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Evolution of Thought Through Topic Variation

Christina Cunnane's picture

Evolution of Thought Through Topic Variation

Throughout the journey of the course, many of our stories and story telling strategies have evolved.  In just the four short months we have been together, the class has managed to write four papers and prepare a presentation based on knowledge gained from the course.  The topics for the papers and presentation have all been open ended, based loosely upon the section of the course that we were in at the time.  All students were give opportunities to write about whatever they pleased.  Except for the first paper, when students were given the opportunity to share what topic they would like to write about, individual paper topics were not discussed.  The lack of the discussion gave the class full range to write what their hearts desired and not be influenced by the topic picked by a peer.

The unpredictability of the topics has evolved throughout the course.  Although each paper was unique, there were some strikingly similar main ideas in common.  The first paper, based loosely upon “thoughts about and from biological evolution,” (Dalke) produced the least variability.  There were multiple topics in common throughout the class.  The second paper, based loosely upon “taking the story of evolution beyond the context of biology,” (Dalke) produced more variability; topics were shared by at most three individuals.  The third paper, based loosely “on the evolution of literary stories,” (Dalke) provided the most variation in that papers had hardly any topics in common.  As the class progressed, student thought evolved in different directions resulting in increased variability among paper topics.

Biological evolution is an extremely diverse area; there are many facets to evolution that could result in a paper topic.  Upon searching the terms “biological evolution” in the Encarta, msn encyclopedia online, 196 articles were found to have these key terms.  These articles leave the class with at least 196 topics about which to write their paper.  Instead, the class chose to represent only a handful of topics.  Only about 21 different aspects of biological evolution were chosen as topics by the 33 students in the class.  The most represented topics include evolution vs. creationism, evolution taught in the classroom, human’s effect on evolution, and getting it less wrong.    These ideas were central to the theme of the first semester of the class, but many other topics were available to have been chosen.  Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is gives dozens of issues that could be used as a topic.  Mayr even nicely bolds the main ideas of the book before each segment.  The class could have easily chosen the their topics by opening the book and choosing a randomly bolded title.  For example, the topic of my first paper, Recapitulation: Evidence For or Against Evolution, was an italicized term in Mayr’s embryology section. 

Nevertheless, the class independently came up with several similar ideas for their paper.  The exploration of these similarly titled papers results in the discovery that views are uniquely expressed within individual papers.  In Evolutionists vs. Creationists, Caitlin Evans discusses the idea of both groups coexisting.  Caitlin believes that both groups can coexist and explains some similarities and differences between them.  The use of Noah’s Ark illustrates how both evolutionary and creationist ideas can be used in the same story.  Caitlin concludes her own story saying that both sides should “stop being so concerned about which story was more true and instead focus more on learning from the other stories…it is the preconceived notions of the people involved and not the stories that prevent” the coexistence of the creationists and evolutionists (Evans).  Anne Harding chose a similar title for her first paper: The Incredible Storytelling of the Creationists.  In her paper, Anne presents the ideas that “the creationists have proven extremely effective storytellers in the modern world, whereas scientists have not been as successful in broadcasting true biological evolutionary theory.” (Harding).  Although Anne and Caitlin have written two distinct papers, their broad idea circles around the ability and construction of both the stories of creation and evolution. 

The most common paper topic for the biological evolution paper revolved around the debate whether schools should teach the stories of evolution and creation.   Evan Steigel entitled his first paper: Evolution in the Classroom.  In his paper, Evan solely stresses the importance of teaching evolution in schools, first identifying why evolutionary theory is so advantageous to scientific thought, then explaining how deleterious it would be to leave evolution out of the curriculum and along with the benefits of teaching it (Steigel, Classroom).

Sarah Sniezek and Jasmine Shafagh have chosen topics similar to Evans but different in that their papers also discuss an alternate theory.  In Evolution and Intelligent Design in High Schools, Sarah explains the competing theories of evolution and intelligent design, where intelligent design claims “although evolution exists, it is not an entirely random process, and is directed, to some extent, by a supernatural power” (Sniezek).  After weighing the pros and cons of teaching both theories in high school, Sarah concludes that while not suitable for a biology class, intelligent design should be offered as a suggestive philosophy in another subject.  Jasmine discusses, in Evolution and Creationism in the Educational System, the necessity to teach evolution and its competing theories.  However, Jasmine expresses concerns that will have to first be overcome before such integration can occur (Shafagh). 

Making the leap into the murky medium between comfortable science and interesting literature was a difficult task for most of the class.  Many students, myself included, found that they were not quite ready to take the jump.  This transition opened up many doors that people could explore.  In class, we extensively covered story formation, culture, language, and art; we basically talked about everything except literature.  Dennet provided us with a more story-like book about evolution, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.  His book was important that it used extensive (very extensive and sometimes far fetched) metaphors and provided many chapters on human constructs like culture and morality.  The second paper was assigned during this transition and encouraged us to discuss some part of evolution that was not biological.  Again, despite the wide range of topics that were available for the picking, the class still had multiple unifying topics.  However, unlike the first paper, the second only had about three topics that were similar.

By far, the most chosen topic dealt with culture.  In my second paper, Birthing Process Forces Cultural Evolution in Humans, I discuss how the narrowing of the pelvis for bipedalism and the increased head size of infants created a need for assisted births, forcing interaction and thereby, culture between humans.  Gaby Kogut talks about the evolution of culture in her second paper, Theories of Cultural Evolution in an 18th Century French Novel.  In her paper, Gaby uses literature as the mode of evolution, as opposed to the object of evolution, as it is thought of later in the course.  In the conclusion of the paper, Gaby explains how the cultural evolution in the novel is different yet similar to the straight biological evolution that we studied so in depth at the beginning of the course (Kogut).

