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Evolit: Week 13--Your Evolution as a Thinker?

Anne Dalke's picture
Paul and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. Its a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you're thinking about--but as we head into the semester's end, we suggest your revisiting your earliest postings for this class. What were you thinking about, as we commenced our shared course of study? How has your thinking evolved since then? What's changed, for you or in you, over the course of this course?
Hilary McGowan's picture

Stories Evolving

For one of my previous papers I tried to write about things that I hadn't really thought about before. I rather stumbled upon myself and struggled to find the right words to explain what I was really thinking. The time before that I had used literature to explain my story, using a sappy fiction instead of plain and thoughtful academic writing to explain myself. Literature written by a scientist is the same as science written by a writer. They both are not expert at the style, and it seems rather shocking to read something coming from the other when one is so used to reading about their own direction and way of thought.

Understanding how literature and science come together in all of these discussions is confusing and a little frustrating, but I am enjoying listening and reading to see how it all develops. 

skhemka's picture

Evolving thoughts

This course has helped me evolve in my understanding of stories and how I should analyze them and whether I should analyze them at all. I now search for a story no matter where I am and try to relate it to some of the topics we discussed in class but mainly evolution. I have realized that interpreting a story is not important. I have started to think of all stories in terms of evolution, conscious , unconscious and try to be on the lookout for elements and themes in storybooks that point towards them.

I don't think I can look at a science book without thinking about the story that is in there. I have started searching for stories everywhere. Before I took this class, I never saw a story in anything and even if I did, I did not have much interest in learning about it. Yes, I still prefer some stories over the other but just because of that I don't belittle the other stories anymore. Science is not just boring mumbo jumbo and literature is not just "some story or boring poem" now. If nothing else, I have learnt to be tolerant of other stories and views and thoughts and that is how I think I have evolved. 



Sophiaolender's picture

My evolution through this

My evolution through this course has definitely mirrored the evolution we have been learning about. I started out really not understanding what would happen, and as the class progressed, I found myself going from vague topics to very specific topics of interest - my interest seemed to focus as I progressed in the course. This is similar to biological evolution, where the tree starts broad, and then each branch slowly diverges into its own tiny section of familiarity and similarity. I feel like all of our evolutions were so inspired by the ideas of other people that this is so similar to real evolution. We are all affected by others and this class is so special in that I was allowed to learn through all people rather than just myself. I would not have gotten any where near as much out of this class if there was no discussion in which we could all participate and include our own personal reflections.
enewbern's picture

Looking back, then stepping forward

In my first post, I was amazed at the revelation of the science and humanities divide really not existing in any real way. I have to say that through the course that idea has been very enforced for me. I used to believe that science was a place that I held stray interests but it wasn't where my focus for the future would lie. Currently though I am seriously considering a major in the natural sciences so I guess my thoughts have really evolved. The "divide" between the two subjects or any subjects for that matter just seem so much less real than they have in the past. Everything is inter-connected with other things and ideas. I've always liked finding connections and now that everything has become to be inter-connected in my perception of reality there is a nice system of convergent and divergent ideas that can exist in my mind where before there was only segregated boxes neatly piled and labeled but definitely seperate. I think that I have learned a great deal about myself throught this course, more than I anticipated really. I am almost sad to leave the sometimes confusing tangle of branches and connectivity, but I am ready to go out and apply my findings to something new now.

Sophiaolender's picture

I have learned so much

I have learned so much throughout this course. I started out completely lost as to the point of the class - I never knew classes like this existed and I did not realize what it was still until we were finishing up Darwin. Darwin threw me off because I am not a science person and so it was difficult for me to get through that book, especially since I thought the books that were to follow would be science-based as well. When I started reading Dennett, I realized that this class was smarter than that. There were, and would be, reasons for all the books we read and they would create connections much deeper than in any class I had ever taken.
Marina's picture


