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Week 6 - Evolution and Stories

Paul Grobstein's picture

And so ... both in class and in Dennett the effort is to see how the basic ideas behind the current story of biological evolution might be used to better understand additional things. Your reactions? Is this a "useful", or "productive", or "generative" direction to be going? Any other thoughts on your mind this week are equally welcome.



I.W.'s picture

Evolution bring us down

I think applying evolution to other aspect of human society is incredible productive, useful, and generative if only that it reminds us of how fluid our world truly is. We all spend so much time in our own minds that it is hard not to become a little egocentric. We may not be everyone else’s world, but we defiantly are our own. It is like how we are never really able to see ourselves grow older, as we see ourselves in the mirror every day. Furthermore as we are the key player in our own mental evolution of thoughts and ideas it is hard to realize when exactly our view changes, or even recognize that it has. Studying evolution reminds us of how the world really isn’t static but a dynamic play of stories. Biological evolution forces you to think about yourself in respect to this massive and all consuming concept which has apparently shaped the entire world we live in. It reminds us that individuals are so miniscule in the grand evolutionary scale that they aren’t even the unit of evolution. Populations are. That is a pretty big kick off the high horse. By allowing ourselves to fall it opens a whole world of ideas that we would have never been able to conceive before. That is why I think so many people are afraid of it, because what if human beings aren’t the be all and end all of the universe but just a little blip along the way.

J Shafagh's picture

Can we ever go back?

Some people mentioned some ideas in this forum about biological evolution being only progressive and not being able to move backwards.  Professor Grobstein did a drawing on the poster board, showing someone physically moving from one location to the next, and not being able to go back in time.  I guess the idea makes sense, but I am not convinced that we are always going forward and that we can never go back. Or, that we are constantly changing in ways that are not irreversable.  I guess people do change a lot and over time, due to many different factors, such as life, friends, influences, trajedies, love, etc....but I wonder if we can never go back?  If we think of things in this way, would that mean that there is no aspect of our personalitiy that remains constant? I just can't believe that there is no constancy.  Also, if people really believe that we can't go back and change something, then why has hypnosis been available to help people foget some tragedies that have occurred throughout their lifetimes or to stop doing certain things, such as smoking or over-eating.  Also, what about generative diseases, such as Alzheimer's?  Don't they prevent us from moving forward because they make us forget virtually everything from our past? 

CT's picture

Superiority in context

I, like many others here, think the idea of superiority interesting and am impressed that everyone is taken the time to define what superiority entails. Or at least try to define superiority.

there are certain words associated with evolution. Higher state of evolution. More evolved. One evolutionary stage or result as superior. I understand that we like to categorize and organize in rank. And I readily can empathize with the concept that no generation from evolution is any better than any other because 1) we have no universal way of judging these generations and 2) we cannot fully evaluate the conditions under which they exist.

So we must be context specific, a theme which seems to constantly come back to me in this course. Context is everything.

evanstiegel's picture

human superiority

I'm still stuck on the notion of whether we as humans are superior to other forms of life.  To answer this I looked up superior in a dictionary and there were many definitions all of which were along the lines of being higher in station or importance or being above average in excellence.  I now think that the idea of superiority was created from the human race's inert competitiveness.  No one form of life is superior to another because life is cyclical.  One form of life relies on another form of life to survive and that form of life relies on a seperate form of life to survive.  Somewhere down the line this process comes full circle therefore neither one of these life forms is superior to the other.  Humans feel they have to label themselves as superior over other species just as members of one race feel they have to be superior to another or one religion is superior to another, etc.  This notion of superiority is pertinent in so many facets of human life.  I feel that this humanistic quality of superiority is a result of the bipartite brain.  We have come up with a story to explain our presence and meaning in the world.  In order to for a human to explain their meaning and worth in the world, superiority is often the first play this human goes.  A superior person has more meaning and purpose in the world as opposed to a person who is not superior which is this idea of superiority is so prevalent in our lives. 

Whether or not humans are more complex than other organisms is a completely different story.

