Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

EvoLit1: Evolution as a way of being


Some themes to explore during the semester

Space, time, change, chance

Still Life with NGC 2170


Seeing life in its proper perspective


Deep time, history, understanding

"I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances .... Now, though, I see things differently.  I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources.  The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics.  The information passed along from hundreds of years we call culture.  The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we can call education.  But it is all information that flows through us.  The brain is shaped in that river of knowledge and exists only as a creature of that river." ... David Brooks, Social Animal, New Yorker, 17 January 2011


Empirical inquiry: living in the river, in snapshots, science as story, as evolution, making it up as it goes along, too
Science as Story Telling and Story Revision updated

Linear science

Seriously loopy science



Science as rooted and tested by empirical observations rather than authority

Science is about the natural world

Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science is about objectivity

Science puts aside values/aesthetics

Science is about Truth, the provable, the universal

Science as successive approximations to Truth



Science is about discovery of what is

Science provides authority, certainty

Science/empirical inquiry as rooted in and tested by empirical observations rather than authority

Science/ei is about the inanimate, the animate, and the human

Science/ei as ongoing process of getting it less wrong locally, potentially usable by and contributed to by everyone

Science/ei is rooted in subjectivity, aspires to shared subjectivity

Science/ei uses values/aesthetics and contributes to them

Science/ei is about doubt, skepticism, the possible, the shared

Science/ei cannot establish Truth or proximity to it, as ongoing making of observations, intepreting/summarizing, making new observations, making new summaries, a continual looping between one's understanding and the world, as well as among different understandings in different people

Science/ei is about creation of what might be

Science/ei denies all authority, including its own, is about the generative capabilities inherent in uncertainty


The crack
  • Multiple stories for a given set of observations

    • 3,5,7, .... ?
  • Stories always context-dependent

    • 1+1=2 or 1+1=10?
  • Is where culture, individual creativity as well as reflective thought (formalization, deduction, induction, synthesis, abduction) play an important role

  • Observations in turn depend on stories so story choice influences future science

  • Science is as much about creation as about discovery


All empirically based knowledge is tentative, subject to revision based on new observations and/or new stories (looping)

The quality of empirically based knowledge at any given time is related to the number of observations summarized, the number of different ways of accounting for those observations (stories) that have been considered, and the imagination of those generating stories. "Objectivity"is "shared subjectivity."

Empirically based knowledge is useful in contexts similar to those that have contributed to past observations, and useful in motivating new stories, questions, and observations

Empirically based knowledge should always be treated as a foundation from which new knowledge can be created, rather than as an end in itself.

Science education, education in general?, should help to develop skills in knowledge creation rather than focus on assimilation of existing knowledge.

From this conversation:

Science, empirically based understanding, is summaries of past observations with expectations for future observations, a starting point rather than a final word.  Scientific "truth" is always subject to revision, either based on new observations or on new stories or both.  And always has an element of uncertainty to it.  Acknowledging uncertainty in existing understanding gives everybody the the ability to play a role increating new understandings.

And beyond science as story ....

"The truth about stories is that that's all we are ... The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that .... 'if we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.' .... Thomas King, The Truth About Stories, University of Minnesota Press, 2003

"There is grandeur in this view of life...that...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." (Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species)

"She's still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceved here, still uncrushed by the need for happier endings.  All writing is rewriting" .... Richard Powers, Generosity, Picador, 2010