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The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories

The Story of Evolution and
The Evolution of Stories:
Exploring the
of Diversity

Welcome to the home page of a Biology and English course
at Bryn Mawr College (Spring 2009).


"There is grandeur in this view of life...that...from so simple a
beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved."
Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species

"But what is life but an experiment?...
I consider Leaves of Grass and its theory experimental--"

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
We will experiment, in this course, with two interrelated and reciprocal inquiries: whether the biological concept of evolution is a useful one in understanding the phenomena of literature (in particular: the generation of new stories), and whether literature contributes to a deeper understanding of evolution. We will begin with an exploration of the basis for the "story" of evolution as developed by biologists, move on to a consideration of the relevance of the concept of evolution for making sense of other bodies of information and observations, and then turn to a consideration of one literary story growing out of another. We will ask repeatedly: Where do stories (scientific and literary) come from? Why do new ones emerge? What causes them to change? Why do (must?) some of them disappear? We will consider the parallels between diversity of stories and diversity of living organisms, and think about what new insights into evolution and literature emerge from such considerations.

This course is predicated on an assumption that progress on the sorts of questions being considered here is significant not only in the classroom but in a broader human context as well. Hence, the course is organized to contribute to public conversation, both by having a weekly on-line forum and by the on-line publication of course materials, including student papers. In considering the appropriateness of the course for their own educational objectives, students should be aware of this assumption and associated arrangements, and of the implications and obligations of engaging in a public arena, where individuals are responsible not only for their own education but that of others as well.

Photos from our Finale
Day 1 and Day 2

Course Forum Area
Web Papers:
On Biological Evolution
#2: On Beyond Biological Evolution
#3: On the Evolution of Cultural Stories
#4: New, Useful Stories of Our Own

Paper Instructions
Portfolio Instructions
Origin of Images

Course Requirements:

  • 1/6: participation in class and on-line conversations
  • 1/6 each: papers # 1, 2, 3
  • 1/3: final paper
In this class, we'll be exploring how diversity is fundamental to all levels of organization, in both biological and cultural systems. It will be clear, from that exploration, why we think a single grade will not adequately reflect your various, distinctive efforts in the class; nor do we think it will function as an adequate index to how you may perform in other contexts. We hope you'll regard this score as only one measure of your accomplishments, and take into account your own sense of how what you achieve here relates to your own goals. We're of course happy to discuss all these matters with you in conference.

Discussion Notes


The images on these pages are reproduced with permission of Rieko Nakamura and Toshihiro Anzai; you can see a complete display of their work at which also explains that "Renga, or Linked Image, is a new methodology of image creation in the digital era. It was given birth at the intersection of art, telecommunication network and multimedia. Renga artists share and exchange computer graphics art works on telecommunication network. An image will turn into a new piece by going through modification and transformation applied by a different artist, thus creating a series of growing imagery."


mindyhuskins's picture



LS2's picture

post for week of 1/26

        A line from an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week reminded me of our class discussions and raised some interesting questions for me. In a piece about female desire that largely focused around a disconnect between “objective,” biological responses and “subjective,” verbal responses, the author wrote of the sexologist he was interviewing that, “[u]ltimately, though, Chivers spoke — always with a scientist’s caution, a scientist’s uncertainty and acknowledgment of conjecture — about female sexuality as divided between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective” (Bergner, 1/22/2009).

Though the question of any possible separation between cultural “subjective” influences and biological “objective” responses is an interesting one, what stood out to me most in this quote is the author’s presumptuous characterization of a scientist as cautious, uncertain, and full of conjecture. Described in this manner, this researcher definitely seems come from Dr Grobstein’s loopy school of science. But, when did this did this become the norm for scientists? As someone who has struggled with math and science my whole life, I have always thought of the empirical fields as hugely opaque and authoritative, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in this.

 While I am in full agreement with the notion of the “crack” of subjectivity, that each person’s “way of seeing” informs their research and finding, what was troubling to me about this assertion was that I did not think it was the general public’s “way of seeing” scientific research. But if the line from the NY Times article reflects a popular perception of science(which, we can maybe assume, as it is obviously not a scientific journal but rather a popular magazine) as cautious and uncertain, maybe everyone is well-aware of the “crack.” Certainly we see caution and uncertainty in Darwin, given his lengthy disclaimers regarding how much work is left to be done, but has this uncertainty always been a hallmark of science? And if so, why didn’t anybody tell me??  

Paul Grobstein's picture

uncertainty as a (known?) hallmark of science

Thanks for this. See Evolving science/science education for why no one told you?
Anne Dalke's picture


In a course on Gender and Technology that I and Lindsay are doing across campus, this article has also raised something of a flurry. Occurs to me it intersects intriguingly, also w/ another flurry-making-NYTimes article of the week, about the goal of education having to do with disorientation.
drichard's picture


My name is David Richardson. I am a freshman at Haverford. I am deeply interested in art and art theory and hope to explore the creative parts of the human brain this semester. What drives us to create and where exactly does creation happen? Can it be reduced to hemispheres and loci? Can any of the human experience? I am interested in the immaterial part of the brain more than the material. Following my interest in creativity is my interest in savants. Do we all have savant-like capabilities, buried under language and culture or repressed in the Freudian subconscious? What if we could tap into these abilities? I also hope we explore music and it's effects on the brain. I have a small background in this area (i.e. a read one book on the topic in high school...) and I hope to expand my knowledge.


