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Week 3 - Evolution/Stories

Paul Grobstein's picture

Rich conversation last week on, among other things, narrative/non-narrative stories and their transformations.  Looking forward to seing what evolves this week as we look more carefully at biological evolution and the observations that are summarized by the story ...

J Shafagh's picture

More Thoughts...

             It’s a really interesting subject to think that random variation is random.  I believe in it and I believe it applies to the random variation between individuals in a species.  However, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that all of our life’s accomplishments are random, as Laura posted.  I just believe it means our variations are random, and with that variation, we each create a sense of self and purpose and choose what to be, see, believe etc, and who we become, our accomplishments in life etc. form as a result of that and are not technically random to ourselves.  I hope that made sense. 

            Also, I don’t think it is necessarily less comforting to know that evolution is random because we can not control the outcome. In fact, I don’t think that is true.  Yes, evolution does happen randomly, but once we are, i.e. once we become who we are, the rest it in our own hands.  Unless we are predisposed to having a chronic illness, we basically control our own health, we make our own decisions and we essentially control our own lives, is there nothing comforting about that???

            To continue, I liked the passage Hayley pointed out…that our brains have not changed much since the beginning.  Genetics has also shown us that our DNA (between human beings and even between some different species) is so similar! So, my question is, what has evolved, what is that a result of? And what are we really looking for when looking at evolution?  I have a feeling we are missing a bigger point….It seems that what has been evolving is mostly a result of human beings’ impact on the world and society, so maybe we ought to stop looking at the biological explanations and more at the humanistic ones?  Why and how are we interacting with each other, influencing each other, and changing the environment in which we live, which will change the evolutionary process?  Thus, we all, essentially, cause evolution. 

hayley reed's picture

Relationships with the Other

I found Mayr’s discussion of our behavior toward outsiders to be very interesting. Mayr claims, “The same kinds of altruism that are extended to other members of a social group are rarely offered to outsiders.” Pg.258 Mayr’s discussion of “the other” reminds me of a novel I read called The Painted Bird by Kosinski. The book follows a young orphan who wanders around small towns in eastern Europe during WWII. During his journey, the boy meets a professional bird catcher. This particular man captures birds and paints them various colors. Then he releases the bird and watches how this painted bird interacts with the rest of the flock. Often when a flock of birds saw the painted bird approach them they would kill it. This phenomenon struck me as strikingly similar to Mayr’s analysis of how human beings treat outsiders. Mayr believes that we are not born with feelings of altruism but, rather obtain our feelings about others through social learning. The fact that these tendencies are not inherited certainly gives me hope that we can work to improving social relations with “the other”. Our need to alienate “the other” can be overcome.

Jen's picture

Random Thoughts (haha, no pun intended)

On Thursday, when we were talking about randomness, and how evolution does not have any real "destination," I was blown away. I used to have this idea that evolution was a process of "making things better;" and that everything was approaching some ideal state. At the same time, it is hard to think about evolution as entirely random. After all, it has been shown time and time again that when things evolve they become better able to adapt to their environment. Therefore, evolution definitely is a process of "making things better" to some extent. To claim otherwise would contradict the theory of natural selection.

Yet, there is definitely an element of randomness to evolution, especially when we consider where it's going. Where is evolution trying to take us? Is it trying to take us anywhere? These ideas got me thinking about the concept of infinity. If the world is infinite, there can be no ultimate destination for evolution, because nothing will ever stop. In other words, if the world were not infinite, we might be better able to claim that evolution was taking us to some destination, as destination implies a stopping point. This does not seem to be the case, though.

Another idea I was blown away by on Thursday was the idea that the breaking down and increasing randomness of some things directly contributes to the building up and increasing orderliness of others. For example, when we eat, we break down food into random bits and pieces, but these random bits and pieces are what allow us to grow and to develop; to become more ordered. This whole idea actually made me think of the message in the "Circle of Life" idea from the Lion King (yes, I started singing the song in my head too:P) But seriously, a silly kid's song describes the exchanges of life quite accurately as a circle. Life is continuous and perfectly connected. (Thank you Elton John and Tim Rice.....oh, and Professor Grobstein too!)

rebeccafarber's picture

Danielle pointed out a

Danielle pointed out a really fabulous quote that I remember underlining upon reading, regarding Mayr's belief that we don't need to question such overwhelming evidence. This seems to defy everything we have discussed in class, but conversely, Mayr has in fact done research of his own to confirm Darwinian theories. I suppose he means that during the execution of his research, he wouldn't dare question that he would reach a conclusion different from what Darwin has proposed - this would be "irrational."

During our discussion on Thursday, we approached the idea of truth existing or not existing. If no one is capable of fully recounting a story or event, is it fair to say it happened? If a story cannot ever be reproduced, how can we be so sure it existed in the first place? Eating a sandwich, for example, will never be the same process for one person as it is for another. A simple truth still contains these subjective cracks that we are not capable of always pinpointing. We take so much truth for granted, like Sarah eating a sandwich, that we forget what it would be like to replicate this story. No one will report the act of sandwich-eating the same; so does truth about it exist? My answer is yes - the objective truth does in fact exist, it is just beyond our reach as humans to recall and subconsciously agree on. We will all point out different details that appeal to us or catch our attention when recounting the story of sandwich-eating (crumbs fell, for instance) but there is no way to unify our responses with the actual truth. I am coming to realize that stories are our way of getting closer to this truth, but are in no way indicative of everything that actually occurred.

J Shafagh's picture


I had some thoughts from last thursday's lecture with Prof. Grobstein.  We were talking about the point and whether or not individuals served a point once they passed down their genes to the next generation (looking at evolution merely in terms of reproductice success and passing on genes).  My initial response was to think that once our genes have succeeded to be passed on, we don't really serve any purpose with respect to evolutionary change.  Besides serving the role as parent/guardian and raising the offspring so they can succeed in passing on their genes, we don't really serve any purpose.  However, after some time, I realized that we all do serve a purpose.  Passing our genes on is only part of the puzzle.  The other part is the social interactions and influences we have on eachother.  No matter what, society, the economy, guardians, professors, advisors and the way society has been shaped etc. will all ultimately influence our life, decisions and outcome of our reproductive success in life (for we all affect each other one way or another) in essence, yes, we all do serve some purpose in life and there is a point to living life even after our genes have been passed on.

Christina Cunnane's picture

Mayr's Evolution

Throughout Mayr's book, he continually praises evolution like it was practically his own child. He idolizes Darwin and probably has a shrine to him somewhere in his house. He has written over a dozen books, most of which are about biology and evolution. What Evolution Is is filled with quotes such as "What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator? He was a superb observer, endowed with insatiable curiosity." and the evidence shows "how remarkably congruent are the conclusions drawn from the most diversified branches of biology, which all support evolution. Indeed, these findings would make no sense in any other explanation." It is quite obvious that Mayr believes that evolution is fact. Truths must exist and evolution is a truth. He mentions several times throughout the book that all other stories to explain this set of observations are unfit and just plain crazy. It is quite obvious from this book that Mayr is in love with evolution, Darwin, and himself.

However, in the last chapter of the book, The Frontiers of Evolutionary Biology, Mayr doesn't give evolution enough credit. He explains how amazing evolution is because it can explain everything in science. He mentions only how science can benefit from evolution and nothing else. Even Professor Grobstein who doesn't believe in truths, and therefore, doesn't believe evolution can be the truth, gives evolution more credit. We are learning in class that evolution can explain almost everything, especially literature. Everything is constantly evolving. Even our discussion about science vs art was an example of evolution, when we didn't even get to address it.

I think that if Mayr was to adopt this method of thinking about evolution, he'd be even more in love with the idea. He would be able to explain everything, and write infinitely more books about evolution, and maybe this time, he'd have original ideas in them! And not just citations from his previous books.

ekorn's picture

Fact or fiction, what is the story of evolution telling us?

In the appendix of Mayr’s book (Apendix B) he toys with a few questions he believes are frequently asked about evolution. The first question he attempts to tackle is, “Is evolution a fact” (p.275). His response to this question is as follows, “Evolution is not merely an idea, a theory, or a concept, but the name of a process in nature, the occurrence of which can be documented by mountains of evidence that nobody has been able to refute…Evolution is no longer a theory, it is simply a fact” (p.275). This rather bold and conclusive statement is how I have always seen evolution, as a fact…despite its absence in my previous education. However, it seems that with evolution, the more evidence we find and the more I am taught the more I begin to question how true/factual evolution is. Our discussions in class have sparked my questioning of the so-called truth behind evolution. At the beginning of the month scientists claim to have found the “most primitive primate” from 56 million year old fossils, remains that may cause humans to “redraw [their] family tree” ( Looking at these fossils I visually cannot comprehend how modern day man could have evolved from this species. The story of evolution is constantly being changed by this so-called evidence. If something is constantly changing, how do we find fact or truth in it? These findings refute what scientists had previously believed before, and it is likely to “spark debate”. So then is Mayr wrong in his assumption that evolution is “simply a fact”?

danYell's picture

fact or fiction?


I picked up on his assertion that evolution is a fact in the appendix as well. I looked up the word in the dictionary and it said a fact is a thing that is indisputably the case. After reading his entire book I found there were so many gaps in the theory that it can't be indisputable. Especially the part about not having any hominid or chimpanzee fossils available for the period between 6 and 13 million years ago. This hole is filled with storytelling. Fiction is invention or fabrication as opposed to fact. I won't say that I think the story is not possible, or even probable, but it's a story, not fact.

Danielle Joseph

eworks's picture

Is a "battle of the sexes" really necessary?

My recent reading assignments for my Cultural Anthropology class have been dealing with gender. Topics have ranged from gender as a cultural construction, to the intersexed hijra population in India. In one of my readings on language and gender, the following line caught my attention: Women's corpus callosum, the link between the two brain hemispheres, is relatively larger than men's... Men's smaller corpus callosum is supposed to result in greater lateralization, while women's larger one is supposed to yield greater integration between the two hemispheres... Despite the fact that I was doing an assignment for a different class, I immediately began thinking about the passage less like an anthropologist and more like an evolutionist, not that I'm saying you can't be both at the same time. Anyway, it got me thinking about how a difference like this between men and women would have come to be favored by evolution. Was it always this way - with women having larger corpus callosums than men - or had something in our past necessitated a change in the structures of each sex's brain? I don't know the answer, but I want to say that at some point in man's development it became important for men to be able to take full advantage of the capabilities of only one of the hemispheres of their brain, and important for women to be able to use both hemispheres of their brain.

This in turn got me to thinking about other differences between the sexes. As a self-proclaimed feminist I tend to avoid thinking about differences in a positive way, preferring to think that the sexes are not equal. But when you get down to it, men and women are different from one another for a reason. Back when we were hunter-gatherers in primitive societies, men needed to be stronger and faster than women in order to be able to provide their families with food. And women had to be able to juggle multiple tasks - cooking, taking care of children, gathering/harvesting crops, etc - in order to keep their communities functioning. These differences, I have to admit, aren't necessarily bad things. And they don't make one sex better than the other. Wow, I just said that out loud.

So as a feminist-anthropologist-evolutionist, I've come to appreciate our differences. There's an evolutionary reason for why we are different, and it's why we are all here. Our differences have allowed our species to continue to develop and exist for all these thousands of years. And that is most definitely a good thing.

Katherine Redford's picture

swimming ideas

I've reached the end of Mayr, and after four lectures and two discussions, I still have yet to make any real sense of this new concept of science as a story.  After having firmly believed in the idea that science reaches fact, and there is only the slightest, absolute tiniest possibility that everything previously believed was wrong, I was comfortable in my definition of what science was, and what was meant to be a scientist. 

During last weeks discussion, we divided ourselves into groups of humanists, scientists, and social scientists.  Many of us had trouble identifying with one group, myself included. I think that this is an important predicament.  If we are only able to fall into one category, I feel we might become too set in our ways.  Take Mayr for example, he goes on and on about Darwin's individuality, how his forward thinking made his theories possible.  This is all very true, meanwhile Mayr is a strong example of a scientist gone wrong.  He falls into the trap of accepting theories such as evolution to be fact, no need to retest. 