Student's picture

organism superiority

It's interesting that many times we hear humans being discussed as possibly the most superior form of life here, on Earth, as we know it.  We have the consciousness to think this- we can think, and we can be aware, and we can respond to other people.  We contemplate things we think of as huge questions- how we've come to be, who we are, the philosophy of the world.. we can question things ourselves, can question why this world is what it is, what our reality is... our brains are complex, and, as we're discovering little by little, we're seeing just how they function- possibly discovering the backbone of what makes us human.  At the same time... there are two main problems as I see it with thinking that humans are superior to any other organism.. I think that our consciousness is relative- that we can be aware of some things- but there are many things, for whatever reason- a lack of receptors, lack of capability- that we aren't aware of other things.  I think that being aware, and questioning, and thinking makes us feel like we have worth- like we're intelligent, in a way- that the more questions we produce that we don't have answers to, the more we have to discover, the more possibiltiies we can see. I think that we like to complicate things to make these possibiltiies seem endless... In the Unbearable Lightness of Being, one of the characters descirbes how she wakes up, and her first thoughts are that it's early, she's tired, and shuts her eyes, but her dog, is just happy to be up, comes over, says hello, is happy.. I think that we can never really know how much a dog thinks- maybe he's happy he's still alive, maybe he's happy that it's a nice day out, maybe he's happy to be with the person he loves.. maybe he's just happy.. the end, does it matter? There is the question of whether it's better to remain ignorant and happy or not.. and, while the more 'educational' answer seems to be that it isn't... maybe that really isn't true.  Maybe it's like how we question, in academic settings, but in the real world.. do we really want to question as much? It's an interesting problem.. just how much we should know- how much we need to know- for what? To live.. a happy life? A meaningful life? Whatever can define, if you can..organism superiority? Success?

Jenn Dodwell's picture

Biological Evolution versus Other Kinds of Evolution...

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed how biological evolution is an irreversible process.  Once an organism has changed, it cannot change back (or can it?  Is this theoretically possible?).  Is this the case for other types of evolution as well, such as the evolution of stories and of language?  And what qualifies as evolution of stories and language? How is it that we came to extend this term to other aspects of our lives?

 There are many changes a word can undergo.  Which of these changes, if any, truly count as "evolution" of words?  Would we say that the Old English words "thee" and "thy" have evolved into the modern words "you" and "your?"  Or has the french expression "deja-vu" evoloved into a common American expression? (or is this just adaptation?) 

 Can old words ever become "extinct," especially since they can always be brought back to life through literature?  What if all of a sudden the new trend in literature became the usage of Old English?  Would this make a permanent impact on our culture, so that people once again began to speak this way?

Also, when would we say that a story has evolved?  There are many changes stories can undergo as well.  Stories can swtich literary formats (for example, the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, written in prose, was retold by Milton in his poem, Paradise Lost.)  Stories can also switch mediums (such as film adaptations of novels, plays...)  Folklore "evolves" over time.....and I just realized that it feels the most natural for me to say that a story has evolved when time is a factor...

Is time the key factor that links all types of evolution together?  And the fact that time itself is irreversible, and therefore any changes that have occurred over time are somehow irreversible?  What if, though, through cultural transmission, certain trends in language and stories return to their original forms?  Is there any direct parallel between biological evolution and the evolution of other things?  Finally, what is it about our overall experience that makes us feel this parallel is so relevant?

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

The selfish gene

In Anne’s group on Thursday, we discuss the idea of the “selfish gene”.  The selfish gene is Dawkins theory that “from the gene’s ‘point of view,’ a body was a sort of survival machine created to enhance the gene’s chances of continued replication” (p. 325).  I find that viewing life from the gene’s perspective is very interesting.  This idea is hard to grasp at first because it puts humans in a subordinate position relative to the genes, since we are just machines that carry genes so that they will be able to replicate.  We are doing their bidding by reproducing, thus passing them on to the next generation.  In this context, the role of humans and the purpose of our lives are to be a good carrier of genes and a good mate so that we are able to reproduce offspring.   A purposeful life is created when a person is able to leave a legacy of their genes behind before they die. 

  Using the selfish gene theory as a definition for a purposeful life, we can look at its application towards adoption.  If someone chooses not to reproduce but to adopt they are not going to leave their legacy of genes behind.  Could their life be considered purposeless?  Or could their genes be flawed.  Maybe their gene is telling them not to reproduce because the gene is flawed in some way.  Thus by not reproducing that flawed gene will be eliminated from the gene pool.  So this is good for the welfare of the gene pool as a whole.   

If humans are destined to be carriers of genes, do we have free will?  Yes, we do have free will in the context of our actions, but in the case of the purpose of our lives, I don’t really think so.  If we die, the only thing that will live on is the legacy of our genes we have left behind.  Humans could leave a historical legacy behind (ex: winning the Nobel Prize) but historical records could be destroyed and oral history can easily become extinct when no one remembers the accomplishment.  What is lasting and concrete is the genes you replicated to survive another generation.  We must reproduce to make our lives purposeful.  Of course, you will always have the free will to not participate in this game of gene replication but your legacy ends there.   

ekorn's picture

reevaluating the story of biological evolution

In a biological sense it is true, I myself have not witness evolution. But the whole concept of being witness to a process by which an object evolves is actually not as foreign to us as a species, a species who is constantly striving to achieve. If we look at the story of evolution we come to understand that it incorporates the process by which favorable traits are passed down through successive generations (natural selection). We have seen technology evolve in our lifetime, aided by a form of natural selection, consumerism. Different technological developments that are produced and that eventually meet the mainstream market are generally either accepted or rejected (based on market sales). Ideas that are accepted are continually redeveloped to work towards a more perfect model and to continue to meet the ever changing needs of society. If we look at the iPod alone, we can trace it back nearly five generations, each generation seemingly more efficient than the next. The current story of biological evolution helps us understand how something can constantly change to better suit its surrounding environment, in this case the development of technology. By this standard, I think biological evolution is not only “useful,” but also “productive” and “generative” in explaining other aspects of society.

