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Week 4 - Evolution/Stories

Paul Grobstein's picture

So .... where are we on the story of biological evolution? A good scientific story? One that might be useful for thinking about other things (include literature) as well? Your thoughts, on this or other things, before we move on to Dennett?

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

what I should have written my paper about

This past weekend I was reading James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and it struck me how much humans are influencing the course of evolution. Nearly every other species, because of a lack of technological or scientific advancement, rely solely on the “circle of life.” With other species, nature still takes it course. The diseased, impaired, predisposed or genetically different die off. This is nature’s way of weeding illness out of future lineages. Naturally, if an organism has a disease, it will die early and therefore not succeed in producing offspring, eliminating the defective genes from passing on. People on the other hand have found ways to survive these diseases, to heal drug addictions, and to keep those genes passing on from generation to generation. I know it sounds rather crude and unethical to say, “let them die,” but from the perspective of a scientist looking merely at the course of evolution, it makes more sense to let the diseased die. Could people potentionally be messing with the entire human population by keeping alive and reproducing, the naturally unfit? 

CT's picture

Science versus faith

A rather uninspiring view of the difference between science and faith: here

Is it necessarily true that faith has to remain constant despite evidence?

LS's picture


I think there may be different levels of faith in respect to this.  Yes, there are people who have faith in something despite all the evidence; I don't think is particularly good or useful either.  However, there are people who do accept all of the evidence of evolution yet keep their faith that there is something greater in control.  I think you cartoon helped illustrate the difference.

Jenn Dodwell's picture

Errors in evolution?

I keep thinking about the meaning of the word error, and if it can be applied to evolution....According to the dictionary, error is defined as "a deviation from accuracy or correctness; a mistake, as in action or speech: His speech contained several factual errors." (

In evolution, what do we consider to be "accuracy" or "correctness?" I think  that for something to be accurate, there has to be some kind of ultimate standard, or ultimate destination.  For example, if someone said the answer to the problem two plus four equals seven, that would be an inaccurate answer, because this problem has one goal-- to produce the number seven.  Therefore, the criteria for judging accuracy is very simple; either the person gets the correct answer, or he/she does not.

However, in evolution, what is that ultimate destination?  Last week, we were talking about how the process of evolution is headed in a completely random direction.  What will be the state of life on earth hundreds of years from now?  We have no idea, because nature does not seem to have a fixed agenda.

Therefore, when we say that something is a biological error, what exactly do we mean?  What is correct, and what is incorrect? Is a gene mutation considered an error because it deviated from the majority of genes? If suddenly there were an increased frequency of that particular gene muation (which I believe can happen due to certain environmental conditions....maybe not...I'm really not sure...does anyone know?), would it still be considered an error? 

"Error" seems like a nonnarrative word, that when applied to the narrative process of evolution is frustrating, because it limits our understanding of this incredibly complex process to a simple binary: either a change is right, or it is wrong.  Besides, even if nature did have an ultimate destination, and there were some genetic deviations (errors) from this destination, I don't feel that we as humans would have the wisdom (or the lifespan) to comprehend this destination, let alone to be the judges of whether each genetic change (or some other kind of change) we saw was correct or incorrect.

ekorn's picture

The more we look the less we know

However trite the saying may be, I feel like the more we look the less we know. Every question we ask is met with more questions that tend to confuse and complicate the original question. Are we errors? My section talked extensively about this question, but inevitably the question made us reexamine how we define evolution (a question no one was really capable of tackling, and a question I could not even begin to wrap my fingers around). Unfortunately, without these questions there would be not drive to search for answers and without answers we as a species, a term we could also never fully define, would be lost (lost in the sense that we would never know or come to any sort of understanding about the world surrounding us). Scattered throughout the early chapters in Dennett’s book he poses numerous questions, all of which we assume he will answer within the confines of his book. I will be interested reading this book to see whether or not Dennett is actually able to answer these questions, or simply create new ones (confusing the already confused story of evolution).

I.W.'s picture

The Revolutions

Dennett’s comments early on about the differences between the Darwinian Revolution and the Copernican Revolution have had me wondering which has been the move successful approach.  Part of me likes the Copernican Revolution because it is so much simpler.  There was never a debate on such a grand scale because by the time the debate really got started the scientific community was united.  On the other hand the Darwinian Revolution still has people very messily divided.  One of the things that I have always loved about the sciences is how everything is interconnected.  A scientist can’t just know his or her own field (biology, chemistry, ect.).  Breakthroughs have to be made by looking at something from the perspective of each scientific field.  Hence why having a scientific community is so critical.  I was thinking of the ways in which these two revolutions would have worked in the scientific community, and suddenly the messiness didn’t bother me so much. 

            The Darwinian Revolution has been so much more of a discussion than the Copernican.  Having the fighting out in the open allows the process to affect not only the biological sciences but also all other aspects of culture.  It may be messy but the mess brings together concepts and ideas that would never have been joined otherwise. 

eworks's picture


Tu-Anh Vu's post said some things that were eerily similar to some of my own recent thoughts, like, "The relative time we spent on Earth is small compared with the explosion of the universe." I mean, it's incredible when you really sit down and think about how small each of us is in the scheme of things. I often find myself feeling a little bit sad and low after completing the readings for this class. Some of the statistics that Professor Grobstein included in his lecture last Tuesday got me feeling even more tiny - like the fact that human history has only existed for about 300 human generations, whereas the galaxy has existed without us for something like 3,000 human generations. So here we are in our class, 1 or 2 human generations in a room, and we're nothing more than a brief flash in everything that makes up the history of our world. It's a sobering thought when you look around at all of the "big" things we worry about and you realize that in about 10 human generations our actions will have a small impact on the world that they live in.