 By being more flexible with how we academically define ourselves, we have the ability to think more freely about what we are studying.  Because each of the three disiplines can observe the same object of study from three different angles, if we ourselves can view a subject in this way, we might be able to think in a way that challenges what is allready considered to be truth, when it is merely, of course, "less wrong".

Anne Dalke's picture

Group A reporting in

...we looked, last week, at how we'd gone about organizing ourselves the week before. Seems that we were "clumpily diverse" based largely on physical similarities, that we found "spaces inbetween" ourselves on the basis of hair color, eye color, ethnicity, gender...

We also acknowleged a difference between folks who were "actively" seeking to cluster, and those who were "passively" waiting to be included in a cluster. It was striking to me that we hadn't clustered based on habits of mind/ways of thinking about the universe... (for instance) according to whether we found ourselves more engaged in humanities, science or social science...

Our discussion then turned to the many different ways we might distinguish among those different objects of study and ways of studying them; I was most intrigued by the suggestion that the humanities seek out (and so find most worthy of study) that which is most unique (the distinct work of art), whereas science seeks out what is repeatable/replicable...

As our discussion ranged from questions about truth and authority, to matters of correction and progress, we found ourselves exploring the possibility that life arising from randomness might be a "comforting" idea. We ended class with my reading a children's story, My Great-Granddaddy was Monkey,

which I thought the other group might enjoy (take comfort in?) as well.



danYell's picture

Subjectivity and aliens

Even if it doesn’t aim to, evolution as Mayr describes it affirms our human perfection. We are the endpoint of what began as prokaryotic bacteria 3,800 million years ago. We have attained the highest level of evolution because none of the factors leading to evolution are available to us. No long-term isolation in which to foster speciation, and no evidently superior genotypes. In the end, it is a rather self-serving theory in which man is the natural star. To return to the “seriously loopy science” we have our summary of observations, and their implications, and in this story I think the crack of subjectivity is huge.

We were speaking about subjectivity in our small group meeting with Dalke and how we couldn’t view evolution from any other perspective really because we were human. I find it interesting that in the end, this theory is a way to describe humans and their superior position on the planet. And it is described as a series of natural and random events. I am amazed. With this view there is no need for a Creator, so I see now why many people are so disturbed. I was also thinking about the imaginative stories behind life on other planets. The aliens that I always knew looked like humans but their brains were even larger and their bodies wasted. I assumed that aliens were like us, though more highly evolved. Is this part of the story that we’ve created about evolution?

Mayr presents us with “a sequence of historical narratives… that may be refuted at any time,” as he shows us the ascent of man. This is not what I thought science was, but I have been instructed that science is not truth, so I follow along. In the end I don’t think that it will hold up in front of the judge; it’s all circumstantial evidence.

My favorite quote: “It would be quite irrational to question this overwhelming evidence.” (p 236)

Danielle Joseph

LF's picture

The word "comfort".

What I find very interesting is the usage of the word "comfort".  I dont understand why the theory of evolution should have any effect on our level of security. The process of evolution itself occurs over many years. This means that we will not see any direct effects of evolution, we will not experience "random variation" or the "chaos" that was spoken of in class. Even if we had the ability to see and experience these things, would it be more comforting to know that everything would remain the same for hundreds of thousands of years? We are taking this class because things have evolved and because over the course of time, human beings and their lifestyle have changed. We cannot analyze a theory like evolution and be afraid of the unknown and not accept change. It is quite clear that in many years to come, humans and nature will change drastically. Whether it is random or whether it is (as Mayr said) striving for the closest thing to perfection possible, why should this thought be discomforting to any body? I am still not able to grasp why people feel this way.

Student's picture

In our section with

In our section with Professor Dalke, we tried to find the key differences between humanity, social science, and science. We realized the differences may be much more slight than we had thought- that a lot overlapped- and that it was far more difficult to find the distinguishing factors than we had thought it would be. I began to wonder about these differences.. about why some of us feel more comfortable with subjects that more often contain "right" and "wrong" answers, and a kind of concreteness, and why others of us would rather choose a subject where our own interpretation carries far more worth. I think this class especially shows the overlap between science and the humanities.. Professor Grobstein telling us that, from the scientific perspective, we have choices, and stories, and that we can make our own decisions and judgements...that there are no right answers, only less wrong ones. I'm a biology major, but don't enjoy the often tight confines of science and math courses... maybe there is some comfort in knowing that you can get a pre-set answer- that there is an answer, and that all your work has an immediate reward at the end if you're "right", but... it seems more rewarding to be able to think around a subject, for as long as you'd like, and to be able to think whichever way you've come to think, and come up with a story all your own.. it seems more productive- for yourself, and, for other people to build off of. It's not an answer... just the point you've gotten to.. and that leads to a lot more room for thinking and newer, better, less wrong stories.

I was reading back through some of Mayr's earlier chapters, and found something interesting. On page 91, Mayr's discusses the seventeen principles of inheritance. Number one says that "genes cannot be modified through the environment." I think this is a little confusing.. it seems that smoking, or exposure to the sun, can modify and damage genes... maybe he's just talking about gene modification not being able to be passed down by inheritance, but it seems like a big generalization to make. I think that Mayr's says a lot based on what has been said before, and compiles it together, but sometimes makes claims without backing them up. But, as many people have said in class.. he probably wouldn't have sold as many books if he had expressed doubt.. or maybe it just would have targeted a very different audience. Last week, I posted about how Mayr's needs to say that this is the truth- that this is correct- and that maybe his need to say it so explicitly shows some uncertainty. Throughout the book Mayr's refers to people he quotes as "famous geneticists" and famous's interesting that he needs to add in the word famous to validate the quotes, which he often says are so correct and so right.. maybe there is some hidden doubt there.

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

It works well enough!