Christina Cunnane's picture


I've been thinking a lot about purpose. I know we're not supposed to say purpose but I think it still applies. I think that maybe although evolution lacks a purpose, the things evolution acts on (species or organisms or whatever) does not. I think that maybe their purpose is just to be a part of evolution. I mean with out the intermediate Homo habilis, maybe we never would have become Homo sapiens. Maybe we needed that stage in evolution to continue. Maybe the purpose of Homo habilis was just to exist, so that other species could come before and after it. And those species could exist for those who come before and after and so on and so forth. Their purpose is just being.

I also find it hard to believe that the oxygen producing bacteria that saturated the atmosphere with oxygen, had no purpose. It's purpose was to expel oxygen. You may say that this was not it's purpose. But then why don't they give off another type of gas? I don't know. Maybe I am confusing usefulness with purpose. I just think that when something has an effect on something else, it had a purpose. I see that evolution is not heading toward a particular thing. It was not designed with a particular purpose in mind but is continually evolving itself. Maybe these things all have purposes (or not) in the light of evolution. If evolution didn't exist, there would be no need for the intermediates and therefore, they served no purpose.

I'm not all sentimental when it comes to meaning and purpose. I'm not religious or anything and I don't think that my life would be meaningless without a purpose. I would just rather think that I have an effect on at least SOMETHING. That maybe one tiny little thing would be different as a result of my existence.

I doubt any of this made sense. It's just what I've been thinking.

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Design Space

After Professor Grobstein’s section last week, I find myself contemplating the idea that evolution creates its own design space rather than working within preordained constrictions.  This concept is something I have never considered before, and I have a little difficulty in grasping the complexity of its implications.  The idea that evolution creates design space, just like idea that evolution creates meaning through brain development, answers so many philosophical questions.  It eliminates the need for a designer or creator, as the process itself continually expands the range of possible outcomes.  I like Professor Grobstein’s use of the pick-up-sticks metaphor to explain this process, as all further developments (pick-up-sticks) are affected by previous and future developments, creating their own design parameters via the shape and stability of the pick-up-stick pile.  The concept of creating design space is so difficult for humans to fully imagine because we perceive ourselves as suspended in the vast and seemingly never-ending space of the universe.   It is interesting to think outside these parameters and imagine evolution as creating its own design space, forming new possibilities and increasing potential simply as the result of the process.


danYell's picture

free will ?

The idea of the individual as constantly becoming lines up well with the story of evolution, though the leap from there to free will is a little difficult for me. I think that as an individual I do have free will. Each choice is my own, and I am responsible for the direction in which I go. This is all well and good if I live on a remote island by myself, but in my community I do not always have free will. I am subject to the will of the state and the community. Maybe the idea of free will is a function of the western obsession with individuality.

So far as we are all connected to one another we do not have free will. I cannot choose what course my friend will take in her life, though her choices may affect the direction my life takes. I cannot, according to the theory of evolution, choose the direction evolution will take. Though I may be constantly becoming, as evolution is ceaseless, I cannot choose the direction of this becoming because it is also directionless. In this sense I do not have free will. I may be able to choose some things, but I cannot choose my own personal evolution.
Evolutionarily speaking we can’t direct where we will got because it’s a group effort. Religion evolved because we realized that we are part of this vast whole, we can feel it but we can’t name it.
These are most likely half finished thoughts, but I am becoming!

Danielle Joseph

Katherine Redford's picture

Religion and Evolution

It pretty much can't get more complicated than the interplay between Evolution and Religion.  Many say you can only believe in one or the other, but many also say (myself included) that you can believe in both.  I always was perfectly content to call myself a believer and also a scientist- why couldn't I have both.   But the more I read on this very interesting subject, the harder I am forced to think about whether or not one can really have both. 

 What makes us feel the need to express ourselves through art, music, performance, when there exists no real evolutionary benefit.  I think its important to consider the fact that a great number of artistic creations contain a religious theme.  Which came first- I don't know. But my guess it's sort of the chicken or the egg question.  No, this art does not make the human species superior, but it does make us different.  Our desire to add meaning to this story of evolution hints toward an aspect that perhaps we aren't capable of understanding. 

So, despite having read so many, many, arguements supporting evolution as a purely random process, I am having a difficult time buying that randomness as the reason for the differences that the human species so obviously displays.

