocrates was one of the first healers to prescribe to patients “those [waters] which have their fountains in rocks.” Mineral spring water contains a high amount of minerals and this natural carbonization leads to a sharper taste.  It was also thought that spring waters were tonics to various health ailments. By the nineteenth century, artificial carbonization was able to produce beverages that had a natural spa taste and their corresponding health benefits.  As these tonics and ‘pops’ became popular, soda fountains were placed in drug stores to carbonate the various syrups that were marketed to relieve just about every symptom of the Victorian age.

With the aim to relieve headaches and nervousness, John Pemberton went down to his basement and combined extracts of kola nut and coca leaf into wine.  Later brews would cut the wine out altogether because of Atlanta’s newly enacted temperance law of 1885. Eventually, Pemberton brought his sweet syrup to the soda fountain in Jacob's Pharmacy in Atlanta on May 8, 1886.  It was his Frank Robinson, the bookkeeper who came up with the product’s name and Coca-Cola’s distinctive flowing script.

The sales for that first year were miserable.  Competition was intense.  America’s soda fountain market was competitive with other medicinal tonics by Hires, Schweppes and featuring names like Dr. Pepper.  Despite Pemberton’s insistence that Coca-Cola could cure diseases such as morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence, he couldn’t find a winning marketing strategy. 

Less than two years after Pemberton's syrup was first carbonated in the Jacob’s Pharmacy soda fountain, the inventor of what would become one of the world’s foremost brands, sold the company to Asa Griggs Candler for $2,300.  It was Chandler’s aggressive marketing that would be responsible for the popularization of the drink.  The medicinal roots of Coca-Cola would decreasingly be used in marketing until they were completely abandoned in 1901.  By then, it seemed the one time medicinal tonic had simply become “Coca-Cola: delicious and refreshing.”

Coke is not the only product that achieved its success away from its original design. Gutenberg modified a wine press to print his first Bible; sildenafil was initially studied as a drug for hypertension and angina before it became known as Viagra.  The GPS in your iphone was initially developed to accurately launch nuclear warheads from submarines. And just as Stephen Gould suggested, the feathers that a sixth grader associated with a bird in flight, were first grown to keep a reptile warm.

The successes of the natural world are achieved through modification and not by spontaneous generation. “Every advance carries along the baggage of its ancestry, so we see echoes of our past in every feature” writes the evolutionary biologist PZ Myers. And so too is it with are our ideas. They are transformed into their final form by experience in response to environmental conditions.  Good ideas don’t fall out of the sky and flight feathers don’t just appear on a bird’s wing.  Why a good idea reaches it’s eventual glory, is more important than how it starts off.

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