Of Bicycles and Bipeds: Farming Flying Forms

April 14th, 2011 | Category: Essays, Videos

A wing is a bridge. Flight is a ride on that bridge from take-off to landing. Dinosaurs became bipedal, balancing their large bodies on two legs via counterbalancing tails. Eventually the same biological process—or set of processes between biology and environment—morphed wings, and thereby, flight. Using this transition as a metaphor is an trip we might do well to take.

Write to the nth power, the n-1 power, write with slogans: Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line! Be quick, even when standing still! Line of chance, line of hips, line of flight… Have short-term ideas. Make maps, not photos or drawings…
— Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 24-25.

The approach I want to take here is what Kingslover and Koehl (1994) call “bounded ignorance.” That is, I’m going to outline a possible homology between the evolution of flight in animals and in human technologies, one that “seems consistent with available evidence” (p. 426). One could say this is how McLuhan theorized changes in the media. Kingslover and Koehl were looking at flight in insects, which does our tack no good. Insects added extra limbs/wings as needed. Drones, swarms, crowds, organizations — these are insect analogs (cf. Parikka, 2010; Shaviro, 1996). We’re interested in a transition from quadraped to biped to winged flight (cf. Paul, 2002; Chiappe, 2007). That is, we’re interested in an appropriation of existing limbs, not an adding on of new ones.

Explaining the transition in dinosaurs, Shipman (1998), writes, “First, activities of the forelimbs and tail became separated from those of the hindlimb, pelvis and torso” (p. 89). This freed up the forelimbs for other purposes, while the hindlimbs grew accustomed to holding their own. She continues, “Thus, logic, anatomy, and paleontology all support the same deduced sequence of evolutionary changes: bipedalism first; wings second; tail third” (p. 89). Not all wings were created equal. Not all wings were made for flying. Some enable related abilities such as walking on water (see Schaller, 1985). Some are made for thermoregulation (see Chiappe, 2007; as they are in butterflies in addition to flight; see Halpern, 2001). Nonetheless, the dual transition to walking on two legs and flapping wings is mirrored by the dual transition of balance on two wheels and wings, both of which usually and ultimately lead to flying.

Karl Popper (1968) called our creation of tools and externalization of knowledge “exosomatic evolution” (p. 238), adding that we don’t grow faster legs, we grow bicycles and cars; we don’t grow bigger brains or memories, we grow computers. Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical being” (p. 182). It’s a structural coupling—in Maturana and Varela’s terminology (1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2004)—between us and our environment. Technology is a part of our nature. Software and city blocks are as natural as ant hills and broccoli. We farm adaptive forms.

Didn’t your first unassisted ride on a bike feel like flying? Riding that two-wheeled bridge of balance is like taking off on wings of your own. In more sober tones, McLuhan (1964) aligned the two activities as well, writing,

It was the tandem alignment of wheels that created the velocipede and then the bicycle, for with the acceleration of wheel by linkage to the visual principle of mobile lineality, the wheel acquired a new degree of intensity. The bicycle lifted the wheel onto the plane of aerodynamic balance, and not too indirectly created the airplane. It was no accident that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early planes seemed in some ways like bicycles (p. 182).

So, it stands to reason that one kind of balance begot another. Just as the bipedal dinosaur became the flying dinosaur and the bird, our own bicycles became the airplane and the jet. Admittedly, I’ve been trying to get poetic and playing language games (e.g., forms, firms, farms, etc.), but how many of our design processes legitimately come from organic means?

Line of chance, line of hips, line of flight…


A new paper by Andy Ruina, Jim Papadopoulos, and their colleagues attempts to get at what’s behind bike stability [runtime: 3:25; with thanks to Jessy Elfy for the tip].


Chiappe, L. M. (2007). Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1980). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Halpern, S. (2001). Four Wings and a Prayer. New York: Vintage.

Kingslover, J. & Koehl, M. (1994). Selective factors in the evolution of insect wings. Annual Review of Entomology, 39, 425-451.

Maturana, H. R. & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer Verlag.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Paul, G. S. (2002). Dinosaurs of the Air. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Priakka, J. (2010). Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology. Cambridge, MA: University of Minnesota Press.

Popper, K. (1968). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schaller, D. (1985). Wing Evolution. In M. K. Hecht, J. H. Ostrom, G. Viohl, & P. Wellnhofer (Eds.), The Beginnings of Birds. Eichstätt: Brönner & Daentler.

Shaviro, S. (1996). Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism. New York: Serpent’s Tail.

Shipman, P. (1998). Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Alternate Titles:

Of Wheels and Wings: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Flying Things

Of Feet and Feathers: Taking Leave of Terrestrial Tethers

Of Birds and Bikes: How Sprockets Became Rockets

Of Pedals and Pterodactyls: The Evolution of Flight

From Flapping to Flight: Winged and Wheeled Escape Velocity

From Perches to Pedals: Gliding and Flying from Birds to Humans


[Drawing by Roy Christopher, August 6, 2007]

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