Ah, yes. I come from a big Catholic family from Boston. I've lived in the suburbs of the city all my life. I went to an all boys Catholic high school, so taking a class at Bryn Mawr borders on the bizarre. I think I'd like to be an English major, but, really, who knows what they want to be? Right?

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture


Hello, I'm Laura Kelly-Bowditch and a Junior History major/Archaeology minor at BMC.I was born and raised just outside of Boston, so my surroundings have tended towards the liberal my whole life. I love reading and hearing stories but don't possess the patience to create them myself. While I don't usually seek out science, in classes or otherwise, I do my best to stay open minded about it, given how useful technology and other innovations are.

I tend to approach things from a historical point of view, so  learning about the characters involved in Darwin's journey towards new ideas, as well as current events would be very interesting to hear more about.

I would also question how the evolution of a story as an author writes differs from the path biological evolution takes, ie) if an author would feel "survival of the fittest" was an apt description of the finished story.

Also, how do creationists reconcile their beliefs with current science? How, for that matter, do those who follow Darwin and continue to keep their faith reconcile their beliefs?


ctuckerman's picture


In Oregon, as throughout the West, there are a number of environmental issues and habitat concerns that seem to be affecting various bird and fish populations.  I've also seen this firsthand on the Hawaiian Islands, where I've participated in several habitat restoration projects with Wilderness Volunteers. Many native Hawaiian bird and plant populations (which exist in symbiosis) are quite fragile, due to the arrival of newcomers, such as the mosquito, which is considered an "invasive species".

Globalization, and the spread of commerce, whether by cargo ship or plane, seems to be influencing species change. It occurs to me that literature expresses this trend towards globalization as well, as human populations are more fluid (thanks to air travel), and ideas are quickly circulated over the internet.  

I am looking forward to learning more about biology and Darwin's theory of evolution, and how it may relate to other realms, such as literature. 

A few questions: 

What are some parallels between how a work of art or literature evolves and how a species evolves? 

Is the concept of evolution inevitable in biological, environmental and literary contexts, if we consider that adaptation is likely necessary for "success"? 

What is the measure of "success" in biological and evolutionary terms? How might it be different (or similar) from how we consider "success" when evaluating literature?  


ccrichar's picture

Hi. My name is Cynthia

Hi. My name is Cynthia Richards. I am 43 years old and happily married for 7 years.  I got married while attending Bryn Mawr College and had a couple students as my bridesmaids.  I was in the Navy for eight years, serving as a Quartermaster (navigation).  I lived in Iceland, Puerto Rico, Crete, Italy and worked under the Secretary of the Navy in Washington, DC.  I grew-up in Minnesota and have been living in Philadelphia for over ten years.  My husband and I live in Chestnut Hill, PA.  I am an English major and plan to graduate in the spring of 2009.  Following graduation, my husband David and I are adopting twin girls from China under the age of 12 months.  We are just waiting for our travel date to pick them up.  We have no other children and cannot wait to adopt these two girls.  I have always been interested in science and english.  My major is english and I have taken 10 courses in english at Bryn Mawr.  I invented a new insulin pump for diabetics (I am a diabetic on an insulin pump)-even though it was initially rejected from the US Patent and Trademark office in Washington DC, I can produce it as an innovation with FDA approval. We have a Labradoodle named Henry that is 10 months old.  He loves his toys the most, next to his parents. We love him too. I really look forward to this course because of my varied experiences and interests.


1.  How does evolution and english come together?

2.  How does letters to one another become books so quickly?

3.  How does the evolution of the animal correlate to the evolution of the letter? 






selias's picture


Hi everyone!  My name is Sarah Elias.  I'm a Bryn Mawr freshman from Kailua, Hawaii - being here on the east coast makes me feel like a little fish in a big pond!  Growing up in Hawaii, I was always learning about evolution by studying examples from the environment around me (for example, there is a bird called the Hawaiian Honeycreeper that gives a living example of adaptive radiation, which is how I was taught about Darwin's finches in middle school).  I'm the oldest child of four, and my 16-year-old brother is somewhat of a young Darwin scholar, in his own way, so it is through him that my interest in evolution was piqued.  I also took Anthro 101 last semester so I learned about evolution from an anthropological perspective.  As for the English part of this course, I am like Anne Dalke in that I love "living" in fictional worlds, whether they be from books or movies. My semi-secret goal in life is to make a living through writing in one form or another, so stories have always been an important part of my life.

What first grabbed my attention about this course was that there was nothing else like it in the course guide.  I have always been very interested in scientific concepts as well as storytelling, so seeing a course that combined the two definitely appealed to me. Despite my interest in science I have always been a more "humanities" type of person, and I think this class will be a perfect merger of the two.

Three questions I hope to explore, if not answer, throughout this semester are:

What are the facts of evolution, rather than the stories of evolution?  I feel as if everything I have been taught about evolution so far has been only the interpretation of facts that I have never learned for myself.

How does religion "reconcile" with evolution?  I suppose I am specifically referring to the Judeo-Christian story of creation.  I think this would be interesting to study in relation to the different stories that can be produced because of "the crack" that was presented in class.

Are stories a necessarily human thing?  Do we see things similar to storytelling in other living creatures?  And did stories develop as some sort of response to help humans survive?  (I had a teacher once who suggested that stories may have been a survival mechanism for early humans, and I did not really understand what he meant then...but I think it would make an interesting inquiry.)

Hilary McGowan's picture

Hilary McGowan

Hi, I'm Hilary.

