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Bicycles meet biology in the evolutionary stakes

22 September 2005

It would appear that bicycles and biology have more in common than first meets the eye: UCL researchers have shown they evolve in a similar way.

In a paper, which will be presented tomorrow at the 'Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution' conference at UCL, Dr Mark Lake and Jay Venti of the Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour have shown parallels can be drawn between the evolution of life on Earth and the development of bike design.

They found that bike evolution has exhibited patterns analogous to ones long recognised in biological evolution. In both cases there was an initial rapid expansion of different designs that were subsequently refined as some of the more extravagant forms were found not to be viable.

Their results suggest that natural selection can be treated as a universal process that drives both biological and human design evolution by acting on the products of mutation or innovation to differentially select more fit variants.

Dr Mark Lake of the Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour says:

“Our results support the notion that biological evolution and cultural evolution are both special cases of a more general form of evolution. It is not an accident that the same large-scale evolutionary pattern of expansion and contractions in design space appears in both biological and cultural examples: instead, it betrays the operation of natural selection in both contexts.”

A German, Baron Karl von Drais, invented the 'running machine' in 1817, which is normally considered the predecessor of the bike. But it wasn't until the late 1840s that the bike really took off with designs such as the Boneshaker. The 1860s - 1880s saw an explosion in design experimentation in bicycles, tricycles and quadracycles and the onset of mass production in the 1880s heralded the heyday of the bike.

The early dominance of the high wheeler - such as the Penny Farthing - gave way to the safety bike, which was easier to handle and safer to use - and so had much broader market appeal. During the late 1880s and early 1890s the safety bike rapidly evolved into a configuration recognisable as today's bike. Its greater efficiency drove all other competing designs out of the marketplace by the mid 1890s.

The researchers searched bike literature for images in which the geometry of the bike was visible and information on the model and year of production was available. The researchers created a taxonomy of bikes based on key design features such as the number of wheels and whether they were driven by a chain. They also considered how the bikes were used: as upper-class toys; to transport goods; or for recreation. The rate of change in design was considered in ten year blocks.

Jay Venti of the Centre for the Evolutionary analysis of Cultural Behaviour says:

“As with evolution of some biological taxa we found there was a rapid evolutionary diversification into a large number of higher taxonomic classes followed by exploration of sub-taxa. This was followed by a period of contraction in which many of the 'species' died off. Subsequent changes in bike design have seen small tweaks rather than radical re-invention.”

“Our next step is to look at the evolution of design in more complicated design spaces such as ships and church architecture.”

Dr Mark Lake and Jay Venti will present the paper, 'A Quantitative Analysis of Macroevolutionary Patterning in Technological Evolution: Bicycle Design from 1800 to 2000' at the Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution conference hosted by UCL on Thursday 15 September 12-1pm .

For further information, please contact:

Judith H Moore,UCL Media Relations Manager, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7679 7678, Mobile : +44 (0)77333 075 96, Email: judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk