Writerly scientist derided scientist-writer?

ResearchBlogging.orgFollowing up on the recent discovery that novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov correctly supposed that Polyommatus blue butterflies colonized the New World in stages, Jessica Palmer points out that none other than Stephen Jay Gould dismissed Nabokov’s scientific work as not up to the same standards of genius exhibited in his novels. She suggests that Nabokov’s work may have been dismissed by his contemporaries because his scientific papers were a little too colorfully written.

Roger Vila, one of Pierce’s co-authors, suggests that Nabokov’s prose style (Wellsian time machine!) did his hypothesis no favors:

The literary quality of his scientific writing, Vila says, may have led to his ideas being overlooked. “The way he explained it, using such poetry — I think this is the reason that it was not taken seriously by scientists,” Vila says. “They thought it was not ‘hard science,’ let’s say. I think this is the reason that this hypothesis has been waiting for such a long time for somebody to vindicate it.”

That’s a little harsh toward scientists, but it seems plausible: creativity in scientific writing is rarely rewarded.

Hyperlink to quoted source sic.

Palmer’s analysis is thoughtful and thorough, and you should read all of it. But she misses what (to me) seems like the best wrinkle in the whole business: Gould, alone of all the scientists, should have been sympathetic to the dangers of writing “too well” in a scientific context.

Stephen Jay Gould, one suspects, never murdered a single darling in a decades-long career of writing for scientific and popular venues. The iconoclastic 1979 paper “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme” [PDF], coauthored with Richard Lewontin, is a case in point. Gould and Lewontin wanted to make the point that not all traits and behaviors of living species are necessarily adaptive—that is, evolved to perform a function that enhances survival and/or reproductive success. Today it is widely agreed that this point needed making. But Gould’s writing undercut the success of his own argument, or at least gave his detractors a toehold for derision.

The Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, its structurally practical arches encrusted with Baroque decoration. A metaphor for Gould’s metaphors? Photo by MorBCN.

Gould and Lewontin developed their argument with references to architecture and to literature. They compared non-adaptive traits to mosaics decorating the spandrels of the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice. Spandrels being spaces created between arches, anything decorating them is clearly secondary to the architectural decision to build an arch. They also compared “adaptationist” biologists to the character of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s satire Candide, who claims that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

Pangloss is a fool, and biologists who felt Gould and Lewontin were critiquing them took the obvious inference. One of the most biting responses to “Spandrels” focused much more on the style than the substance of the paper. The author, David Queller, titled it “The spaniels of St. Marx and the Panglossian paradox: A critique of a rhetorical programme” [PDF], and the parody only continues from there.

Queller built an elaborate and unflattering image of Gould and Lewontin as Marxists focused on their political perspective like the dog in the old RCA ads fixated on a grammophone. He even referenced one of Gould’s favorite cultural touchstones, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, to tweak Gould as “the very model of a science intellectual.” Queller manages to have his cake and decry it, too—he mocks Gould and Lewontin with overflown metaphors, then backs off to say that such tactics are irresponsible:

So, how did I like my test drive in the supercharged rhetoric-mobile? It’s certainly been fun … but it’s pretty hard to keep the damned thing on the road. … my little parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern Major General, who knows about everything but matters military, might induce an uninformed reader to conclude that Gould knows about everything but matters biological. But this is exactly the complaint that many biologists would level at Spandrels—that colorful language can mislead as well as inform.

So if Gould’s reading of Nabokov’s scientific achievement was predicated on the opinions of Nabokov’s colleagues, who didn’t care for elaborate prose in their scientific journals, well, I think that’s what my English teachers called irony.


Gould, S., & Lewontin, R. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc. Royal Soc. B, 205 (1161), 581-98 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086

Queller, D. (1995). The spaniels of St. Marx and the Panglossian paradox: A critique of a rhetorical programme. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 70 (4), 485-9 DOI: 10.1086/419174

Vila, R., Bell, C., Macniven, R., Goldman-Huertas, B., Ree, R., Marshall, C., Balint, Z., Johnson, K., Benyamini, D., & Pierce, N. (2011). Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2213