Friday 3 April 2015


I was blog-tribbing Richard Lewontin last week because it was his birthday, and he wasn't getting enough (any?) attention from the Irish Midlands. I was circumspect as to what I had to say about him because I had written another piece several weeks ago in the context of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society about which they are pushing the boat out this year.  My post has now been published on the RS website.  It's all about a show-stopping paper that Lewontin wrote with Stephen J Gould in 1979 at the end of my first year in graduate school in Boston.  My response to it this week, echoing the paper itself, is consciously intellectual and probably too clever by 'arf.  The Spandrels paper was HUGE in its day - I wasn't the only one affected by it - and there has been a fair bit of negative comment as well as a wide-spread sense of "I wish I'd said that" often from people who were/are delusional about their intellectual abilities.

One thing that gave me considerable pleasure when I researched my post for the RS, was that Gould and Lewontin could have spent more time on the bits of their essay that were clearly outside their bailiwick. In the same way as I urged us scientists to respect religious practice because it is far too easy to guy it, [and I also asked for religious types not to use a superfuicial reading of science to bolster their position]. You need to work double hard in left-field not to finish up looking like a prat.  The issue hinges on the keyword of title of Gould and Lewontin's paper "The Spandrels of San Marco . . .".  It turns out that the architectural by-products that started their rant against sloppy thinking in biological research were not spandrels but pendentives. At this lapse of time, I can't work out easily who first out-clevered the boys from Harvard but it might have been Daniel Dennett [see ref 18 in the address) and the architectural historian Robert Marks certainly had something to say on the matter.  Let me explain with as much patience as I am able: Spandrels are the triangular bits between arches, while pendentives are the triangular bits between arches at the base of a dome. You see: obvious - and obviously worth making a fuss about.

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