• Paul Anthony Jones

Sphexishness

(n.) mindless, robotic, routine behaviour

A large sphex wasp or hornet leaving its nest, the origin of sphexishness

We’re all about a bit of obscure etymology here at HH, naturally, but this one is going to take us into entomology. The word sphexishness describes mindless routine behaviour—and it derives from the name of type of wasp.


TL/DR? Well, here’s a quick summary.

If you know your classical Greek entomology (a minority of people, surely) you’ll know sphex was the Ancient Greek word for a wasp. Bonus fact: entomology itself, the name of the study of insects, takes its name from the Greek word for insect, entomon—which literally means ‘cut into pieces’, because Aristotle thought beetles had weirdly segmented bodies. But anyway, back to the wasps.

Sphex might have been the general name for wasps in Ancient Greek, but today it’s the name of just one genus, more commonly known as digger wasps. That names refers to the creatures’ habit of hauling their prey into hollows below ground, where they can be consumed by their grubs. Ah, the circle of life.


But as the anecdote we posted on Twitter explains, at least one type of Sphex wasp has been observed doing something a little bit unusual.


In 1879, a French naturalist named Jean-Henri Fabre was observing a Sphex wasp in the garden of his home near Avignon. Having hauled a paralyzed caterpillar to the entrance of her nest chamber, Fabre noted that the mother Sphex would routinely deposit the prey on the surface for a moment, while she entered the chamber alone—presumably to ensure that all was still well inside, or else double-check its suitability as a nesting site. She would then return to the surface to collect the caterpillar, before continuing with her egg-laying as normal.


While one of the wasps he was observing was below ground, however, Fabre took it upon himself to move the hapless caterpillar several inches away from the nest entrance, as if it had been caught by the wind and blown away. When the female wasp returned to the surface, she relocated her prey and, seemingly unfazed, carried it back over to the entrance to her hole. But rather than continuing into the chamber as expected, she then paused once more, placed the caterpillar back on the ground, and carried out her underground inspection again. Fabre repeated this test several times more, and every single time the mother wasp would pause to carry out precisely the same preliminary checks.

This peculiar anecdote about the Sphex wasp’s mindless diligence remained nothing more than an entomological curiosity for almost another century, until in 1982 it fell into the hands of the Pulitzer-winning cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.


Writing in Scientific American, Professor Hofstadter related this tale in an essay on human behaviour—and in doing so, coined the word sphexishness to refer to preprogrammed, automatic, unthinkingly routine action, just like the wasp’s continuous checks of its burrow.

This is a rather shocking revelation of the mechanical underpinning, in a living creature, of what looks like quite reflective behaviour. There seems to be something supremely unconscious about the wasp’s behaviour here, something totally opposite to what we feel we are all about, particularly when we talk about our own consciousness. I propose to call the quality here portrayed sphexishness, and its opposite antisphexishness.
‘On the Seeming Paradox of Mechanical Creativity’, Scientific American (1982)

Later writers and theorists have since elaborated on Hofstadter’s notion of sphexishness, applying it more specifically to behaviour that appears on the surface to be conscious, intelligent, or informed, but on closer inspection proves merely mechanical—even to the extent of seeming to go against our better thoughts or instincts. In that sense, Hofstadter coined a supremely useful term for mindless, robotic, stuck-in-a-rut labour or behaviour (albeit one he quite rightly described as “a vexish word to pronounce”).

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