The Practice of Science According to Article Abstracts and Headers

Sometimes close reading of article headers can pay rich dividends. On Monday morning, my Philosophy of Biology class and I were slated to discuss a debate crucial to understanding adaptationist  paradigms: the role of bodyplan (Bauplan) constraints in restricting an organism’s  occupancy of possible points in developmental space, which complicates our understanding of the supposed ubiquity and optimific qualities of adaptation. This cluster of debates was kicked off by the Spandrels of San Marco controversy (which later morphed into the Gould-Dennett dustup).

For reading, I had assigned the original Gould-Lewontin article, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme“, and Chapter 10 of Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The class discussion on Monday provided a very good example of how a crucial debate in science and the philosophy of science could be put into a broader context. I began the class by putting up on the projection screen, the first page of the G-L article (from the link above); in the seventy-five minutes of class, we did not get beyond a discussion of the title and the abstract; unpacking the meta-data of the article was extraordinarily useful.

As my students and I noted, this was a reproduced scholarly article, one originally published by a reputable source of scientific knowledge–The Royal Society of London; this led to a consideration of the relative  worth of different sources of scientific knowledge and the standards that might evolve for the publication and promulgation of scientific advances, and relatedly, to the role of copyright law in scientific settings. The fact that this article was now available on the Internet spoke to another set of criteria affecting its current availability. We noted that while author affiliations were not available, we could look them up to find out that in this case, the two scientists worked at a very reputable institution; furthermore, the order of the names at least indicated to us that they might have considered alphabetical ordering of their names as a way to brush past the issue of supposed priority in the authoring.

With this preliminary analysis out of the way, we looked at the abstract itself, whose opening lines establish it as the opening volley of a polemical battle that is sought to be engaged:

An adaptationist programme has dominated evolutionary thought in England and the United States during the past forty years. It is based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimizing agent.

The first sentence clearly lays out the target of the argument to follow; the second provocatively uses the word ‘faith’ to establish what the authors take to be problematic about the target of their critique.

And then, we were off into a consideration of the article’s arguments as foreshadowed in the abstract. But importantly, we were no longer thinking about them in isolation from the larger, social and political setting of the science, the debates within it (and their rhetorical aspects). At the least, our little close reading of a piece of scientific knowledge had made clear many of the institutional features in a domain of scientific knowledge that underwrite and prop up its claims, and yes, its evolution over time.

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