This class has evolved so much for me. I came into the class wondering how biology and literature could possibly be taught together, and at first I was completely confused and lost on where the class was going. Now, I feel like I have an understanding of what the class intends to accomplish. I feel like this class attempts to create its own evolution by not sticking to a single lesson plan or a narrow theme but by organically coming together through ideas, forum postings, discussions, etc to create a more fluid, open direction for the class. I really liked how this class was so open and inclusive of all ideas that were proposed in class. I feel like this class definitely had a philosophical edge that kept me interested with the discussions on free will and truth. I think this course has given me a new approach to science and literature- a new approach with involving more questioning and challenging ideas.
fquadri's picture

My Evolution

In the past, for me, the word “evolution” triggered thoughts about Biological evolution: Darwin, Wallace, Natural Selection, Adaptation, Phylogenetic Trees and everything in between. I knew humans evolved too in their lifetimes, and constantly changed in order to adapt to society and life in general. However I never really gave much thought to this sort of change and I never thought about comparing it to biological evolution. Speaking of different types of evolution, I had never given thought to literary evolution before taking the class. I knew that literature varied from place to place and from different time periods but I never saw it as comparable to something like biological evolution; as something with its own species (genres) and its own battle with the test of time. Now I look at texts that have become a part of the literary canon, that are still popular to this day and wonder what made them successful. For example, instead of just reading a play Shakespeare wrote and analyzing the content, I’m curious as to what makes a certain play of his stand out more than something else written in that time or even something written afterwards. I’ve always loved learning about biological evolution and studying the commonalities between earth’s organisms but now the concept of literary evolution has sparked a new curiosity within me.


Also, taking the class has made me realize the relationship between science and literature. For a long time I’ve been told that there’s a distinct boundary between the two which is not entirely impossible but just difficult to overcome. Now I don’t see so many differences. I’ve realized that the two topics come from the same source, the human mind. Some people may choose to keep a boundary between the two but others can build a bridge within their mind that can explore both worlds with a similar perspective. And even if some people are convinced that there is a boundary, the two topics still have a similar ancestor. That ancestor would be the simple act of observing the world around oneself and recording those observations.

kapelian's picture

I feel like over the

I feel like over the semester I've learned some new things, but I'm not sure why.  This class has moved in circles the whole time, we talk about something, and not just relate it back to earlier discussions but we make it all seem parallel.  My paper on the evolution of comics and some of the techniques used in it, as well as looking at human evolution and the evolution of cartoons over time has helped me understand how these concepts apply to all walks of life and how to give myself a new way of thinking. 

I feel like by learning was evolution truly is right from the source really helps, because many poeple talk about origin of species but don't fully understand how it came to be.  It's interesting to read such a famous theory right from its source, and it really gives a new insight for me to write and learn.

Anne Dalke's picture

"end the university as we know it"

Mark C. Taylor's thoughts in y'day's NYTimes op-ed column seem resonantly evolutionary: his six-stage proposal to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative (i.e., to "end the university as we know it") begins with restructuring the curriculum ("the division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network") and ends with these instructions from professors to students: "Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it."
Go on, do that...
amoskowi's picture

I remember that I started

I remember that I started out very contentious- the premise of the underlying connections between science and literature, between evolution and stories, felt like a challenge, and it was one that I took up with interest. Determining what the differences actually were, to what extent they were negative and contrived and to what extent positive or inherent (is it right for me to connect natural with "good" there? I still don't know) was a mental task I worked through for much of the beginning portion, and it was an interesting one. In looking at the interplay between religion and science in my first two papers, I tried to work through what contributions the "factual" and the "faith-based" make to each other and evolution of thought as a whole, and I found that philosophical reflection worthwhile. Looking at the similarities was productive for me because, among other things, it encouraged me to see what the distinctions actually were instead of just taking for granted that they existed. 