Anne Dalke's picture

free will/free choice/free pronouns

In my section last week, we started by getting some of Dennett's key terms on the table ("universal acid," "greedy vs. proper" reductionism, "cranes vs. skyhooks," "emergent meaning"). Then we settled into the questions about morality (can we design it ourselves, if it doesn't come with the package? is it then "real"? is it valid?) And we talked about free will--what the conditions are for having it, whether we do or not, whether we feel that we do or not, whether we act as if we do or not...

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a session of the Working Group on Mental Health, where the topic was "meaning-making." The reading, which was about Viktor Frankl's "logotherapy," offered, I thought, a pretty good answer to some of our questions:

"this form of existential philosophy...says that man is--in spite of whatever mechanical limitations of heredity and environment he may face--always free to chose among alternatives the action he will take in response to those determined factors. It charges each individual always to be aware of this freedom, and therefore of the contingency of his destiny upon his own choices. Man is never a finished product, but an eternally and dynamically changing and developing organism; he never is, but always is becoming. Therefore he faces the responsibility for choices that will take him in the direction of what he wishes to become."

The first thing I'm going to do with my freedom is change the pronoun usage above.



EB Ver Hoeve's picture

 Evolution in Motion


EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Yeah, obviously that didn't

Yeah, obviously that didn't work.Sorry, it was a pretty funny/relevant picture.Bye

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Evolution through art

This Saturday some of my friends and I took a trip into Philly with the intention of seeing the new Amazonia exhibit at the Penn Museum.  Of course, when we arrived at the museum we discovered that in fact the Amazonia exhibit didn’t open until next week.  Instead, the featured exhibit was the Ancient Egyptian Amarna Period.  Cool, I thought, mummies are always a good time.  But almost immediately after I entered the exhibit, my mind began to wander back to our Evolution class.  This time, I started to ponder the evolution of the idea and its potential effect on art.  As my friend explained to me, Egyptian art is very unique in that for the most part, the style/attitude never changed.  This static art, she continued, was representative of the dominant Egyptian view at that time: there was such a thing as eternal life.  Therefore, Egyptian art, pyramids, ceremonies, seemed to govern and reflect this way of life.  But it got me thinking, when did this overarching idea change/evolve, and how does that relate to evolution?  It may have changed as the Egyptian society came in contact with the Greeks and later the Romans.  After all, much of the later art after the fall of the Egyptian empire reflects heaven and death and emotion-so a change definitely did occur.  But, it is just interesting to think that such a huge concept-the evolution of the idea concerning life, death and the afterlife-could be reflected and documented so accurately in art.  Going back to the debate about whether or not art was an evolutionary “waste of time”, while I said yes in class, I am not sure it is such an easy decision to make. 

Also, for entertainment value I have included a quote from the museum along with my rendition of the quote…enjoy.  

rebeccafarber's picture

Through the reading in

Through the reading in Dennett and class discussion, the story of and details about biological evolution can give us headway into understanding cultural traits. I cannot help but stick to the topic of evolution being a random and spontaneous chain of events, leading up to our random existence (and making us, as some will argue, less important since we were not placed on the earth with an ultimate intent). Yet, from an anthropological perspective, our species has given rise to language, art, and other aspects of culture. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that despite the randomness, meaning can still emerge. Not just meaning, but this great scheme of organization, of a code of morality, of purpose and structure all came about from such an arbitrary process.

I was struck by Dennett's coinage of proper and greedy reductionism. A greedy reductionist explains events without foundation or concrete facts. A proper reductionist does not use miracles to prove anything. I immediately came to the conclusion that I am in fact a proper reductionist, taking phenomena for what they are rather than looking to miracles as the only truth. I base what I know on the least miraculous explanations; perhaps it is my human nature to do this, since I have not had a firsthand experience with a miracle. I could not use something with which I have had no experience to account for  what I cannot explain.

LF's picture

Evolution and Morality

The more culture evolves the more criticism is directed at the rituals and practices of other cultures. For example FGM is a procedure that is performed without anesthetic on girls before they reach puberty. In the western world, most people view this procedure as barbaric but for the people of that particular culture, it is a procedure comparable (to us) as a visit to the dentist. The FGM procedure prevents women from obtaining pleasure during sexual intercourse, rendering it a purely reproductive procedure for the woman. Some girls die as a result of blood loss, septicemia and shock. Such a procedure in the western world is unheard of and is thought to be the oppression of women. As our world evolves further, is there a possibility of this procedure being wiped out? Will there eventually be a world wide morality?  My personal opinion is that this is something that should be wiped out, simply because it is an unnecessary procedure in which people are not given any choice. A woman gains nothing from it except discomfort and in some cases death. It is hard for me to understand how some cultures can be so backward.

kaleigh19's picture

Something to consider

Lavinia does a nice job of describing FGM, but I do want to point out a slight piece of (mis)information: "Such a procedure in the western world is unheard of." This is actually not entirely true.

