Spandrel: Byproduct of Evolution and Thing of Beauty

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Word of the week

Architecture, evolution, philosophy, philately

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The word of the week is spandrel. In my mind, it has vague associations with an Iberian water dog or a large red-faced primate. Spelling Bee contestants would consider root words, or its etymology. The Shorter OED–Oxford English Dictionary–lists the origin as uncertain, perhaps from the Anglo Norman spaund(e)re or espaundre for expand.

Spandrel is fun to define because of the underlying concepts and evolving usage. In architecture it’s the triangular space created on either side of an arch and the molding enclosing it. Beneath a dome it’s the triangular space between adjacent arches. It is also the triangular space under a stairway.

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Triangular space beneath a stair

Philatelists call the decorative space at the corner of a stamp between the oval or central design and the border a spandrel. On an oriental rug a spandrel is the design at the corner of the rug, especially a prayer rug.

In psychology and in the context of evolution, the spandrel is a word used to convey the features developed as a side-effect of an adaptive trait, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection. As an example, scientists claim that the human chin is a spandrel because it has no specific purpose. Who knew? Debate continues about whether elephants or manatees have chins, but the consensus is there is no reason to have a chin, so it is an evolutionary byproduct. How’s that for taking it on the chin? So chin up, dear reader. There’s more.

This space above the arch and between the sweep of multiple arches has become a thing of beauty, for sculpture, painting, and decorative expression. Think of cherubs and heavenly scenes, ornate carvings and scrollworks on high. Scientist Steven Pinker argued that language is an adaptation and music is its spandrel. He said, “Music is auditory cheesecake… it just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate.” [This is Your Brain on Music, Levitin p. 249]

Levitin devotes the better part of the chapter debunking this and arguing Darwin’s belief that music is part of natural selection through mating rituals.

Whatever the various definitions, the spandrel goes beyond the arch, it goes beyond the flight of stairs, it goes beyond language. Let scientists research origins and purpose. The Gestalt, the ordered whole, goes beyond the sum of its parts and any attempt–though perhaps necessary for the engineer and the scientist, even for the artist–to pull it apart destroys its beauty, the essence or truth of its form and function.

The beauty of a thing is inseparable and rooted in its function, its truth. The arch supports the load above, the stamp delivers the lover’s message, the carpet defines the space in a room, the chin as I have just done, proves a spot to rest my hand–the forward nub and anatomical feature unique in all the world to the human species–and lets me steady my wayward and anxious fingers as I meditate on truth.

The Bath Abbey depicted above with its soaring arches lifts our eyes and our spirits, expanding awareness beyond its design.The spandrel celebrates the glory of the by-product, the side-effect, the surprise, the spontaneous, the detour, the cupboard beneath the stairs.

Further, the idea of the side-effect is not unlike the accident: the accident of penicillin, leftover wings at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. Many many of the very best things in life have come about not from intention or design or evolutionary adaptation.

The leftover, the negative, the stuff pushed to the margin, the corners–might they hold a clue to the underlying thing itself?

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FOOTNOTES

*Google the word spandrel to uncover voluminous research. The architectural usage is itself fascinating. There are spandrel beams, spandrel bridges, and spandrel glass.

*Stock photos of spandrels in architecture, 22 pages. Alamy.com

*Consciousness as a spandrel? Cambridge University Press, 2015

*Chin as a spandrel? Science ABC, 19JAN2022

*Music as a spandrel?! Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works, 1997.

Jul 22, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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