Saturday, May 21, 2011

Neologism Watch: Spandrel

Okay, so this isn't really a true neologism, but every so often I'll run across a word or idea that instantly clarifies something I didn't even know I was confused about. Typically this means unifying some set of diverse concepts, or providing a crystal-clear framing of some complex theoretical notion. A good example is the idea of the meme. Recently, I've observed a concept popping up that is potentially quite epic in its utility and scope: the spandrel.

Originally an architectural term for the triangular-shaped space between the outside of an arch and some other boundary (corner, pillar, another arch, etc.), spandrels were appropriated by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin in a fascinating (and quite readable) 1979 paper on evolutionary biology. In it, they define spandrels as "the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves." A casual observer might see the highly ornamented spandrels of a Renaissance cathedral and conclude that they were designed and constructed specifically for artistic reasons. In fact, the space was simply left over by architectural necessity, and later endowed with purpose.

Although employed primarily in evolutionary biology, other fields can clearly benefit from a succinct and clever term for forms arising as byproducts rather than as adaptations or from planning. Are dreams a neurological spandrel? Did language arise as a cultural spandrel? Are the 10 (or 11, or 26, or whatever) dimensions proposed by some models in theoretical physics just mathematical spandrels? In evolutionary biology, certain species' maladaptive characteristics that had long confounded trait-based theories were easily explained using spandrels. What other sorts of behaviors or characteristics might be best conceptualized as spandrels?

One of the most interesting theories explaining the human predisposition toward magical thinking and religion involves spandrels. It goes like this: as a human, you have access only to your own consciousness (and nobody else's). That means determining which objects in the external world are also conscious (endowed with agency) is in principle impossible. As young humans develop, they learn to distinguish between inanimate objects (like rocks) and objects with agency (like other humans, or animals). For those objects with agency, we project the sensation of consciousness onto them. Usually this works out pretty well, but sometimes mistakes are made. Because the psychological machinery for projection exists, it occasionally misfires and we accidentally project consciousness onto inanimate objects or phenomena. So when a fire destroys the village but spares your hut, or when lightning destroys your hut but nobody else's, God didn't do it; rather that gut reaction is just an unfortunate byproduct of human psychology. A cognitive spandrel.

Start looking, and you'll begin to see spandrels everywhere. More often than not you'll walk away with some fascinating original insights.

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