I want to say that when looking at things from an evolutionary perspective that maybe we do have an impact. To me, evolution seems to be an accumulation of successful characteristics and traits that are passed down slowly from one generation to the next, being slightly tweaked here and there. Some characteristics get eliminated along the way, others are created, and in the end you find yourself looking at something far different from its original form. Maybe in an odd way then evolution helps me to be optimistic about my "point" here on Earth, and helps me to think that somewhere in my DNA is a tiny little trait that will make a difference for my children, grandchildren, or great-great-great-great grandchildren. I can't be certain, but it's the best I can do to prevent myself from being overwhelmed by what sometimes seems like a definite lack of a "point" to our existence here and now.

LF's picture

If science is evolving, then

If science is evolving, then we are artificially changing the course of evolution. Even if we are errors then we have the possibility of changing that label through medicine and procedures such as stem cell research. Even if we are errors, none of us participating in this class would be able to prove that considering we would not find out for many hundreds of years to come. As we discussed in class, it is hard to define what an error in evolution is. Is it simply carrying poor genes, having downsyndrome or having a weak imune system? Or is it something not visible or detectable by humans? People in class seem to get offended by the idea that we could possibly be an error, however, I doubt the cave men who began walking on all fours thought they were errors either!

hayley reed's picture

If People Believe Something It Must Be True

For anyone that is interested... this Wednesday, February 21st , Intervarsity Christian Fellowship will be hosting Tae Hoo Lee who is a professor of world religion at Temple University. He will be speaking on the topic "If People Believe Something It Must Be True". It might be interesting to hear a different perspective on the concept of truth even if the conversation focuses more on religion. The meeting will take place here at Bryn Mawr in the Quita Woodward Room from 7:00-8:30.

kaleigh19's picture


So I wasn't in Prof. Dalke's section on Thursday, but I wish I had been for the discussion on Evolutionary Error (not at all to knock P. Grob's section, which rocked on out complexity and homeostasis). I think that in some sense, we are all errors. Genetic mutations can occur in any number of ways, but one of the most common is due to infidelity of enzymes involved in DNA transcription (the process of turning DNA into RNA) or replication (the process of reproducing DNA for meiosis I or mitosis). So what that means is that a great deal of appreciable biological variance is effectively the result of a molecular error in copying, a little splotch on a Xerox. While this might not apply to, say, the engendering of eukaryotes by the endosymbiosis, it could certainly apply to the development of different beak shapes that Darwin observed in the Galapagos finches. A couple birds had screwy proteins that made them better adapted to the pressures of natural selection, and it was that mistake that made them better able to survive.


While Gaby raises a valid point that we can't be errors if we survive, that particular viewpoint doesn't really jibe with the way that I'm thinking about evolutionary error. I think that there are lots of errors in transcription and replication that can occur that won't necessarily impact an organism's capacity for survival, especially in human cultures where a docile dog can survive as a pet and flowers are bred to be pretty if not easily pollinated.


Furthermore, I wonder if there's something more to be made of human infertility. If a person cannot reproduce, but is able to raise someone else's children, doesn't that take some measure to ensure the perpetuation of the species? Or on an even larger scale, if an ER doctor develops testicular cancer and can't have children but saves 100s of lives through his work, does that mean that he can't have a part in the continuance of the human race? I guess what I might be saying is that maybe infertility is equivalent to apoptotic death in cells - a kind of taking one for the team.

Katie Baratz

Katherine Redford's picture

The Why?

Okay, so we've finished Myer and are now working our way through Dennett.  It wasn't until Thursday's discussion that I realized that I had never actually spent very much time wondering about the why.  When it was brought up, I realized that this was probably because it is a WAY difficult question.  Throughout Mayr's book there is not why, there is only a serious dissection of the how.  My current question is why do we need to know the why? If it is such a difficult question, what are we going to gain from it? I suppose we will never know until we discover the true why. 

The problem I see with the why, and of course, the term "problem" is completely relative, is that it is an enormous can of worms? Why do we need a why? Is it simply a matter of human curiosity, or will we truly benefit somehow from learning.

And as far as the error discussion, a point that I made in my paper, is that we must remember that we are a PART of evolution.  Because we are a part of it, we cannot assume that we can control it simply because we think we understand it.  While it is unlikely, our environment could suddenly change and we won't be able to react, because we are not genetically prepared for it.  It is also incredibly important to point out that our governments, and our ability to form a social heirarchy is only our response to the world around us.  It isn't going to save us from evolution, it is only keeping us thriving now and it doesn't provide us with a security for the future.

danYell's picture

What is a species?

What is a species? In writing my paper, and in thinking about last week’s discussion I realized that we don’t know what a species is. I had assumed this information was known as fact, and that a species were those animals that could mate and create offspring. I discovered that there are in fact many different definitions of species that are being toyed with and no one has come up with a definitive answer, though there are a few less wrongs.