I was surprisingly dissappointed then, actually, when moving into the more literary portion because it meant a loss of competing theories. (surprising as I am, after all, an english major). While doing Whitman, I never found the personal mental space I needed to have my thoughts on his piece evolve because of the work we did with it in class. Ideas from different people can of course, in many cases, be helpful to growing and expanding your own without the competitive atmostphere I felt during the first half, but for some reason I never found that space during our discussions. Maybe I wasn't listening well enough to what others were putting on the table. I will try to pay closer attention this upcoming week to what everyone else has found important throughout the semester- maybe it can help me see the text in a new light. 

aybala50's picture


The one thing that was pretty constant for me in this course was my confusion. It started with Darwin and is still continuing. I can truly say that I am still confused about evolution in general and my own evolution. But I do realize now, at least for me, this is ok. I don't have to know all the answers, because the fun in this world comes from questioning things. If every answer were definite and eventually we figured out the truth about everything, then what's the point of living? It would be boring. I think I've grown in that I'm ok with this fact.
Rica Dela Cruz's picture

One thing I noticed this

One thing I noticed this semester was that my head would feel tangled every time I left class. For the most part, the topics we discussed in class kept me questioning and wondering. I feel like it was because the questions we discussed really did not have any right answers or at least Dr. Grobstein would make us keep questioning those "right" answers. It is difficult to say that I  have concluded anything for certain because I feel like there are so many interpretations possible for everything. I think this is like evolution in that there are so many possibilities to evolve and what we do conclude is random.
Student Blogger's picture


I totally agree with Rica's post.  I left most classes very confused, not only with the material but with the types of thinking and processing information that I was not used to.  When we were trying to find the captial T Truth as opposed to the truth, there was never a correct concrete answer to the majority of questions that we asked in class. New conclusions were being made in and outside of class, while paper writing, and all throughout the forum.  However, I was able to take away a innovative and more creative way of thinking about topics and finidng parallels between two seemingly unrelated topics.  I am also now more prone to question things that are told to me as opposed to simply absorbing them without hesitation... so thanks!
sustainablephilosopher's picture

"Noosphere" and biosphere

I would like to reflect on the entire semester, but I am too intrigued by what Paul said on Tuesday when he asked, "What negative consequences do stories/ meanings have?" In some ways, this does link back to my very first forum post, in which I questioned what negative impacts the story of evolution could have on society. However, I never extended the negative impacts of stories onto the biological sphere itself, which makes complete sense to me and is so totally obvious after Paul mentioned it. Stories can conflict with biological processes that gave rise to them, not just with one another & the culture of which they are a part. Thus, we get the Judeo-Christian worldview, which arguably led to our current environmental situation. Our stories hitherto have resulted in human destruction of the environment - namely, that we have dominion over nature and can use it however we wish. 


As an environmentalist, this realization is key to me. Evolving to have different stories as a culture will have positive impacts on biological evolution as well, for we can become stewards of the environment. We must evolve our "noosphere" to be mindful of the biosphere.  


This seems to challenge what Lisa B. said above - “It seems that literary evolution is insignificant compared to biological evolution...” Biological evolution is incomparably more vast than cultural and literary evolution, but the latter two may be unfathomably more powerful, given the scope of their impact compared to the contracted time scale of their existence. Conservationist Aldo Leopold drew a contrast between evolutionary or “natural” changes, which typically occur slowly and locally, with human-induced changes that are “of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope” and have “effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.” We have become a most formidable force of nature. The question remains to be seen whether we have control over our own unfathomably vast scales. It will take a hell of a good story to turn this around. 


Kudos to Ann & Paul for such a generative course!

kbrandall's picture

The direction(s) of this course

(Ooops-- after all this time, I forgot to log in to post-- so this comment will show up twice)

The question on our class evaluations that really threw me was whether I would recommend this course to another student. I answered yes, but with reservations. I personally both enjoyed and was frustrated by this course. I enjoyed both what we learned about science and what we learned about literature, but besides the very basic premise of the course-- that both experience evolution-- I found them hard to link.
This course was a fun change from my other, very fact-oriented, very structured classes, but if I were taking more than one of this type of course in a semester it might drive me insane. I also think some of the confusion came from our own ability as students to direct where the course would go. I enjoyed that-- don't get me wrong-- but with so many students interested in going off in so many directions, it was a little difficult to see the class as a whole. I think it might have worked better with ten to twenty students altogether.

