The Story of Evolution
and the Evolution of Stories

The Story of Evolution
30 January, 6 February 2007

A scientific story

The story of evolution

The "Truth" issue:

Mayr (page 5)

"More or less similar creation stories are found in the folklore of peoples all over the world. The filled a gap in man's desire to answer the profound questions about this world that we humans have asked ever since there has been human culture. We still treasure these stories as part of our cultural heritage, but we turn to science when we want to learn the real truth about the history of the world." An alternative (more "scientific"?) perspective
(; see also "I Believe ..." Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics)

My daughter Rachel asked me last night whether I "believed" in the story of evolution. And, pretty much without thinking, I said "no". And Rachel thought that needed some explanation/justification. Which surprised me. So, here's the story, for her and you.

I don't "believe" in stories, wherever they come from. I listen to them, learn from them, and make use of them when I find them useful. To "believe" in a story is, for me, to end the ongoing process of discovery, of "getting it less wrong", and that's not something I'm inclined to do. I'd rather go on changing/evolving/emerging.

And I don't tell stories in order to get other people to believe in them. I tell the stories I tell because I find those stories useful and so offer them to others for whatever use they might be to them
Read and interpret Mayr (all other scientists, all other literature) skeptically

What is the story? Who wrote it?

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) ... Origin of Species, 1859 ... "evolutionism""What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator? He was a superb observer, endowed with insatiable curiousity. He never took anything for granted but always asked why and how" (Mayr, p 11)

Darwin was a good story teller?
  • listened well
  • looked well
  • imagined well

Yes, but ... science is a social activity, Darwin wasn't alone either in space or in time (cf Jean Baptiste Lamarck, 1744-1829), Alfred Lord Wallace, Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer). There was a story telling style in the air that Darwin drew on and of which he ultimately become an archetype. Lamarck, 1803
"Do we not therefore perceive that by the action of the laws of organization . . . nature has in favorable times, places, and climates multiplied her first germs of animality, given place to developments of their organizations, . . . and increased and diversified their organs? Then. . . aided by much time and by a slow but constant diversity of circumstances, she has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe. How grand is this consideration, and especially how remote is it from all that is generally thought on this subject!"

Darwin on Lamarck
"This justly celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801. . . he first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition."

"evolutionism" (p 5)
As an example of a distinction between two story telling styles

non-narrative (static) and narrative (changing, historical)

Great Chain of Being

non-narrative: things are the way they are because they are part of a larger fixed and unchanging pattern, usually reflecting a plan or intention whose origins itself are not accessible (or at least not easily accessible) to human beings
Darwin (et al)

things are the way they are because of change over time; admits of possibility of no fixed pattern either in past or future

From class discussion

  • non-narrative story telling styles persist ("Truth")
  • tendency to transform narrative into non-narrative (eg, evolution)
  • contrast is older and broader than religion versus science, predates and postdates that

Plato/Aristotle vs Atomists
church versus science? science versus science?
economics (Adam Smith (1723-1790))
politics (Thomas Malthus (1766-1834))
geology (Charles Lyell (1797-1875), gradualism vs catastrophism)
stable order vs "The only lasting truth is Change" (Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler)

Evolutionism = current life forms are variants of previously existing life forms with transformations "being the result of law [observable in present], and not of miraculous interposition" ("how remote is it from all that is generally thought on this subject" ?). What was special about Darwin and what followed from him was not "historicity" and not even the refusal to make use of "miraculous interposition" as a story-telling device but the particulars of the principles operating to produce change ....

Darwinian/evolutionary story tellingOther kinds of story telling
Population thinking and continuous largely undirected change
  • individuals vary in substantial and important ways
  • classes represent groups of individuals with common ancestry
  • classes change more or less smoothly and continously into other classes, with no sharp borders nor permanent characteristics
  • "organization" is a description of the present, depends on past, may be different in future
  • two factors contribute to that change:
    • random variation
    • differential reproductive success
  • therefore change has some direction (expansion) and some shaping (differential reproductive success)
  • would not come out the same way in detail if repeated, has no end state to be achieved .... is exploration of possible forms within some set of poorly defined constraints, is playful
  • individuals are members of invariant classes
  • invariant classes (and membership of individuals in them) are defined by essences
  • variation among individuals is of minor significance or irrelevant


  • change is toward "ever greater perfection"
  • change reflects individual and personal experience (Lamarck)

Raised issues not only about past but about future (predictability? progress? purpose/meaning?).

"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science" ... Christopher Schönborn, New York Times, 2005

Raises issues also about science, literature, life?

On randomness and order

"It is sometimes claimed that evolution, by producing order, is in conflict with the "law of entropy" of physics, according to which evolutionary change should produce an increase of disorder. Actually, there is no conflict, because the law of entropy is valid only for closed systems, whereas the evolution of a species of organisms takes place in an open system in which organisms can reduce entropy at the expense of the environment and the sun supplies a continuing source of energy" (p 8)

Directionless change ("expansion", consistent with "law of entropy") can yield directed change; the two are not only not in conflict but may be mutually dependent.


Will deal with all the above in more detail, but first the principal question for a scientific story:

What are the observations being summarized?

Not quite the same thing as "evidence for evolution" (p12) ... supported by such an overwhelming amount of evidence that it could no longer be called a theory ... had to be considered a fact, like ethnocentricity ... most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties" ... for better or for worse?

Clumpy diversity
Need to account for

  1. huge diversity
  2. non-random pattern ("There seemed to be basic conflict between the overwhelming diversity of life and the observation that certain groups of organisms often shared the same characteristics" p 22)
  3. biogeography
  4. embryology
  5. fossils
  6. "adaptiveness"

Can do #1-5 with "common descent" (p 21) and reproduction with variance

Need differential survival for #6?

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