Dennet says “Darwin discourages us from trying to find a ‘principled’ definition of the concept of species.” (p45) But, the Origin of Species is about speciation, or the process through which we come to have species. This is confusing to me. How can we know about this process without knowing what a species is? What is the standard that we are using as a group? Can science be based on such unprincipled information? How can we be expected to accept the theory of evolution if its basis is this indefinable idea of species?

Danielle Joseph

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Specialization vs. Potential in Evolution and Literature

For those of you not in Professor Grobstein’s section on Thursday, we had a very interesting discussion about whether or not evolution necessarily moves towards greater complexity.  In the end I think we agreed that organisms became more complex in the sense that they move toward more complicated combinations of specialized cells, but also that in doing this, organisms lose some of their original potential to diversify on cellular and evolutionary levels.  I found this idea of specialization versus potential very compelling in an evolutionary sense, and I also wonder if this idea could be in some ways extended to the development of literature. 

In a sense literature has undergone an evolutionary process as well, beginning with the basic elements of writing and storytelling and transforming into the immense variety of approaches seen today.  The oral traditions and original forms of language possessed immense potential to diversify and specialize into the forms of literature used today.  The modern specialization of genres, styles, and modes of discourse can be extremely particular.  One of my personal favorites is “biomythography,” a category that encompasses so many other genres and yet has been singled out in modern literature as a specific and distinct genre.  While these myriad categories can be interpreted by each individual writer, there is still a sense of imposed specialization and order that permeates the way literature is viewed.  As literature becomes more and more complex and specific, it can lose some of the potential to diversify that more simplified forms once possessed.  In this sense, I think there can be some parallels between evolutionary development and the development of modern literature.


Anne Dalke's picture


I'm interested in your questions and suggestions, Elise, and very much look forward to getting back to them when we arrive @ the more "literary" portion of this course. In the meantime, I'd like to "bookmark" them with this passage from my current bedtime reading, Isaac Asimov's Prelude to Foundation:

"There's so much knowledge to be had that specialists cling to their specialties as a shield against having to know anything about anything else. They avoid being drowned"...."how harmful overspecialization is. It cuts knowledge at a million points and leaves it bleeding."

What we may be talking about, in other words--along with biological evolution and the development of literature--is the larger academic phenomenon of specialization, and the possibility that overspecialized fields, and the scholars within them, may "lose some of their original potential to diversity" and generate new ideas...

Oof. Hard thoughts. Probing questions.


CT's picture

Usefulness in Science

Firstly, after reading some chapters of Dennet, I am struck but how much of what he brings into question has been debated by us in class. These issues are evidently very apparent from the offset.

Secondly, the Hubble Deep Field image, I am reminded of the fact that they pointed Hubble Space Telescope towards that area because there wasn't going to be must other research going on during the Christmas period. The director could a substantial period of his discretionary time towards studying galaxies. The usefulness of this pursuit can be called into question.

It wasn't directly useful (cosmology has always had doubtful direct uses), but it revealed a lot about the origin of the galaxy.

We have argued that evolution is about usefulness. We have called it adaptability, it is equally translatable as what is useful in particular environments.

Yet I don't think that we should only be aiming to achieve usefulness. I think that it was William James who believed in the cash value of things. The question then is, should we be seeking usefulness or something else. Metaphysical I know. And horribly inconclusive.

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Valentine's Day and Obesity

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, Valentine’s Day always delivers excessive amounts of chocolate and sweets.  Now experiencing this commercial holiday in college-I live in a quad-each one of our parents sent “care-packages” stuffed full of cookies, popcorn, and chocolate hearts.  And while very much appreciated, this plethora of snacks couldn’t help but draw our minds to the one thing that makes women (myself included) self-conscious…our weight.   The claim, “Ah, I feel so fat right now” must be one of the most used expressions-muttered almost daily.  So, to complete this Valentine’s Day flavored blog, I thought I would examine the connection between obesity and evolution.  First of all, is there any connection?  To answer this question I opened up my Biology textbook and sure enough they explicitly addressed this matter on page 848.  “It may actually have been advantageous in our evolutionary past…natural selection may have favored those individuals with a physiology that induced them to gorge on rich fatty foods”(848).  And this makes sense considering the relatively barren, dry, savanna environment that our ancestors had to survive.  However, we aren’t hunting and gathering on the Savanna anymore, so what is going on?  Why has obesity become so prevalent that it is a global health issue? We know obesity causes serious health problems and that inheritance may play a large role, but is it continuing to be selected for?  And also, is putting the majority of the blame on inheritance a cop out (considering that Americans have significantly greater percentages of obese people than any other country)? 


marquisedemerteuil's picture


actually, saying that americans have more "obese people" is the cop out -- no one who says this knows the statistics, and many of the statistics about weight actually come from researchers who are funded by diet companies.

diet products are a great advertising scheme -- if the product doesn't work, you are taught to blame yourself, so you buy more. these companies make lots of money by striking fear into america's heart by discussing "obesity." if diet products didn't make so much money through this system, no one in america would be talking about how "obese" everyone is. and *that* is as close as we can get to a "fact."

another thing to consider is that the standard for what counts as obese constantly changes. it was lowered (thinner people can now be considered "obese" than with the past system) in the 90s, and does not take into account muscle mass. i read a good book on this subject, and according to the way obesity is measured now, tom cruise, in his mission impossible days, would be obese. (he's not obese when he's heavier either, i just want to stress that these statistics refer to his muscles, not to his fatter periods.) the statistics on obesity are bad science, and the opinions we draw from them are bad morals (see a week 1 post of mine about discrimination) that derive from a bad conscience, or capitalist guilt. the way we discuss weight in this country is unpardonable, it's much worse than any bad tv show or any cheap businessman.

