The Spandrels of Dunkin Donuts, or How the Munchkin Came to Be

Anyone who has been to the Northeast is likely familiar with the miniature Dunkin Donuts confection the donut hole, aka the Munchkin. After an unsuccessful online search, I called headquarters to learn more about the history of this sweet, only to find them quite silent on the issue. What follows is based on hopeful speculation for the sake of an example of spandrel and exaptation in evolutionary theory.

Gould and Lewontin (1979) came up with the terms spandrel and exaptation to provide an explanation for the origins of heritable traits that weren’t initially adaptations. An adaptation begins as a trait that is selected for a particular function that it serves the carrier. A spandrel is a leftover of an adaptation. It has no function and is not subject to natural selection. However, if that spandrel is co-opted for a particular function, it is considered an exaptation – and then can actually become subject to selection. Though it didn’t begin as a functional product, in the end it comes to be. For example, bird feathers were initially an adaptation for thermoregulation, and later were co-opted, or exapted, for the function of flight. Flight in this case didn’t originate as an adaptation, but was co-opted from the spandrel.

The Munchkin illustrates the concept of exaptation well, though it requires a baker as “selector”, whereas natural selection operates with no selector. A doughnut in this example is a circular piece of dough with an empty circular middle. Imagine that the shape is created by making a round of dough, and then cutting out the middle piece, leaving you with the doughnut and some extra dough. Imagine further that the baker typically throws the middle piece aside as it serves no purpose. The middle piece here is a spandrel – it serves no function to the baker, but is rather a leftover portion of the functional dough – the doughnut.

However, the baker decides that those leftover pieces are too much of a waste. She decides to roll them into a ball and sell them separately from the doughnuts. She gives them a name, Munchkin, and markets them to dieters, children, and dog-owners for treats, and finds that these formerly useless pieces are now bringing in money. They have been co-opted for the function of money making, and therefore the Munchkin is an exaptation. Now she finds them so popular, the baker is creating different flavors, and fun boxes in which to sell the doughnut holes.

What originated as a mere by-product of the doughnut has now come to serve the function of a profitable treat. Though the Munchkin, as an exaptation, will be subject to selection pressures. Perhaps customers will prefer chocolate rather than plain Munchkins, resulting in more chocolate Munchkins being made. Or perhaps the mere size of the Munchkin will allow it to find its way to more diverse environments than the doughnuts, resulting in more Munchkins being made than doughnuts. Whatever the end result, the Munchkin shows that while some features are not initially subject to selection pressures, if they come to serve a function, someday they just may be.

[Postscript: I hope Stephen J. Gould had a sense of humor, otherwise he is figuratively rolling in his grave at my Just-So Munchkin story.]

Further Reading:

Buss, D. M., Haselton, M. G., Shackelford, T. K., Bleske, A. L., & Wakefield, J. C. (1998). Adaptations, exaptations, and spandrels. American Psychologist, 53(5), 533-548.

Gould, S. J., & Lewontin, R. C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 205(1161), 591-598.

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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5 Responses to The Spandrels of Dunkin Donuts, or How the Munchkin Came to Be

  1. Allow me explain the invention of the Donut Holes aka Munchkins…They were invented as a joke by me…I was 16 going on 17 the summer of 1968 working in the Fairfield, CT Dunkin Donuts store on the Post Rd next to Dutchess. Dunkin Donuts was owed by a man named Mr. Barrett. His Bakers were a lady named Ruth Stewart and Tom (don’t know his last name)… In those days we baked and finished the donuts onsite…I was fast both on the counter and finishing the donuts – so I would many times go to work at 3 am and work until noon…and always looked like a donut I gad so much sugar and jelly on my uniform…Ruthy use to call me, “the Kid”…One day while she was cutting out the donuts I asked her to teach me…I learned from her that after 1st round circle dough cutting made the leftover dough tougher –and that they used this dough to make “Twists” aka “Crullers”…One day while she was cutting the circles I grabbed a handful of the leftover holes and tossed them on the frying screen…Ruthy laughed and asked me what I was doing…I convinced her to just fry them to see what they’d look and taste like…After she did I rolled them in sugar and gave her one to eat…She liked the concept…and the first rack (basket) was put on the counter for people to try for free….They liked them too. I left Dunkin Donuts on New Years after 2 girls decided to call off sick and I couldn’t convince the owner to come help out…I was a feisty hard working kid and told him off shouting, “if you don’t care enough about your own business, why should I…Happy New Year’s, I quit.”…Barrett called me several times to get me back – but I refused…About a year later I stopped by the store to say hi to Ruthy and my former co-workers…She said, “Hey kid, your donut holes are a hit – they sell like hot cakes.”…I laughed and being a dumb kid didn’t know I could have been paid for my little experiment –but here I am decades later and telling you the story…I don’t care about the money -although I should, but I do care that Dunkin Donuts never gave me the credit for my invention…I’m not sure how they came to be called, “Munchkins” but am guessing back in the 60’s when people got buzzed they use to say they had the “Munchies”…Long story short – in those days I worked 10 to 12 hour shifts for minimum wage –no over-time, no sick days, no vacations…I’m glad the law finally changed to protect workers…especially kids.

  2. Andrew says:

    Dunkin Donuts did not answer the question (quite silent) because they did not want to destroy the myth that a munchkin is the center hole from a donut. Mass produced donuts do not have a hole cut out of them, batter is poured through a cutter, a sleeve outside of the container is raised, batter pours over a circular disc at the bottom, the sleeve closes and the batter drops into the fryer in a “O” shape without any byproduct. The “hole” is where the batter passed around the disc. Dunkin Donuts would not be the only people selling munchkins if it was really a way to sell your waste, they would be available in every bakery store

  3. Paul Kelley says:

    I had one of those cards when I was on Long Island. Constantly looking on Ebay for another…

  4. Barbara Alarie says:

    Does anyone remeber the card that was given out in the early 1980’s to children under 12 that allowed them 1 or 2 free munchkins a day when they presented the card? Both my children had one and they cherished it. When they left for college and I cleaned out their drawers I found it, but somehow they got thrown out over the years. We joke about it all the time and now that they have their own children, it would be nice if they still had that card. I live in Rhode Island, so maybe it was just a state or regional promotion. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? Is there any way to acquire 2 cards as a nostagalic gift?

    Thanks for any information.

  5. Mary Orfino says:

    I never knew anyone asked or cared. I Actually know exactly who invented the Dunkin Doughnuts munchkin. It was a woman who was in charge of bringing refreshments to a PTA meeting at a local elementary school, Mark Twain Elementary to be exact, in Endfield Connecticut in the early 70’s. She noted that PTA meeting attendees would take one or two bites of a doughnut and would throw the rest in the garbage can. This prompted her to ask the doughnut maker “What do you do with the holes that you punch out of the middle?” He replied that he either put them back in the batter or threw them out, depending on several factors. She asked if he would not mind frying up some and putting powdered sugar on them. He did so and charged her 25 cents a dozen. Munchkins were born. The woman, Mary Ann Leseke, was never given any credit for her invention that came about through her desire to be thrifty in her responsibility of refreshment purchase for her child’s school PTA meetings. Eventually, her idea evolved into the munchkin of today.

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