merlin's picture

I too said I'd recommend

I too said I'd recommend this course. Although structurally it was a little different from most other courses I've taken here, it was sort of refreshing in my oppinion. I'll admit that registering for this course was a step outside my comfort zone. Mainly, it was to fulfill a 'requirement.' Having said this, I'm very glad I took the class. We read works that, frankly, I wouldn't have read on my own or even in science courses for that matter. The coursework sort of grew on me as the class took twists and turns and as I began to pay more attention to the conversations started by both the professors and students. For this reason, I should comment that the having "sections" was a nice aspect of the class. Yes, it is different, but not so different that I found myself lost and confused.

epeck01's picture

I agree with kbrandall.  I

I agree with kbrandall.  I would recommend this course, however I too would advise that one not take more than one class like this.  This brings up the question of if all classes should be like this one - interdisciplinary and "evolutionary."  Is evolutionary necessarily the same as being Revolutionary?  Maybe if we had been subject to this type of education from a young age, we would not be "driven insane" at times.  However, because this course is often so not linear, it does have the potential to confuse and frustrate.
kcofrinsha's picture

Week 13

I took the advice to go back to earlier posts and read my first 3 posts of the semester. A couple things struck me about them. The first is the way my view of this class has changed. In one of my early posts I said that understanding what this class is about was like trying to put together a puzzle with missing pieces. In most classes there is something the professor wants the students to learn about and then they learn about that topic.  It took me a while, but I have stopped viewing this class in that way. We certainly read and talked about evolution a lot, but unlike most classes I don't feel like the professors have certain things they want us to learn. Instead, I feel like I am able to decide what I want to think about and learn.  This has become really exciting for me because I have gotten to think about the things that I am most interested in.  I love Bryn Mawr's education classes (to the point where I only want to take education classes, unfortunately Bryn Mawr doesn't have an education major) and the freedom this class has given me to think about educational theories in relation to evolution has been really nice.  

I also realized the large number of things we have discussed over the weeks. I wrote about the difference between fiction and non-fiction in one of my early posts. What I wrote is very interesting, but I don't remember the discussion that inspired it. I don't remember every discussion we have had during class, but I am amazed at the number of different topics we have been able to discuss.

The third thing that struck me was the fact that I said I didn't think my high school Biology teacher would approve of my new thoughts about Darwin. I disagree with myself now.  I think that she would be impressed at the complexities my knowledge about Darwin has taken on. She did tell us that natural selection happens, but I don't think she meant to imply that everything Darwin thought was right.  I think that she just told us what she could in our extremely short study of evolution (it couldn't have been more than a week in our biology curriculum).  

I'm sure I would have more to say if I went back and read all my previous posts, but what surprises me about the first three posts is how much my thinking about our class and evolution has changed. 

jrlewis's picture

an example of convergent evolution

An exchange with a friend this week, reminded me of my own intellectual evolution.  My friend and I have diametrically opposed tastes in literature.  Over the years, we have discovered that books by my favorite author give her nightmares.  Her favorite novels annoy me so much that no one wants to be nearby when I am reading one.  We thought we had dramatically divergent interests in literature, until this week.  We discovered that we both love Tobias Wolff, an instance of convergence in our literary preferences.  Convergent evolution can be created by development of certain traits to better adapt organisms to the environment.  Perhaps something in my environment influenced my taste in writers?  Possibly what we have been working on in this course? 
ccrichar's picture

Walt Whitman

Hello everyone, Walt Whitman was my least favorite author because he rambled on and on about things that did not inspire me.  I would choose a different text for this course however, the contrast in texts was significant.  I don't know what to say about Walt Whitman other than I didn't like his writing because it was boring.
ccrichar's picture

Science as an English major

Hello everyone, science as an english major has been a challenge.  However, it has been rewarding to study texts that i would not ordinarily pick-up to read.  Origin of species was the most challenging but not too difficult.  I like incorporating metaphors into my learning.  Hustvedt was the most litarerary novel and I liked it.  However, I am not sure I would have chosen it to read on my own.  So, this was good reading.  I learned a great deal this semester.  Much of my learning came from the unknown.
Jackie Marano's picture

English as a science person

I would actually agree with you, coming from the other side of this, that english as a science-grounded person has also been a challenge, but nonetheless rewarding. In fact what is interesting to me is that most undergraduate science majors (whose interests and pursuits are founded, inevitably, in the 'story' of evolution) nation-wide have not read Darwin's "On the Origin of Species." I think this was a first for all/most of us here too. In fact I think these science-thinkers or majors base their understanding of the predominating 'story' of evolution on textbook summaries of what Darwin said, and then taking it from there. At least this was my experience in high school and the pre-med track here until I took this course. I don't know that I would have thought to pick up this book either, and if so, it wouldn't have been nearly as meaningful without the context of this class.