On the first day of class, we discussed multiple interpretations concerning the definition of evolution.  Some people described evolution as a random process, while others considered it an organisms’ “struggle to achieve perfection.”  Although I sensed strongly from other biology classes that the “struggle for perfection” was an inaccurate representation, I couldn’t articulate any counterpoint.  The answer didn’t occur to me until we were discussing the concept of observations last Thursday.  “Evolution does not maximize efficiency,” Professor Grobstein said.  Exactly, I thought.  While the rest of the class trailed off onto a new topic, my mind was still focused on that simple but accurate observation.  Here is an example that I think reinforces this observation.  Let’s think about plants.  Without getting dragged down in detail, there are two main categories of plants: C3 and C4 (the majority being C3).  C3 refers to the Calvin cycle (part of photosynthesis).  This cycle takes CO2 and with the help of an enzyme called Rubisco catalyzes it into sugar.  But the thing is, Rubisco is totally suboptimal for several reasons.  First, it works really slowly.  Second, it can catalyze in the opposite direction at the wrong temperatures.  When I first learned this I got really frustrated and confused.  Shouldn’t evolution have been able to correct for this inefficient enzyme?  Why hasn’t evolution been able to make this cycle more “perfect?”  But, as my teacher explained, although Rubisco is suboptimal, it just so happens to be the most abundant protein in the biosphere.  Meaning, plants have a lot of it and that allows the process to happen at an appropriate speed.  But even more importantly, (and what directly relates back to the discussion) photosynthetic organisms are doing just fine!  The process works well enough, there is no need to change it.  I just think that is a really important and also really cool aspect of Evolution.


ttruong's picture

Being pointless and lovin' it

I really like the idea that we do not need to have a point or purpose in intellectual pursuits. What is the point of knowing what the truth is other than to satisfy curiosity or utilize it for practical purposes. Perhaps evolution selected those who were curious since such traits often times lead to fruitful discoveries. As a result fields of studies that are considered impractical are by-products of curiosity being selected by evolution. I think for me this explains my reasons for wanting to reading the newspaper, knowing what happens at the end of the movie, or discovering an interesting but totally useless fact. That "oOoooOOhHh wow" feeling that I get is simply a byproduct of curiosity for useful knowledge being selected by evolution. So maybe there is not point to some types of intellectual persuits other than its just the way it is. We have traits that came along with other benefitial traits. Such traits didnt go away even though they may  be useless because they didnt hinder our ability to survive. Of course, this is based on the idea that evoluntion is not a purposeful process. It is not that endeavors to work most efficiently but rather simply to work.

In response to Hayley's skepticism about the brain not changing, I think that it is indeed difficult to believe but not entirely implausible. I also agree there is nothing immutable except for change itself, and for the brain to not change while the tangible results and evidences of its activities have changed so significantly...this is hard to swallow. But perhaps our mental faculties and mechanisms in processing information have not and need not change too significantly for our present accumulation of human accomplishments to have resulted. Perhaps we can an ancient brain travel back to the future and still be able to teach everything we know. It's our knowledge that might have accumulated rather than the capabilities to attain that knowledge. I mean, why would it need to change so much? we as a species already is a pretty successful player at this evolutionary game.....well except when we don't conspire to blow each other up and ourselves along with it. aside from the itty bitty hindrance in evolutionary progress, we are a very viable species. no need to fix what isn't broken.

-Trinh Truong

hayley reed's picture

In my reading of Mayr I came

In my reading of Mayr I came across an interesting passage he wrote about the brain. He writes, “What is perhaps most astonishing is the fact that the human brain seems not to have changed one single bit since the first appearance of Homo sapiens, some 150,000 years ago.” Pg. 253 Essentially, Mayr claims in this specific story that the brain a hunter-gatherer had hundreds of years ago is no different then the brain that I have today in 2007. This to me is just mind boggling! So much has changed in the world over the past 150,000 yet according to Mayr the human brain has remained the same. To be honest I am skeptical of this claim. I have always believed that the only thing that I can rely on is that change is constant-everything is always changing. That is why it is so difficult for me to believe that the brain has not “changed a single bit” over time. I am really curious to know what are Mayr's observations for making this claim?

One of the things that I also found fascinating in Mayr’s thoughts about the brain is that the rapid growth of the brain has something to do with the development of speech. There is so much that I would like to know about the brain. After all the research we have done we still don’t know very much about the brain. So much about the brain is (and might remain) a mystery. Even though I have more questions then answers about the brain I have always felt that the one thing that distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to speak. Human beings are incredibly unique! And not just becasue of the way we look. Other animals like bees and whales can communicate but, only human beings have language. As Mayr mentions, psychologists have tried in vain to teach language to chimps but, despite their efforts no progress has been made. This makes me realize how powerful language really is and motivates me to research language on a deeper level.

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Humanities, Science and Social Science...

Scientists have such a need to be sure of things. The way they teach and learn finds its basis in fact. Rarely in science, do you hear a professor label something being taught "this is the most plausible explanation" or this is the "best theory we can create based on the scientific evidence". I have talked to many students who are biology, chemistry, and physics majors, and when I ask them why they don't like non-science courses many say "because there is no definitive answer, and I need to know there is right answer". I am not sure if they were talking specifically about science in an academic setting (the teacher wants one answer that is correct, no room for personal opinion), or that science itself is constantly working toward a correct answer, and everyone in science is working toward that same answer.

The latter is what I think separates the natural sciences from other subjects such as the humanities and social sciences. In those subjects, it seems that there is much more opinion, and much more openness to conflicting theories. This, most likely has to do with the ways in which theories are negated or affirmed. The natural sciences use experiments and the scientific method to reject or affirm a theory, while the humanities mainly use the language of argument. The social sciences, on the other hand, use a combination of the two. This aspect of the natural sciences reinforces the need to be right or wrong. Either the experiment works or it doesn't. There is no middle ground that can be created by an articulate argument.

