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.

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…