     Perhaps here in class we thought about Darwin way more deeply than he himself could have ever imagined. And somehow by the end, what we gleaned from his work seemed so applicable to everything else (other stories and other forms of evolution too), and then nothing really seemed mutually exclusive from anything else on all accounts. But what was most amazing to me is that what we've talked about can address the universe and galaxies, or it can address what goes on in our class and even in our own minds. Sure they're not like Darwin's, but all of our webpapers are stories too. And there's no better way to keep ideas and this course evolving after we leave than to make our stories available for the world to read. I certainly feel like I have evolved internally from this course, and others seem to feel the same way. I don't think this form of evolution could possibly be self-contained. It will spread some way and somehow at some time. And the fact that we have all posted some webpapers should leave no doubt in our minds that this is already happening.

eolecki's picture

Week 13

This class is very different from most of the classes I normallytake.  It has been a refreshingexperience to start looking at things differently.  The topic that I found that lead to my evolution mostdistinctly was the idea of science as a story.  I was very rooted in the conventional idea of science asobjective and humanities as subjective. This class challenged that long held idea, and has caused me to realizethat even science is not as definitive and we sometimes pretend it is.  This course has lead to my evolution bymaking me appreciate humanities more. Through the progression of this class I found that sometimes I enjoyedwriting papers and reading novels more than doing problem sets or writing labreports.     

eawhite's picture

I had the privilege of

I had the privilege of attending the 2009 Franklin Institute Laureate Award ceremony this past week. This event has been in existence since 1824. Each year a committee chooses esteemed individuals to receive these awards based on their contribution to science and technology. This year six “Benjamin Franklin Medals” were given to scientists who made great contributions in the fields of: Chemistry, Computer and Cognitive Science, Earth and Environmental Science, Electrical Engineering, Engineering, and Life Science. Before each recipient received their award there was a short film about them from childhood through to present. In every case, it was clear that not only was their development a slow methodical evolutionary process but also the work that has consumed them thus far. I sat in the audience and couldn’t help but think about Darwin and how he laid the groundwork for the development and understanding of the theory of evolution.


The two top awards, The Bower Award, made possible by the late Philadelphia chemical manufacturer Henry Bower, is one of the most significant science prizes in America. This award also includes $250,000. in prize money. Sandra M. Faber, Ph.D. won this award for her achievement in science. She had made extraordinary advances in our knowledge of the properties of distant galaxies, dark matter, large scale structure of the Universe, and black holes in galactic nuclei; and for innovative leadership in the development of astronomical facilities. She was absolutely amazing and her life story even more fascinating. The second award went to T. Boone Pickens for more than 50 years of creative and visionary leadership in energy production and delivery, and his recent focus on domestic renewable energy. He is around 80 years old and has a burning passion for his work second to none.


I was truly humbled in the presence of such greatness.


This class has certainly brought new meaning to my life. I feel as though I think more deeply - analyze more critically - and process all things in ways I didn't think humanly possible. Thank you to my amazing classmates and to Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke.

eglaser's picture

She blinded me with science

I find that I have developed a new view of the scientific process and what it means to be a scientist through this class. There is such a deification of science in this country that I never would have considered myself to be a scientist before attending this class but now, well, I think I'm beginning to discover that science is simply what you observe and what you get from those observations. at the beginning of the class prof Grobstein talked about how every child is a scientist and that telling stories about the natural world could constitute as a scientific endeaver. If someone like Whitman can be a scientist then why not me? The redefinition of myself as a scientist has been surprisingly profound for the way I view myself and my major. I never thought I would find that through a class on stories. I am a scientist. huh.
epeck01's picture

my evolution

Before coming into this class, I thought, like mcurrie, that we would talk about evolution in very concrete and scientific terms.  I was also surprised to find that this course focused more on ways of evolutionary thinking, and philosophy.  On writing in the forum, the first few classes I would leave class with an idea in my head about what to write.  However, after a few classes I started leaving class with no clear ideas and instead a muddle of questions and semi-ideas.  This class makes me question everything and every idea I have previously taken for granted.