Furthermore, this difference got me thinking about what is the basic distinction between natural science, social science, and the humanities. Definitions I got from an encyclopedia state that the natural sciences use scientific method to study the laws of nature, while the social sciences use scientific method to study human behavior. The humanities, on the other hand use speculative or analytical methods other than empirical evidence. So I was a little off in my assumption, in that the social sciences use only empirical evidence. Given these facts about the nature of each academic category, it is easy to see why natural scientists feel a need to be correct, because there is a preconceived notion that there are inherent laws of nature, and therefore, a correct answer. But what if there actually are not any laws at all? What if we are working toward a correct answer that does not actually exist, but only seems to exist, or only works 99.99% of the time? What would that mean for the natural sciences?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

the humanities, before contemporary fads

well, you know, the idea that the humanities are so "open" is relatively new. my parents went to school in the 60s and 70s and it didn't really exist. i don't think there was ever the idea of "fact" but that was never considered important. the idea was that there are substantial important themes in this book and while we can argue we have to understand what those things are and there are certain unarguable points about the books. you could say "the book is about this" and that would not count as anyone's opinion. that was taught to students. i am pretty sure this is how it was, not only because my parents are rather old (probably older than yours, they married late) and have explained this tradition to me and my mother taught me literature from this perspective when i was very young to get me involved in it (her plan worked!) but because this method is still more popular in france and i take french lit courses taught my french people (and taught by americans). of course, as the marquise de merteuil, i am french.

this method may sound uncompromising to you, but i actually think it's great and usually superior. i find that sometimes english classes (which should be called 'british and american literature classes') today, especially in the high school setting, are so fascinated by the subjective quality of the field that no substantial arguments are learned, created, and fought over. you talk about which characters you like and which you don't, not about the more sophisticated things the book is doing. the class is governed by students without the teacher providing the insight they've studied to get. it perpetuates the myth that literature is "fluffy" while science is "fact," creating this unnecessary gulf between the two disciplines while making each appear more narrow than it should. when i would express strong arguments against another person's opinion in high school english classes, the person would say to me, "merteuil, you can't say i'm wrong, it's my opinion." but i think it is appropriate to believe in your opinions so strongly that you think you're right (meaning, you like your idea the best) and everyone else is wrong, and so much great scholarship and progress in the humanities come from heated arguments. if you have to defend yourself, you have to think harder, care more, cover any counter-arguments that could be put forth.

in summary, literature is more than opinion. (it also does not relate to fact -- that could constrain it.) literature, at least the stuff i like to read, contains conceptually difficult themes and loaded arguments that need to be understood. there's a tendancy in our class to overlook the humanities that are not literature. in, oh i don't know, art history for example, art historians make really complicated arguments, and you have to *know* what they are, and that isn't easy. you have to be able to express on exams, in papers (especially if you're arguing against that point of view in a paper) precisely what that argument is, and if you're seen as simplifying or misunderstanding it, your work is significantly marked down. so i wouldn't even call that "fact" because that word is constraining, but you could call it that -- it's definitely not an opinion. don't forget that some opinions can show so little understanding of the text that they can just be wrong. you can definitely be incorrect in the humanities and the intensity of the teaching of these fields declines when people forget that.

that's my little rant,

la marquise de merteuil.

tbarryfigu's picture

The Answer is 32...Or Is It 34?

When someone was asked "what's the meaning of life?" a clever individual, for one reason or another, decided that the answer was 32 (or is it 34)?

I think this blatent attempt to mockingly quantify the largeness of existence with a number is directly related to our search for truth in science. "The way things work" seems to be a good place to start, so a whole bunch of people tackle any number of subjects and begin their attempt to dissect them. 

BUT, in much the same way that you can never truly touch anything (if you start a 1/2 inch from something and move closer to it, there are infinate numbers of mathematical relationships between you and the object) we can never truly touch the truth...but our fields can interact.

SO, if one is prone to thinking "Well of course i'm actually touching this desk, I feel myself touching it!" in a strictly metaphorical sense, it simply reflects their inability to grasp the largeness and undefinability of the subject at hand. This is how I've come to regard the members of society that refuse to accept (or simply have never considered) the "less wrong" theory that I can't seem to get away from. 

 Defining "facts" in science is like deciding that being 1/4000000 away from the truth is good enough. What blows my mind is that this is only a linear metaphor! Based on our original conversation, there may or may not be some circular wall of truth out there somewhere (If we can never reach it does that mean it doesn't exist? Or does the fact that we can never reach it nullify its importance, and therefore it's existance?). As we approach it from any direction we're getting infinately closer (but never EVER quite close enough) to our answer...which, as far as I'm concerned, can be 32...for any question.

So, if there is no answer for us, is there no point?  

marquisedemerteuil's picture


the meaning of life is 42, according to "the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" by douglas adams. i really believe that the meaning of life is 42. this is in accordance with my particular sect of reform judaism.

Paul Grobstein's picture

The point?

Here's a link to The Point, for anyone interested. The point of The Point is the discovery that one doesn't need to have one, at least not a visible and fixed one. And that in turn was one of the high points of the G group's last Thursday discussion (as I at least remember it). Maybe the "search for truth" isn't the point of science or of humanities, or of history/social studies either? If not, what animates any of them? Maybe biological evolution can give us a new way of thinking about these things? Is it necessarily "less comforting knowing that evolution is a random process because one is not able to control or predict the outcome"? Maybe that's an appealing feature not only of biological evolution but of science/humanities/social science as well? The crack that allows for creation of what has not yet been?

CT's picture

The Anthropic Principle

Something that came up when researching paper topics was the problem of constantly asking "why" about the world. While there is a certain reductive method that can be used, and we can reduce the world to more basic motivations, the anthropic principle eventually comes into effect. Why is the world a certain way? Because if it wasn't, if gravity was slightly different or there had been a different combination of gases in the air, we probably wouldn't be asking that question.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we should stop asking "why". But we must recognise the fact that we are coming from a unique situation. We are the exception. This does not necessitate divine intention.

We are blinded by the fact that we exist in a fairly successful outcome, one which is improbable in a grander sense. If the existence of life is so unique, we want to attribute a reason to it. A God or creator. But unless we decide to give divine meaning to pulling out a red marble out of a bag of multicoloured marbles, we shouldn't assign a creator to human life as well.

I'll concede that this argument isn't tight. There are many valid counter arguements. However, dealing in what ifs seems useless unless we acknowledge that in a what if situation in regards to evolution, this discourse would likely not happen.


Elise Niemeyer's picture

Science and the "Point"

I’ve been thinking about Professor Grobstein’s amusing recital of the “The Point” on Thursday and our brief discussion about whether or not science has to have a point.  Far be it from me to announce that all scientists are working toward some “point” or final goal, but it seems as though they do all share a driving force, curiosity.  As Shannon points out, “It is an inevitable part of exploration.”  However, aside from the initial drive towards scientific discovery, there is another element to “having a point” that I think varies from scientist to scientist. 

