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January 1, 2014

The Axillae of San Stefano

I have only ever attended two scientific meetings, both of them annual conferences of AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science. The first meeting was in 1982 and it was held in Washington DC. 
The reason I traveled from Manhattan to attend that conference stemmed from the discovery of oncogenes which had recently been reported in several newspapers. I had begun writing in 1978 my theory about lethal juvenile cancer’s role in the origin and evolution of complex animals and by 1982 I had written seven or eight versions. In all of those drafts I postulated the existence of cancer triggers in all Bilaterians’ normal somatic cells and after reading that some cancer theorists (but no evolution theorists) had also postulated the existence of such triggers, I started to call them by the scientific term, oncogenes.  

Pleased to learn that my hypothesized genes had actually been identified, I sent a copy of my latest draft to the reporter at New York’s Newsday who had written one of the earliest reports. My hope was that he might publish something about my idea. A few days later I telephoned him and after saying he did not understand my theory he made a suggestion. He told me about the annual conference of AAAS which included something called a “poster session.” He explained that the standards for acceptance in poster sessions were not very high and that I could probably have no difficulty “posting” my theory which could then be read by conference attendees. It was too late for me to post my paper at the 1982 meeting, but he suggested I  visit it anyhow with a view of submitting something for the 1983 meeting. I took his advice and arranged to attend for a single day to find out what a “poster session” was all about. I picked a day on which several prominent evolutionary biologists would be giving presentations in commemoration of the centennial of Charles Darwin’s death.

I arrived at the conference and before attending the lectures I visited the poster session located in the basement of Washington’s Hilton Hotel. After reading a few of the papers on display I decided that I would stay with my plan to seek publication in a peer-reviewed journal and returned to the main floor to attend the lectures.

The demand for seats was so high that the presentations were delivered in the hotel’s enormous auditorium where it soon became clear that the major attraction was Harvard University’s Stephen Jay Gould, who, as he approached the lectern in his shirt sleeves, was greeted with the popping of flashbulbs. We were not yet in the Power Point era so he proceeded to talk assisted by projected photographic slides. He began with a photograph taken inside a Gothic cathedral. There was a hole in the ceiling. The hole, he explained, was simply an unavoidable result, an unintended by-product, of constructing the roof of the cathedral. The hole performed no function. Then he showed a picture of a mollusk shell that had a tiny hole. He explained that the hole in the shell was analogous to the hole in the cathedral’s roof in that it was simply an unavoidable result of the shell’s “manufacture.” See, he declared, not everything is an adaptation. At that point, amazed by the bizarreness of what he was saying, I attempted to make eye contact with someone—anyone!—sitting nearby who might be having the same reaction, someone with whom I could share a look of disbelief. When I looked to my right I saw a row of very serious-looking people dutifully listening with intensity to what Gould was saying. I looked to my left and saw the same respectful reaction. I was astounded. Why isn’t this guy laughed off the stage? Not only was the nonsense he spouted not ridiculed, when he finished most of the audience promptly left, ignoring the other evolutionists scheduled to speak, and confirming to me that Gould was the star of the program, the reason the meeting was held in the huge auditorium. A few days later the prominent magazine Newsweek placed Gould’s picture on the cover. Inside, they wrote with enthusiastic admiration of his AAAS talk. 
A few days later after returning to New York I resumed reading evolution literature and kept encountering citations to a paper Gould had co-written with Richard Lewontin, also of Harvard University, about a pack of dogs in Italy, the “Spaniels of San Marcos.” I figured there must be something biologically significant, perhaps fascinating, about those mysterious canines roaming, so I imagined, through the narrow streets of a picturesque Italian hilltop town. I simply had to read that paper. Finally, one day at Columbia University’s library, I located it and discovered that I had made a big mistake. There were no dogs. There was no touristy Italian town. I had misread “Spandrels.” The paper was a written version of Gould’s AAAS theme: in putting up Gothic cathedrals the construction guys simply could not avoid creating parts that performed no real function. It was the peer-reviewed reprise of the “not everything is an adaptation” aria he had sung to acclaim at the AAAS conference. 

But why did Gould bother to enter a medieval church to find an example of a “part” that served no particular function but was simply the unavoidable by-product of the construction process? He had two perfect examples located—so to speak—right under his nose. The Axillae. Human armpits.  Those “parts” exist because, like those spandrels in the San Marcos cathedral, they are simply an unavoidable consequence, a non-adaptive result of connecting adaptive parts; human arms must be attached to human torsos. At that AAAS meeting he could have clinched his “not everything is adaptive!” argument not with photos of cathedral interiors or of an unusual mollusk shell but simply by raising his arms. Or he could have just raised one arm and pointed.

Although Stephan Jay Gould is rightfully admired for his stylish writing perhaps even he could not have composed an “Axillae” essay that would have attracted the same high level of admiration that biologists have bestowed on “Spandrels.” Although “Axillae” would have kept the argument “in-house” by focusing on an actual biological example of non-adaptation rather than an allegedly analogous architectural device, it may have been beyond his rhetorical skill to convince the world’s biologists that they should contemplate their own armpits while considering his accusation that too many of them believed “everything was adaptive.” 
But what does all this have to do with “cancer selection?”  Well, as I pointed out in my 1984 Letter and as Armand Leroi and Bernard Crespi (and their co-authors) have confirmed, in Bilaterian evolution new physical modifications tend to increase the incidence of lethal juvenile cancer following their selection which leads to the following question: if a prospective evolutionary change were non-adaptive, offering no survival benefit whatsoever, but would cause an increase—even a slight increase—in lethal juvenile cancer rates following its adoption, would that modification be selected and retained?

Some questions answer themselves.

In fact I think the Graham-Leroi-Crespi observation stamps VOID on Gould’s attempt to diminish the unique importance of natural selection and adaptation in Bilaterian evolution. It also destroys utterly the notion that genetic drift played a significant role in Bilaterian evolution. 

So in retrospect, did I, the rank outsider at that AAAS meeting, fail to appreciate the profound significance of that hole in the cathedral roof simply because I was not as learned as the heavily-credentialed members of the audience? And does my intellectual contempt for the citers of “Spandrels” merely confirm that I’m an ignoramus who has no business even reading this stuff, let alone criticizing it? Well, thirty-two years after Gould’s AAAS lecture I’m convinced that my initial reaction—why wasn’t he hooted off the stage?—was correct and the slavish acceptance exhibited by others was and is disgraceful.

For me that 1982 AAAS conference was the ultimate “good news, bad news” event. The good news: I was a better evolution theorist than the proponent of the “not everything is adaptive” theme and his scientific admirers. The bad news: they are in control of Biology. And that bad news prevails. A recent visit to Google Scholar reveals that “Spandrels” has been cited an astounding 4,957 times. 


If the number of citations is the only measure of success then Gould and Lewontin have been victorious. But their paper has been harshly criticized by some biologists, perhaps most skillfully and humorously by David C. Queller who, incidentally, agrees with my conclusion that Gould was the dominating author.

I also recommend Storm Over Biology (Prometheus Books, 1986) by Bernard D. Davis (1916-1994). A Professor at Harvard Medical School, Davis sharply criticized Gould’s scientific competence, his honesty and his blatant injection of political propaganda into his science writing.

Comments and questions to the author are welcomed here.

At this site you will find links to additional material including my original Letters to the Journal of Theoretical Biology and  the 1992 Nature review of my book.

Copyright © 2014 by James Graham

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