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Week2 EvolStories

Paul Grobstein's picture

Rich thoughts during the first week.  Looking forward to seeing what we all think as we start talking about biological evolution, and its implications for biology, science, literature, life?

J Shafagh's picture

More Thoughts...

               A lot of people talked about food/diet/fat people etc. in this series of posts. Many people said that fat people do not “evolve” because the process of evolution is going towards something which is better, and if you’re becoming obese then you’re not progressing with evolution. I think the mistake here is that all people do evolve, whether they become heavier or lighter (their bodies evolve and change), but some of the changes aren’t the most suitable for surviving.  This is clear with the example of obesity, for science has shown obese people are at higher risks for hypertension, heart disease, diabetes…etc, so we know that the “normal” body has many set-points and standards for maintaining in a healthy and tolerable state for living. 

            A little more on Mayr….I, like many others, am guilty of mostly believing any scientists words as being the truth.  As others mentioned, it is inevitable for people less-knowledgeable about a topic to trust other with the knowledge as experts and take their word as truth.  To continue, I do believe that there is less ambiguity in science because in order to understand science, you must understand the underlying mechanisms of cellular processes, the actual methods and procedures involved, different cycles, and specific terms that are used to explain them.  While specific vocabularies to pertain to literature as well, the interpretation of the subject material is still ambiguous as it varies from person to person.  The self, or individual, plays a significant role in the analysis of literature and texts. Whereas, explaining DNA replication is pretty much a cut and dry process.  One thing leads to the next, there are specific elements involved, and it happens in a specific sequence and series of events with a goal in mind.  Thus, the individual does not play as significant a role in understanding science, for the processes and mechanisms are mostly laid out for them and need to merely be learned and memorized. 

Christina Cunnane's picture

Evolution is Everywhere...

Biological evolution is something that I've always been taught and that I've never questioned. I was never a big believer in the story of Creation, but I thought it was nice to hear as a child. I guess until now I've never thought about evolution in other contexts. I mean technology and other things are constantly changing, constantly progressing, but I guess I've always thought of that has the human mind evolving, not exactly the technology itself. Now that I think about it, everything is constantly changing, evolving. Things change as a reaction to an internal or an external stimulus, such as an environmental constraint when thinking about biological evolution. Take for example, a piece of colored paper, when left in the sun, it eventually becomes lighter and lighter until all of the color fades away. Is that piece of paper not evolving with the environmental pressures the sun puts upon it? Or take a poem or a piece of literature? With each reading the mind pulls more information out of the piece, whether it is concretely there or inferred. Also take an author. An author begins to write and write and write. His first draft is rarely what is published. The piece requires countless hours of editing and revision. The piece is constantly evolving into a publishable master piece.

I guess now, I see that evolution can be applied across the charts, with anything that changes over time as a result of some pressure.

Jen's picture

Universal Truth...Is there Such a Thing?

All the talk about "truth," and questions of whether Mayr can assert that he knows the truth, are all fascinating to me. I have often wondered if there is such a thing as the "universal truth," and if we can ever access it. I feel that we are very much limited by our own perceptions. There is only so much that we can perceive with our senses. Only so far we can see, only so much that we can hear, and so on. Furthermore, what if there are things out there that are beyond the realm of our senses? We would never know, because we simply do not have the capability to perceive those things. Also, we only use about 10 percent of our brain power. Why is this the case? How can we possibly tap into the rest of it? Why would we have so much more brain power/space than we can actually use? Sorry, this is a bit rambly...

I guess what I'm trying to say is, we only know what our senses and perceptions let us know. Additionally, everyone's senses and perceptions of the world are slightly different. While there are some things that most of us agree on, such as grass is green, and the sky is blue, there are other things that no two humans agree on. For example, when we read Zadie Smith's "On Beauty," no two people in the room had the same interpretation of that text. Granted, textual interpretation is different than merely naming the color of an object, but I can't exactly put my finger on how. Any ideas?

Getting back to science....could the scientific method be a way of finding the "least common denominator" among our perceptions? In other words, could its rigid and precise procedures be a way to "weed out" various differences in our perceptions? Is it a way by which we can all agree that no matter how different our perspectives of the world may be, there are certain "conclusions" we can all draw about our world, based upon observations that are common to all human beings? If so, how reliable are such conclusions, given that we use our senses to reach them?

Finally, could the difference between science and the liberal arts be that the liberal arts celebrates and thrives upon the different ways we pereive the world, whereas science celebrates and thrives upon the similarities of our perceptions and observations?

CT's picture

Evolving higher

Two discussion topics from Thursday have been bugging me over the weekend.

Firstly, we fell into the habit of talking about "higher evolved" or "more evolved", as if both of these were desirable traits. While we did address the idea that evolution isn't like steps on a ladder - it is about adaptability, the concept of being more "highly evolved" as intelligent and true is worrying.

Sure, humanity has done a pretty good job of surviving as whole. But so has the cockroach. Which one of us if more highly evolved? Humans may be (or seem, since it is a relative matter) more complex and have undergone more changes as a species, but the cockroach has proven highly adaptable.

It would seem then that the cockroach has reached a "higher" stage of evolution, since it has found a form which has proven resilient in a range of conditions.


Secondly, we mentioned that there is comfort in stories. I have heard that communities are defined by their stories. Stories offer a sense of idenity.

In addition, stories provide a social norm in an uncertain world. So the continued unresolved question is: why do we want security? Personally, I think there is a matter of simplicity. Also, it is easier to make risk assessments when you have something constant.

Maybe people are lazy. Or energy efficient.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

gregor samsa awake one morning...

hey caroline,

your point about cockroaches is very good. what's interesting is that in our post-modern society stories of rebellion have no become stories of security. we see the past as, "people who fought and thought differently were good and others were evil, of course the good triumped and our society *evolved*! But in reality people conform all the time and are too cowardly and unimaginative to do otherwise, so they take comfort in a story that praises them. "think outside the box" -- the ultimate cliche.

 ps samsa was not turned into a cockroach; kafka doesn't name the insect and i find that significant. just wanted to clarify that due to my title. i'd go into more detail, but ummm, there's this thing called relevance...

Elise Niemeyer's picture

The humanities and science answer the same essential questions

One thing that really struck me about the conversation we had in professor Grobstein’s group on Thursday was the distinction made between the external nature of science and the internal nature of the humanities. It seemed as though we were discussing the humanities as if they resulted from humans’ desires to understand themselves and the sciences as reflections of our need to understand the external world apart from ourselves.  I agree that this distinction can be useful, but in light of focusing on evolution through reading Mayr, I’m not so sure that this distinction is as absolute as we had previously thought.