Calderon's picture


I found the statistic for obesity.  

Why are the statistics of obesity a bad science? What are you basing this statement on? 

marquisedemerteuil's picture

re: obesity

first of all, is american sports data accurate? are they telling you where the data come from?

i'm basing my comments on discussions with scientists on this subject (not specialists in it) and from some books by non-scientists who have done research on this subject and condemn america's treatment of it. so perhaps my method is not the best. i'll give you that.

BUT, the most important thing to consider here is that statistics, no matter where they are from, have no meaning on their own. the meaning we give them comes from our cultural values and preoccupations, and therefore the reason they exist comes from our society's conclusions as well. there's the big question: why are scientists weight a whole bunch of people and comparing results? why does this matter at all? scientists, as far as i know, are not comparing everyone's chin size and seeing how much that has increased in the last few decades. it is because our society is not obsessed and does not feel threated by chin size, just weight. we see weight as a moral issue -- people are better if they are thinner. so we compare states and countries to see which is "best" which one is not declining. yet weight has nothing to do with anyone's personality. "fat" people aren't "lazy" but we all believe to some extent that they are. so i advocate not taking any statistics on this subject seriously. their existence is the problem, not their "truth."

hayley reed's picture

So far so good...

I find Dennett’s tone in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” surprisingly refreshing. Unlike Mayr, I do not feel that Dennett is trying to force me to believe anything. Rather, Dennett is presenting new options for me to consider. When I read Mayr I felt as if I was reading a textbook with all the “right answers”. But, the tone in this book is strikingly different. Dennett adopts an encouraging & insightful tone that is by no means forceful. Before he begins to break down his analysis of Darwin he says, “This book, then, is for those who agree that the only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. Others are advised to close the book now and tiptoe away.” Pg. 22 What I like about this quote is that Dennett leaves the reader with the choice to keep reading but, he doesn’t force you to keep reading. Personally, I want to keep reading.

 Another thing that I like about Dennett is that I do not think that he believes he has the key to understanding “the truth” or that there is only one truth. Rather, I think he has the drive and curiosity to explore different stories about evolution in hopes of finding collection of observations that personally resonates with him. In this sense Dennett is completely different then Locke who believed “his ‘common sense’ was truly common sense.” Locke assumed that his personal set of observations were the one and only truth. But, I think that Dennett would argue that Locke’s idea of his common sense and common sense for everyone are not the same. What is one man’s common sense can not be assumed to be common sense for all men. There is definitely a difference between a truth and the Truth (capital T).

marquisedemerteuil's picture


i think the way dennett starts his book is actually much more arrogant than anything mayr wrote. take this: "in due course, the darwinian revolution will coem to occupy a similarly secure and untroubled place in the minds -- and hearts -- of every educated person on the globe, but today, more than a century after darwin's death, we still have not come to terms with its mind-boggling implications" (19). basically he believes that evolution is RIGHT and that if you don't believe it, you're incredibly ignorant, in denial, or both. now, that's not really a bad theory, but that's awfully bossy for a book like this. aren't people entitled to disagree with it? i'm not convinced this disagreement will end simply because other once-controversial scientific beliefs are now accepted. here's some sarcasm: "...but those philosophical prejudices that had to be overthrown were too deeply entrenched to be dislodged by mere philosophical brilliance" (21). ouch! so the human race is on a mission, and the telos of that mission is for everyone to understand and fully believe in darwinian evolution.

i had trouble getting through the assignment because i dislike dennett's writing style. i want to scream out, "i'm not five!!!" i feel that he's condescending to his readers, he really doesn't think they know anything. honestly, he *translates* raison d'etre on page 23. now that's just offensive. his use of italics to make distinctions is exasperating. you'd think a "philosopher" wouldn't need to rely on font to make his points...

marquisedemerteuil's picture

to be picky

dennett says on page 23, "as the french say, raison d'etre." well, it's actually an anglophone expression taken from french, so english and americans say it to. he's not being accurate. we are plenty more expressions that "the french say" like debut, accoutrement, denouement, au courant, chic, fait accompli, laissez-faire, etc etc etc,

ttruong's picture

Can we measure evolution?

It is so difficult to know whether a species is more or less successful in the evolutionary process. For some reason I really want there to be a scale to judge this. What criterias should be used to decide the success rate of a species. Should it be population count, number differing abilities, complexity in genetic/molecular makeup? Perhaps once we decide on what qualities is most important in deciding success, we can estimate what direction evolution tends to go towards.

Though evolution is very convincing, there is still one thing that befuddles me about it. When we examine the numerous accomplishments of humans and compare that to those of other species, we can't help but feel that we are perhaps affected by evolution in a different way--that evolution accelerated within our species. I can't logically pinpoint why I feel like we are slightly above the normal evolution rules or less dictated by the direction (whatever that may be) that evolution is inclined to take, but I just feel that we are different somehow. Maybe this is just all in the head. Maybe its too uncomfortable to accept that I am simply a random profuct of a much larger project, that i was never intended but just here because im here.