Whether or not the scientist tries to apply their discovery, theory, or observation to a bigger issue assigns their “point” a different level of significance.  Mayr is a prime example.  "What Evolution Is" gives the reader an in-depth picture of how evolution works, what “evidence” supports it and how some things just don’t fit as well as Mayr would like.  On top of all of this though, at least I feel, that Mayr is trying to convert people to his total acceptance of Darwinian Evolution.  He believes on some level that it is “true” and thus wants the reader to also understand its importance.  In a way, this is Mayr’s “point.”  He is trying to make an ironclad case for evolution as the only explanation for the way things are, and also convince the reader that it is in fact the only reasonable explanation.  While many scientists do not attempt to apply their findings directly to the social consciousness as Mayr does, it is useful to examine the possible “points” they may be trying to get across.


Shannon's picture

Curiosity may have killed the (Cheshire) cat, but....

... It is an essential attribute for individuals to have when striving for success in both the sciences and humanities.

I think Lewis Carroll was ahead of his time when he makes Alice (in Wonderland) say "Curiouser and Curiouser!" as a reaction to the ridiculousness occurring in her "reality". I'm sure this was not a main concern for Carroll, but little, innocent Alice is but an everyday scientist investigating the new variables & characters in her world. Her fantasy world entices her -- it is her curiosity & creativity that fuels her crazy/ fun adventures (with the rabbit, Cheshire cat, Mad Hatter, and Queen of Hearts to name a few).

Real-life scientists use their curiosity to conduct experiments -- and to have the drive to accept the "wrongness" of them ... and to manipulate variables to make the results "less wrong". Science would be lost without curiosity! It is an inevitable part of exploration... Who? What? Where? When? How? .. and WHY?

In the humanities (specifically literature for simplicity's sake), writers and readers are curious. Writers use their imaginations to concoct plot lines, characters, and themes --chances are they do not write their stories in 1 day. They "stick it in a drawer", wait a few days -- and return to the draft with a curious mind. What will the human brain come up with next for my character? How will this character die or live happily ever after?

Additionally, the reader is just as curious if not more than the writer. A reader chooses a book based on his or her curiosity ... something about the author's choice of title or the "plug" about it was enticing ... sparked interest --- sparked CURIOSITY!

marquisedemerteuil's picture


you know, a good friend of mine is a writer, published, and he says he isn't curious about anything. not a single thing. he was curious about his hamster, but then it died and he never cared to get a new one.

Shannon's picture

everyone has curiosity ...

everyone has curiosity ... it occurs in our minds without us knowing it.

Ex. What time does the dining hall close on Sunday nights for dinner? (Internally) OHH I think I'll go check it out on the Dining Services Website...


Being curious is our drive to access undiscovered information.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

not everyone has curiosity

your comments make sense, but i promise you that my buddy wasn't curious about a thing. not a single thing.

Anne Dalke's picture

How do you get peer review when you don't have peers?

At the other end of the spectrum of scientific "certainty" is this story, from y'day's Times, about the closing of Princeton 's ESP Lab, which has been conducting studies of extrasensory perceptionand telekinesis since 1979.

Says the author of Voodoo Science; The Road From Foolish to Fraud: "Science has a substantial amount of credibility, but this is the kind of thing that squanders it."

Says the author of Scientific Elite: Noble Laureates in the Unites States: "the system is going to be skeptical of ideas that are inconsistent with what is already known."

Says Benedict Carey (who wrote the article): "The culture of science, at its purest, is one of freedom in which any idea can be tested regardless of how far-fetched it might seem. ..[The lab's] longevity illustrates the strength and limititations sof scientific peer review, the process by which researchers appraise one another's work....

Says the lab's manager: "We submitted our data for review to very good journals..but no one would review it. We have been very open with our data. But how do you peer review when you don't have peers?""

Says the lab's founder, "If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will....It's time for...someone to figure out what the implications of our results are for human culture, for future study, and--if the findings are correct--what they say about our basic scientific attitude."

What canst thou say?



marquisedemerteuil's picture

literature and evolution

some views of literature have been put forth that i disagree with. take an excerpt from a week 2 post:

"Also take an author. An author begins to write and write and write. His first draft is rarely what is published. The piece requires countless hours of editing and revision. The piece is constantly evolving into a publishable master piece."

I think this is not a sensible way to describe evolution in regards to literature. in class we've studied that evolution is non-teleological (and this is where social darwinism gets it wrong, besides the bigotry and everything...) -- it eliminates some of the traits that don't work as well, but the "best" don't survive, simply the species that work. it shouldn't really be called "the survival of the fittest" i think it's "the survival of the fitter,"  or, best of all, "the survival of the adequately fit."

evolution does not have the creation of a master race as a goal. homo sapiens happened to evolve because of complex brain functions that prevented it from dying, not because it was meant to be the most sophisticated thing on earth. however, the poster's view of literature in the above excerpt is dreadfully teleological. she sees evolution in literature as a goal to perfection or to a "masterpiece." in this case, the writer has an idea in mind and works to get to that. this is exactly what scientific evolution is not.

a better way of thinking of evolution in literature is of the history of literature. certain themes and forms have persisted, others have not, because of changes in our society that have occurred gradually. there is nothing teleological here; people change over time. there is also no improvement here, as there is in scientific evolution, but it is not fair to see present literature as superior to past literature; the genre as a whole certainly does not evolve, and that is why the above poster wanted to talk about literary evolution in terms of one novel, not in terms of the history of the novel. a novel "evolves" in the figurative sense of the word, and this sense is wrong scientifically. we talk about how people "evolve." since this is so misleading for understanding science, we should stop right away and use more accurate words. we should say instead that people "mature" or that novels "blossom" or "progress."

Calderon's picture

Paul theory

I feel that some “stories” about science are in fact truth.  For instance, men can’t have babies and women can; isn’t that science? Since last week, I can stop thinking about Paul’s theory about telling stories and how he doesn’t tell stories in order for other people to believe in them.  However, if he is telling and exposing the class to some of the stories he has come across, doesn’t that make him believe in them? I believe so. I feel that, as in Mary’s book, Paul has his own strategy of making others believe in what he believes in, which, according to me, is not believing in anything, but it is still using stories to make sense of things that we are surrounded by. . . If he doesn’t believe in stories but believes that they are useful, isn’t he contradicting himself by believing in them at same time because he finds them useful?