Whenever evolution is discussed, the sneaky counterpoint of religion must lurk in the background.  This can be seen with the overwhelming amount of papers with religion as a topic.  I must confess that I am guilty in this respect also; my third paper centers on it.  In the non-biological aspect of evolution, Lisa Lim interestingly proposes “both evolution and religion have evolved to mimic one another in certain ways. In order to maintain and attract more followers (i.e.: survive), religion has changed and adapted (i.e.: evolved). Meanwhile, evolution has grown closer to becoming a religion.” (Lim).  Lisa presents clear arguments for why evolution is becoming more and more like a religion differing only in that evolution seeks reason and religion seeks faith in Evolution as a Religion.  Elle Works addressed the topic of religion in her paper Life and Religion as Spandrels.  Elle provided the idea that evolution fosters religion in the biological evolution of cognitive tools that predispose humans into believing in supernatural things and beings.  In her conclusion, Elle states that religion is not likely to disappear unless the human race no longer exists (Works). 

Another hot issue, especially on campus at this time, spawned the development of two papers.  Race is always a heavy topic of controversy to discuss.  Anthropologists will tell you until they become blue in the face that races do not exist and that they are just a social construction.  However, the social constructs of race make racism a very real thing.  Evan Steigel presents the clear evolutionary path of the views of race and racism, especially in the United States, in his paper The Evolution of Racial Understanding Over Time.  In his paper, Evan outlines the history of racism in the United States starting with Columbus, then slavery, and ending with the job discrimination.  Evan predicts that the country’s view on racism will continually evolve (Steigel, Race).  Like Evan, Kristin Jenkins explains the evolution of racial thinking, but from a scientific and not social perspective, in her second paper The Story of Race and the Classification of People: Generative or Not?  Kristin presents the change in scientific opinions regarding the concrete existence of different human races.  In her conclusion, Kristin explains that race has gone from a generative story to one that is now obsolete (Jenkins). 

In addition to the large amount of stories one could create about biological evolution and non-biological evolution, there are an infinite number of stories that can be generated about literature.  The evolution of class thought can be seen in the third paper as virtually no topic was addressed more than once.  This phenomenon is not only an example of the amount of diversity in literature, but also an example of the diversification of thought.  The papers that discussed On Beauty and Howard’s End did so while addressing different topics.  Elise Niemeyer compares both books and points out where the Howard’s End has evolved and where it has not in her paper Endings as Mirrors of Evolutionary Growth in Literature: Howards End and On Beauty.  Elise draws an interesting parallel between biological and literary evolution in her conclusion where “by looking backwards at literary evolution from the result to the origin, in the same way that scientists reconstruct biological evolution from its products, new perspectives emerge on the nature of the development of the stories themselves.” (Niemeyer). 

Katharine Redford’s paper, Literary Evolution as a Window into Social Evolution, expresses how Howard’s End and On Beauty display literary evolution as well as social evolution.  Katharine states that “literary evolution is a representation or a window through which human societies can reflect on the progress, or lack thereof, they have made through time.” (Redford).  In the discussions of the two books, use them as examples of the evolution of two different things. 

Many different texts are reflected in the third papers.  It is quite noticeable that our minds did not jump to the same ideas as we had so done before.  For my third paper, I wrote about the Bible, and how it is not only a product of evolution, but also evolves itself.  Anne Harding discusses the evolution of the story of Cinderella, Gaby Kogut talks about Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain, Amy Shi uses the story of Sleeping Beauty, and Evan Steigel uses another story made famous by Disney, The Little Mermaid.  Looking at the titles of the third assignment, one can see the large amount of variations 

Common topics among writers of the first papers were evolution vs. creationism, evolution in schools, the effect of humans, and getting it less wrong.  These title similarities were addressed in unique ways while together creating a strong connection between them.  Common topics between the second papers included culture, race, and religion.  The second papers, however, showed more variation in the topics and titles than the first papers had.  The third papers had only one set of similarities.  The similarity in topic but not title was comparing the novels On Beauty and Howard’s End.  These papers, however, were using the novels to illustrate almost entirely different topics.  I predict that the fourth and final paper will have an even greater amount of variation than the first three.

The increasing trend toward variation is not an unfamiliar idea to us.  In fact, this idea is fundamental to the theory of evolution and natural selection it’s self.  During the duration of the course, the class began to evolve outwardly in thought, like the example of “clumpy diversity.”  The course not only served to educate us in the story of evolution and the evolution of stories and all the things in between, but also demonstrated it.  Our class became a microcosm, which had embarked on its own evolutionary journey since day one of the semester.

Works Cited


Dalke, Anne and Paul Grobstein. The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories: Exploring the Significance of Diversity.  Course homepage. 2007. /sci_cult/evolit/s07/


            Evans, Caitlin. Evolutionists vs. Creationists. 2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/146


            Harding, Anne. The Incredible Storytelling of Creationists.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/148


 Jenkins, Kristin. The Story of Race and the Classification of People: Generative or Not? 2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/283


Kogut, Gaby. Theories of Cultural Evolution in an 18th Century French Novel.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/271


Lim, Lisa.  Evolution as a Religion.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/268


Niemeyer, Elise. Endings as Mirrors of Evolutionary Growth in Literature: Howards End and On Beauty.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/384


Redford, Katharine. Literary Evolution as a Window into Social Evolution.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/408


Shafagh, Jasmine. Evolution and Creationism in the Educational System.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/155


Sniezek, Sarah. Evolution and Intelligent Design in High Schools.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/156


Steigel, Evan. Evolution in the Classroom.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/167


Steigel, Evan. The Evolution of Racial Understanding Over Time.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/284


Works, Elle. Life and Religion as Spandrels.  2007 Web Paper. /exchange/node/293