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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: Evolution and the airline seat

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

8 October 2011

5:00 PM

8 October 2011

5:00 PM

How can something as complicated as a human eye possibly arise through a process of natural selection — through trial and error? Most people will have asked themselves this question at some point in their lives, but without bothering to find out the answer. A pity, since the stage-by-stage explanation of how the eye might have evolved is fascinating.

The story begins when organisms develop cells that are sensitive to sunlight. In time, these may develop to a level of sensitivity where they can detect movement. The next stage is for these cells to form themselves into a convex or concave shape to add an extra degree of directional information (with sensors arrayed in a bowl or on a mound, you can better detect in which direction any movement is happening). From the concave version you can progress to a retractable protective covering, to a pinhole-camera opening, to a transparent protective covering and from there to a lens.

There are two interesting features to this process. First, what may seem an arbitrary choice at the time can have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Arranging cells in a bowl or on a bulge makes little immediate difference either way; however, while one may lead to the evolution of a lens, the second does not. When insects made their eyes convex, they were unknowingly choosing the visual equivalent of Betamax.

The second interesting feature of these theories is that, to accord with theories of natural selection, each separate step in the development of an eye must of itself confer advantage upon the organism which develops it. Evolution does not have a mechanism whereby it can reculer pour mieux sauter. Nor can evolution travel through intermediate disadvantageous stages before it happens on a new, really useful adaptation.


Human progress seems not to work like this at all. In fact most areas of technological progress seem to spend many years in an unsatisfactory intermediate stage — what you might call ‘crappy valley’ — before arriving at a new peak.

One such area of protracted non-progress was long-haul airline seating. Go into a furniture shop and you will find most items on sale fall into two categories: chairs and beds. (A sofa bed, true, does both, but it does one at a time. I have never seen a sofa bed with an intermediate setting allowing you to sleep at an angle with your body in a contorted S-bend.)

Yet for years airlines spent millions of pounds on their business-class cabins developing a perversion of a dentist’s chair that forced you to lie back in a posture entirely unsuited to ­somnolence. I say ‘forced’ because even if you preferred to doze upright, once some git in a seat ahead of you had decided to recline, this led to such an incursion into the airspace of the passenger behind that, by a domino effect, everyone else had to recline as well. This meant that anyone in a window seat could only reach the lavatory by performing a kind of Fosbury flop over the raised knees of the person sleeping alongside them, or else risk accusations of sexual harassment by attempting the traverse face on.

Finally, and mercifully, after years of pointless effort, the better airlines saw sense and realised that a seat should either recline to the horizontal or not much at all. Delta is even considering an ingenious new herring­bone layout for economy seating which allows people to sleep without drooling on their neighbour.

There are two other areas of innovation which have recently passed out of crappy valley, and I shall be writing about both shortly. One is video-conferencing; the other is the radio-controlled toy helicopter.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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