Furthermore, during the discussion on Thursday, about which field is more accurate, I did not agree with one of my peers.  I remember that she claimed that history was accurate, at least more than science, but like I mentioned before, there are things about evolution and science that are in fact accurate.  For instance, first you are a baby, then you are a child, then an adolescent, and so on. Isn’t that accurate?  I mean, in history we never know who is really telling the truth; at least in science, whether we know it all or not, we know what is important so far.   

marquisedemerteuil's picture

medicine, truth, and bio professors

I agree with you that Prof. Grobstein believes what he's saying. In a way, you're replying to my "are we being indoctrinated?" post.

"For instance, men can’t have babies and women can; isn’t that science?"

Yes, but that's not truth either. That's a summary of observations that has always worked out and that will probably work out for a long time. Why are there so many movies and TV shows that involve the titillating idea of men getting pregnant? Because it would be fascinating to see such a strong scientific precedent be broken.

Along those lines, a lot of people have been writing about how there must be "truth" in science because of the medical profession. I wrote an argument against that but I'd like to clarify it here: medical procedures are applied science, and experiments have taught us that certain manipulations of various bacteria, etc. yield certain results. We do not even know if those results are the best or the most efficient. Why are new, better medicines being created so often? Why has there been such progress in the medical field over just decades? Because people do more experiments and find processes that can accomplish more, that can heal more diseases more quickly and less painfully. This is experiments working out for now, not "scientific truth." Keep in mind that bacteria can get used to penicillin and get immune to it. At some point the accurate observation that penicillin can cure certain diseases ceases to be true and more medical experiments have to be done.

Julia Smith's picture

Sciences vs. Humanities

          I've been thinking about our group discussion with Professor Dalke on Thursday and the differences between the sciences and humanities. I think we reached a conclusion that in the humanities, it's more about "the self", whereas there is more collaboration within the sciences, but both groups are on a "search for truth". As a theater student, I have to disagree. Theater is all about collaboration, and perhaps it is the only art form that works in that way, and perhaps it is unique to the humanities in that way, but I still can't justify that definition based on my personal experience. In theater you have so many people "searching for truth", the playwright, the dramaturg, the actors, the director, the designers, the crew, the stage manager, even the audience, etc. 
          I therefore would like to propose that the difference between humanities and sciences is what we percieve as "truth". We agree that all participants of both fields are searching for truth, (and of course, inevitably always getting it less wrong), but our ideas of truth are different. In theater, for example, the actors may think that they know "the truth" about their character, they may have created a backstory, but the playwright may know a different truth. It is completely acceptable in humanities to find multiple "truths", or at least to search for truth in myriad ways, whereas in science, everyone is searching for the same thing and wants to arrive at one truth. There are many "correct" ways to interpret a novel, whereas there is only one "correct" answer to why humans are here on earth.
          Last week I posted about how we can never achieve the truth because we cannot trust anyone's observations or stories, including our own. I've been thinking more about this as well, and I think that that's why I enjoy humanities more than sciences. Perhaps in humanities, at least in theater, you can find some form of personal truth, although it may not be "correct", whereas in science you can never get to that level because there is only one "truth" that everyone is searching for.
          Additionally, oddly enough, while doing research for another class, I stumbled across this painting:
          I thought it accompanied this class very well. It seems as though the painting itself is asking for truth.

llim's picture

Trial and Error

Today in our group discussion, Professor Grobstein said something that caught my attention. Now, unfortunately, my memory leaves much to be desired, and I can't quite remember what it was that he said. However, I remember that it had to do with evolution and literature being trial and error.

I agree that in both literature and evolution, there is trial and error. The difference in these trials and error is that it's easier to "fix" in literature--if it's not printed out yet, you can delete the error and fix it. If it has been printed out, distributed and what not, the mistake is there, but if it is even noticed, it will soon be forgotten (or live on only in the deepest recesses of the mind). Errors in literature are human-made errors and can be fixed by humans.

In evolution, however, the "error" is the "weaker" or less desirable trait. It doesn't immediately die out--rather, it is slowly weeded out either until it is obsolete or, in time, becomes the favorable and thus, "stronger" trait. While the theory may be human made, evolution itself is not. Evolution, at least what we covered of it in class, is random. Humans have no control over it--we cannot go and fix the errors--indeed, we, or at least some of us, may be errors. Unlike literature, which, at some point is printed out and (hopefully) found to be at least satisfactory, there is no point of satisfaction in evolution--there is no one or thing to please. Whereas in literature, one may go back and fix the errors (or bring attention to it), even years later, in evolution, there is no going back, no real "fixing" because evolution depends on the environment and what the "error" is in evolution is fluid, changing with the times.


marquisedemerteuil's picture

are we being indoctrinated???????

sometimes, as i sit in my little chair and take notes on what evolution could be, i worry that our class is being indoctrinated. i feel that prof. grobstein presents his interesting, subjective (as in: not everyone has to agree with him) and certainly persuasive views on evolution, but then people write these views down as if they are actually "truth" or doctrine. so many people on these boards repeat his views as if they are gospel. i'm a little concerned that even though we don't use the word truth we're learning that grobstein's "serioulsy loopy science" is right, under the guise of the words "less wrong", and that mayr and other views of evoltuion are wrong, under the guide of the words "more wrong" or "uncompromising." in my humanities classes, we study many interpretations of many artists and authors, so we are not being taught to believe in one point of view. i'm worried that's happening here.

any thoughts? now if this post doesn't inspire comments, i don't know what will...

note: this post was not written by marquise de merteuil, who is sick today, but rather by her visiting french friends, the couple maritie et gilbert carpentier.

note 2: this post is dedicated to our buddy in argentina, lauren jasie (BMC 08), who gave us the courage to write this. --maritie et gilbert, qui sont heureux de vous presenter...

Paul Grobstein's picture

counter indoctrinationism

If ANYONE is writing down/taking ANYTHING I (or Mayr, or anyone else) say as "gospel" they are missing the point (both of my stories and of evolution).