 Despite the seeming objectivity of science and its emphasis on nonhuman ideas and entities, it seems to me that everything in science is at least subtly, if not overtly, the result of humanity’s need to understand its place in the world.  Evolution is the most obvious example of this, but anything from geology to astronomy to chemistry is at some basic level an exploration how humanity came to be as it is today and an investigation of our place in the universe with which we interact.  It is this quest for understanding that causes stories to develop out of scientific knowledge.  There is an underlying need for explanation of how the world works in relation to our own existence.  The question of why things are the way they are is where the sciences and the humanities seem to overlap.  Both types of study attempt to answer this question in varying degrees, but neither can provide the definitive answer.  While the sciences can continually refine explanations, the root or "truth" can never actually be reached.  The humanities can try to address the “why” issue through personal, more overtly human creations, but essentially this type of explanation will be different for every person.  At least in my opinion, science and the humanities are driven by the same ultimate, distinctly human, questions, but attempt to answer them in different ways. 


marquisedemerteuil's picture

papa t'es plus dans le coup

ok, this post needed a title and i got sick of relevant titles. that is a french 60s pop song i'm obsessed with. the title means, "you're not with it anymore, dad." now for some actual content:

i'm also in professor grobstein's group and i found this way of distinguishing between the sciences and the humanities to be reductive to the point of inaccuracy. it certainly does not do justice to the humanities.

the humanities examine the external world, too, not just "feelings." the expression "people's feelings about" makes the humanities sound fluffier than the sciences which is already a common enough misconception.

what about philosophy? philosophy is often not about feelings at all, but about how the external world can be made sense science. in fact, these disciplines used to be less separated, and for good reason. art history can be about perceptual experiments and philosophies, not about how the artists "feel" about the visual. it can be either.

i think it is unnecessary to summarize the differences between these two disciplines because that leads to reductive thinking.

danYell's picture


I am having a difficult time working with the idea that there is no “truth”. The story of evolution as presented to me by Mayr still feels like the process is leading somewhere, towards something better. This teleological view is rejected adamantly, but I can’t help but see that as we evolve we are getting better, “getting it less wrong”. Survival of the fittest ensures that those organisms that are the most suited to their environment will survive. Evolution, in getting it less wrong, must be leading somewhere more right. I have a feeling that this stems from my inability to really comprehend the infinite “nature” of the universe, time and space. Whatever the cause, I remain unconvinced.

I have also been thinking about de-evolution and how humans with all of their medical technology are living longer lives. This evolution of thought and ideas is really amazing and allows us to drive cars and perform complex surgeries. It also though has led to global warming which could be the cause of our extinction. Human logic is what separates us from other animals. We have locked other animals up or caused their extinction, and these seemingly wonderful technologies are actually leading to our demise. I am not beyond having faith that we may step forward again and develop more sustainable technologies, but it seems as though the past two hundred years have been a horribly failing experiment that no one wants to pull the plug on.

Danielle Joseph

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Why is ambiguity not tolerated in science?

Throughout Tuesday’s lecture and into Thursday’s small group discussions, we struggled and contemplated various questions ranging in degree from the philosophical to the contextual- whether humans were inherently programmed for either science or the humanities, to whether Mayr considered his book to be actual truth.  However, the question that stayed with me throughout the weekend and into my Bio 102 class at 11:00am this morning was (raised in Thursday’s class with Prof. Grobstein): Why is ambiguity not tolerated in science?  After all, I am 174 pages into What Evolution Is by the highly respected, well-known scientist, Ernst Mayr, and have yet to sense one speck of uncertainty concerning any of his evolutionary arguments.  Through his unmistakably clear cut-and many times demeaning- tone toward all theories not supported by Darwin and Evolution, Mayr strongly asserts over and over again that science is definite.  Ambiguity is not tolerated in real science.  However, other evidence convinces me that not everyone views the scientific process in this way.  Last summer I worked in a lab where questions of ambiguity and alternate approaches to current theories were accepted, promoted, and thrown back and forth almost continuously.  There, nothing was taken for granted-everything was questioned and reinterpreted.   Therefore, I find Mayr’s tone to be extremely misleading and confusing, not just to me, but for any developing person trying to make sense of the world of science.  Should we just accept science as a non-narrative subject during school as long as we aren’t actually working in a lab?  And in regard to the idea that school is responsible for molding science into a non-narrative story, is it even fair to place all blame on school, isn’t it more of a continuous feedback cycle?


marquisedemerteuil's picture

research vs theory

one thing to keep in mind is that mayr is writing a history of science. he's writing about the discoveries scientists have made overtime about the evolutionary process. there are darwin's questions and geneticists' answers, for example. so mayr's writing about theories that have not been disproven after decades. he's writing about what is accepted as truth in science. he also writes about what has been disproved. so he doesn't really need to make space for ambiguity in this text. he's not doing research that may not hold up in the future. he doesn't need to write, "i didn't do this experiment" or "this is not conclusive;" he's writing about theories that have been agreed upon. this stuff is pretty close to right.

i think it's important for intellectuals and others to play devil's advocate with themselves. everyone on here expresses the same views about mayr. how could those views be refuted?

marquise de merteuil 

ttruong's picture

Sciences permeating the Humanities

On Thursday in prof Gorbstein's group we talked about the differences between the sciences and humanities. I described the sciences as external inquiries and the humanities as internal inquiries Then Prof Grobstein said that the study of the brain is enabling science to extend into the humanities. This got me thinking..... For me the sciences explores and endeavors to explain the the causes of events that happens in the external logical world, a world divested of human emotions. On the other hand the humanities tries to make sense of humans' reactions to those extrnal events. Now that science is unveiling more and more of the brain's mysteriously intricate processes the line between the two may soon be breached. perhaps when we are able to trace the finest pathways of one brain and compared them to that of another brain after theyve both read a similar poem or view a painting, then we can pinpoint where the different intepretations are produced from.

Response to the book: One particular thing that I piqued my interest for reasons even unbeknownst to me was the book's example about the orgins of the giraffe. the book said "take another example, giraffes originated in the mid-tertiary times about 30 million years ago. It would upset all our beliefs and calculations if suddenly a fossil giraffe was found from the Palleocene 60 millions years ago, But, of course, no such fossil has ever been found." (pg 18) This made me think about the strategy that science uses. Science often holds a fact to be true simply because it cannot be disproved at the moment. We should always i think allow that something presupposedly impossible could be possible in our examination of different candidates of explanation. I have heard that most productive scientists make their great discoveries in the earlier years of their careers when they have not had so much extensive knowledge. This lack of knowledge ironically precludes them from limiting them their attempts at unconventional experiments that are assumed to be implausible by the older more knowledgable ones. Perhaps there are no true closet scientist who lacks former education now as there were before but there may certainly be novice ones who possess the foundations of science.

