Re: 'Spandrels' of Culture

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Fri, 13 Jun 1997 12:37:10 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997 12:37:10 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: 'Spandrels' of Culture

Nick Rose wrote:

>The meme complex instructing my brain that the 'Self' has no
>power to select or modify memes has biased that brain against
>memes which instruct for further discussion on free will vs
>deterministic argument. Besides, I can't expect to convince
>anyone who believes that they have free will that they don't.

TP: Mario's distinction between "will" and "free will" is important. Free
will refers to a history of religious belief. But, OK, if you want to drop
the issue, fine with me, I suppose.


>Instead I thought I'd ask the group about another issue; What are
>the 'spandrels' of culture?.

TP: Here we have an example of a metaphor brought back to bite itself in
the tail, rather like the worm Ourobouros. The "spandrels" of culture are
called spandrels. Spandrels are architectural entities and ARE part of
culture. Alex, correct me if I'm wrong. Spandrels are the spaces between
the top of an arch, e.g., an arched doorway, and the horizontal lintel
above the door. If you draw a sketch, you will see that necessarily there
is a small curvilinear triangular area between the arch and the sides and
lintel. The issue is what to *do* with them.

Now we have an interesting question. Pure, 100% functionalism says
"Nothing -- leave them the way they are." However, some impulse emerges
from places unknown, eyes these spandrels, and says "Something ought to go
there." It's as if the empty space were asking for an inhabitant (an
example of the logic of the concrete that I mentioned in another posting).

Now, what gets put into the spandrel is neither accident nor random.
Medieval masons carved saints and other religious images into the spaces,
thus converting a geometric necessity into a way to express a specific
religious belief. I am absolutely certain that experts in medieval
architecture can glance at the spandrels in a given church and identify
region, style, genre, and all the rest. In brief, the spandrel is an
opportunity for functional and decorative handiwork that reflects period,
belief, and technique.

Note that I said "functional." A carving of a saint is not "functional" in
the sense of holding the building up, but it is functional in relationship
to religious beliefs of a given time and region in history.


>For those of you who aren't aware
>of what spandrels are they essentially refer to non-adaptionist
>mechanisms. In biology, Gould points out that *some* features of
>an organism will simply arise through the laws of physics and
>chemistry - and adaptionist mechanisms are necessary to account
>for them. A classic example is why humans have two nipples
>rather than one. Rather than an adaptionist answer (we
>occasionally have twins), the simple symmetry evident throughout
>the development of the organism makes the appearence of one
>nipple quite unlikely. We don't need to look for an adaptionist
>explaination of why humans have two nipples rather than one; we
>simply have a 'spandrel'.

TP: May a biologist add something? Take the rib cage of a land
vertebrate. IF one has ribs -- note the if -- then necessarily there are
spaces between the ribs. Gould's point is that one cannot really say that
the spaces evolved by selection, since they are necessary sequellae to
having ribs. Yes, indeed so. However, one does not need to have spaces --
one could have a solid bony structure (like the lower half of a turtle).
If, however, one wants *movable* ribs, then one gets spaces between them --
nn excellent place to put the muscles that move the ribs. And if one wants
immovable ribs, then one fills the space with bone (which is what happens
in turtles). Nature capitalizes on such geometric necessities all the
time. It's not a big deal, not at all.

About nipples in males. This is indeed a classic example, although
hackneyed might be a better word. Let me explain some "functional

On both the right and left side of the body of a mammal (on the chest side
-- "ventral" to use one anatomical term), there develop two regions, each
starting from the shoulder joint and converging towards the groin in a "V"
shape. This is called the "milk line," for nipples develop along it. In
some mammals (cows) the functional nipplies develop at the groin end of the
"V"; in others (primates) they develop at the shoulder joint end. Some
mammals develop many teats (rodents), while others develop only two

Now, if the species normally has many offspring per litter (rodents), teats
develop along the full length of the milk line. That result is adaptive,
meaning that if the mother does not have enough nipples for the litter,
some of her offspring die -- with the result that the adaptive
characteristic is to have several nipples. Mammals that typically have one
offspring at a time (like primates) typically have only two paired nipples
(one on the left, one on the right).

Now we can better understand the issues. Why have paired milk lines -- one
on the left, one on the right? Why do males, who do not normally lactate,
have milk lines and therefore nipples? Let's consider the second question.

Now enter Culture, with a capital letter. It centers on the word
"function" and on what are taken as "natural" sex roles. The statement is
that women, not men, nurse children -- so why do men have nipples? The
apparent *functionlessness* of male nipples reflects not biology, but our
cultural sense of what is appropriate to each sex. Since that is not
perhaps what you expected, let me explain.

Both males and females have milk lines. This merely restates the
observation that males have nipples as adults, but now our focus is on
embryonic development. So why do males have milk lines? The answer is
that sexual differentiation (that is, the development of ovaries as opposed
to testes, plus the hormonal mechanisms involved) occurs independently of
the differentiation of the milk line.

Thus, those cells and tissues which become the milk line DO NOT KNOW if the
organism of which they are a part will develop ovaries or testes. Now, it
might seem more sensible if such information *could* be conveyed to the
developing cells of the milk line, but in fact that doesn't happen. So the
mechanism where all embryos develop milk lines, and therefore nipples,
actually is an adaptation, not merely for producing functional nipples, but
also to the lack of communication, shall we call it, between different
parts of the developing embryo.

You may object that this system is not perfect, but that doesn't matter at all.


>But what are the 'spandrels' of culture? What *inevitable* forms
>do we find within memetics which do *not* require any sort of
>selectionist process to account for? Can spandrels exist within
>culture? Do spandrels account for *all* of culture? (surely
>I find myself wondering whether the classic sociobiologist
>explanations of behaviour (e.g. attraction value of certain hip
>to waist ratios of females) are 'effectively' spandrels of the
>next system up - i.e. memetics.

TP: The full story of the hip-waist ratio theory of sexual attraction is
not yet in. The work is plagued by methodological issues (which I won't
get into), but that hasn't stopped enthusiasts from claiming that they have
the answers. So the question may be moot.


> Or should we look for inevitable
>responses of the nervous system? e.g. The colour red is just an
>exciting colour because of the kinds of brains we have evolved.
>I wonder if anyone has an opinion on this?

TP: The literature on color perception is very large. I'm not sure what
you mean by "inevitable" -- not as nit-picking about terminology, but in
relation to the complexities of actual biological development, physiology,
and anatomy -- of which the milk line is but one example.

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