It took me a bit to re-figure out all this techinical stuff, but I think I have the hang of it now! I'm a sophomore this year and I plan on majoring in biology. My hometown is the Seattle-Tacoma, WA area. I am an only child, but I have tons of cousins to make up for it! And the craziest family. Ever. I play the violin, guitar, flute, harmonica, and am a champion kazoo player. I love to write everything from movie scripts to making up song. Mixing bioligy and any other study fascinates me- it makes me want to look at the world wholistically.

I worked at a zoo and aquarium for three years, so I am more than happy to go on and on about random animal facts. I took Paul's C-Sem class last year in which we discussed some of these ideas on a broader scale. I'm really looking forward to focus directly on the scientfic aspects of evolution and to get everyone's viewpoints from class discussions plus here on the blog. 

My questions that I thought of in class were:

1. How do stories fit into  the biological forma of evolution?

2. When can stories mean truth and why over other stories?

3. How can I use this knowledge learned in the course towards a normal application of science?

eglaser's picture

Introduction and questions

Hello, my name is Erin Glaser.

I have three siblings, two sisters and one brother. My older sister is in college but is thinking about becoming a tattoo artist. I grew up in Northern Virginia (the part of Virginia that would rather consider itself to be a part of DC than Virginia). My parents are divorced but out of economic necessity they still live in the same house. Over the course of my life, I have had a managerie of pets including dogs, cats, parrots, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs and a handful of tomagotchi's. Although I was raised in the same house all my life I have traveled to Ireland and The Philippines and want to travel more around the world. I love watching horror movies in order to make fun of them. And I hope to become a forensic anthropologist.


My questions for this course are...

1.Where do stories come from? What were the firs stories and why were they created?

2. How has human evolution affected the way we tell stories?

3. How do scientific advances alter literature and vice versus?

mfradera's picture


Didn't realize I had to post here. Any way, Hi! I'm Marina. I'm a senior at Bryn Mawr and am from the Bronx, NY. I'm taking this class because I like stories. Plain and simple. I'm even writing my thesis on stories passed down in families and if/how they evolve, but that's another topic I may bring up when my research is more developed.

My initial questions were as follows:

1. What does the story of evolution look like?

2. How is this story changing right now?

3. What do people do with these stories?

Lillie Williams's picture

Lillie Estelle

Hello, my name is Lillie. I'm a freshman at Bryn Mawr and hope to be an English major. I'm from Nashville, TN and have found Philadelphia to be an exciting place. I believe that one's life is, in essence, a sum of one's experiences and so I chose to take this course to see how it can evolve my own life summary. I've always enjoyed learning about new concepts in science, but eagerly remove myself from the math. I enjoy the idea of looking at concepts from a more philosophical/ humanities viewpoint. I don't feel that this into describes me in any real way so I should say that I drink red bull, stop at green lights, and am obsessed with New York. I was also a teenage fag hag and find myself still going to gay clubs often... since they are the most fun. Maybe that was too much information, but I'll go with it.

My questions were:
1. How does the way we've progressed effect the way we think of ourselves?
2. Does the way we tell our stories reflect the evolution of our past?
3. What do stories have to do with evolution?

dshanin's picture


My name is Dan Shanin and I am a junior at Haverford College.  I am majoring in psychology with a neural-behavioral concentration and will be applying to medical school this spring.  I am a lieutenant of emergency medical operations at the Llanerch fire company and have been doing ambulance-related things for over 5 years.  I have a very strong biology background and have done research fellowships in microbiology and yeast genetics.  I feel that I will bring a very science-oriented perspective and I am curious to see how it compares with that of those who study the humanities.


The theory of evolution involves the idea of "success".  In biology success is easy to define; the creation of viable offspring carrying your genome.  How does the idea of success, an integral part of the theory of evolution, manifest itself when evolution is studied outside of the biological realm and it becomes more complicated than living vs. dead?

Evolutionary change in biology is the result of random mutations that are then acted upon by natural selection.  What is the driving force for change in literature since it certainly isn't random mutation?


Are all stories simply the evolution of an earlier tale or genre?   


lparrish's picture

I'm Lindsey

Hi, I'm Lindsey Parrish, a sophomore.  I am majoring in English, minoring in Film Studies, concentrating in Gender and Sexuality Studies, and concentrating in Creative Writing.  While I was in high school, the US Government paid me to also attend classes at different universities, where I took numerous courses in Chemistry, Physics, Anatomy and Physiology, and Biology.  Four years ago, I began discussing the mythology and evolution of classical fairy tales with one of my instructors at Saint Francis University, and it remains to be the most fascinating part of my literary studies.  As I have studied evolution and the mythology of stories separately, I am very excited to study the intersection of these two topics. 

Have stories evolved as a product of the evolution of the brain, or is it more appropriate to think of the evolution of stories as a product of the evolution of society and changing moral values?

It is possible for two stories to be very similar in plot structure but to be from completely different origins.  Is this also possible for creatures to be very similar in anatomical structure but to have evolved in entirely different ways?

Society and morals, as I mentioned above, have evolved over time.  It seems that most things (if not all things) evolve in some way.  Why is it, then, that stories are posited in this course as having a special tie to evolution.  Why are these two topics in particular seen as analagous?

Student Blogger's picture

Yet Another Introduction

I'm Anisha Chirmule a junior Biology major and Dance minor at Bryn Mawr College.  I am pretty local to the Bryn Mawr area, attending high school at the end of the R5 (Paoli), but I have recently relocated to the greater Los Angeles area.  I have always been very interested in the field of Biology, specifically Developmental and Molecular Biology, and am anticipating on pursuing medical school in the near future.  In addition, I am also involved in the dance community at Bryn Mawr.  I have studied classical ballet for a number of years but have more recently become interested in hip hop and more contemporary forms of dance.  Before this class, I have not considered a parallel between dance (which as a form of expression and history is a way to tell stories) and biology.  The relationship between the two could uncover some interesting ideas!


