Evolutionary Metaphors


This post discusses the notion of speciation used in evolutionary biology and the extent to which the emergence of new types of products can be compared with it.


The notion of speciation is used in biology for the evolutionary process by which new species emerge. This requires genetic isolation, which usually involves some type of spatial isolation. Over time the genetic differences between different populations of what used to be one species become so large that interbreeding becomes impossible. When that happens the original species evolves into two different species.

Darwin changed the way we look at life by introducing the idea that species originate as a result of natural selection as described in his book published in 1859. The often-used picture of the different types of finches Darwin encountered while visiting the Galapagos Islands nicely summarizes the idea of how species adapt. Because finches living on one particular island would not mate with finches from another island, their populations became genetically isolated. Due to landscape differences the individual islands all had their own typical food supply. In the case of the Galapagos finches it was adaptation to different types of food that resulted in the evolution of different beak geometries. On the island where the finches mostly ate insects, the variants with relative sharp pointed beaks had an advantage in catching insects, which improved their survival rate. Improved access to food also increased success rate in raising offspring. As a result the average beak in this population became more pointed. And at a certain point in time the finches became so different from the finches on the other islands that they were unable to propagate together any more. At this stage, a new species had evolved.

Beyond the world of life

Speciation involves genes which are obviously not available in the world of made. It is nowadays clear that the phenomenon of evolution is not exclusively reserved for the world of life. A wonderful and much discussed example of evolution outside the world of life is that of languages. It is well known that languages are not static but change over time. That is why the Afrikaans spoken in South Africa significantly differs from modern Dutch. The original Dutch settlers brought with them their mother tongue a few centuries ago. Their communities were geographically separated from their Dutch ancestors and, over the centuries, their language evolved on its own. In the process Afrikaans adopted words from other locally spoken languages. Meanwhile the Dutch language did not remain the same either. Today although Dutch people and Afrikaners are still able to understand most of each other’s language, the differences are quite significant. Languages thus evolve over time and their lineage can be displayed in language trees.

Figure 1: Language tree of Indo European languages with a recent split between Dutch and Afrikaans.

The world of made

Man-made goods are again different to languages. For practical reasons, and as one can expect on a site with this URL, I will focus here on products. Products are man-made goods and require knowledge in order to be made. Knowledge accumulates as it builds on previous discoveries while broadening and deepening it. In other words, knowledge accumulation makes it possible to develop advanced versions of a wheel without reinventing the wheel over and over again.


Some explanation is needed here to make clear what I mean by ‘a product’ and how I distinguish between one type and another. First of all a product is defined here as a man-made thing that provides a certain function, for example providing light. Products can also be intangible, such as a word processor.

The way in which a function is realised is characteristic of a particular type of product. A candle provides light by means of a flame which burns wax. An incandescent lamp provides light by means of a filament that glows as a result from an electric current passing through. Therefore the candle and the incandescent lamp are different products.

Invention or development?

The text below explores how new types of products emerge from a process of experimenting, tinkering and step-by-step developments, often using knowledge from other domains. For that reason the term develop / development is used here to underline the purposeful character of the process leading to new products. The notion of invention could be used as well. However as the word invention does not necessarily imply a purposeful search process, this post uses the term development.

Electric Light

Before electric light was developed there were various ways to make light in the dark, ranging from candles to gas lamps. All these involve open fire and thus imply an obvious fire hazard. An army of ‘developers’ spent many decades on the quest to create safer and more practical forms of light. Clearly electricity is required before you can start developing electric light. Soon after Alessandro Volta developed the battery, experiments by Humphry Davy first produced electric light in 1802. Davy conducted a large electric current through a strip of platinum, which then got so hot it became incandescent. It then took nearly eight decades of experimenting with electricity and all sorts of constructions and materials before the incandescent lamp was developed in 1879. Moreover, this lamp was not invented by one person but by two different people on either side of the Atlantic Ocean (Friedel and Israel, 1985). This is a typical feature of the fact that the ‘invention’ of lamp was the result of a purposeful search.

The incandescent lamp was developed to improve on earlier ways of making light and was key to the electrification. Early incandescent lamps used carbon filaments and had a short lifespan. The quest to improve the lifespan eventually produced tungsten filament lamps. The screw base was developed to make them easy to replace. And together these elements became important characteristics of the incandescent light bulb, also referred to as the General Lighting Service or GLS lamp. The story of the origin of the incandescent lamp and its successors, the Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) and the LED bulb, is explored in detail in ‘On the Origin of Products’.

New Types of Products

The incandescent lamp was developed to improve earlier types of light that required open fire. The incandescent lamp provides light in a completely new way and was therefore a ‘new type of product’ at the time of its introduction. Other examples of the origin of (new types of) products can be found in posts in the Product Evolution category on this site.

The Origin of Products

It therefore appears to be the case that new types of products do not suddenly emerge out of nowhere. Instead they result from a purposeful search. Some products build on unintentional discoveries (such as the microwave oven) and can be regarded as a by-product of other developments (in this case radar). A substantial amount of development is still needed before these coincidental discoveries can be successfully used in a new product. It is this development process that characterizes the origin of products.

The post ‘tree of life’ explored the idea of a ‘tree of products’ that suggests an evolutionary relationship between the smartphone and the stone hand axe. Obviously the lines from stone hand axe to smartphone do not reflect the lines of descent that we know from the living world. However, the knowledge required to make a smartphone developed over many decades of building on telephones, cell phones and personal digital assistants. It is this knowledge that is the basis of the evolutionary relationship between products.


  • Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species.
  • Eger, A. O., Ehlhardt, H. (2017). On the Origin of Products. Cambridge University Press.
  • Friedel, R. and Israel, P. (1985). Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Copyright © 2017 Huub Ehlhardt. All Rights Reserved. Please contact us for re-use of this article.

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