"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 ... 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."

Here's to "courage", an essential ingredient of learning to be skeptical of stories, whatever their source, and so of being able to continually create and revise stories of one's own.

azambetti's picture

"Neutral" Alleles

“When a genotype, favored by selection, carries along as hitchhikers a few newly arisen and strictly neutral alleles, it has no influence on evolution.  This may be called evolutionary “noise,” but it is not evolution” (Mayr 199).  How could Mayr possibly know what is or isn’t evolution when it comes to the change in allele frequencies within a given population?  How does he know whether or not in the past, or even in the future, the alleles created great evolutionary change in its carrier?  There is most likely a reason why the particular alleles were coupled with the favored genotype.  One of the major aspects of evolution on the micro-evolutionary level is the change of an individual’s/population’s genotype through the inclusion or exclusion of individual alleles on distinct chromosomes.  Therefore, why wouldn’t “neutral” alleles be considered part of evolution, when they are, in Mayr’s example, a possibly significant part of a favorable genotype? 

Andrea Zambetti

Anne Dalke's picture

Doubt Gives Way to Certainty

Yesterday, The New York Times Science Times included an essay, "On the Climate Change Beat, Doubt Gives Way to Certainty," which seems to me a pretty good test case for the story of science-as-unending-skepticism that we've been invited to entertain in this class. The essay claims that it has become so obvious that human activity is responsible for a continuing rise in average global temperature that no other explanation is plausible: "the fact of global warming itself can now be considered 'unequivocal'...11 of the last 12 years were among the 12 warmest on record worldwide...the most striking aspect of the 2007 report [of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is the sheer number and variety of directly observed ways in which global warming is already having a 'likely' or 'very likely' impact on the earth."

And then comes the caveat:

"to say that reasonable doubt is vanishing does not mean there is no doubt at all. Many gaps remain in knowledge about the climate system. Scientists do make mistakes, and in any case science continually evolves and changes. That is why the panel's findings, synthesized from a vast body of scientific studies, are generally couched in terms of probabilities and sometimes substantial margins of error..."

So: do you "believe" the findings of the panel? Or is that now the "wrong" question to ask--and to try to answer?

evanstiegel's picture

believing vs. skepticism

I think there is no choice but to believe the findings of the panel.  To be skeptical about global warming is ignoring the well-being of life on earth. Those who believe in global warming can prepare adequately for its repercussions and even contribute to an eventual solution for this vast problem.  Many of the observations that have been found about global warming are yet to be countered so to be skeptical is to be neglectful. 

I believe the issue of global warming is different that in issue like evolution.  Global warming has many potentially devastating effects whereas evolution does not.   Being skeptical is encouraged for cases where skepticism spurs more experimentation, observations, and new summaries.  Being skeptical about issues with immediate potentially harmful effects, however, is intolerable. 

marquisedemerteuil's picture

who can claim beckett?

in class today prof. dalke reminded me that the "fail better" quote is by beckett. this is really interesting and points out a huge problem in smith's essay. what smith conveniently doesn't tell is us that beckett is known for having said, "qu'importe qui parle" or "it doesn't matter who is speaking" which means that he is in direct opposition to the ideology smith puts forth in her essay! if smith were a foucauldian, this wouldn't matter, because she could use beckett's words however she wanted. however, as we know this essay very well by now, smith thinks she knows beckett's personality from having read him; she thinks she's getting at his "essence" by quoting him. to look at this from the point of view of foucault's studies on power, she is manipulating his words to assert control, authority. as i have argued in my "recent blog post" on the smith essay, smith takes a rather didactic tone to reestablish the author as controller of the meaning of the text.

clearly we have seen that smith is wrong. she is, to quote modern french scholars at the academie, "failing worse."


--la marquise de merteuil

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

Random Variation

In Anne’s group on Thursday people felt that the story of evolution from Mayr’s perspective has a comforting affect.  Mayr was able to bring up numerous relevant observations about his case to support his view.  People felt that his summary of observations is comforting because we are able to know more about how humans have evolved and how the world works.   

But today in class, my comforting feeling left me as Paul lectured about Random Variation and how that has played an important role in evolution.  It is hard for me to digest the idea that evolution is run by a chaos theory.  It is less comforting knowing that evolution is a random process because one is not able to control or predict the outcome.  I guess I could understand why people at that time would prefer the idea of essentialism rather than Darwinism, just because essentialism is structured, basic, simple, and stable.  It does give a sense of security and comfort.  Essentialism does have a structure thus resembles more like science (in my opinion, science is structured due to laws and theories) rather than the “playful experiments”/random variation of Darwinism.  It is hard to believe that evolution can be random and unpredictable when science is structured.  Would you rather believe in evolution as a story of disorder and randomness or a more “comforting” structured story of essentialism?   

LS's picture

Uncomfortably Random

I do agree with you, Mayr’s story of evolution does seem to have a comforting aspect.  Mayr attempts to explain why organisms are the way they are and how they got to be this way.  I guess I did not really think of this as comforting until Professor Grobstein told us about the complete randomness of random variation.  I seemed to have a revelation for the first time in my life about how random the whole process is.  This seems really silly to me obviously random variation is random I have been repeating that on every biology test since fourth grade, so then why was this lecture such a shock?  I guess deep down inside I still believed that random variation was moving towards and more developed or more evolved organisms, after all if we are going to have evolution I just though it would be in a better direction.  During Professor Grobstein’s lecture I started to realize that this “chaos theory” could have serious implications in the rest of my life, all of my accomplishments and all accomplishments of our species flashed before my eyes as simply random—did this take their value away?


I think Mayr addresses this when he includes the quote by individuals who support the contingency principle “man is nothing but an accident.” (p.230)  This is really a scary idea and an idea that I think I was starting to form during that lecture.  This does seem to give a little of a grim out look on life, maybe this is why the “chaos” of randomness is not more firmly stated in elementary evolution studies.  Teachers want children to feel special, not simply a random creation.  However I think this idea of being a random accident can be looked at through many lenses.  If we are a random accident that it was quite an amazing accident indeed!  Perhaps if we realize that we are only an accident than we will look and treat other organisms differently realizing that it is only by accident we are not in their position.