Beards and spandrels

One of the least important ways in which the current world-wide crisis over covid-19 is going to affect many of us is the state it is going to leave our hair in. Barbers and hairdressers are closed or closing – either under orders, because custom has dried up or because concerns about staff and customer safety are forcing the decision.

Working remotely – if you are lucky enough to have work – means that personal grooming isn’t quite as important as before (hygiene, of course, is more important than ever).

So this week I didn’t shave for five days – perhaps the longest time as an adult. As a result I grew a decent amount of fur (most of it white, I’m afraid) and when I shaved it off I was set to wondering why the different bristles on different parts of the face, while generally of a similar length, were of different stiffness.

On the cheeks the hairs were softer (and all white too). While on the chin they were stiffer and on the upper lip very stiff indeed (and also dark).

I mused publicly on what selection criteria had created this:

And sure enough a biologist – my friend (Dr.) Tim Waters replied and questioned whether why I thought it might be an evolutionary adaptation at all, and referred me to this paper – The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. If you have half an hour or a bit more to spare I really recommend it – there are a few terms in there with which I wasn’t familiar but the core argument is very accessible and the paper is brilliantly written.

Its core metaphor is of the spandrel – the triangle created by placing an arch below a straight line (or an upside-down arch above a line). The authors (Gould and Lewontin) suggest that far too many evolutionary biologists would treat what ever was used to fill the triangle as having been selected for evolutionary advantage when, actually, it’s just a by-product of a bigger selection decision (eg., to have a dome resting upon arches).

The evolutionary-adapation-above-all idea is firmly embedded in public consciousness – in large part thanks to the brilliant popularisations by Richard Dawkins – but Gould and Lewontin cut through a lot of that like a knife through butter. I’m not qualified to make a judgement on who is right here, but it’s a fascinating debate.

From The Selfish Gene to Alan Turing: the Enigma

As I spend a lot of time in the gym (honestly) I have decided to use that a little more productively and listen to decent non-fiction audio books – and I have just finished listening to Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Cover of "Alan Turing: The Enigma"
Cover of Alan Turing: The Enigma

I quite enjoyed the book (or the recording) in the end – certainly added to my knowledge of genetics (not that that would be tough) and made a convincing case for its central argument: that genes the fundamental replicators of the biological world and it is their ‘drive’ to selfish self-preservation that shapes so much of our world. In fact my biggest criticism of the book is the way it anthropomorphises genes – a weakness reflected in the title itself. Genes are not selfish really – they are molecules that, statistically, interact with other molecules in a way that ensures their molecular formation survives. The book’s unwillingness to discuss anything but the most minimal amount of maths means Dawkins refuses to discuss that perspective in anything but the briefest of terms.

I also found his explanation of intelligence unconvincing, but this is a tricky and exceptionally difficult subject and I don’t have an original idea to counter Dawkins with.

And, of course, there is no discuss of the chemical processes that allow these proteins to shape their ‘machines’ or their phenotypes generally.

But, yes, it’s worth reading or listening to.

Next up? Andrew Hodges‘s Alan Turing: The Enigma. This, at 30 hours, is almost twice as long as Dawkins’s book, so suspect will be listening to this into August (unless I go mad for the gym) – will be interesting to see how, if at all, the maths are dealt with.

The trouble with “The Selfish Gene”

The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not have any argument with the basic case that Dawkins makes in his book (though why the audio recording for the book has to be so quiet that even at full volume I find it hard to hear in a noisy gym is another matter) but I do find his general anthropomorphising of genesvery annoying.

Genes are ascribed will in his presentation when, really, what he is talking about is a statistical process. It seems he is so desperate to maintain a popular presentation that this has to be forced into the background at all times, lest people are frightened off by a bit of maths.

And on to “The Selfish Gene”

English: Richard Dawkins at New York City's Co...
English: Richard Dawkins at New York City’s Cooper Union to discuss his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, having completed (listening to) Kevin Mitnick’s Ghost In The Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker I decided that the idea – of listening to a book while pounding away on the exercise equipment at the gym – is a good one and I would pick another book, but not a novel (it now seems lazy to listen to a novel but not to a non-fiction work).

I picked The Selfish Gene. Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of flack in the UK of late, adding opponents of private university education to his traditional enemies in the world of religion, after he supported plan for a private university college in Bloomsbury. But the prefaces to the book make it clear that he’s been dealing with wider political interpretations of his work for some time.

In fact, he seems very defensive about them all. Yet it is difficult to disagree with the comment of Stephen Jay Gould, quoted at the start, that the theories in the book will be seen as part of an ideological flow to the right in the 1970s. But then again, as Dawkins makes clear, the theories themselves are about the truth, not politics.

Promises to be an interesting ride…