Some questions:


1. Does studying the evolution of stories and storytelling give us significant insight into the past and perhapseven the future?

2.  Besides being studied in Biology cirriculum, does evolution still have an effect on new scientific developments today?

3. How does the evolution of stories relate to evolution in a biological context?

rmehta's picture

Hi all, my name is Rina. I

Hi all, my name is Rina. I hail from Easton, Pennsylvania, the same little town where Binney and Smith’s Crayola factory is located. I’m a senior at Bryn Mawr and am pursuing a major in Biology and a minor in Spanish, specifically with a keen interest in Latin American literature.  My Spanish minor allows me to take time away from my second home, the Park Science Building, and experience the other side of campus.  In fact, this is my first class in the English House.  My unconventional academic combination also allows me to explore detail on different levels, studying regimented biological systems at one time and abstract Latin American prose at another. However, even after taking several literature courses, I still think I have a very scientific way of thinking. I am a first generation born Indian American and have a sincere interest in the cultural/environmental influence on the development of behavior and the origin/evolution of thought.  I am interested to see how my scientific notions of thinking may be skewed/destroyed/reaffirmed by this class and how the notion of evolution can be discussed in both a biological and literary sense.   Some questions:
  1. Is there a single, definitive origin to every story?
  2. What were Darwin’s perceptions of religion?
  3. How much has the past had an impact on our present way of thinking? Is there a notion of conservation in the evolution of stories as there is in biological systems?
LS2's picture


Hi, My name is Lucie. I grew up in New York City and now live off-campus in downtown Philadelphia. I am a senior, double-major in History of Art and Cultural Anthropology. After completing an Art History thesis that largely focused on museum studies last year, this year I am expanding upon some thoughts begun there for a thesis in Anthropology. My anthro thesis is based on my fieldwork as an intern and research assistant at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. As a museum of medical history that primarily displays the remains of human medical “anomalies,” the Mutter is an apt site for exploring how museums shape the manner in which we think about our bodies and about difference. Furthermore, as a relic of a time in which humanistic thought and scientific exploration were by and large conducted by the same people, the Mutter is also ripe for engaging the intersections of the humanities and the sciences that I believe we will explore in this class. I am looking forward to learning more about the history of science, as well as about how evolutionary theory has informed the stories we tell about ourselves on a broader scale.  Sidebar: I am looking for some people to participate in a survey I am conducting at the museum. Please let me know if you can help me out! I also encourage everyone to visit the Mutter in general—it is a very unique experience not to be missed during your time near Philadelphia, and I'd be happy to show you around.  Some initial questions include:

-Both historically and currently, how important is stylistic flair in scientific writing? If, historically, science has attempted to obscure the subjectivity of its claims,  what is the role of The Author in writing about empiricisms?

                -On an aesthetic level, how do we know what the world and species looked like pre-us? I know that fossils can provide some insight into the shape and perhaps texture of early species, but how do the people creating the renderings of dinosaurs, etc  for natural history museums know, say, what color animals were then? Are these just approximations?

                -Has, and if so, how, the story and implications of evolution participated in the production of prejudicial and marginalizing tendencies in our society? More generally, what role does science play in the formation of (sometimes pernicious) cultural norms?


eolecki's picture


Hi, my name is Elizabeth Olecki and I am a freshman here at Bryn Mawr College.  I plan on majoring in Biology and Economics.  I am from Ohio and I attended a St. Peter’s High School.  My experiences in a Catholic high school are one aspect that I have to bring to our conversations.  In the first class we already began discussing the idea of science versus something.  Many people view sciences main competition religion, specifically when it comes to the idea of evolution.  In high school we spent a large amount of time in theology class discussing how science and religion could coexist, and how it is not hard for someone to believe in God and evolution.  The questions I came into the class with were:


Is it useful/appropriate to apply the idea of evolution to other ideas?


How wide is the influence of the idea of evolution on society?


What would the world be like without this theory-does it make that much of a difference?
merlin.'s picture

Hello, I am a pre-med

Hello, I am a pre-med sophomore at BMC and an anticipated psychology major. I have no great previous experience with the topic of evolution, but am truly excited about the reading listed on the syllabus. I believe that what I can most bring to this class is an open mind and an eagerness to learn, along with possibly the prospective of a psychology major. I would love to know more about the way in which stories evolve. In the context of this course, It would also be interesting to have a broader understanding of how the story of evolution developed alongside other stories of the time. How and exactly when did the story of evolution first arise in the public eye and begin be gain acceptance?

Jim Wiltsee's picture

Hello, I am a senior

I am a senior economics major, biology minor . I hope to eventually get into healthcare consulting because I enjoy analyzing healthcare as well as topics such as poverty.

Three Questions
-More information on the effects of depression anxiety,etc on the mind/body.
-the role the brain plays in dreaming
-how the brain functions in muscle memory for such things as athletic activities.

-Jim Wiltsee

jrlewis's picture

Hey everybody, I’m a

Hey everybody, I’m a local girl who wanted to stay close to her horse(s).  We are so close that my pony and I sleep under the same roof, her in a stall with straw, me in bedroom and bed.  Other than my love of horses, I am really interested in literature.  There are stacks and stacks of novels in my apartment and my younger horse is named for a character in a Faulkner novel.  However, reading has been mainly a hobby or relaxation for me.  I am a double major in biology and chemistry.  This course seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my academic and personal interests. 

