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Week 7 - Evolution/Stories

Paul Grobstein's picture

We seem to be developing a story that the underpinnings of the story of biological evolution may help us think in new ways about additional realms, including aspects of culture ... and literature? Have a good spring break, mull where we'be been/seem to be going, leave some thoughts here to talk about when we next meet?

Student's picture

science and literature

If you take our thoughts back to basics, if we acknowledge that we're all human, we put ourselves on a level where we can relate to each other.  Beyond this, however, we all have different cultural beliefs, different morals, and we all have differing thoughts.  We're all going to have differing thoughts on literature and science, but the connection between the two is particularly interesting.  From my thoughts, we're human, we have ideas, we write them, others read them.  The "we're human" part is the "science" part, and the reading and writing is the literature part.  Nearly everything we do is a combination of disciplines- disciplines that have evolved- so, my question, is where is the origin?  In science, we look at organisms that are all very different now, but share a common ancestor.  I want to think that this applies to science and literature also- that there is a common ancestor- my question, is what is this common ancestor...if it does exist?

I.W.'s picture

What are the units of science?

I have been thinking a lot about how we can compare science and literature.  As a biology major I can only begin to compare two things if I feel that they are set up in a manner in which comparison will be meaningful.  If I am comparing things that are not equivalent to each other in their respective fields then the results are useless. When working across disciplines this becomes increasingly difficult, but there has to be a way.  What is the unit of science? I can pretty safely assume that the unit of literature is a single work, be it a novel or poem, but there is no such clean unit in science.  Should it be each new discovery? Each theory? Each scientist? Ultimately there is no clear answer, but rather than making me question science this train of thought has brought me back to the literature.  Literature doesn’t just consist of the works that a publisher has deemed sellable; those are just the ones that are given the best jumping point.  Even when a writer never shows anyone a poem or book that they wrote, it has still affected the manner in which they interact with the world.  For all that literature is created by man, it also has a great impact even on its own writers.  That single poem will go on to influence countless experiences of its writer.  How can we measure the effects of literature?  It is like that butterfly that everyone always takes about has having started a hurricane, the impact is entirely immeasurable. 

J Shafagh's picture

Some Old Thoughts...

I was thinking about this topic, so I decided to post it in this older forum, where I thought it was more appropriate.  Because of a part of my senior research, I am beginning to really get interested in human beings' frame of mind, as we make decisions and opinions and think of ideas, I want to look into where it stems from.  Is it from a build-up of our past experiences, a result of the making and wiring of our brains? a novel idea? the framework of our brains? Or from the current frame-of-mind, i.e. our mindset?  I'm beginning to think that it is too difficult to trace back a single idea or belief to its earliest of orgins, for it may not have just one origin and it could have been influenced by many many different beliefs and experiences and been modified.  So I think our current decisions are made mostly from pulling and using our resources (already established and set in our brains), and then, applying them to our current state of life and current frame-of mind.  Does anyone else...if they read this....have any opinions here? Or any general knowledge on this topic?

Jenn Dodwell's picture

Paying attention to "paying attention to paying attention"....

I agree that it's really cool to think about how our minds wander....all the time, and about how we have the most random chains of thoughts.  It's also interesting to think how difficult it can be to trace these chains of thoughts back to their origin.  I wonder if there is scientifically (whether it has been discovered or not) any cutoff for the amount of time that has to elapse before it becomes impossible to trace one's chain of thoughts back to its origin.  For example, it seems certain that there is no way to trace our chain of thoughts back to the moment we were born.  This of course, is the most extreme case.  But it also seems certain that we could never trace our chain of thoughts back as far as a month, a week, or even a whole day.  But what about a few hours?  Still seems pretty unlikely that we'd be able to sit down and remember every thought we had starting three hours ago.  But we all could probably agree that it is possible, if we think hard enough, to trace our chain of thought back a few minutes.  If there is a cutoff, it seems like it would be somewhere between a few minutes and less than an hour.

 Also, I agree with Elle Works that there appears to be no evolutionary significance to mind wandering. Why do we space out so much if it possibly would be more efficient if we did not?  Or would it?  Could mind-wandering, like resting our muscles, or sleeping, be a way to rest our brains temporarily so that we do not strain them?  Or is it some kind of odd way in which we process the "useful" material that we store in our heads? 