There is a whole slew of conditions, known as Disorders of Sex Development (DSDs), which result in what used to be called "hermaphroditism" and is now termed "intersex." Some intersex babies are born with ambiguous genitalia; that is, it is less than 100% obvious what the sex of the baby might be based on appearance of the genitals alone (sex is often assigned from hormone studies, karyotypes, and gonadal biopsies).

95% of babies with ambiguous genitalia have something called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, in which an excess of male hormones (androgens) are produced in utero, resulting in enlarged clitorises and partially-fused vaginas in baby girls. These children have a lot of health problems - they don't properly manufacture cortisol, a stress-regulating hormone, and they tend to lose salt, so they often have dangerously low blood pressure and cannot properly respond to stress. CAH is the only DSD that can be fatal if left untreated, but the first thing that most doctors do is surgically alter the genitals. That's right, they go in and "trim back" the clitoris to make the baby look "more normal." This procedure is performed almost universally on CAH girls, despite the fact that most of them have very little, if any, sexual sensation and often spend their lives living in shame of their genitals. (For more information, visit and

As a self-proclaimed biochem afficianado, I am absolutely fascinated by DSDs and the effects that mutations can have on the endocrine system. As a scholar of evolution, I am struck by four things in the intersex example:

1) There are far more mutations and variations in humans than we ever really think about.

2) It seems that biology is significantly more tolerant of variation than society is: we will stop at nothing to force people into categories, even if it means cutting into their bodies.

3) Sex and gender are arbitrary labels that do not actually reflect the natural diversity of human morphology. If that's the case, how many of our other labels are limiting?

4) If we insist on labeling ourselves without making allowances for variation, are we inhibiting the natural course of cultural evolution?

And I'm spent.

Katie Baratz

Anne Dalke's picture

limiting with labels/playing with categories

Because of the "threading" feature in this software (which allows y'all to reply to one another) I sometimes miss some of your postings. This was one I'd missed in preparing for class today. What I'm noticing now is how much Katie's last question, "If we insist on labeling ourselves without making allowances for variation, are we inhibiting the natural course of cultural evolution?" echoes a claim Paul made towards the end of the "slightly different" and "more cracked" story he told us this afternoon: that

  • Sometimes trimming associated with the Hegelian dialectic (and other forms of rigor) can get in the way of productive expansion

If you're interested in exploring these ideas further, look @ Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, by the Stanford ecologist Joan (once John) Roughgarden. Lots more on our propensity to "label" and so "limit" or "trim" the "branchiness" of evolution's diversity also @ Playing with Categories: Re-doing the Politics of Sex and Gender.


LS's picture

Cultural Relativism

In my anthro. class last semester we actually studies FGM.  This class was based on cultural relativism and trying not to compare all other cultures to ours and hold them to our standards.  (This post is not to try and persuade people in support of FGM, but I have mixed feeling on the issue, as you will see.)  We actually started in this class with a reading of a woman who grew up in western society but in her twenties returned to her tribe in Africa with the sole purpose of under going FGM.  This process may seem unnecessary to us however to women in these cultures it is an extremely important practice.  Women gain their power in their community through FGM.  It is their rite of passage.  Women retain their lineage and strength through this process.  This procedure to us seems ridiculous but with out it, these women in these tribes would loose their major rite of passage.  For these women it does seem like simply going to the dentist it is normal for them and a huge part of their culture and their societal position.


I agree and think that as culture evolves more criticism is directed at other cultures and other practices; however it is important to be tolerant to other cultures.  Cultural relativism is based on not comparing culture and not holding them up to the standards of our culture.  It expresses that although we may not agree with other cultures it is important that we realize that certain rituals and traditions are important to them, no matter how strange to us.  Similarly, our traditions and daily processes would seem outrageous to other cultures.  This article by Horace Miner about the Nacirema Tribe make this clear:

Once you read it, think if any of these rituals are similar to ours, in fact you may notice what Nacirema spelt backwards is…..  No one gave me the clue so I was really fooled by this article and even took notes on it for my first anthro class! 

 I guess my point is that yes, cultures do evolve however they do not always evolve in the same direction or for the same purpose; we just need to be tolerant of these differences.  

hayley reed's picture

Ignorance Is Bliss

I continue to enjoy Dennett's discussion of culture and in particular I was struck by what he said about the value of culture in today's society. He wrote, "We cannot preserve all the features of the cultural world in which these treasures flourished. We wouldn't want to." Pg. 514 I found this idea very interesting and I think it is especially true in my own life. I always wonder what about my life will be remembered in 100 years or if I will even be remembered in 100 years. The truth of the matter is I just don't know and I actually wouldn't want to have everything about my life preserved forever. I can't even imagine every detail about my life being pasted into history books for everyone to read. Some things are just better left unsaid and in some cases we don't want to hear about every detail or experience.