J Shafagh's picture

I'm not sure if evolution

I'm not sure if evolution goes in any specific direction anymore.  The criteria that is used to decide the success rate of species depends on different standards we use and give for different things, and in the end, is all relative.

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

errors in evolution

In class on Thursday, we tried to define evolutionary error.  It was quiet difficult for us and many of us kept going back to defining an error as being unable to reproduce, unable to survive in the world on its own (Better stated by Caroline as being self-destructive), an aberration.  First off, we cannot look at an evolutionary error from through analyzing an individual, because evolution does not effect an individual, it only effects a group.  Evolution is a change in a population’s gene pool; therefore an error cannot be classified as an individual’s phenotype that is disadvantageous to survival, it must be something prominent throughout the population.  Furthermore, because the environment, at least today, I changing so rapidly, I feel that evolution is having a more difficult time keeping up.  Technology is changing the world around us so fast, that evolution is becoming too slow to allow for extensive adaptation.  This would mean that more and more evolutionary errors exist and will continue to exist.  Finally, because mutations are random there will always be errors, but natural selection has the job of weeding them out.  Because evolution takes generations to take effect, there will always be many errors.  Also, we have to be very careful when classifying something as an error, because that trait could be a side effect of a very positive trait.  For example, self-destruction is a negative phenotype, but may be linked to the same gene that allows us to think creatively and solve difficult problems.

As for the birth control and the dog issue, is it really evolution?  I believe so.  Everything impacts everything else, and as Tou said, the women who choose to use birth control and so forth are more likely to bring a child into the world where the parent will be able to take care of them financially and be more mature, therefore supporting positive evolution.  Everything we as humans do affects our evolution, and many other species around us.  For example, 500 years ago, the people that survived the longest, were those that had the strongest immune system.  Now, because of health care advances, you don’t need to have a strong immune system, all you need is to make enough money to pay for the best healthcare.  This change in environment effects evolution.  Birth control may be changing evolution as well.  If a group a people with certain genetically based phenotypic traits are more likely to use birth control and end up having less children in their lives, then their genes will make up a smaller and smaller portion of the gene pool generation after generation.

Interestingly enough, this reminds me of a movie I recently saw, Idiocracy.  For those of you who have not seen it, this movie takes place in the future, and is about how the human population has become much less intelligent due to evolution.  The theory is based on the notion that people that are more intelligent tend to plan their families and have less children, while less intelligent people tend to have many more children, because they do not use contraceptives.  Over 500 years, this cycle causes the entire population to have an extremely low IQ.  At first, I thought that this was a highly improbable due to the selective advantage intelligence had, but then I realized, that it doesn’t matter how long one lives, it only matters how much they reproduce which determines the effect on evolution.


I have so much more going through my mind, but I will have it for next time.

J Shafagh's picture

I think evolution can affect

I think evolution can affect an indivual on a minor scale, as we have individual evolution, population evolution etc. (depending on what you are looking at, doesn't the term still apply?). 

Julia Smith's picture

Errors and human improvement

After Thursday's discussion with Professor Dalke, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of individuals being "errors", and I've come to the conclusion that I think that we all are. 

One thought that has always scared me is if scientists find out what makes us errors, will they try and fix us? I'm not talking about minor errors, I'm talking about bigger ones, controversial ones, such as being gay (if you consider that an "error", which some people do). Or, what if people begin to think that emotion is flawed and find a way to correct it?

I've also thought a lot about the social impact of these corrections. For example, if people in the future find a genetic reason for being gay, and they come to an agreement that it is a fixable error, then they are now impacting an entire community instead of an individual. 

After this week's reading, I have started to think about it another way. If all patterns of human culture are "artifacts", if they are created no differently than organisms, then what is the difference in their evolution?        

J Shafagh's picture

I don't understand how we

I don't understand how we can all be errors if, as marquisedemerteuil said, we are all fit enough to survive.  Also, if we were all errors, we, as human beings, would be wiped out, as evolution doesn't favor errors and tries to eliminate them over time. Then wouldn't we all be dead by now?

Furthermore, I do think that fixing errors does, usually effect an entire community.  For example, treating diabetes or the error that causes it still affects the entire diabetic community, and that is not something that is considered to be bad.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

well none of us can be

well none of us can be errors from an evolutionary perspective because we're all fit enough to survive.

azambetti's picture

Will We All be Brown?

In Thursday’s class, for those of you not in Dalke’s section, we briefly talked how studies have shown that in about 300 generations blonde haired, blue eyed people will no longer be in existence.  Having these apparently endangered characteristics, I was intrigued as to whether or not this was true.  For days I have been wondering why there would be an averaging of human characteristics against the combination of blonde hair and blue eyes, and if it was true that there would be an extinction of people who look like myself and everyone in my family (I have four brothers and sisters, and we all have blue eyes and blonde hair).

I suddenly realized that if this “summary of observations” is correct, then not only would the blue eye, blonde hair combination become extinct, but also the other extreme would become extinct.  Therefore, in the future, people with black hair and black eyes will be extinct with those that have blue eyes and blonde hair.  With their extinction, there will again be two different extremes, let’s say light brown hair and eyes and people with dark brown hair and eyes, that will then, even more into the future, become extinct.  This pattern of averaging will occur until, as Caroline said “everyone is brown.”  Will we all really have similar coloration in the far-away future?  I am skeptical.