As a potential high school science teacher, I would love to develop a perspective on evolution beyond a brief biological definition or the religion vs. science debate.  At least add some breadth to the discussion of evolution?

It occurs to me that any conversation about the story of evolution or the evolution of stories is about a many things, organisms, people as opposed to one.  In a course I took last semester on mental health and the brain, our discussion seemed to be more about individual stories and personal transformations.  Is this distinction meaningful or useful?

I am also taking a class on the historical roots of evolutionary developmental biology.  I wonder how history fits into the interdisciplinary space between science and literature?

sustainablephilosopher's picture

Hey, friends

I am called Tim and I'm a senior Philosophy major at Haverford. I am also an environmental activist; my thesis is on environmental ethics. I think about things primarily through these two lenses but also try to think without a lens; also, not to think but rather to experience unmediated. I'm from a rural/ conservative area in central MD, but this is mostly incidental to who I am. I notice that the mind/ ego/ sense of identity & self-narratives that we possess are fundamentally creative: where does your inner monologue come from - what is speaking and who is it that is aware of this occurrence? There I go; you might discern something of my philosophical tendencies already. 

A few naive questions hatched during class:

- Is the origin of stories less murky/ more certain than that of life, or do we merely have a story as to the beginning of stories as well?

- Is it true that stories, like life, tend toward complexity and increased intelligence over time?

- On the contrary, have stories, like mass-produced modern consumer society, tended toward consolidation, unification of themes, simplification, marketability, and reader satisfaction?

-Tim Richards '09

"The life of the individual has meaning only insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful"
Albert Einstein

Joanna Barkas`'s picture


Hello. My name is Joanna Barkas and I am a sophomore Biology major, Anthropology minor at Bryn Mawr. I am a first generation American, as both my parents were born and raised in Greece before moving to New York City. From a young age, I knew that science was what I was most interested in; however, being raised in a Greek Orthodox family, I often found it difficult to reconcile both my interest in science and my Greek Orthodox upbringing. This became increasingly difficult as I entered college and my studies in science and anthropology led to my interest in evolution. During my past three semesters at Bryn Mawr, I have begun to consider that the facts,opinions,values and ideas that were instilled in me as a child can fall under the category of "stories" and I have begun to realize that it is o.k., if not expected, for these "stories" to evolve as my understanding of the world changes. In such a way I have been able to reconcile my passion for science with my upbringing. That being said, what I hope to be able to bring to the class is my experience with such a conflict, as well as an eagerness to learn about literary evolution, as I have only yet studied biological and anthropological evolution. Lastly, the three questions I had at the beginning of class were:

1) How do stories evolve?
2) How do we recognize the evolution of stories?
3) What aspects of biological evolution are manifested within literary evolution and to what extent do these aspects affect the evolution of stories?

Lisa B.'s picture

My name is Lisa and I am a

My name is Lisa and I am a junior biology major. After graduation from Bryn Mawr I would like to pursue a post-graduate degree so that I could expand my research and volunteering opportunities. I enjoy the personal nature of helping people and the hands-on approach of dissections, yet I appreciate the importance of academic journals. This course provides the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for both biology and literature.

I plan on exploring three questions this semester:

(1) What did Darwin think about God?

(2) What are the psychological outcomes produced by selection?

(3) What major changes in selection pressures controlled human evolution and led humans to be distinct from out closest ancestors?

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture


Hi, I'm Sarah Bechdel. I'm a junior at Bryn Mawr studying anthropology and trying to learn Spanish. I took this class because I'm interested in learning about evolution and biology, especially since they relate to my major, and this class seems different than anything else I've ever taken before. I have no past experience with biology other than falling asleep in high school bio, although I have taken some really great lit classes. Right now I am muddling through The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and as it is conceptually completely over my head but very much related to your subject matter, I would be interested in talking to you guys about it if you've read it before.

My questions:

1. What qualifies as a story in this class? how is a story defined?

2. How will discourses of creationism affect this class? are evolutionary and creationist discourses actually that different?

3. Will we learn about theories of creation/evolution that are earlier than Charles Darwin and the modern era?

enewbern's picture


Hi. My name is Elizabeth, Liz for short and I am a freshman at Bryn Mawr. I am currently undecided but I have alot of ideas and interests. I come here a southern girl with a liberal upbringing and a thirst for knowledge. I really enjoy just about any humanties subject and I will try any science or math course atleast once. I am very excited to be a part of this course and can't wait to have my questions tossed around.

1) What sorts of perspectives and ideologies will be explored through this course?

2) How does evolution relate differently to the topic "the stories of evolution" as opposed to "the evolution of stories"?

3) Can evolution be applied to different subjects/ideas and still hold the same meaning?

4) How would you define evolution in a scientific context rather than a litterature context?

-Liz Newbern '12 


fquadri's picture

Fatima Quadri's Intro = )

Hello everyone, My name is Fatima Quadri. I’m a  sophomore at Bryn Mawr. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved studying Biology and English. It’s why I’m very excited to be in this class because I can combine my two favorite disciplines into one of my most favorite topics: Evolution. I never knew much about Evolution and Darwin until I took A.P Biology my junior year of high school, but even then, the exposure was brief. I was re-introduced to the topic in college during Bio 102 which revived my interest and caused me to sign up for Evolution 236 last semester. Whether it was Darwin, dinosaurs, Neanderthals, or Wallace, I loved learning about the evolution of the world and the evolution of the theory itself from biological, geological, and anthropologic perspectives. I’m excited about this class because now I can see Evolution from a literary perspective and learn how it has affected the thinking of people from the past and today. I am also interested in learning about people’s perceptions on Evolution, especially in the context of personal and religious beliefs.