Student's picture


In my smaller group on Thursday, with Professor Dalke, we discussed Mayr and the concept of scientific stories.  We discussed the usefulness of a scientific story needing a reader to interpret it.  I think that there is the necessity for the story interpretted, and, at the same time, I feel like we're going to interpret the story probably differently that intended, had there been an intention, just because we all think and observe so differently.  I like the idea of there being no right- no absolute truth.  If we know we'll never be right, and by default, always be wrong, to one degree or another, it seems it makes guessing- venturing out- less intimidating.  In our society, we aim to be "right".  More often than not, we're given quizzes asking about characters, or facts, or equations, with a right and wrong answer.  We study and memorize to prove to others, but more, ourselves, that we're capable.  By there not being a right answer, or a right answer we'll be able to attain, the emphasis is less on memorizing or learning a specific way, but more on seeing what our own brains and observing capabilties can offer.  Applying this to Mayr's story of evolution, I like the ideas behind the story, and I like that there are things we can see, if we choose, to make the story more credible.  I don't like the authoritive tone the book is set in, and I don't like being told that this is right and that we're finally being told the truth.  To me, it seems that if someone needs to say that- to state it, so explicitly, then there must be some sufficient doubt about truth- maybe just the concept, but it seems interesting that Mayr's needs to state that his story is the right story so strongly.  Maybe he's just trying to recruit people to believe his story, and feels that this confidence is the way to do so... either way, I'd rather have the story presented to me, with no forceful opinion, letting me make up my mind.  I think, because of how little we know about the world, the universe, we can't say that this is the "right" story or this is how it definitely happened. The best we can say is this is what we're thinking now.. the story as we have it up until now.   

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Presuming the most probable to be the truth

Last week I briefly discussed how Mayr treats the most probable explanation based on science, as if it were the truth, and would like to expand on the implications of using such a method.   First off, this really is the only logical method for explaining something as complex, and historical as evolution.  With very little hard evidence that provides only speculation toward the truth, we can only use that evidence to find the most reasonable (probable) explanation.  


That said, certain evidence could very easily be misinterpreted, leading the majority of academia to supporting something that is entirely wrong.   While we know that this has occurred before (such as the historical belief that the human heart was responsible for cogitation), and will continue to occur, the nature of the evolution story makes it much more prone to error, and more importantly, more prone to an error being mistaken for truth for a longer period of time.  By its nature, I mean that the evolution story is not something that we can study first hand, we can only study the evolution story through studying other biological topics, then apply what we learn from that to the creation of an evolution story.   For example, scientists believe that eukaryotes were formed from a symbiotic relationship between two prokaryotes, eventually forming into a mitochondria.   The sole basis of this argument lies in the fact that mitochondria use a different genetic code than the rest of the cell.  While this inference is perfectly logical, and highly probably, if it is not correct, it becomes extremely difficult to refute.   In this sense, I feel that when studying evolution we could find new evidence, and make a presumption through the logic of probability, thinking that we are getting something less wrong, when in fact our inference is incorrect and we are getting something more wrong.   Moreover, even if we are 99% sure that all assertions we make from evidence are correct, if we have 100 such pieces of evidence, it is likely that one is wrong.   It could very well be that that one assertion, if incorrect, could completely change the entire argument built upon the other 99 pieces of evidence.  Therefore, in evolution we can never be satisfied with any aspect of the story, we must challenge everything at all times, even the most probable.

rebeccafarber's picture

Hmm..We established in class

We established in class last week that there are two types of stories - the narrative and non-narrative, non-narratives being static and narratives changing over time. While finishing Mayr's What Evolution Is, I came to realize that his tone and structure classified him as the quintessential non-narrative story teller. That is, he relays the story of evolution in black and white terms, with no room for objections or for alternatives.
With all of this in mind, I find myself still frustrated. I am dissatisfied with the idea that evolution is a non-narrative story. It seems so paradoxical that what is defined as a series of changes is a story that stays the same. I don't understand why we can assume that this is the end of the line of evolution and that we are not going to become for future generations what are ancestors are to us now. How can we be so sure that this is it, that we have it all figured out, and that this story really is a non-narrative one? I am not implying that we are on our way to evolving into some new species in a few billion years, but I do not see how we can say that evolution stops at this point. Certainly Mayr does not wish to compromise his authority on evolution, and he knows a lot more than I do, hence why his stance is so black and white throughout the book. 
The mixture of personalities (or more appropriately, "readers") in our group discussion on Thursday emphasizes the importance of the self in analyzing a story. Was I really the only one who found the idea of humans evolving by spontaneity a comfort? The reader, then, is the ultimate receptor of the story, and it is up to him or her to give it meaning.

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

from class

In class on Thursday we discussed whether or not Mayr could have written this book from an observational viewpoint instead of setting evolution in stone as fact. In class, I thought, sure he could have done that, no problem, but when reading the this weeks reading it occurred to me that he wouldn’t have been able to write the same book at all. In order for Mayr to do that he would have to be a skeptic of his own writing, constantly second guessing himself, and saying a whole bunch of “could bes” and “maybes.” And in order to be “correct” that book would have to be filled with only what we know is wrong for sure. People don’t want to read about what is wrong, they want to read about what is right. Unfortunately for science, it is impossible for us to determine what is right, so textbooks are constantly going to be tripping over themselves.

cevans's picture

Mary is trying to turn science into a non-narrative story

The discussion we had on Thursday about people trying to turn science from a narrative story into a non-narrative story was constantly on my mind as I was doing the reading in Mayr and as I got further into the book I realized that Mayr was definitely one of those people.  As Mayr was describing the discoveries that people had made that created widespread acceptance for evolution he described them in an odd way. All of these discoveries were described in a way that made them seem as though all of these discoveries and conclusions had just been puzzle pieces that the scientists had found that revealed this pre-existing truth. He writes about the ideas people had before evolution was fully accepted as though they were the opinions of stupid hacks who did not know what they were doing. It is one thing to bee sure in an opinion but quite another to scorn all other opinions. Mayr seems to be so sure in the truth of the evolution story that he holds nothing but disdain for all other stories even if they were formulated before the observations that led scientists to the evolution story.

kaleigh19's picture


I've been thinking a lot about the concept that we raised at the end of Tuesday's class about the tendency to turn a narrative story into a non-narrative one.  I think some of it has to do with the earlier conversation that we had about the question of authority in scientific texts - cevans (I'm sorry, I don't know your first name!) is absolutely right in pointing out that Mayr presents evolution as a non-narrative; that is, although he tells the story of evolution, he does so in a way that he's grounding his authority in the absolute veracity of the story.  To tell the theory of evolution as a story would imply an open-endedness, thereby suggesting that we don't know how the story ends, where the crack in the loop might take us.  And this kind of uncertainty would necessarily compromise Mayr's status as an, if not the, authority on the subject.  And I think that we do look to a voice like Mayr's, or a religious leader or professor for that matter, for the closure and security of authority.