Andrea Zambetti

Student's picture


After thinking about evolution, trying to define it and realizing it's hard to agree one on definition, I started to wonder.. if evolution brings about thoughts of some kind of change.. if evolution is a term being used to explain the change that has taken place from nothing, to dinosaurs, to the little mammals left, to where we are now.. I started to wonder if evolution has to go in a more advancing direction for it to be evolution. If, as we grow up, we develop bad habits- habits that are harmful (granted that it is said evolution happens on larger level), would this still be evolution? I think it would have to be.. assuming that these habits are considered negative and bad now, who's to say in the future, with time, the effects will still be negative?.. the thought that we'll never know at the time just how useful something is, is an interesting concept.. we live as we think would be best- we, consciously and unconsciously, evolve with more conditions experienced, more choices made, more development.. yet we don't really know how these choices will effect us, let alone our population, in the future.

As for Mayr.. while reading his book, his authoritative tone bothered me, but it was interesting to read. Rightly or wrongly, I think the tone bothered me because.. it seems like his book was about collected evidence, and restating Darwin's stories..just putting it all together in one place. I think, the majority of what he said was backed up with what he would call evidence- in the form of fossils, or in some other form (with the exception of a lot from the latter portion of the book with unfounded claims..).. I think this bothers me so much, because, he chose to collect all of this together and write about it, probably, because he believes it so strongly.. but he's not the one who created it, nor is he the one to credit for discovering all of the "evidence", without which, the whole concept of evolution would never have gained so much support.. but, I guess this goes along with the idea of us all starting off as babies.. then we go to school, because more interested in something, study it, go to school for it.. and then we're "experts"- if such a thing really exists (or if the word is useful at all), in the field. Nearly anyone could have chosen the field to go into- likely would have had different reactions, different responses to the material they have learned, but would have been "taught" (with the exception of classes not targeted towards teaching facts, like this one), the same material.. it's similar to Mayr's saying 2 and 2 is 4, backing it up, preaching it.. when possibly, it would have been more advantageous, to the public, for him to have come up with his own idea, his own method, his own theory.. and brought something new to everyone.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

don't you think it's useful

don't you think it's useful to have a relatively readable collection of evolutionary history? i think mayr's taking too much slack for sounding authoritative...there are worse sins in writing. at least he's not condescending with tacky metaphors like dennett.

J Shafagh's picture

I agree with your comment,

I agree with your comment, Mayr is taking too much slack for sounding authoritative.  I think his book is a good collection of evolutionary history, and as with most other scientific textbooks, does tend to cound very authoritative....But this style of writing and type of book are still necessary and get the information out.

Also, I don't agree that "we don't really know how these choices will effect us, let alone our population, in the future." What about global warming for example? I think the message has been sent out pretty clearly that we are not taking care of this issue and may affect our future prosperity if nothing is done now.  We are the cause of this evolutionary effect, which can ultimatley be our downfall. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution, teleology, complexity, development, and ...

Rich conversation in the G group on Thursday. Some notes of things I want to think more about, for whatever use they might be to others as well ...

It does seem possible to account for observations on biological systems without presuming either a plan or an objective, using the ideas of randomness, differential reproductive success, and the notion that things build on older things. And it further seems possible in these terms to account for apparent "progress" over time, ie for increasing "complexity". It is clearly not the case that the "environment favors complexity", since earlier, "simpler" organisms continue to exist. If one starts "simple", however, one can expect over time that the envelope of "complexity" will get greater, simply because of the random trying out of new things (a "left wall" effect). Increasing "complexity", in this story, is not a "goal" of evolution but rather a consequence of continuing random exploration of possibilities. Evolution does not move toward "complexity" but rather expands the envelope of "complexity" as a by-product of its randomness.

And that, perhaps, provides a basis for better defining what is meant by "simplicity" and "complexity"? "Simple" is that which can be relatively easily/quickly achieved by an evolutionary proccess? "Complex" is that which involves building on simpler things, and therefore takes more time/steps of exploration? How does that relate to our intuitive sense of "complexity", ie made up of more parts and harder to predict/explain? A curious issue that arose in the course of this discussion is whether the increase in the envelope of complexity during evolution can be thought of as "diffusion", ie a process having the same directionality as the second law of thermodynamics, rather than opposite directionality: increasing rather than decreasing "probability". Individual organisms may have greater improbability but the ensemble has greater probability?

Along these same general lines, it may prove useful to further explore some parallels between biological evolution and biological development (and literature and society?). The development of an individual living organism generally starts out "simple", with a single fertilized egg, and proceeds to a "complexity" (over lots of intermediate steps) involving many different specialized cells in an ordered and interdependent arrangement that is very improbable. Importantly, the specialized cells (essential for the new forms of increased complexity) are in some ways themselves "simpler" than the cell they originated from; they have much more limited generative capabilities being generally unable to give rise to a cellular diversity comparable to that of the fertilized egg. Presumably the same hold for evolution? Bacteria have the capability to give rise to all possible existing organisms, but elephants (and people) probably don't? The same is perhaps so for humans and social organization. A child can become either a biology professor or an english professor. A biology professor can't become an english professor? A novel can give rise to ... more novels but not?

In evolution (and ?) "You can't go home again"? Because change (at least of certain kinds, narrative?) is irreversible? And the brain (or at least part of it) tries to "fool us into non-narrative" understandings? In order to .... ? Because ... ? Itself all being a product of evolution?

