29th Selected Links

2 min read

Here are some links to things I've been reading or "zooming into" that you might also enjoy:

1. 'Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong', a classic blog post by Scott Aaronson. Most of his criteria can be applied to help you filter out crankery in other fields, too.

2. 'How to change the course of human history', a 2018 Eurozine article by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Self-recommending.

3. 'The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme', the classic 1979 paper by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Both were eminent evolutionary biologists. I share the paper to honour Lewontin, who died last Sunday. It is one of the most provocative, widely-cited and well-written papers in evolutionary biology. Friend and former guest of the podcast David Sloan Wilson called it "one of the most influential works in the field of evolutionary biology". Gould and Lewontin critiqued "adaptionist" storytelling. They attacked a tendency to read a selective advantage into every trait and to tell what they termed “Just so stories”. For example, why is blood red? To quote Lewontin: "The fact that hemoglobin happens to have that absorption spectrum in the visible is not sufficient for some people, who have to show that it’s a good thing that blood is red because it scares off predators who come and scratch you." In their paper, Gould and Lewontin deployed the memorable metaphor of the spandrels (almost-triangular spaces between arches) of the San Marco church in Venice. The mosaic design of the spandrels is, in their words, “so elaborate, harmonious, and purposeful that we are tempted to view it as the starting point of any analysis, as the cause in some sense of the surrounding architecture.” Yet the spandrels of San Marco are byproducts of its arches and domes. Analogously, features of organisms may be functional but not adaptive. As I write this sentence, my glasses are perched conveniently on my nose, though its primary functions are breathing and smelling.

4. 'Annexation', John O'Sullivan's essay in the July–August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review. The essay argued that the U.S. should admit the Republic of Texas into the Union. But I share it because it is in this essay that Sullivan coined a famous phrase: "manifest destiny". Note that the essay was published more than six decades after the Treaty of Paris was signed. There is a tendency to project manifest destiny backwards. Yet, as historian Alan Taylor has argued, the early decades of the U.S. were not characterised by "optimistic certainty" but by "manifest divisions, instability, and uncertainty". I think the precariousness of its youth makes the American story all the more precious.

5. A zoomable photo of our Galaxy, via mailing list subscriber and friend of the pod Phil Hofflin (click on the image to zoom in).

Have a great weekend,