Which brings me to my next thought: if we can turn scientific narratives into non-narratives, taking the story of evolution as "truth" or a "given," can we not do the same thing to literature? For example, when we read Romeo and Juliet, virtually everyone knew (whether or not we did so courtesy of Baz Luhrman or Wishbone) that the "star-crossed lovers" would die at the end.  Granted, this may be a bad example given that the chorus informs us of the death of the lovers in the prologue, but I believe that the point still holds.  When we read literature, especially canonical literature, we generally know where the story is going.  And even if we don't know "how it ends," we're almost inevitably confronted with authoritative critiques and interpretations of the text - for example, who can read Othello without being informed that it's all about jealousy? I guess I'm trying to raise the question as to whether or not all literature inevitably becomes non-narrative, either once we know how the story ends (there's that element of static!) or how we're supposed to think about it.  

Katie Baratz

marquisedemerteuil's picture

Non-Narrativity II

Hey Katie,

I don't think knowing the plot to a book before reading it makes the book "non-narrative" because it has the same narrative whether you've read it or not. No need to be intimidated by authoritative critics -- plenty of critics are not this way and take them on. Beckett tried to write in a style that would fool them, a style that does in fact contradict what they, and consequently we, expect in a book, yet then they give the work authoritative interpretations that to me clearly go against the text. Opinions can't be "wrong" but they can be off the mark, or "wrong to me" and plenty of critics are, to pun, absurd when approaching Beckett. Beckett trumps them in the end with his prose-poem "Comment c'est" or "How it is" -- a little-known work because, well, critics can't write about it. It's practically incoherent, except that certain somewhat incoherent leitmotifs repeat throughout the three parts, so readers can develop a personal interpretation, but they cannot prove it the way they would need to if they were to write literary analyses with arguments other people can follow.


Marquise de Merteuil


LF's picture

Time and evolution

Darwin’s theory of gradualism (p.83) states that evolution must be gradual, therefore “no saltations, no discontinuities”. We discussed in class the idea that if one is prescribed antibiotics and does not finish the course, we could potentially be unleashing a new bacteria that is able to resist the usual effect of that antibiotic (Is this mutation?). If this is true, it rejects part of Darwins theory, how can we be sure that evolution has to occur over a lengthy time period?

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

can be seen as evolution

In my view, the case of the antibiotic does support Darwin’s theory because one can view the bacteria as “resistant” and not new bacteria.  When one does not finish the course of the prescription, some bacteria are able to resist the amount of vaccine taken for that time duration, which is similar to Spencer’s saying, “the survival of the fittest.”  It can be viewed that the bacteria that are better adapted to the medicine or applied stress will survive and replicate which can be considered a gradual event.  

According to Mayr, mutation is defined as “any inheritable alteration in the genetic material, most commonly an error of replication of an allele by a different one. In addition to such gene mutations, there are also chromosomal mutations.” (page 288).  You can view this situation as a mutation in the general sense as something that departs from the parent type but in Mayr’s definition, I don’t think it can be applicable.  Because the bacteria that does survive has the phenotype that was not selected against, but there was no inheritable alteration in the genetic material.  

On page 135, Mayr gives evidence on why evolution is slow and takes a longer period of time.  His evidence includes scared animals found in pharaoh’s tombs that resembles the domestic cats we have now, thus we have evidence that it takes thousands of years for visible signs of evolution.   Tu

Paul Grobstein's picture

Sunday NY Times ... and science/evolution/stories

Couple of articles that seemed relevant. One is in The Week in Review: A Pollock in the Eyes of Art and Science:

  • "a clash of cultures between two very different worlds - hard science and the more subjective, individualistic traditions of the art scholar"
  • ""art historians basically do not collaborate" whille science demands it"
  • "whether science and the trained "eye" of connoisseurship will ever see eye to eye remains uncertain"

The other was in the magazine: The Modern Kennel Conundrum. Its a good reminder that reproduction with variance and selection has been and is operating all the time in a variety of contexts. And raises some interesting additional issues

  • "Many traditionalists [non-narrative story tellers?] see mixing breeds as somehow irresponsible in and of itself."
  • "a peculiarly American tension: between tradition and improvisation, institutions and fads."
  • "to what extent are these new mutts a remedy for what’s wrong with our old dogs and to what extent are they a symptom of what’s wrong with us?"
  • "they were manipulating and then fixing the exact traits they wanted so that their line would “breed true” ... Hybrids do not breed true."
  • "a fad that is healthy and amiable and zips across the linoleum when you call it, Markham argues, works just as well as any animal buttressed by centuries of stately tradition."
  • "many of our haughtiest purebred lines are themselves recent human inventions, willed into being amid a surge of similar excitement."
  • "it is not altogether clear what exactly people meant by “breed” before a new class of Victorian dog breeders began shaping the species with unprecedented intensity. With the advent of dog shows and centralized, recorded pedigrees in the late 1800s, the dog fancy — the culture of competitive show breeders — pushed for strict physical uniformity within breeds and complete segregation between them. They made more and more finely honed distinctions"
  • "Descriptions of what each breed’s ideal specimen would look like were written in “breed standards,” a measure against which dogs could be judged in the show ring. Since winning dog shows is the goal of dog fancying, the standards remain “the word pattern breeders are striving to create in living flesh,” as the A.K.C. puts it. In retrospect, the difference between regularizing an existing breed and inventing a new one can be foggy"
  • "Breeds are thus less found in nature than arduously hewn from it. Arbitrariness must be squelched."
  • "“Predictability is what you pay for when you buy a purebred dog" ... But keeping each breed the way we like it requires not only tremendous effort but also tremendous cooperation. A breed is exasperatingly democratic"
  • "we’ve turned the dog into a record of our priorities, of everything we actively select for and against, but also of what creeps in and we don’t bother to expel, including, of course, genetic diseases ... Recently geneticists discovered that the mutation contributing to widespread deafness in Dalmatians is the same mutation that creates its signature spots."
  • "Crossing dogs is as much an art as pure-breeding them, Havens insisted: it takes judgment. In fact, genetics teaches that purebred breeding and hybrid breeding are both time-tested ways to order nature into predictable products ... I suggested that if dog traits were like words, maybe he was trying to speak, or at least fumble his way through, the whole language. A Lab fancier was endlessly revising a single sentence ... Havens, for his part, seemed confident in his own practiced intuition."
  • "“When you’re breeding a mixed-breed dog, you’re only breeding a dog for money,” Beard told me. “There’s no standard there. There’s nothing you’re aiming for, other than to put these two dogs together and appeal to a fad.” With no set way to police human morals, she seemed to be substituting the only clear-cut rules she had: the ones that spell out what kind of bite, brisket, tail carriage and toenails look prettiest on a dog. The paradox is that adhering to those standards has driven fanciers to outlandish and distressing lengths."
  • "The designer dog’s greatest charm may therefore be its almost Rorschach-like ability to be whatever we see in it: something less constrained than a purebred, something more distinctive than a mutt. It gives us the possibility of the perfect companion. And if we keep projecting that image of perfection onto all its inevitable flaws, perhaps we’ll convince ourselves it actually is."
  • "It was unlike other Labradoodles I have seen: gawkier, with a very long, straight yet nebulous coat of hair. The man threw the ball. But the Labradoodle only romped and plodded in place. “They’re really funny dogs,” the man said adoringly, as if he had just now arrived at the right way to explain it."
marquisedemerteuil's picture