Here are three questions I came up with in class:


1)      Is the teaching of evolution in schools only controversial in the United States? If so, why is that?

2)      Have modern technology and medicine gotten in the way of nature’s biological evolution or are they a part of evolution?

3)       Evolution is a very long process that cannot be seen in one’s lifetime in the biological world. However, are there any exceptions to this? Can we see ourselves, our culture, and our stories evolving right now or do we need for some significant amount of time to pass before seeing this?

jaferr's picture


Hi everyone! My name is Jillian and I am a junior at Bryn Mawr. I am currently pursuing a double-major in Molecular Biology and Italian, which is a combination that most people find surprising and confusing. What initially drew me to this class was the combination of sciences and humanities. Ever since elementary school, most of us have had adults ask us whether we like math and science or english and history better, and I personally never understood why it had to be an either/or choice. Even now, when I tell people about my double-major, they usually tell me that it is an "interesting combination." The idea that someone who enjoys the study of math and sciences cannot possibly enjoy the study of humanities is one that I feel is incredibly prevalent in our society, and also one that is very much misguided. I believe that humanities and sciences are not polar opposites, but rather they are very much intertwined. I hope that in this course, we will explore the actual and perceived relationships between the humanities and sciences, specifically in these ways:

1. Why do people feel that there needs to be a "versus" relationship between humanities and sciences?

2. When and why did the humanities and sciences start to be viewed as incompatible, when they have traditionally been viewed as courses of study that should be pursued together (in the tradition of Aristotle, DaVinci, etc.)?

3. In what ways are sciences and humanities still related today, in spite of their perceived separation?


- Jillian '10 

aybala50's picture


Hi everyone. I'm a freshmen here at Bryn Mawr. I lived in Adana, Turkey until the end of 8th grade. During this time I lived with a very liberal American mother and a very conservative Turkish father in a fairly liberal Muslim nation. I am very much interested in studying psychology in my years here and that is part of the reason why I wanted to take this class. I like to discuss different opinions about controversial issues such as evolution. I would also like to improve my ability in writing essays, so this class is pretty perfect as it encompasses so much I like. I'm excited to be taking this class and am looking forward to the semester.


1- Do stories told in life contribute to change over time? 

2- How are we going to relate change in stories with evolution? 

3- How have stories evolved over time?  

aseidman's picture

Hello! I'm Arielle Seidman,

Hello! I'm Arielle Seidman, or "Relle" for short. I'm a Junior at Bryn Mawr, and an enthusiastic English major. I readily confess, I'm one of those people who looks at the word "science" and runs blindly in the other direction. I'm hoping to shake some of that this year. One of the things that most intrigued and appealed to me about this course was the fact that we seem to be accessing science from the angle of literary criticism: "If I cannot disprove it, it will hold up as plausible." I'm an arguer who likes to play devil's advocate and nitpick over nuances, but I'll try to be good.


What exactly are we using as our definition of "evolution?" Does it go beyond "change over time," the way I (and probably many others) learned it in high school?

 Have religius theories about creation evolved over time, as well as scientific ones?

 Are there any pieces of fictional literatue which deal with diferent concepts of evolution? What are some other theories of evolution (not neccessarily of creation.)




kcofrinsha's picture


Hello everybody! My name is Keely and I am a SophomoreSpanish major, but I am interested in many subjects outside of Spanish.  In the past I have enjoyed learningscience concepts, but have avoided science classes due to my dislike oflabs.  In high school I tookEnvironmental Science, which I loved. I am intrigued by the combination of English and Biology (two subjectsthat I enjoy).  I am not surespecifically what I will bring. Like everybody, I have had unique experiences that will help mecontribute to our learning. However, I’m not yet sure exactly how my experiences will behelpful.  Although I have notstudied English or Biology extensively, I bring a desire to learn and a senseof curiosity that will contribute to the class atmosphere.


1. Is the concept of evolution relevant to other parts oflife?  For example, can the idea ofevolution be applied to history? Or is evolution irrelevant to life outsideBiology?

2. How does the idea of evolution connect English andBiology?

3. Is Darwin’s theory in particular relevant to life outsidescience?

Tara Raju's picture

Introduction, Post 1

Hi! I am a junior who is extremely interested in the parallels that will be drawn by seemingly to vastly different subject areas. I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to a similar mindset of thought in Professor Grobstein's Philosophy of Science class. There is so many different facets to science and english that are begging to be questioned and on that note my three questions are as follows:

1. Are there any subject areas that do not experience the concept of evolution?

2. Why is there so much controversy surrounding intelligent design and evolution if one of them is widely accepted as science? Is there a concept that makes intelligent design just as legitimate of a story as evolution?

3. What are the more specific parallels between literature and biology and how will we explore these parallels?

Marina Morrison's picture


My name is Marina and this is my first year at Bryn Mawr. I am from Washington, D.C. and am of Irish and Dutch descent. I am hoping to become a Psychology/Pre-med major due to my interests in human behavior and neuroscience. I am very interested in both Biology and Literature and thought this class would be an interesting blend of both subjects. I come from a strict Catholic family but often find myself more interested in biological perspectives. However, my Catholic background has allowed me to become more open minded and respectful towards different views on life. I also attended a large and diverse public high school where opposing views were commonplace. I am excited for this class and the unique perspectives it will bring.