Also, when Elle Works said that there is no end to the places our minds can wander, it made me think--it seems that our brains are capable of realizing infinity in some way.  Infinity, though usually just an abstract idea, something that can never be fully achieved or realized in any concrete physical sense, and something that cannot be completely comprehended by us, suddenly becomes a bit clearer when we think of mind-wandering.  Intuitively it seems accurate to say that our minds are capable of an infinite number of thoughts (if thoughts can be numbered).  I'm wondering, therefore:

 -Is this accurate to say that our minds are in some way, capable of realizing infinity?

 -If so, does this shed any new light on the concept of infinity?

-Could the clarity of thought that I feel at the moment be just a mental mirage produced by the wanderings of my mind at the moment?

ekorn's picture

Robots and the question of ethics...

I was online recently and stumbled across this article which I believe interesting and pertinent (especially for those of us in Anne’s last section before the break). The article touches on the notion of ethics or morality, which we discussed and which Dennett devoted an entire section to in the later half of his book. Also the article somewhat deals with the notion that machine is expected to be infallible and therefore cannot be intelligent (see quote on p.428). It seems to me after reading this article that ethics may not necessarily be inherent in our nature, more so that we must be taught them, much like the robots in the article. Also, the fact that robots can learn to react implies some understanding of what is appropriate or not on an ethical basis. Based on this it seems as though soon enough technology may reveal a robot that can learn from these reactions, if this one already does not (it didn’t seem clear to me whether or not this was established within the article or not). In any case, it seems to suggest that maybe the robots have some artificial intelligence and can learn from their mistakes. Just some thoughts lingering from the week before the break… <>

Christina Cunnane's picture

Literature Isn't Random

I think that one must consider at least a few road blocks when thinking about the evolution of literature. Stories or genres or whatever evolve as people change them. But the fact that literature is a creation of humans means that we must, even if it is just a little, put some thought into the process of changing it. If you take the evolution of a single work, such as "Howard's End" evolving into "On Beauty" as we're doing in class, the later is a product of human thought. Smith molded her book into the story that she saw worked the best. She provided the motive for the literature transformation. Biological evolution, however, is not supposed to have a motive. It is random. Although the transformation of the stories may seem random because there is a lot of diversity to choose between, it can't truly be random because a person selects for it.

I was thinking about this example: an author changing a story to make it uniquely his own by removing all punctuation and grammar. Thus, the story evolves into a grammarless one because the author wanted it that way. Maybe he thought it sounded better or was more creative. It doesn't matter. It just matters that he changed it. He took the original story and changed it to how he saw fit. Now let's apply the same thinking to biological evolution. I could take an original four-legged mammal and decide that I would like them to only be three-legged because they look cooler. If all the subsequent mammals are three-legged because I said so, does that mean they evolved? I don't think so. Biological evolution is lacking that third-person intervening that literary evolution has.

Wouldn't literary evolution more closely related to biological evolution if the literary change was random? Like if we took the original story and put it into a random word mixer and it spit out a new story with the words rearranged randomly? Then the stories produced would either make no sense at all and be thrown out (like deleterious mutations or evolutionary dead-ends) or highly unlikely- make a new story where the words made absolute sense (like a more successful new species).

This thinking just makes more sense to me. I hope in the upcoming weeks, I will come to understand just how closely the two are and to evolve my thinking to be able to look at these topics in different perspectives.

kaleigh19's picture

Tangential, but...

I actually wanted to follow up on something that came up in last week's thread...I met with someone last week who's a good friend of a gynecological surgeon who specializes in the restoration of the genitals of women who have undergone female circumcision. (She most frequently clears away scar tissue so that the women can clear menstrual blood properly or bear children.) What fascinated me the most about the conversation, though, was the following tidbit: many women in cultures that practice FGM "want" to go through with it. They will feel so unclean that if a "skilled" doctor isn't able to provide them with the procedure, they'll go out and get them done on their own, the equivalent of back-alley abortions. It's really an interesting perspective on the evolution of morality, I guess - the culture selects for (or pressures women into becoming) women who feel unclean when they haven't undergone a clitorectomy. And I suppose that it's possible that this kind of culture might select for women who experience a lower biochemical response to sexual stimulation, to breed a group of women who don't enjoy breeding. It's really a neat intersection of culture and reproduction, right at the threshold of biological and cultural evolution. It also makes me wonder - what kind of person is our culture selecting for? What sets of values and moralities are we indoctrinating our children with, and what does that bode for future generations? And how much of our day-to-day actions are entirely determined by our culture, by the evolution of our culture over hundreds of years?