Maybe non-narrative things are a way to advance the narrative?, ie non-narrative stories provide the grist from which further narrative stories are created? Just as new species of organisms create the possibility of additional species?





Christina Cunnane's picture

Some ramblings about my paper

One of the major things I remember from AP Bio in eleventh grade was "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." Our teacher beat it into our heads. He said it about nine-billion times and based his whole teachings about embryology upon it. Mayr mentions it in his book in like the 2nd chapter. When I was reading it, I was like, Oh look, I remember that. I remembered the phrase and that it had something to do with evolution and embryology but I wasn't exactly sure what it was about. So with lack of a better topic, I chose to write my paper about it. I was going to mention how I was taught it in high school, etc. I started my search using wikipedia to get a general planning of my paper without looking up facts yet. After reading about it on wikipedia, I discovered that the statement was false! First I was immediately confused and chose to rely on "real" sources such as textbooks. I picked up my search in the biology textbook section of Collier. The first few text books I picked up had either the exact phrase in the glossary or had it under ontogeny in the text. Then I started not being able to find it in other text books. I could not find the phrase anywhere in texts that were dated after 1971. And of the earlier books I found it in, they stated the only reason they mentioned it was to make readers aware that the phrase was incorrect if readers had come across it in earlier texts.

I was genuinely shocked at my findings. I immediately called all of my classmates in highschool that I kept in touch with. All of them remembered the phrase. (He brow-beat us, I tell you). And the ones who remembered what exactly it was, recalled that he was in favor of it. He taught it to us saying it was true. Lacking my highschool text book, I can't remember what the text said about it but all of the biology text books I came across provide evidence against the literal translation of the statement.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Thanks, nice story ...

about the problems inherent in teaching science as other than story. Another recent example is, of course, changing the number of planets in the solar system. And an older one has to do with "centrifugal force" (see "centripetal force vs centrifugal force" and "reviewing the textbook").


LS's picture

Evolution through Creationalism

The picture of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and the conversation that followed was mind blowing.  I cannot imagine the amount of time that we were looking at in that picture and the amount of time that evolution is framed in.  I do believe in evolution and I do believe that scientists are getting it “less wrong” with the story of evolution.  However, we do not know what caused evolution to start, or rather what caused the beginning of the big bang.  I still feel that there is (or was) some outside creator that caused the whole thing to start.  I am not sure if I believe the creator started the big bang and then left, evolution being what followed this, or whether everything including evolution was planned.  Okay so my point is that I do not think science will ever be able to disprove that there was a creator that started the whole process.  We just cannot disprove this.  Maybe it seems kind of simple, the logic, but if the creator did not want us to know, then really we would not know.  Many may think that simply believing in this creator, when we have gotten pretty close to figuring evolution and everything out is silly.  This irrational thought is simple, and one is just looking for meaning; however a more religion person may say it is faith.

cevans's picture

I think that what I took the

I think that what I took the most from the discussion of evolution is the way humanity imposes its own concepts on things that it discovers. It is the tendency of humanity to anthropomorphize animals and also to turn narrative stories into non narratives especially in the age of print where we can fix our words in a concrete form on a page instead of an ever changing oral tradition. I tend to think of literature as being much more narrative then science because it is open to many interpretations and re-imaginings. What I wonder though is whether we have forced our literature into a more non-narrative state by printing it. Do books themselves limit our literature? No matter how many times you reinterpret a story you have read the words still remain the same and although you can always rewrite and reprint a story it is still being forced into a solid form. The author in the first reading we had to do for this class said he had the perfect novel in his mind but that it fell short when it was placed on the page. Was this because his own skills or abilities were lacking or because by placing the story on the page he was forcing the narrative into the non-narrative?

Paul Grobstein's picture

ever changing oral tradition versus print

Very interesting thought. Could it be that printed "stories" actually do represent an effort to transform change into fixity? For worse or better?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

evolution + stuff

a story is non-narrative because it's in print? can't agree with you on that one. a story *is* a narrative, it's written once and doesn't change. is that bad? other people can write other stories. don't criticize stories for being what they are.

actually, i think prof grobstein's idea of evolution is a non-narrative story and the more typical, teleological method is narrative. in the latter, there's the strive for "perfection," so it's a narrative with a small beginning, developping middle, and ultimate end point. in prof grobstein's version, there is no narrative because complex things come out of simple things but simple things remain and there is no endpoint.

Anne Dalke's picture

Uncertain About Uncertainty

Reporting in (as per usual) on the news from the Times: Monday's paper included a most relevant book review of David Lindley's Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the Struggle for the Soul of Science:

"'Uncertainty' examines the critical juncture at which classical scientific methods became obsolete and the most radical theories began to be outside the realm of proof...'a gap had opened up between what a theory said was the full and correct picture of the physical world and what an experiment could in practice reveal of that world'....As Wolfgang Pauli once said...'It's much easier to find one's way if one isn't too familiar with the magnificent unity of classical physics'....the Heisenberg uncertainty principle...'has become a touchstone, a badge of authority' ...because it can be used to make scientific truth sound less than all-powerful. Treated that way, 'the uncertainty principle makes scientific knowledge itself less daunting to the nonscientists and more like the slippery, elusive kind of knowing we daily grapple with.'"

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

some thoughts to ponder...

