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A real life example of a single point beneficial mutation in typography

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(Apologies for absence of News, due to technical issues. )

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Further to, “Can an accidental mutation ever be beneficial?”, Laszlo Bencze recounts a case of an accidental mutation in typography that assumed a life of its own:

A successful eco-coinage was put in play by environmentalist Amory Lovins after he came upon it by accident. As Lovins and a colleague perused a report on electricity from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission more than two decades ago, one word got their attention: negawatt. It was a typographical error. The report writer meant to say “megawatt.”

But the more Lovins thought about it, the more sense this typo made. Why not call units of electricity that are saved rather than consumed negawatts? This was just the word the environmental activist had been looking for to point out that conserving units of carbon-generating energy made it less necessary to produce them. he floated the neologism in a 1984 Business Week interview, then used it in a 1989 speech titled “The Negawatt Revolution.” It has been part of the alternative energy lexicon ever since.

—The American Scholar article “Is There a Word for That”, Ralph Keyes, p. 64

I’ve been searching for such random and beneficial letter changes for a long time with practically no success. Some time ago about a random change to one letter of a word in a Jefferson Airplane song that changed meaning, but unfortunately the change went from brilliant to average, so it didn’t count really. In the story above the change goes distinctly in the direction of improvement and even the creation of information, so it does count.

But…there are a few flaws in this analogue to The Primary Axiom of evolution (random mutations naturally selected lead to vastly increasing complexity in life). The first and most significant flaw is that the typo in question actually degrades the meaning of the original written piece. As Ralph Keyes makes clear, megawatt was the correct term and any deviation from that exact word degrades meaning. So the mutated word only becomes functional within another context.

Secondly, the selecting agent in this case is without a doubt intelligent, one might even say highly intelligent. After all it takes a rather creative mind to discern how a typo might effectively communicate a tricky concept. Most people seeing the typo would never have noticed its possibilities.

With these two strikes against it, we see that the typo is not at all analogous to the sort of mutation and selection which nature has supposedly provided the world of life for billions of years.

It’s not clear that “negawatts” ever made the jump outside a small group anyway, probably because, while it works in principle, it wasn’t a word anyone was actually looking for. “Energy saved” functions quite well, to alert the consumer; negawatts would require explanation.


Once you must explain your terminology, you may as well be in front of a squirming captive audience with a lectern and pointer.


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