Katie Baratz

hayley reed's picture

The New York Times seems to

The New York Times seems to have a collection of articles that relate well to what we have been studying. For my social psychology class we had to read an article from The New York Times pertaining to identity and I thought it related well to our discussion of identity.

The article raises key questions about how much influence culture has in the development of our identity. In the article titled “A Wee Identity Crisis”, Alexander McCall Smith touches on the idea that genetics and culture can have a powerful influence on the formation of identity. The article was written because evidence was recently published by leading geneticists at Oxford University that says that at least in genetic terms, the Scottish and the English are not all that different. This came as a surprise to many individuals who believed there were many differences between the Scotts and the English. Being English myself I couldn’t help but agree that there are major differences between the Scotts and the English. But, recent studies suggest that if genetics does not influence the identity of both individuals from Scotland and England then culture must play a colossal role in development. For all the talk there has been about the differences between the two ethnic groups there appears to be a common genetic base that the two groups share. This particular case study is so interesting because it exhibits the extent to which culture can shape individuals in a specific manner. The historical rift between the English and the Irish has been created & crafted by culture. The power culture has over society is illustrated in how willingly this story has been passed down through generations and accepted universally.

eworks's picture

"Paying attention to paying attention"

So it may not be the New York Times, but sometimes I find that Yahoo's "Featured News" box on its main page to have some great articles to read when I'm procrastinating. Its articles are simple and to the point with all the basic information that you need, and are all so conveniently located right there when the page pops up.

My favorite article of the night, so far, is "Researchers studying phenomenon of mind-wandering." Now, the concept of mind-wandering is nothing new to me, or to anyone really, and it wasn't surprising to hear that interest in the topic has waxed and waned over the years, just like our minds do when we're going through a typical day. One of the interesting points the article made was "More generally, scientists say, mind-wandering is worth studying because it's just too common to ignore." Very true, I thought to myself when I read that line. When something is staring you in the face like that, why not study it? There has to be something interesting to discover there. Hopefully.

So, where does evolution come in here? I asked myself. While the article doesn't ever expressly mention the impact of evolution on mind-wandering, I can't help but think that the researchers studying this phenomenon have definitely thought about it. As the article says, "A lot of human daily life is auto-pilot," meaning that we have time to let our mind wander without an enormous negative impact. Of course there are exceptions to this, and the article references them. But if mind-wandering almost constantly detracts us from what we're supposed to be doing or thinking about, why do we do it? There doesn't seem to be any clear cut answer for why we do, or what it accomplishes. I can't think of any mind-blowing realizations that I've come to while day-dreaming or spacing out, but my mind wanders anyway. So why do it do it?

Aside from trying to find the answer for why it happns, what I love the most about mind-wandering is that we're capable of it. If there's anything to be said about the topic, that's one of the important things to say I think. Our brains aren't wired to constantly be focused on one task and one task only. Yes, sometimes it would be great if I could turn off this "capability" that my brain has, but I can't. One of my favorite things to do sometimes, when I have nothing better to do, is to try and trace back through the topics of my mind-wanderings to try and figure out what started it all. It's a fun brain exercise to do, and surprisingly difficult. And there's really no end to it, well that is, until you absolutely cannot remember why you were thinking about your first pet goldfish... But I'm wandering, of course.


Here's the web address for the article, if you're interested:

Katherine Redford's picture


Previous to enrolling in this course, I was a perfectly content student, and I had a balanced understanding of evolution, culture, religion and morality, and I had worked out in my brain a way for them all to fit perfectly together in my mind.  Then I took this class.  And my mind is swimming! I've been constantly trying to make sense of all the new ideas and perspectives we've learned about, and I've noticed a few parallels.