1. How can the theories of evolution be woven into the study of literature?
2. Why are biology and literature so divided in the first place?
3. What types of literature will be used?

Rachel Townsend's picture


Hello, Everyone! My name is Rachel and I am a Senior History of Art Major, here at Bryn Mawr.  I am an English minor and have an unofficial concentration in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I am from Seattle, WA. I think that the intersection of evolution and stories is both interesting and an important thing to look at and study.  I certainly tend to look at things more along the creative side of things, so I many times wonder about how the way stories of evolution or other scientific theories are presented to us effects the way we react or accept them, which is essentially one of my questions: How much do the way things are written about influnece the way we recieve/precieve them?  I think that my interest in the topics of the course may also come from a place of not personally liking change very much, but as Professor Grobstein was talking about on Tuesday, we are constantly in change, never in staisis.  I think that looking at this constant change and acknowledging it is one of the ways we learn to process and deal with it. My other questions include: "How does the story of evolution (as in the way it has been written about) contribute to the evolution of literature?" and "How does the concept of evolution (as in the theories in general) influence the process and change of literature?" 

I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation with you all! 

Jackie Marano's picture

Hello to all

I'm Jackie, a junior French major at Bryn Mawr, but I have devoted just as much (if not more) of my studies here on the pre-med curriculum in hopes of continuing to dental school. I chose French as my major because it applies to my life an interests in ways that I already know and that I'm continuing to discover. It has added a sense of balance to my life and gets me thinking 'out of the box,' which I hope to do in this course as well! Both of my parents are in the medical field, I always preferred math and science courses in school, and I tend to accept the stories that scientific discoveries/phenomena tell as the basis of my personal reality. As a Catholic who attended Catholic high school, my mind has long been opened to alternative realities, and I find it fascinating to study these sorts of things. When I was in France this summer, immersed in French culture, I was constantly noticing cultural differences, and thus constantly reflected on myself and my own values (and the values of the American culture). I was forever amazed at how much I learned about myself, the basis of my beliefs/behaviors, and perhaps humanity as well... just by keeping an open mind. I see the same potential in this class to deepen my understanding of how I understand things! So here were my questions:

1) What tools will we use to determine how stories evolve?

2). What will we be defining as a story in the first place...fiction, biography, mystery, fairy tales, narratives?

3). Do Darwin's works represent a turning point in storytelling, or is their role less significant to literature than it appears to be in scientific fields?

Rica Dela Cruz's picture


Hi. I am a junior, biology major at Bryn Mawr. One aspect that probably separates me from other students is that I was born and raised on a tiny island in Micronesia (not many people from my island venture off to the east coast for college). I did attend high school in Hawaii, which is probably what allowed me to come here. I feel that because of the different culture I was brought up in, I may have different views on certain topics. Being a biology major, I obviously have a great interest for science and evolution. However, coming from a Catholic family and having lived in a community mostly of Catholics, I do have some understanding for those who believe in a higher power. 
The three questions I would like to talk about this semester are:
1) What is the story of evolution concerning different human ethnicities (and different cultures)?
2) How have animals evolved to be able to tell stories (ie. language)?
3) Does there always have to be a line between science and religion?
Katie Randall's picture

Introducing Myself

My name is Katie and I'm a freshman at Bryn Mawr. I'm from New York City, which teaches you something about diversity-- that it's there but sometimes more superficial than people want to admit, and sometimes less obvious than it seems. In such a big city, why are neighborhoods often dominated by one ethnicity? Why do kids form the groups they do in schools? And why is diversity so often used to mean ethnic diversity, when it's so much more than that?
I like to ask questions, and discuss, and go off on tangets. I like classes where students aren't expected to learn a particular set of answers, or even be completely set in their own opinions, since I often have a hard time making up my mind.
Those earlier questions aren't the ones I came up with for this course, but we may end up discussing them anyway. The questions I came up with are:
Do stories evolve the way that living things do, or is the process different?
Has technology changed the way that humans and other living things on Earth evolve?
Do all stories evolve in the same way?

amirbey's picture

Hello everybody, I’m a

Hello everybody, I’m a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College and I would like to be a math and biology major, this is why I am involved in this class.  Since my parents are both involved in a medical career, I consider myself more as a scientist than a literature person.  Indeed, I have always loved learning about sciences but unfortunately, I am very bad at writing essays, so this is why I do not like literature so much.  In order to finish my pre-med requirements I had to take another semester of English therefore, I chose this class since it deals with the evolution of biology.  I was thinking that by going to this class I would encounter Darwin’s theory about evolution and learn in detail his theories.  In fact, I have learnt in my French high school in Dijon (where they make the real mustard!) a little bit about Darwin’s theory on the evolution of species but I wanted to go further in details.  I was also wishing to discover the essence of science; where does it come from?  What could be a good definition of science?

Anyway, here are my three questions:

-          Is there a parallel between Darwin’s evolution and the religious explanation of humans on earth?

-          What is the evolution of stories going to be about?  The evolution of Myths and legends or only about the biological evolution of species?

-          How can we relate both the story of evolution with the evolution of stories? 

eawhite's picture


I am a McBride student (non-traditional aged returning adult student). What I bring to the class is a lifetime of experiences which have shaped my actions and thoughts. I am looking forward to blending both science, literature and religion in a way that makes sense. I am a deeply religious person and have been in search of "the truth" for most of my life. I have witnessed first hand Darwin's theory of evolution while traveling in the Galapagos Islands. I have also been to the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa to see first hand where some believe human life began. I visited the dig sites and spent a goodly period of time with a Post-doc archeologist. It is my hope that through the readings, lectures and open discussions I can absorb more truths about this wonderful world we live in.