The main way that my thinking has changed is in how much I question, and how deep I question.  Before this course, I didn't give that much thought to other possible forms of education, or to what my own education had done, or not done for me.  Despite my new ways of thinking, sometimes I find it difficult  to implicate an ever-questioning state of mind.(Or maybe this new way of thinking has become so rooted that I even question it...)

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 13

Before Stories I defined evolution by Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. Over the course of this semester I have become more critical of evolution. After reading Dennett, Whitman, and Hustvedt, I am skeptical of the role of literary evolution. I understand the parallels between diversity of stories and living organisms, but the connection appears non-distinctive. Darwin had scientific evidence to support his theory, but what does the novel have as evidence of evolution? It seems that literary evolution is insignificant compared to biological evolution, since most novels depict the evolution of the fictional self. Also, is there a major distinction between literary evolution, and other forms of cultural evolution? 
mcurrie's picture

The Beginning

The first day of class I believed that we were only going to focus on the evolution theory so that I could finally figure out at least the basics.  I wanted to know the evidence behind the theory.  Well, I was in for a surprise. Yes, we did talk about evolution but how it pertained to all sorts of subjects or ideas.  I never thought of science and literature being connected except that in order to write you at least need to know the basics of writing.  On Thursday we made analogies about how we first thought of science and literature with them being separate islands and now we have built a bridge between them.  Or seeing science and literature on the same island with just borders that separate but are easy to cross.  I kept thinking about a membrane, letting only certain things cross while keeping others at their different sides.  I still see science and literature as separate but connected where they each have their own evolution and have once been connected into one but then diverged.  Now there are some ways that they are similar that can be transported from one side to another.  I have to say that I enjoyed this class. I have now started to question myself and my thoughts and even what I am learning today.  I guess the class helped me get one step closer to becoming an individual thinker instead of just believing every single word that comes out of a person's mouth.  I can take in all sides and then figure out my opinion and keep evolving my ideas.
amirbey's picture

Evolution of my way of thinking...

Throughout the semester I believe that I have seen some changes in my way of thinking.  I now interpret things differently, I try to look for a particular meaning and I always try to link it to a certain type of evolution.  I have noticed also that we can find some scientists outside of the science field such as Whitman; a scientist through words.  In addition, as a math major I always find one specific answer for any problem set.  However, coming into this class made me learn that there are many possible answers to a problem.  I have learned to look at stories from various different perspectives, allowing me to be more critical. This critical thinking is to me a personal evolution of acceptance of many possible ways to see a story.   

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Evolution of contra dance

For my recent paper, I wrote about the evolution of teh New Engand style of dance, contra dancing. This weekend I'm attending a festival where I will sit on a panel discussing youth involvment in contra. This folk festival is held annually with thousands in attendence, and I'm excited to talk with other college age dancer from all over the area about how they have adapted contra to fit the "next generation."

I will be talking about how I started the group here on campus and how we've had to change our advertizing style, etc. to appeal to students. We also want to talk about regional differences in steps of th dance to see if college students, moving aound the country, have standardized steps, embraced the differences, etc. If anything particualrly relevant comes up, I'll let you know!

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

History's canon

Thursday we talked about the canon of literature and if there were similar ideas in other disciplines. I spent awhile thinking about history and how this might apply. There are many cases where one writer, such as Marx, creates a new branch on the tree of historical writing that then stems out to create many other branches that would not exist without the first. In the Junior sem, we recently spent a significant amount of time discussing how the "traditional" western view of the east has transformed. First came Edward Said's Orientalism, then post-Orientalism, Subaltern Studies, etc.

I think the canon of history is very similar in that new authors can begin new branches and stem their own, but is perhaps different in how there seems to be less convergance and divergance through time.