Whim of the Week – 36

The spandrels of San Marco

In evolutionary biology there is a famous (and much-cited) paper with the title “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme“, written by Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin in 1979. In that paper, these authors argue that not everything in the biological world is necessarily a direct consequence of natural selection, but may actually be a by-product of some other adaptation. They use the spandrels of San Marco as an analogy:

Spandrels — the tapering triangular spaces formed by the intersection of two rounded arches at right angles — are necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches.

I happen to be in Venice this week to meet up with some colleagues, so of course I could not resist visiting the Basilica di San Marco to see these famous spandrels. Officially it’s actually not allowed to take photos inside, but I managed to sneak in a quick shot anyway:


It would take an entire blog post to explain Gould & Lewontin’s argument in full, but suffice it to say that these particular spandrels are probably more famous among evolutionary biologists than architects! Interestingly, one of the people I’m meeting up with here in Venice is my collaborator Stuart Kauffman, another scientist well known for arguing that not all the order we see in the natural world is necessarily a consequence of natural selection.

Here’s a view of the Basilica di San Marco from the outside, on a sunny and busy day.


And an almost-full moon rising above a typical Venetian scenery.


Well, looking forward to the scientific discussions tomorrow, with or without spandrels…

whimsical (adj.): Determined by chance or impulse or whim rather than by necessity or reason. Playful or fanciful, especially in a humorous way. (Source: The Free Dictionary)

In an effort to continue looking at the bright side of life in these worrying times, the Whim of the Week series features sometimes funny or unusual, sometimes beautiful or inspiring, but generally whimsical observations I happen to capture on camera during my wanderings around the world.