Is Richard Stone out of his mind?

Hey Prof. Grobstein,

I don't know what's up with this met conservator Richard Stone saying that art historians don't collaborate. Hasn't he heard of October, like anyone who has studied any art history at all? October was (I'm not sure if it still exists, I know it was pretty big in the 80s and 90s) a magazine of criticism created by some of the most creative and brilliant historians of contemporary art of the last few decades: Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin HD Buchloh, Hal Foster. (I'm actually not a hundred percent positive. I may be missing names, but I'm pretty sure these names are right.) This "movement" is extolled by some and criticized by others. These four people got together and wrote a controversial, ambitious (a prof here calls it "overambitious), highly theoretical textbook on art since 1900, devoting a few pages to the major happenings of each year. At the beginning of the second volume of the book, each historian writes about how a different method of art history has affected the criticism and work of the century. So it's not all "co-written" but it's certainly collaborative! And I don't think October is alone. There is a reason art historians, like professors of any kind, have colleagues.

Take this: “Collaboration is regarded by many in the humanities as equivalent to playing tennis with the net down, somehow an unsporting activity." What does this even mean? Unsporting? Tennis? Wouldn't it be more 'sportsmanlike' to work with someone else? Stone needs to retire.

On the one hand, I'm willing to disagree with someone who has more authority than I do, but on the other, this guy is a conservator. I've worked in museums. I know what conservators do. They stand in a little room and iron and fix stuff. They don't have to know art history in the same way an art historian or curator or even student would. So I find it suspect on the part of the writer that he didn't ask someone with more knowledge how he or she felt. He should have at least gotten another perspective to balance this cooky one. That's better reporting, right? Why should I trust some guy who makes illogical statements?

Many artists are not interested in authenticity issues like this one. For example, Sherrie Levine has a photograph work in which she takes one of Walker Evans' famous depression photographs, Migrant Mother, and develops the negative herself. She calls it "A Work by Walker Evans by Sherrie Levine." So to whom does it belong? Some people can tell the difference between this and an actual Evans, but what difference does that make? She challenges the idea of authenticity that we're challenging in class, and the patriarchal tradition of art history. Plenty of other artists play interesting games along these lines, too. In fact, since we're talking about Pollock, his contemporary Willem De Kooning got one of his drawings (with Pollock's permission), erased it, and hung it in a museum, calling it "Erased Pollock by Willem De Kooning." So what did Kooning do? Our society wants artists to have authority by having technique -- we can't do what they do, so we can respect them for their knowledge in their field and trust their taste. (Again, this is society with scientists!) Artists see through this and take it away from people, much to their dismay. This is a reason why people unfairly criticize modern and contemporary art.

What would Zadie Smith have to say about Sherrie Levine? Since Levine just blows up someone else's photograph to create her "own" work how can Levine's "authentic self" appear through her art? I would assume Smith would extend her maxims on literature to art...though not necessarily.

marquisedemerteuil's picture


i was thinking that collaboration occurs at many levels in the humanity. a dissertation, which of course can become a book and has to be a unique and meaningful contribution to its field, is essentially a collaboration: the phd candidate has advisors, but the idea is the student's. also, if you read the acknowledgement section of humanities texts, they always thank other professors for correcting their drafts and bringing up new arguments and issues.

Anne Dalke's picture

And on the other side of the hall....

I've heard Paul talk about "science as story" quite a few times (the last couple of versions focused on whether there is life on Mars, and the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami , as starting points for a story of story-telling). Each time 'round, with each refinement, I find myself picking up some new ideas. What excited me first, last week, was the question of whether "seriously loopy science" could only be conducted by humans (I think not, and I found a great article this week, by Mitch Resnick, called " Like a Tree, " which suggests that plants also engage in this observation-making/story-altering process: its about a 'walking tree' in Costa Rica that actually changes its location over time).

I also found myself quite struck by a second observation which arose at the end of last Tuesday's lecture about the move from non-narrative to narrative story-telling (from static to historical accounts of why-things-are): the idea that, in our desire and search for fixed truths, we loop back again to "non-narrative" story-telling, accounts that don't change (or that we hope won't change) over time.

Discussion across the hall in Group A on Thursday, as Megan said, focused on who the readers of this scientific story are. We found ourselves grouped along quite a few different axes (and haven't figured out yet if/how those groups intersect). Some of us look for characters, others for ideas; some of us want facts, others concepts; some of us are scientists, some humanists, some social scientists; some of us are believers (looking to be convinced), others are skeptics (needing to be convinced), others are cynics (seemingly "unconvinceable"). We spent some time considering the usefulness of the both the believing and doubting games as complementary ways toward understanding: trying on a story, trying to think of reasons to believe it, trying to add evidence to make it work, can be useful tools to complement the activities of questioning logic, evidence and scope.

We also spent some time thinking about our own observations of the processes of evolution, and some more time trying to figure out if/how the story of evolution could be "useful" in our own lives. What difference does it make, to "believe" or "use" this story to make sense of the ways things are?

I.W.'s picture

The Walking Tree

I agree with you in that I don’t think that only humans can engage in "seriously loopy science", but I don’t agree that the Costa Rica walking tree can.  The tree is able to engage in the basic experiments of sending out its roots, but its direction of movement is based entirely on the new observations. The tree is not able to reflect back to consider if it has ever moved in that direction before, and if so what the consequences of that moving to that spot were.   Maybe the soil is rich but easily exhaustible of its nutrients.  If it had moved there before and then been forced to move again due to a severe draining of nutrients, the tree would not be able to factor that into its movement.  It is the ability to integrate past observation into the newly acquired information that makes the "seriously loopy science" work.  With my current set of observations, I don’t know a single plant that is capable of such integration.  Therefore I don’t think that the ability to engage in Professor Groubstein’s "seriously loopy science".