I am able to notice how the concept of Darwinian evolution can apply to cultural evolution.  If, in fact, culture's meaning is created by man, then it isn't necessary for it to have a certain destination, and therefore, I envision it continuing on, without any specific goal, similar to the biological evolution set before us by Darwin.

 I also see the the actual evolution of species (as well as cultural evolution) as a loopy science.  And by this, I do not mean our understanding of it, but indeed the process itself.  In the similar way that loopy science is always contunuing, so is evolution, trying again and again to continue on, never actually reaching a perfect or "right" conclusion.

LS's picture

Cultural evolution ramblings and evolutionary literature

Okay, so this may be a silly thing to write about but this class seems to be seeping into my everyday life.  So, I went to see 300 over break (a friend wanted to see it.)  For those that don’t know it’s the story of the Spartan King Leonidas who took his 300 soldiers and held off the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.  The movie was an action flick and was pretty good, if you’re into that type of thing.  However, what struck me was the Spartan culture, granted I have not taken any classics course and know very little here.  I was amazed at their culture and how this culture evolved to be such a war faring people.  These individuals raised their sons from birth to be fighters and soldiers, the women were raised to support this.  It was honorable to die in battle, basically you should come back a winner or you should come back dead.  I know this isn’t the only culture like this, however what interest me is how these types of cultures evolved into this way of life.  Rather maybe cultures that are not so war centric evolved past these cultures and these cultures are the “original.”  Or maybe we are just seeing group cohesions here.  The Spartans also took natural selection in to their own hands, if a child was born that was not fit to be a warrior they we killed, granted, I know this is done to preserve the resources of the group.  Basically, I was just amazed at how cultures can evolve to cherish different values.

 Okay on to new stuff!  So last Thursday in Prof. Grobstein’s group we talked about the similarities between evolution and literature.  What I found most interesting is comparing the evolution of species and the evolution of genres in literature.  In biology we see many organisms evolving that are crossing and blurring what we would call the “species line.”   Bacteria are a direct example, they take their DNA from other bacteria and cross it with their own bacteria, how can we classify this?  This same thing happens in literature and genres.  There are many pre-established genres: comedy, fiction, drama etc.  However what is popular now often is movies or books that come from hybrid genres, such as “drama-dys.”  I think we are seeing the same evolutionary forces working in biological evolution as well as in evolution in literature.  In biology we often strive to figure out what the “original” or starting organism was, in the same we strive to find what the original genre or idea is in literature.

evanstiegel's picture

I think one important factor

I think one important factor in comparing biological evolution and the evolution of literature is the idea of originality.  In biological evolution there is an enormous amount of variation and uniqueness that continues to increase between different organisms that started from an "original" organism.  In literature there is assumed to be an original genre or idea that has produced the variance and uniqueness in literature genres.  I think it is important to note that the two go hand in hand.  

The human brain continues to evolve over time.  I acknowledge the fact that the evolution of the human brain is occuring at a much slower rate that the rate that literature has evolved over the past centuries.  I, however, believe that even the slightest increase in our brain's complexity can give rise to a new literary technique or style.  This new technique or style can then grow and flourish as many other individuals make use of it.  Many believe that there is either no more originality in literature or that there will soon be no more originality in literature.   I think that as long as our brains are becoming more complex,  there will be no end to the production of original literature just as there will be no end to the production of unique organisms in biological evolution.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

dennett strikes again!!

i am the first to post about the news... but first, because i am on break, i must set the scene in an interminable way.

so, my dad and i were roaming around dupont circle in washington dc on this delightful sunday. we talked about the delights of specialization in academia, and how truly great work comes from specialization, and not from avoiding it. (my antagonistic position in the class runs in the family.) then i lectured him on video art. we went to the phillips collection, and afterwards to kramer books, where i found it: there's a new dennett book out!!!

it's called "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" and he basically tries to describe religion in a scientific way. this is a controversial thing t o do, and the reviews are mixed. some summary comments are in the new yorker review: " “Breaking the Spell” ranges widely, perhaps too widely. It surveys the state of religion in contemporary America, considers whether believers are happier or more moral than nonbelievers, discusses the rise of modern nondenominational spirituality, and briefly reviews the purported philosophical proofs for the existence of God."

