Monday, 19 December 2011

Extinguishing the darkness

'But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?'

Kurt Vonnegut

The late, dead Steven Jay Gould, self-indulgent self-promoter, too clever by half, not clever enough to make the cut, is most famous in academic circles for being a co-author of one of the most highly cited papers in evolutionary biology. Described by one of his critics as 'a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists', Gould was a brilliant essayist but he allowed his science to be dictated or revealed by what he wished were true. Because he thought that natural selection is a sort of Thatcherite plot to subvert the true teachings of The Founder, he devoted most of his career to exaggerating the importance of other evolutionary mechanisms and modes, most notoriously 'punctuated equilibrium'. His paper, 'The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm' is therefore almost always cited in order to mock the straw man it attempts to set up. The paper's chief virtue is that it introduced to a wide audience an arcane but useful architectural term.

A spandrel is the space necessarily created when two or more arches meet as in, say, a church roof. In architecture the space often becomes a vehicle for ingenious triangular artworks and Gould used it as a metaphor for biological traits that have the appearance of design but are in fact unavoidable design consequences of other 'decisions' that natural selection has taken. Gould's critics pointed out (perhaps deliberately missing his point, but then it's hard not to kick a man when he's down) that biological spandrels are always eventually co-opted by natural selection making the adaptation/spandrel distinction distinctly fine. Having come of age, evolutionarily speaking, when this debate was still current (the Spandrels paper made its obligatory self-immolating appearance in my PhD thesis), I was excited recently when I observed what I'll wager is a never previously noticed spandrel being co-opted not once but twice in the service of furthering the aims of its successive hijackers: toads and me.

In my greenhouse there are rows and columns of pots sat upon the floor, packed together as tightly as possible. Viewed from above, the pots are square and there are no spaces between them but they taper slightly towards their bases so that they will stack easily. This structural quirk creates between each group of four adjacent pots an invisible (from above) and wasted (from the perspective of efficient floor-space use) square-based pyramidal void. A spandrel, literally and figuratively, in other words. Toads love these voids because they are moist, warm and replete with slugs. I love toads because they love to eat slugs. Now, it often happens that I am working my way through a group of pots, weeding them. Often I lift a pot and disturb a toad, which has been whiling away the daylight hours snoozing in its niche. I smile benignly at the toad; it frowns at me and shuffles into an adjacent crevice. Inevitably this process is repeated, sometimes dozens of times, until eventually there are no more niches. If toads did not eat slugs things would then get ugly for the amphibian but in point of fact I simply pick it up and move it back to the other end of the group of pots. We part, if not as friends, certainly on cordial terms.

So Christopher Hitchens is dead after a long, public illness, stoically borne, pathetically traduced (see here for a reason, should you need one, to immediately venture forth and start summarily executing Daily Mail readers), lovingly lamented (see here) and tragically ending in another victory for cancer. Hitchens numbered among his friends the very brightest and best of our times, all of whom will say something to us of what he meant to them. What then can a not-even-acolyte say in farewell and in gratitude to an intellectual hero of Hitchens' stature? I say this: thank you for shining a light into the dark spaces where superstition lingers on this, the eve of our species' emancipation from fear. Thank you for seeing that your adversaries, retreating bruised from their latest headlong encounter with 'the wall', will eventually run out of spandrels in which to cower. Thank you for articulating the outrage that so many of us feel at the liberties we permit prophets, priests and other perverts to take with our children. You who, of course, can no longer hear must have died knowing how much we will miss you.

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