Julia Smith's picture


          In Thursday's group discussion with Professor Dalke, we continued to discuss how the person telling the story is reflected within the text, and therefore there is no such thing as "the view from nowhere". That is, the "self" that Zadie Smith talked about in "Fail Better" is as apparent in nonfiction as it is in fiction. 
       I found myself continually thinking about this while reading chapters 4-8. A reason why we can never find "truth" is because we can never be told the truth; we have no perfect way of expressing genuine information. Mayr's words are his own, and his intentions are completely evident, and while his story is obviously opinionated, to a degree all stories are. In this way, we can never arrive at a complete story. There are differences in the way that each individual sees things and reports information, from the way that we view material in class to completing a police report. Therefore, variations exist as much in nature as they do in literature, and furthermore, in all aspects of human observation. 
         Even our own observations are as variable as hearing about those observations from others. I find this whole concept very frustrating. I suppose, as much as I don't want to admit it, I do want to know the "truth", and this view of never reaching it seems completely cynical.  

marquisedemerteuil's picture

The "Death of the author" is alive and well

Hey Megan (I'm the talkative one from the Swat van, I've just taken the name of a delightful French villain on this board, you probably remember me),

I'm in Prof. Grobstein's group, and it sounds like everything you talked about with Prof. Dalke is exactly what I disagree with in fiction and nonfiction. So I think you'd be interested in commenting on my refutation of Smith's article or at least in reading it. It's still under "recent blog posts" on the right and it's called "is Zadie Smith's 'fail better' a compelling way to view literature?" I'd love to get some feedback.


Marquise de Merteuil

Shannon's picture

The Scientific "Black & White" Issue...

I had a great experience in Professor Grobstein's "small group discussion on Thursday! Even though we did not directly cover the material addressed in Mayr's book, we individually discussed our feelings on the conglomeration of science and the humanities. The pondering questions in our discussion that I found most interesting was why does society think that there must be a "black & white" answer to science, while ambiguity in the humanities is accepted without debate. I feel that this notion of the scientific "correct" answer is taught to us in middle and high school. At least in my biology and chemistry classes, the instructors acted as if there was no room for debate whether or not you did an experiment wrong... if it didn't turn out the way they expected, you basically "failed" the experiment.

Another thought as to why society expects straight answers from science is the fact that scientists are expected to be very intelligent individuals, experts in their fields. Society questions a scientist's credibility when he or she does not know the concrete answer... but they are only human. Besides, laypeople believe that scientific discoveries act as a bunch of chain links... one discovery leads to another-- and another--- and another. I would be extremely pissed off if I were a scientist investigating, spending years upon years researching something that I thought was concrete, when it in fact could be interpreted many different ways by anyone (such as the case with poetry). People assume that one discovery is perfectly "black and white" for another big discovery to branch from it. If only science were that simple... the greatest discoveries occur when an individual, not necessarily a world renound scientist, mind you, makes a mistake & gets something "less wrong"!

hayley reed's picture

ambiguity of science

I have had some trouble posting recently and I am not sure if my first post went through. But, in case it didn't here it is again.... 

I completely agree with a lot of what you said Shannon! One of the things that really stuck out in your post is that there is less room for ambiguity in science. It does seem when you are in a math class, you either know the answer or you don’t. But, in an english class there is much more room to come up with answers. There is no one right answer. In this sense, I feel the humanities are much more lenient. I think one of the reasons I don’t accept ambiguity in science is because if I get “the wrong answer”, my answer may have a direct impact on someone’s life. This is kind of a confusing claim but, I will do my best to explain it. When it comes down to it, I connect science with medicine & health. In these fields there is no room for error. If a doctor makes the “wrong decision” they can have a direct impact on someone’s life. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer this past year I wanted to make sure that his doctors knew exactly what they were doing when they went into surgery. I didn’t want anything to be ambiguous! I wanted to have 100% confidence in what they were doing. I needed to know that there was one answer and one solution. Having gone to a humanities high school I can say that I think in the field of humanities this threat to human life is not present. When scholars, teachers, writers, and students in the humanities explore questions they don’t have this same pressure.

Moving past my problems with ambiguity in science I realize that this puts way too much pressure on the sciences to always be right. No one can be right all the way. And as much as it hurts me to realize it, there really is no right answer to anything. Going back to the doctor example…certain treatments work better for different people and a doctor can never know or say with 100% certainty that he is the right answer or the right treatment for a solution. Patients respond differently to treatments and what worked for my dad may not work for all people who had the same kind of cancer as he did. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am beginning to accept ambiguity in sciences more. But, I should qualify this statement by saying that I am definitely a work in progress!

marquisedemerteuil's picture

right and wrong

instead of having "right" answers you could have "agreed upon answers that work in applied situations" and those would be anything medical. but if you have to learn something in science or math as "right" even like 2+2=4 (dostoevsky doesn't think that's right, but that's another story) then does it become right? we should definitely talk more about distinguishing between levels of "rightness" because it cannot be said that every element of science is as subjective as every element of a humanity discipline.

LS's picture

A reply and a little more...

“the greatest discoveries occur when an individual, not necessarily a world renound scientist, mind you, makes a mistake & gets something "less wrong"!” 


Shannon I do agree with you and I think this argument follows the branch and basis of “loopy science.”  The way to get discoveries- the scientific method has become some what idolized (not sure if this is the word I want...) rather it has become untouchable.  The feeling around this is that only scientists with lots of college education are able to perform experiments and draw valid conclusion.  This seems to eliminate all the other people (us!) and those who are in the humanities fields.  However, we know that this is not true.  We perform our first experiments as infants and we continue to perform experiments every single day of our life.  These experiments may not be on “scientific material” but we basically follow the scientific method and get results.  A senior is our discussion group (I am so sorry I cannot remember your name!) shared with us how writing her thesis (for humanity) is so much like the method researchers use.  So, if the scientific method is something that is not untouchable and can be universally used how did it get this way?  

In discussion on Thursday Professor Grobstein expressed a opinion that I agree with: scientists (people who do research- especially scientific) usually do have to spend many years in school in order to learn what has already been experimented and what was learned.  There is a tremendous amount of information that one must learn in order to become a researcher.  Yet, I feel this is extended to the humanities as well (especially in literature) how can you analyze a text and writer if you have not studies them and what other people have written about them.  My question is what has caused the scientific method to become this way?  What has made this method so “untouchable” that it cannot be extended to other subjects and other disciplines?  Maybe it is because it is associated with the amount of schooling needed to become a scientist.  Perhaps the distinction has been blurred between the subject matter and the method? 