When Paul showed us the picture of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and told us how many light years it was away from us, I felt very humbled.   I felt as if I was just a small ant in a huge cluster of ant farms.  It also brought up the idea that time is relative.  So if the galaxies are millions of light years away from us, I guess we are seeing the galaxy millions of years before and not what it is in the present time, which must mean the galaxies are very old.  Then it got me to think that the human species is a relatively new branch.  The relative time we spent on Earth is small compared with the explosion of the universe.  This is also a humbling effect knowing that our ancestors survived so many obstacles to evolved to us. 


Reading the last chapters of Mayr’s book made me question the idea of progression and how we might define it.  Yes, humans have evolved and we are unique due to the “enormous development of the brain and to the development of extended parental care” (p. 253).  If we define progression from a biological/evolutionary stand point, this might be a good summary of observation to use for progression of men.  Mayr also points out that “our superb brain has enabled us to create one invention after the other by which to become increasingly independent of the environment.  No other animal was ever able to exist successfully on all continents and in all climates” (p. 260).  This is rather impressive from an evolutionary stand point.  But upon re-reading Mayr’s discussion about extinction, it made me wonder if men really have progress for the better.  Yes, we do have a better form of transportation in the case of cars and airplanes, but these inventions, although they do allow us to become independent of the environment, has become deleterious to our species.   We our exploiting the nonrenewable resources and one day this will be a limiting factor for our survival.  Mayr explicitly said that men is causing their own mass extinction, “We are now living in another era of mass extinction caused by humans through the destruction of habitats and the pollution of the environment” (p. 202).  If we believe that men have made a progression to be better adapted, why are we not smart enough to stop the destruction we are causing to ourselves?  Will we be known in history as The Species that cause their own extinction? It seems like a funny idea, because by then when we are extinct, who will write our stories?  Some thoughts to ponder…


Shannon's picture

Imagining Clumpy Diversity...

Continuing to flow with my theme of curiosity from last week, the subject of clumpy diversity pops into my head from our last class. We know that it is because of clumpy diversity that certain organisms can never possess a certain blend of characteristics (for example, an organism that has an exoskeleton and a dorsal nervous system -- no, no!).... but it is always fun to be curious...

Imagine: a jellyfish, a spineless Cnidarian, with an exoskeleton similar to that of an insect. It's crazy, I know, but think about how that protective structure/support would alter the lifestyle of that animal... Would it be as easily adaptable for their water homes? Would their "sting" play as much of a vital role as it once had?

Imagine a big, heterotrophic plant (besides the Venus fly trap) -- basically a plant that relies on other plants for its food or a plant that eats other organisms that eat plants. How would our world be different given this situation? The entire concept of the food chain would be thrown into a tizzle. Animals, such as insects, would then not only have to worry about larger animals eating them, but they would also need to watch out for those organism-eating plants -- and not risk their lives by trying to eat those plants OYE VEY! How complicated!

My point to these examples is that even the smallest alteration to an organism has severe consequences. There is no such thing as only 1 evolutionary change that occurs within a species or population. 1 major change triggers a "domino effect" of other minor changes/ complications within an organism's adaptation and ability to survive.


Calderon's picture

 It obvious that everybody

 It obvious that everybody is curious at some point about something in his or her lives…I read your comment last week and this week too and I still don’t quite understand what is it that you are trying to say by focusing in curiosity.  Could you please elaborate more, but not the fact that everybody is curious, instead what makes you write two weeks in a roll about curiosity?

J Shafagh's picture

Evolution, Mistakes, Perfection, Sagan Etc.

            Wow! That’s my response to the Carl Sagan quote Prof. Dalke just posted: "I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.....[The search for who we are] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predisposition on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."  I couldn’t agree any more! I think that is what we are doing together in this class, I think that’s what science does, and I think that that is how we are constantly searching, and re-creating stories that are less wrong, to help us understand the universe and world.

            I also woke up in the middle of the night (last night), thinking about some things…One was from someone’s comment in class yesterday.  It was on the topic that evolution makes mistakes, and the fact that some of us are mistakes.  My view on this is that if evolution’s goal is to reproduce, then would people who are not able to reproduce mistakes?  I think that’s a really harsh way to think of things.  And what exactly is a mistake?? It seems to be too subjective and arbitrary….

            And to add to the evolution bit, I really don’t think it is driven towards being better or towards perfection.  I’m inclined to think that all of this is a figment of the human imagination and creation, and because it is our creation, we are the ones who are striving for the idea of being better and perfected….otherwise, there is clear evidence that the process of evolution does NOT always lead to perfection. 

Anne Dalke's picture

varieties of scientific experience

When Paul said yesterday that the picture of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field was "his favorite picture in the whole world" (sic), I thought that was because it was so filled with so much space (sic), so much room for (and such an invitation to) further exploration. I also thought of the work of Carl Sagan, who died ten years ago, and was a well-known champion of science's duty to probe and question--> without any limits.

I was reminded of this in an article in yesterday's Times, in which Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, spoke about the spiritual implications of the scientific revolution: "I know of no other force that can wean us from our infantile belief that we are the center of the universe." Motivated by her impatience with religious fundamentalism, she has just published a book of Sagan's reflections on the relation between science and religion, called The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (the title is a play on William James's famous Varieties of Religious Experience).

Much of what was excerpted in the Times article has resonances for our recent discussions about authority and skepticism, about comfort and discomfort. For instance, Sagan wrote, "I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.....[The search for who we are] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predisposition on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."