Ignorance really is "a necessary condition for many excellent things" and it takes ignorance to realize how essential something is to our culture. The magic of the easter bunny was not as special when I realized that the easter bunny did not exist. But, it took ignorance for me to believe in the beauty of the myth. Ignorance really is bliss!

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Genetic Vs Social/Cultural Evolution

Because humans are so cognitively advance, we undergo two distinct types of evolution, genetic and social.  Genetic evolution being change in the population gene pool, and social evolution being a change in the way humans act and think, because they have found that to be more advantageous.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Social evolution works much faster, because it can easily occur within a generation, while takes generations to take form.  Social evolution, however, can be easily lost, because it is not engrained into our biology.  For example, when the Roman Empire fell, much of the social evolution that it created was lost.  Another difference is that genetic evolution is pushed by nature towards the more advantageous form b natural selection (at least we think), but social evolution is pushed by us humans our selves.  Therefore, social evolution may not be advantageous, and likely could be harmful to our survival.

This got me thinking.  Is the ability to socially evolve an advantageous trait?  It certainly allows us to adapt.  We are the only species that can live in any climate on earth.  However, our creativity that allows us to survive in various conditions, also allows us to create destructive forces.  We have the ability to create complicated things, but we do not have the ability to fully understand the implications of many of our complicated creations.  This very well could end up destroying our species, but at the same time, it has helped our species grow.  As Dr. Grobstein stated, we will not know for sure until we are extinct, but evidence of global warming and similar human created problems point out that our ability to socially and culturally evolve may be a disadvantage not an advantage.

Anne Dalke's picture

Why do we believe? Helpful adaptation or evolutionary accident?

It is becoming very, very difficult for me to read the NYTimes without thinking of you guys and the various facets of our conversation. From today alone:

Putting to a Vote the Question "Who Is Cherokee"? (about drawing a blood line).

What a College Education Buys (Not qualifications. Which may be just fine.)

and, above all (sic): Darwin's God, or Why Do We Believe? (with a cameo by Daniel Dennett)

eworks's picture

Evolutionary spandrels

While I was reading the New York Times this morning online, I stumbled across the article "Darwin's God," and I had a feeling that someone would bring it up in the forum. So I quickly checked out Serendip, and low and behold, Professor Dalke had already mentioned it.

While I was curious to see how Henig would explore how religion was affected by evolution, I was a little intimidated by the length of the article. But I pushed through it, and in the end I was glad I did. For someone who has had little exposure to religion in her life, I've always been slightly skeptical of it. But I found this article to be extremely interesting, especially the concept of God, or religion, as a "spandrel."

I took the concept of a spandrel to be something like a vestigial limb, except that spandrels seem to be used in reference to concepts or processes, and not in reference to physical attributes or characteristics, that's where I see the idea of the vestigial limb come into play. I found this distinction in itself, the idea that evolution distinguishes not only between physical attributes that promote a species' longevity, but also ways of thinking - the article mentions the cognitive tools of "agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind" - and particular concepts like God or religion.

In a way, I guess this might be kind of obvious, that the way we think has an effect on our survival, but the part about religion, that something so unconcrete and "useless" in evolutionary terms (in the sense that it takes up time and energy and can be a source of stress, not in the sense that it has no point or value, just to clarify) would be able to continue to exist throughout the development of the human species. Religion, or the concept of God, has not followed the same path as that of the appendix, an organ that we now consider to be vestigial. The appendix at one point in time was a useful and beneficial organ. But as humans evolved, it became less and less important and necessary. Now we only worry about it when it becomes inflamed and threatens to burst, thereby putting us in danger. Religion is not like the appendix because for whatever reason, evolution seems to have favored its continuance. It has not become a withered organ with no apparent function. Instead, it has become one of the most powerful tools and characteristics of human society. I wonder what creationists think of this idea that religion has continued to survive thanks to the generosity of evolution...

tbarryfigu's picture

God As An Object Of Scientific Inquiry

In reading the above articles, particularly "Darwin's God" I fell upon this question: "Does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?"

Recently, I have approached the idea of the human concious (or, specifically self awareness) as the product of a genetic mutation; some faulty strain of RNA was improperly translated to DNA which allowed one of our many ancestors to not only recognize but define themself as a unique essence or being. With this mutation came the awareness necessary to identify the world around them as "theirs," something perpetuated by most religious tales. With this in mind, it is not difficult for me to understand the basis for the question proposed by the article.

Religion (or, similarly, mythology) was established as a method for explaining what could not be explained. The leaves fell off of the trees in fall because God willed it to be so, not because of the scientific processes we have embraced today. This long tradition of outstanding beliefs was once the product of the most straightforward explaination, achieved by a series of thoughts (assumingly):

I (in reference to the first self-aware ancestor) am not controlling the leaves.

Something has to be controlling the leaves.

I am capable of controlling what is around me (product of self-awareness).