Now to branch into a somewhat unrelated area… In discussion we talked about artists that are “closet artists” (no negative connotations!)  These individuals do not grow up in the artistic community yet they produce art that is considered to be great artistic works.  We were unsure as to whether this extended to scientists and why we cannot have a great “closet researcher.”  It was suggested that it is this way because of the structure of the scientific community, and what it will and will not support.  However, I was thinking about this further and I do agree that structure is a problem and I also agree that it would be very hard to have a “closet-researcher.”  In order to experiment on “breaking edge” (= great) topics one has to understand the basic elements and building blocks of science.  In order to do great research in neuroscience and on the brain one must have an understanding of cells and cellular processes and how these processes affect the body.  I do not think that a “closet researcher” would be able to do this.  This individual would have to start with very basic science and scientific understanding in order to build up this knowledge, not being in the science community would mean that they would have to do all these basic experiments themselves---a life is only so long!! How would one be able to cover all the already discovered basic blocks of science and yet do more cutting edge research in one life time?  Perhaps a long time ago it was possible to be a “closet researcher” as we were still discovering the building blocks- yet now I think this may be impossible. 


However this is all not to discredit the “closet artist.”  I do not think it is any easier or less technically challenged to make great art- yet is it possible that individuals can be born with basic artistic skills and knowledge- yet not a researcher?  And does this difference further the schism between the sciences and the humanities?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

academics in the closet...scary...

"And does this difference further the schism between the sciences and the humanities?"

no because i don't think you could be a closet academic

tbarryfigu's picture

Who Owns Science?

Though I have been sick lately and missed Thursday's class, it was interesting to read up on the discussions held by Professor Grobstein's group, which I will join on Tuesday.

It is my opinion that living in a Capitalist society has perpetuated the idea that certain professionals "own" their field...mainly, scientists "own" science because, well, that's just what they're good at. This belief, held by a majority of the educated population (though they may not necessarily know it, or phrase it as such) has allowed scientists to speak to their audience (educators, the scientific community, ect.) in much the same way as a priest preaching Christianity. If you know your science, you own that science, because, let's face it, after a certain point, you realize you know more than someone else and that knowledge is "yours" to exploit.

In quite the same manner, one realizes that they don't know as much about a topic as another and, as a result, find themself looking to that person with the upmost of trust (in a strictly "you REALLY know what's going on" kind of way). There are two reasons for this. The first is that they don't obtain the knowledge necessary to contradict them. The second requires a visual: A scientist has spent years absorbing "facts" and is constantly moving up the knowledge ladder. If a scientist standing on the 10th rung of this ladder offers someone standing on the floor a bit of information, they benefit that person as they offer them the means to work their way up the ladder. The person on the floor does not want to believe they are filling their head with less-wrong information, and so they justify the absorbtion of new knowledge by calling it fact.

As Americans, we have instilled in us a desire to define what is right (+) and what is wrong (-). There is hardly a middle ground (+/-) and if there is, the defenders of right and wrong feel the need to rip it apart. The middle ground is always a "slight variation" of their claim, and never a claim in itself. Until we live in a society where it is truly OK to be wrong (let's get rid of the grade system?), it will be difficult for people to accept that the search for knowledge is more important than the validity of each "fact."

-Tamarinda Figueroa   

CT's picture

Who gives authority?


I found it interesting that you would juxtapose the idea of capitalism with the idea of ownership through authority.

My immediate instinct on authority given ownership is that we must first define who gives authority. Do we give authority to ourselves, speak with confidence and thus sway the masses. Do we gain authority when other's recognize our expertise? Or is it a combination of both (which I advocate), that speaking with confidence gains authority from others.

In this third scenario, where ownership is given by the "readers" but aided by the author's conviction. The reader is responsible for the authors authority in this situation.

Of course, it is easier for the reader to "jump off" of hard topics, ones that are called facts, rather than soft maybes.

And yes, it would be nice to have a more flexible grading system. Of course, what grades should examine is how well you not only understand why the current accepted theory is what is it is, but also how well you understand its limitations.

- Caroline Troein

Paul Grobstein's picture

Non-narrativity/narrativity and evolution/science/truth

Interesting Thursday conversation in group G.  Some notes of what I remember/thought useful, hoping others will add their own.  It started with an effort to understand why some people think of themselves as "humanists" and other as "scientists".  Among other things that evolved was the idea that that distinction was itself a human construction, perhaps originating in whether people preferred more or less certainty and hence whether they were inclined to try and understand non-human or human products (with the later, "humanities", being less certain because it involves the hidden workings of the brain).  That in turn (via some thinking about "naive" artists and "naive" scientists) led to the thought that the nature of inquiry itself (scientific or otherwise) was a narrative story that people are constantly trying to turn into a non-narrative one (in particular, a difference between "science" and "humanities", akin to an essentialist distinction between humans and rhinoceri).   To mull further .... 

Jen's picture

On Mayr and Words...

I think the ideas brought up so far about Mayr are very interesting, especially with respect to Mayr's assertion that the story of evolution is the "truth." I keep wondering, what was he doing with this this statement? It definitely grabs my attention, and makes me pay attention to his argument. Also, as is mentioned above, it defnitely seems like Mayr is trying to manipulate his audience with these words. Yet, at the same time, this persuasive technique does not work on me. When I read this line, I was very surprised. All through high school I was taught that evolution was a theory. I was also presented with all the evidence of evolution that scientists have thus far found, and therefore concluded that it was a very plausible theory. Yet, I never thought of it as the absolute truth. After reading Mayr, I still don't, and I'm very surprised that Mayr presents his story of evolution as absolute truth, because it seems a bit naive to me, and even unstudied. Mayr is a scientist and a scholar, and it seems to me that most scientists and scholars have more complex and sophisticated ideas about "absolute truth," other than there is one, that has been scientifically proven, the end. Therefore, with this one statement that evolution is absolute truth, Mayr discredits himself in my eyes. Later, he redeems himself, as he presents a very thorough and convincing case for evolution, but initially, he just makes me laugh in disbelief.

***More to come later about social darwinism....

llim's picture

Mayr and Words

After reading the first four chapters of Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is, I didn't find myself particularly contemplative on anything in particular. If Zadie Smith's thought of novels as a two way street is to apply here, then I suppose I failed as a reader.