here's more: "According to Dennett, the earliest stages of religion were likely characterized by speculations about supernatural or quasi-natural beings. These questions arose out of an aspect of human nature we take for granted: the recognition that the world contains not only other bodies but also other minds. We recognize, in other words, that the world includes “agents,” independent minds that possess their own sets of beliefs and desires. This recognition allows us a wide range of cognitive moves and countermoves presumably unavailable to most other species"

Better than this, is Leon Wieseltier's condemnation of the book in the New York Times. The anger, approaching Martha Rosler-like vehemence, is a delight to read, and I think he makes some good points. His argument is essentially that Dennett tries to describe every aspect of religion through evolutionary biology, and this is often contrived, unjust and even arrogant. The arrogance we've read in his quote that says "if you don't believe in evolution, you're a pathetic, disgusting crime against humanity" (that's not quite verbatim) is referenced and picked on in this review by the literary editor of the new republic. he also says that dennett reads philosophers like hume wrong. Some delightful fragments:

"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell""

"The excited materialism of American society — I the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. "

"In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it." :-D

"He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism...Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology."

"Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble."



Shannon's picture

Wisdom Teeth -- Some People Born Luckier than others.

This past Friday, I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed (the most miserable experience of my life). My cheeks didn't look as big as I thought they would, but there was some swelling. I got sick from the Vicadin the doctor gave me... so I was pretty much a dizzy, poofy vegetable until today when I started to feel slightly better.

Upon researching more about wisdom teeth in general, I found out today that not all people are born with any or all of their wisdom teeth. This condition is called hypodontia -- the condition of having fewer than the regular number of teeth (Wikipedia). While the most common kind of missing teeth in Caucasians is the wisdom teeth, hypodontia is familial & many times associated with Down Syndrome.

In another related article, the American Dental Association suggests that it would be wiser for humans nowadays not to have wisdom teeth. "Third molars or wisdom teeth may have served a useful purpose in prehistoric humans, according to Anthony R. Silvestri, Jr., D.M.D., clinical professor and director, Dental Anatomy, and Iqbal Singh, B.D.S., M.D.S., D.M.D., associate professor and director, Preclinical Studies at Tufts University's School of Dental Medicine in Boston. During the last century, they wrote, defining a useful purpose for third molars has become more difficult, especially given that so many people experience pain and disease caused either by the teeth themselves or by having them extracted."

"As dental research develops new techniques to reduce and possibly eliminate the loss of more functional teeth resulting from caries and periodontal disease," they wrote, "the usefulness for third molars in the dentition will decrease further."

Wisdom teeth are but one miniscule part of the body that has become seemingly useless as the biological evolutionary process increasingly moves forward.


tbarryfigu's picture

I'm a freak

I really enjoyed getting my wisdom teeth out, which always makes my friends laugh, but it made me want to become an oral surgeon, which is what I'm pursuing. I know, i'm a freak. I hope you feel better.

Anne Dalke's picture


For a blessing, as you head off to break: Natalie Angier's delightful "Toast to Evolvability and Its Promise of Surprise" (from the NYTimes Science Times, 3/6/07). Enjoy!


azambetti's picture

How can only one number work?

How can only one number work? I understand that the earth we live on is the way it is due to an infinite number of random mutations, and if one of those mutations did not occur, the world could look very different than it does today.  What I don’t understand is if each of the over fifty billion galaxies has a six digit number and our earth was randomly given a six digit number that produced life, why can’t another six digit number work (produce life)?  Granted the atmosphere would be completely different than ours, but couldn’t this other atmosphere also produce unicellular organisms out of tangible object, as our earth has done?  With so many galaxies, and therefore billions of six digit numbers attached to those galaxies, it is hard to think that I would be “less wrong” by saying that only our galaxies number was able to produce life.

Andrea Zambetti

Christina Cunnane's picture

maybe more than one can...

I was doing a practice DAT the other day and the reading passage was the evidence for life on mars. They said that a meteor was found in antartica that had some organic gass trapped inside and that had tiny rod shaped microfossils that might be bacteria. They were saying that this meteor was 4.5 billion years old and that the climate on mars today (way too cold) could not support life but that maybe it could have 4.5 billion years ago. I don't know if this is accurate but I'm pretty sure they don't make up articles on these tests. I just thought it was interesting considering what we're now learning in class.