SO: WHATEVER is making the leaves fall soon becomes a WHOEVER.

Though religion dictates that we are the product of God's intention, our ability to perceive and interpret the world around us gives us the ability to reclaim our foundation. The "whoever" mentioned above is not us, but must be like us, because they obtain the ability to change the constancy of our environment. Yet, they can change things we cannot even wrap our minds around, and so, we worship their power.

Obviously, I do not see religion as a survival advantage to our ancestors (and yet, if is the result of self-awareness, and therefore, in my mind, the result of a mutation, it would have to have been an advantage in order to have survived and been passed on!) I can understand why group religion would benefit the well-being of human kind (as proposed by the article) simply because of the darkness of the "reality" proposed by Dennett and others: if we are the consequence of a random combination of events, and thus, have no purpose other than to survive as long as possible, then we are as succeptible to extinction as any other living being. Perhaps the will to live on was fueled by the thought of eternal life after death?

 I've confused myself. I need to think some more.

Julia Smith's picture


Perhaps we can relate this back to our dicussion of if meaning can come from a random event. If we, as humans, are wired to create meaning from nothing, as seen in Atran's box experiment, then is there really a such thing as meaning? Or is it something that humans are falsifying? 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this whole idea of meaning, of people believing in their purpose and origin, is a cultural value that could just have been imagined. They're drawing conclusions based on no observations. And does that make it any less real?

Paul Grobstein's picture

"competitive advantage"

The problem with "competitive advantage" as a grounds for asserting superiority of any organism (human or otherwise) over another is that it can only really be done after the fact.  One can speculate about the possible advantages of one organism over another but one can't know what the actual competitive relationship was unless and until one or the other becomes extinct.  Humans may well be "unique" in the extent of our ability to try new things out .... but that characteristic also has some downsides and it remains to be seen how successful it makes us relative to other organisms.   Do we really want to be superior in these terms?  Humans couldn't survive if we in fact proved superior to all other organisms (ie they all went extinct), and it would be a pretty dull world in any case. 

Shannon's picture

Don't blame the women anymore...

I found a very interesting article on about worries about male fertility.

Basically this article warns men that they should be wary of their biological clocks as well. While advanced maternal age is accepted (obviously women can't have kids after a certain age, MENOPAUSE, people!), some are skeptical about advanced paternal age...but "until now, the problems known to occur more often with advanced paternal age were so rare they received scant public attention. The newer studies were alarming because they found higher rates of more common conditions — including autism and schizophrenia — in offspring born to men in their middle and late 40s. Over all, having an older father is estimated to increase the risk of a birth defect by 1 percent, against a background 3 percent risk for a birth defect. A number of studies also suggest that male fertility may diminish with age."

The thing is many people do keep their fertility, and the date is very sparse.

I just don't understand why people are surprised about this though, males in particular -- sperm cells DO age too, ya know. As these cells age, there is an increased frequency in new mutations. YAY! Evolutionary biology -- I am not at all surprised about the aging sperm cells, but I am very intrigued that when the cells age, they are at a higher risk for mutation. Does that explain why elderly people are more susceptible to illness? I guess this (genetic mutation) is the keystone for cancer at an elderly age as well? We do things "less well" the longer we travel down the aging path. In this article's case, men's "factories" break down and cannot produce sperm as well.

...Men, be scared...



CT's picture

Having children and getting married later and later

I find that this brings up an interesting paradox that arises. We have a selfishness motivating us to preserve our own genes. Since immortality is impossible, we maintain our genes through reproduction and the maintenance of families, social groups, societies, countries and as an entire species. While we are not only motivated by preservation of genes, it is nevertheless a presence.

As we reach a point in society where having children as soon as possible is no longer necessary or even beneficial, we become divorced from many of the biological aspects of having children young. In classical Greece and Rome, the life expectancy was 28 years. Female fertility is sometimes claimed to decline after their 20s. In the US, the current age for marriage is 25 for women, and 27 for men. Not enough time to have children in classical Greece and Rome.

We are becoming a society which is no longer following biological norms. We are also a society that doesn't have to follow biological norms - medical science can fill in many of the gaps with varying success.

But if the risk of defects increase, should we start prohibiting having children later? I don't think so since medical science is progressing. As with anything, it is a personal assessment of risk. If we want to preserve our genes, it is a choice we must make.

Anonymous's picture

Could the Male Species Become Extinct?

We are becoming a society which is no longer following biological norms

The following is "A STORY" that infers that we live in world that no longer follows biological norms.

Nearly, one month ago The Philadelphia Inquier did an article on a komodo dragon named Flora. She is a lizard, a reptile that can grow up to 12 feet long & weigh 200 lbs. What is interesting and relevant about Flora is.... well, to quote Cambridge University biologist Michael Majerus "This is a fascinating story - just because it happened." Flora was both the "mother" and "father" of five baby Komodos. Mind you that DNA test were performed to rule out any male sexual partner and, to add further insult to the male species, all of the newborns were male.