Mayr does an impressive job of arguing--he displays the facts and is so adamant in it that I believe many readers, so long as they are open to the idea of evolution as even a possible truth (and I do say truth and not "less wrong" because that is what I have been saying my whole life and this class has yet to make me feel compelled to stop), are compelled to feel as if evolution is truth. But words are tricky and can be very deceiving when played with correctly (or even incorrectly) and I believe that if the same reader was open to the idea of creationism as the possible truth and was to pick up a book written by someone who believes in creationism as ardently as Mayr believes in evolution, that reader could also be compelled to think of creationism as truth. If anything, I suppose Mayr's book, instead of making me question every other creation theory out there save evolution, instead made me look at his words. I've always been somewhat...amused (not quite amused, but I am uncertain as to the word to describe it) words and their pull on people. As had been previously mentioned elsewhere (I believe in another blog), words are not sufficient enough to truly convey what we mean to say. There is always that break in communication that comes with interpretation. Still, in manipulating words, one also, in the process, manipulates people.

Because I was already more inclined towards Mayr's opinions when it comes to theories about the beginning/creation (when given the theories of evolution and creationism, I would jump with evolution), I suppose I missed the effect/manipulation (if any) his words may have had on someone with a different school of thought. I am interested about that, though--is there anyone who does not necessarily believe evolution to be the "correct"--or, if it makes you feel more comfortable, "less wrong"--theory--who would be willing to share what they thought about Mayr's book, argument-wise?


azambetti's picture

Evolutionary Theory... Are we right?

In class on Tuesday, we discussed how the evolutionary theory that Mayr describes in his book, since he thinks he has found the “truth” about evolution, is non-narrative (static).  In fact the theory of evolution is more of a narrative, ever changing.  This got me thinking about what the future and its more accurate “summary of observations,” due to numerous amounts of experiments testing the theory of evolution, will bring to the ever evolving story of how organisms have evolved. 

Once upon a time, many people believed that animals and plants were placed on the earth by an ever powerful being.  They were placed on an earth where life did not evolve, and where there was no such thing as genetic mutations.  This theory was based on their “summary of observations.”  It seemed to them that there was no change to the life on earth, since evolution occurs over millions of years, so their predictions appeared to be correct.

Although I have never witnessed evolution, I trust that the evolutionary theory is “more less wrong” than the story of all of life being placed on this earth, due to studying about others’ “summary of observations,” and looking at the fossil record.  So essentially we have produced a theory that is more “less wrong” than our ancestors.  Perhaps our predecessors will say the same about us.  What if, in the future, our idea of evolution is so more wrong that it is rejected, as our ancestors’ ideas have been?

Andrea Zambetti

marquisedemerteuil's picture

In my first post, which is

In my first post, which is actually the top "recent blog post" because I was too terribly ignorant to know that blogs are for papers, I ended with this: "In creating parallels between science and literature, though, the idea needs to work for both; I think it is easy to take an idea that fits one and apply it to the other without examining how well it suits the other discipline. If I find a way of thinking I believe fits both fields, I'll let you know!"

In one of Ionesco's latest plays "Jeux de massacre" (literally "Massacre Games" but translated as "Killing Game") from 1970, a terrible epidemic is killing off the human race and no one can do anything about it. As you can imagine, this is a pretty funny play. The play is not really interested in having a plot, and is basically a series of vignettes; each sheds light on how different people are affected by the disease. In one, people discuss what food you shouldn't eat. Someone (characters have no names, and are intentionally not given the selves Zadie Smith likes so much) says, "alcohol is terrible for you, it alcoholizes." Another discusses how terrible asparagus is. More seemingly absurd comments are made. Ionesco uses "le langage en miettes" ("language in crumbs," the absurdist style I'm sure you guys are familiar with) to undermine our use of language and the assumptions that come from it, to prove that this language is really no less absurd than our own, and there is no reason why our way of speaking about health is superior to this deranged version.

In contemporary society, everyone argues about what foods are healthy and which foods aren't. Magazine articles about little-known heathly snacks commonly appear. We talk about how fat Americans are based on statistics whose source, and its validity, we do not know. Yet, being bad scientists, we steal "facts" we happen to overhear about the state of people's weight in America and do not examine the situation for ourselves. People make a lot of money selling books about why our society is sinful and gluttinous; we're not so far from our Puritan roots. Baudrillard says that we want to condemn our society for its bounty because the capitalist system prevents an exchange -- we receive but can't give back, and we will forever feel guilty. I find this much more persuasive than hearing about "American gluttony." Another interesting, yet badly written source is the controversial book "The Obesity Myth" by Paul Campos.

The real reason we talk about weight the way we do is to discriminate against people. We can't discriminate against people of other skin colors or social classes anymore, but we can decide that people who are "overweight" (and the standard of what constitutes "being overweight" has been debated among scientists) are participating in the most sinful aspects of a corrupt society. So while we are nice to "fat people," we actually decide that they lack willpower and enlightenment. If, according to popular culture (this line of thought is ubiquitous in the media), changing or lowering your weight means changing or improving your life, fat people have not evolved. Fat people are often referred to as "out of control" as if only thinner people are "in control" and I don't know what of. Our society's language is more to blame, in my opinion, than airbrushed models in magazines. (Though they don't get off the hook, either.) This is not science; this is immorality.

Which brings me to another pseudo-scientific topic -- Social Darwinism. I'm sure everyone knows what that is, but I will define it, because everyone's version reflects a different understanding, as Prof. Grobstein asserted in class by having many people define evolution, and my comments come from my understanding. Social Darwinism was a prevalent idea in the 19th century and it applied Darwin's idea of natural selection, "survival of the fittest" to struggles among races. Since, according to their understanding of natural selection, the strongest animals must prevail by killing off the weaker ones, or stay alive while the weak die, Social Darwinists believe that the strongest of all races is justified in killing every other race. The fittest (white) survive and the rest are entitled to die and be abused. I'm sure we can all agree that there are many compelling arguments against this line of thought and it is immoral. Yet it's logic works. It's a very natural progression from Darwinism. It was certainly, in a macabre way, useful during its time because it gave the white people with authority a moral justification for abusing and killing people of other ethnicities. "It's just science, we're the fittest, and we prove it by killing them; if they were the fittest, they'd kill us" argues the Social Darwinist. This is science interpreted, perhaps mauled, by the desires and perspectives of a particular society, and the reason we oppose it now is because our values have changed, not because it doesn't make sense.

So I succeeded in finding a literary model that applies to science: I think Ionesco's got it right.

CT's picture

Is food good for you?

The issue of food shows some of the limitations of research into food and weight. We can't effectively discern food and nutrients. When we try to isolate variables in experiments, findings are blurred by the fact that food in daily life is tremendously compounded when eating it. The absorption of milk is very different if you drink it on its own or if you drink it with a steak.

Trying to come up is an effective summary of judgments when it comes to food and weight is extremely difficult in an environment where the food we eat is not representative of what our species has traditionally eaten.

marquisedemerteuil, on your point about Social Darwinism - I am not sure that it would justify genocide. We live in a society of survival of the most powerful, rule by the majority. Our values change only when the majority changes.