“Spandrels” before “spandrels” were cool

In 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famously attacked what they called the “Adaptationist Program.” They accused evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists of concocting “just-so stories” in which scientists would claim a particular trait, an adaptation, was a result of natural selection without rigorously testing their hypotheses. If they did test the claim and it turned out the claim was false, the scientist would create another just-so story, rarely questioning whether the trait was an adaptation or possibly a byproduct or fixed by non-adaptive processes. Most readers are familiar with this argument, so I won’t expand any further.

Upon reading material for my history major paper, I came across some arguments by the biologists T.H. Morgan and William Bateson that seemed oddly familiar…

T.H. Morgan in Evolution and Adaptation (1903):

They [Darwinians] have contented themselves, as a rule, with pointing out that certain structures are useful, and this has seemed to them sufficient proof that the structures must have been acquired because of their value (462).

Morgan was an experimental biologist which is evident in his argument: speculations about evolution and adaptations weren’t enough. This argument continues over a century later with disputes over evolutionary psychology studies that sometimes make large, sweeping arguments based on poor or little experimental evidence. Sociobiology was one of the targets of Gould and Lewontin, but Morgan was making similar arguments against the natural historians of his day.

Even more eerily though, William Bateson, in “Heredity and Variation in Modern Lights” (1909), wrote

By suggesting that the steps through which an adaptative mechanism arose were indefinite and insensible, all further trouble is spared. While it could be said that species arise by an insensible and imperceptible process of variation, there was clearly no use in tiring ourselves by trying to perceive that process. This labour-saving counsel found great favour. All that had to be done to develop evolution-theory was to discover the good in everything, a task which, in the complete absence of any control or test whereby to check the truth of the discovery, is not very onerous. The doctrine “que tout est au mieux” was therefore preached with fresh vigour, and examples of that illuminating principle were discovered with a facility that Pangloss himself might have envied, till at last even the spectators wearied of such dazzling performances.

I trust that readers familiar with the Spandrels paper will catch the parallel immediately: Bateson accused Darwinian selectionists of being Panglossian in 1909! 70 years before Gould & Lewontin launched their famous attack, Bateson had made an identical argument (although the former put it more eloquently and forcefully).

Thankfully, Gould was aware of this. Biologist Donald Forsdyke notes on his website that in the 1993 book dedicated to the ‘Spandrels’ paper, Understanding Scientific Prose, that

Gould conceded that “I did not know about Bateson’s invocation of Voltaire when I wrote ‘Spandrels,’ but the convergence is scarcely surprising, as Dr. Pangloss is a standard … form of ridicule.” To criticize the adaptionist program Bateson had introduced, not spandrels, but “toolmarks, mere incidents of manufacture, benefiting their possessor not more than the wire-marks on a sheet of paper, or the ribbing on the bottom of an oriental plate renders these objects more attractive to our eyes.” Furthermore, examples of the doctrine that all is for the best “were discovered with a facility that Pangloss himself might have envied.

Not only did Bateson make an argument about Dr. Pangloss, he even had “spandrels”! As is frequently the case, new ideas are rehashes of older ones, whether intentional or not. The famous phrases, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” even apply to the sciences. It pays off to know your history (which Gould certainly understood).

3 thoughts on ““Spandrels” before “spandrels” were cool

  1. You do not comment how Morgan’s and Bateson’s negativatism (possibly motivated by mystical belief systems that denied Darwinian evolution) retarded evolutionary biology for 50 years.

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