My questions are:

1.  Is it really possible to blend religious and scientific thought with regard to the origin of life?

2.  Why is there this on-going conflict about teaching differing schools of thought about the origin of life in high schools?

3.  What is the pop-culture thought about intelligent design and why is it so threatening?

Denys's picture

Blending creation with evolution

I am 59 now, have decided to make my point of reference in life the brain. ..For the last 10 years have been studying the brain and as much related material as possible. I'ts been an interesting journey and I now run a personal change management workshop (10 sessions) for companies.
If you study the brain it is chiefly an organ of memory, with many different ways of storing and in fact creating memory, whether as a result of physical interaction with the real world, or through input of theory by listening to the experience of others.
I have found that the best independent method of arriving at the "truth" is by independently tracing an event back to it's origins.
Whenever I have investigated religion, so far, it always is based on acceptance of third hand information, based on man's imaginary explanations for a particular event. This is often supported by an emotional and semi-conscious "experience", ie. feeling a spiritual presence, or hearing voices.
I can understand why religion seems so real, but investigating each individual case has led me to a scientific understanding, backed up by vast amounts of legitimate experimentation.
Religion seems to be a choice of what one wishes to believe in. The word belief in order to exist requires an element of faith. Faith is acceptance without investigation.

Paul Grobstein's picture


Thanks for stopping by, leaving your thoughts. As an "applied neurobiologist," I share your notion of the brain as a potentially useful "frame of reference." And an interest in the potentials and problems of "acceptance without investigation." We'll be talking more about both in Tuesday's class (notes will be linked to from this page). Delighted to have you join the on-line conversation. It will be "Evolit: Week 6" on the course forum index page.
epeck01's picture


I have always loved learning about topics that provide insight into why people behave the way they do.  This has lead to academic interests in psychology and biology, among other subjects.  I enjoy approaching academics with the consideration of their implications on people and how the two can affect one another.  This point of view will hopefully be useful in the course, since there are so many ways in which evolution, and stories both affect and are affected by people.  Questions I have about the course include:
-Why are the two subject matters related?  Does the connection imply that writing/stories/literature is a living thing in some way?
-Is part of the reason to write a desire to understand our own evolution/where we’ve come from?
-Do individual stories evolve with new readers or does literature  evolve as a whole, or do both individual stories and literature as a whole evolve?

-Elana Peck '12
mcurrie's picture


Hey, everyone I'm a mountain girl that has decided to move closer to a city. I live in a family with a brother who can be very loud when voiceing his opinions. Usually when I am near. I am a great listener that hears everyone's opinions before I voice my own. With my brother never being able to stop talking I am used to squeezing in my views before he goes on a rampage. Surrounded by sciences with my mom being a nurse and my dad a retired forester I guess I have the genes for science. I love the outdoors and wish I was able to play outside every day. Ready to listen and voice my own opinions I can't wait to start our discussions. Questions from an open mind starting with "Which stories by Darwin were disproved? How does intelligent design fit into the story? Their idea and support? and Darwinisms, Are these stories worthy of being used in Darwins theory or are they only used for a good laugh?"

kgould's picture



After a bout with mono and an unexpected medical leave in the Spring semester of 2008, I'm back and eager to further explore the melding of English and science. Due to an extreme desire to read obscene amounts of medical narratives and science non-fiction, I’ve conjured the idea of pursuing science writing as a career after college. This, combined with my aspirations to enter a health career, have compounded into an unusual hope of getting my Masters of Nursing after Bryn Mawr and writing about my experiences. A major in English and a minor in Biology seems the best way to achieve this, but who knows... last year I thought I was pre-Med.

My thought process is often convoluted, but I could provide some interesting perspectives to our class by sharing my view about making science intelligible for all types of people (through science writing) and my unending desire to read everything, about a multitude of different topics, that I can get my hands on. As an atheist raised by a Protestant and an agnostic with a strictly Catholic family, I’ve always tried to weigh theories and stories that have been presented to me. I wish I could say I was purely skeptical about life and science, but that would be a lie. My early education insisted on truth, facts, and fallacies. I’m still trying to reprogram my brain to not immediately jump for the “right” answer and instead consider other possibilities. More than anything, I look for evidence and observations to speak for themselves.

That said,

  1. How can we make science interesting for the non-science person?
  2. What is the evidence for evolution and what observations are we still making about this natural process?
  3. Do things other than living organisms evolve?

Kate Gould, 2011 (more or less)

Year of Evolution


Anne Dalke's picture

Introducing Anne

I add my warm welcome to Paul's--along w/ the invitation to find out more about me on my college homepage. Lessee, short version: I'm a Quaker in a secular culture; a 4x mom here amongst 20-somethings; a commuter who lives a good deal of the time on a farm in Virginia (when I'm not living in some fictional world or another, which is where I actually spend most of my time). I'm also a literary critic w/ an abiding interest in what science can teach us about the word (not to mention the world...), and what literature might teach us about how science makes the world. I have some very particular questions, this semester, about Charles Darwin's 'literariness,' and about what role Walt Whitman might have played in the emergence of the contemporary genre of memoirs...
Paul Grobstein's picture


Glad you're all here. You can find more about me on my Serendip home page. Looking forward to hearing more about you. What do you have to bring to this conversation that you think might be usefully different from other people? What three particular questions do you hope we'll explore this semester?


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