ART & ORGANISM
Where You Start, Where You End Up
In an essay on evolutionary aspects of psychology, Buss et al (1998)[i] opened with Stephan Jay Gould’s (1991)[ii] idea ”that exaptations and spandrels may be more important than adaptations for evolutionary psychology. These refer to features that did not originally arise for their current use but rather were co-opted for new purposes. He suggested that many important phenomena–such as art, language, commerce, and war–although evolutionary in origin, are incidental spandrels of the large human brain.”
Gould’s idea, more fully developed in 1997[iii]:
“In 1979, Lewontin and I borrowed the architectural term “spandrel” (using the pendentives of San Marco in Venice as an example) to designate 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.”[iv]
Evolutionary neuroscience (See also: Evolutionary baggage, the part of the genome of a population that was advantageous in past individuals but is disadvantageous under the pressures exerted by natural selection today.)
The transcendent aspects of our human experience, the things that touch our emotional and cognitive core, were not given to us by a Great Engineer. These are not the latest design features of an impeccably crafted brain. Rather, at every turn, brain design has been a kludge, a workaround, a jumble, a pastiche. The things we hold highest in our human experience (love, memory, dreams, and a predisposition for religious thought) result from a particular agglomeration of ad hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolution history. It’s not that we have fundamentally human thoughts and feelings despite the kludgy design of the brain as molded by the twists and turns of evolutionary history. Rather, we have them precisely because of that history.
The research psychologist Gary Marcus‘s book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind compares evolutionary kluges with engineering ones like manifold vacuum-powered windshield wipers – when you accelerated or drove uphill, “Your wipers slowed to a crawl, or even stopped working altogether.”
For instance, the vertebrate eye’s retina that is installed backward, facing the back of the head rather than the front. As a result, all kinds of stuff gets in its way, including a bunch of wiring that passes through the eye and leaves us with a pair of blind spots, one in each eye.
[i] David M. Buss, Martie G. Haselton, Todd K. Shackelford, April L. Bleske, Jerome C. Wakefield (1998) Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels. American Psychologist 1998 Vol. 53, No. 5, 533-548
[ii] Gould, S. J. (1991). Exaptation: A crucial tool for evolutionary psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 47, 43-65.
[iii] Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 94, pp. 10750–10755, September 1997 Evolution The exaptive excellence of spandrels as a term and prototype STEPHEN JAY GOULD https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/94/20/10750.full.pdf
[iv] Gould S J, Lewontin R C (1979) Proc R Soc London B 205:581–598,pmid:42062. Abstract/FREE Full TextGoogle Scholar The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programmePublished:21 September 1979 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.1979.0086
[v]A kludge or kluge (/klʌdʒ, kluːdʒ/) is a workaround or quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, difficult to extend and hard to maintain. This term is used in diverse fields such as computer science, aerospace engineering, Internet slang, evolutionary neuroscience, and government.