(n.) mindless, robotic, routine behaviour
We’re all about a bit of obscure etymology here at HH, naturally. But today we strayed into entomology: the word sphexishness describes mindless routine behaviour—and it derives from the name of a curious genus of wasp.
TL/DR? Well, instead of zooming in on all of that, here’s a quick précis of how the brilliant word sphexishness arrived in the language, and—er, what that’s got to do with wasps.
If you know your classical Greek entomology (a minority, surely) you’ll know that sphex was the Ancient Greek word for “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 of insect known as the “digger wasps”, a name referring to their gruesome habit of hauling their prey into hollows beneath the ground where they can be consumed by their grubs. Ah, the circle of life. But as that anecdote above explains, at least one 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, when he happened to notice something unusual about its behaviour. Having hauled a paralyzed caterpillar to the entrance of her nest chamber, Fabre found that the mother Sphex wasp would routinely deposit her prey on the surface for a moment while she entered the chamber alone—presumably to ensure that all was still well inside, or else to 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 caterpillar several inches away from the nest entrance, simulating it having been caught by the wind and blown astray. When the female wasp returned to the surface, she relocated her prey and, apparently unfazed, collected it up in her jaws, and carried it back over to the entrance to her hole. But then, rather than continuing into the chamber as expected, she paused once more, placed the caterpillar back on the ground, and again carried out her underground inspection. Fabre repeated this test several times more, and every 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 Stanford cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. Writing in Scientific American, Hofstadter related this tale in an essay on human behaviour, and 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.”