An intriguing story pertaining to evolution.

The original Philadelphia Inquirer article is in archives but you can read it via this link.

A dragon joins other species in virgin birth

marquisedemerteuil's picture

mayr vs flaubert: death match!!!!

in today's discussion group prof. grobstein did something that from the perspective of a humanist is very, very odd: he compared scientist ernst mayr to novelist gustave flaubert, saying that they both describe. mayr describes the development of understandings about evolution and flaubert describes people, plants, building, clothes, everything imaginable in incredible detail.

is this just? it's a true claim, but let's look closer. flaubert lived in search of "le mot juste" or "the right word." he actually spent hours on single sentences to make sure all the words were right. "madame bovary" is a scathing and incredibly insightful critique on bourgeois culture in the country (this differs from the slightly richer haute bourgeoisie in paris though the bourgeois are somewhat richer than america's middle class) but what is less known is that it's also a philsophical meditation on ennui, longing and desire.

flaubert's long descriptions are intended to provide insight and they are particular to him, so i would consider them interpretations (which is, supposedly, more like dennett, though i think it flatters dennett too much to compare them...). he does not impose a moral narrative or telos on the story. a moral theme would be a telos because the story would progress until it would reach the theme, the correct state of the characters, but "madame bovary" ends in emma's suicide and charles' ruin, so flaubert's story, and part of its greatness, is that it is non-teleological.

at the same time, flaubert is not entirely unbiased, and was actually taken to court because his story showed sympathy for an adultress. (he got acquitted because he got his defense attorney, antoine-marie-jules senard, to lie about the book and use emotionally manipulative tacatics like, "i've been friends with his father for years, and achille flaubert is an upstanding doctor. nice little gustave used to play with his toys on my carpet and i can assure you he has always been a nice boy." that sort of thing.) so flaubert often shows his opinion of people's conduct through seemingly neutral description.

for example, he goes at great length to describe the water and crust around the eyes of emma's infant daughter, berthe, and then emma says, "she's so ugly" so clearly flaubert has built up sympathy for berthe which then makes emma look terrible. no character is exempt from blame -- every character is blamed for something, and he interprets their conduct to blame them. so flaubert's descriptions are not tedious, the beauty of them is that they do more than describe.

cevans's picture

off topic, evolution of language

In the reading in Dennett for this week he has been talking a lot about the evolution of language and how it must be an evolutionary process while pointing to Noam Chomsky, a prominent linguist, and showing how he does not believe that language was a product of evolution. This all brought to mind a lecture I heard several years ago given by Dean Falk on her "putting the baby down" hypothesis for the evolution of language. The theory in a nutshell and as well as I remember it was that when human women started having to put their children down as they worked  because human babies could not be born with the same motor skills as chimp babies to hold on to their mother themselves. According to the theory speech started as a way to reassure the children about the physical presesence of their mother and also so the child would have ways of communicating their own needs to the mother. This theory made a lot of sense to me as to how language started although it has obviously diversified from its original purpose, the capability to communicate well enough to keep your children safe does seem like it would be a pretty effective selector for speech in the first place.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

but animals have other

but animals have other methods of enduring than we do -- polar bears have fur so they can withstand cold, this is their equivalent of the heater. so i don't think we're "superior" and i actually think the question is irrelevant. why judge species? we all live. we eat each other and die. la voila.

azambetti's picture


Are humans superior to other forms of life? If superiority means being of a higher rank than another, then I do not think we are superior because just like all animals we depend on other organisms to survive.  Therefore, we are all of the same rank. 


However, if superiority means having a “competitive advantage” (, then, yes, I do think we are superior to other organisms.  The humans’ ability to produce language, culture and technology, has given us the “competitive advantage” over all other species.  What we are unable to do naturally, we are able to compensate for with our unique “ability to try things out” (Grobstein).  For example, we are unable to withstand extreme temperatures, but we have developed heaters, air conditioners, insulated shelters and clothing that have enabled us to live comfortably in all types of climates.  Therefore, depending on one’s definition of superiority, humans are either superior to other organisms on this earth or not.

Andrea Zambetti

Paul Grobstein's picture

"competitive advantage"

he problem with "competitive advantage" as a grounds for asserting superiority of any organism (human or otherwise) over another is that it can only really be done after the fact.  One can speculate about the possible advantages of one organism over another but one can't know what the actual competitive relationship was unless and until one or the other becomes extinct.  Humans may well be "unique" in the extent of our ability to try new things out .... but that characteristic also has some downsides and it remains to be seen how successful it makes us relative to other organisms.   Do we really want to be superior in these terms?  Humans couldn't survive if we in fact proved superior to all other organisms (ie they all went extinct), and it would be a pretty dull world in any case.