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Evolution as Story III

Evolution as Story III
10 Feb 2009 (PG)

Switch in story telling style from non-narrative foundational to narrative foundational to emergence

Great Chain of Being
Fixed Entities, Tree of Life

spatial order, time irrelevant time relevant, but playing out eternal or inevitable order time critical, order changing as it goes along

Most disturbing part of story?

  • common ancestry (dethroning humanity)?
  • non-essentialism (essence-ism)? (dethroning classical thought)?
  • non-foundationalism? (dethroning fixed meaning)?

Was Darwin writing "non-fiction" or "fiction"? Was he himself a non-foundationalist? Was he a pessimist?

"When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species ... are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history. Systematists ... will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be in essence a species. This I feel sure, and I speak from experience, will be no slight relief ...

The other and more general parts of natural history will rise greatly in interest ... When ... we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possesser, nearly in the same way as we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!

A grand and almost untrodden field of inquiry will be opened, on the causes and laws of variation, on correlation of growth, on the effects of use and disuse, on the direct action of external conditions, and so forth ... The whole history of the world, as at present known ... will hereafter be recognized as a mere fragent of time, compared with the ages which have elapsed since the first creature ... In the distant future, I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be shown on the origin of man and his history.

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendents of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian was deposited, they seem to become ennobled ... we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the entire world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural slection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us .... Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved." (pp 394-398)

Pessimist? What about "survival of the fittest"? "nature red in tooth and claw"?

Not phrases Darwin used, nor actually expressive of his perspective (cf Charles Darwin, Aboitionist)

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1850

Herbert Spencer, sociologist/philosopher, Principles of Biology, 1864 ... social darwinism

Different, somewhat conflicting stories about evolution, Spencer won for a while

Fiction or non-fiction?

based on observations, with descriptions of observations (therefore dry?) but ...

"A grand and almost untrodden field of inquiry will be opened ... The whole history of the world, as at present known ... will hereafter be recognized as a mere fragment of time ... In the distant future, I see open fields ... "

not "Truth," but a story whose significance is not only what has been seen that can be shared ("objective" or, better "less subjective") but what new possibilities of seeing are created

Foundationalist (ideal, eternal template, something other than the world we find ourselves in) or non-foundationalist?

"as natural slection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection"

"from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved"

Darwin ... conflicted? too much of an empiricist to have wrestled seriously with this question?

Further evolution of the story of evolution ... things Darwin hadn't see, and some we have yet to see? (see NYTimes, Science Times, 10 Feb 2009)

Time .... much longer than Darwin (or anyone else at the time) imagined

History of life on earth

  • the inanimate/animate transition? the insentient/sentient transition? (probably both continuous rather than abrupt)
  • a single origin for life or multiple origins?
  • on earth or elsewhere?

Genetics, genetic variation, selection

  • genetic inheritance has a now well-defined material basis: genes/DNA
  • genetic variation also now has a well-defined material basis: mutations, random assortment in sexual reproduction
  • studies of DNA support notion of commonalities among all living organisms, descent with variation
  • random genetic variation and selection clearly important for, among other things
    • drug resistant bacteria
    • the ontogeny of immune system function
  • evolution indeed a generative story, continues to change, generate new questions/stories
    • genetic variation associated with horizontal as well as vertical transmission
    • role of non-genetic factors in evolution

Randomness as a creative underpinning

The story telling brain as a new development in evolution

Neocortex gives us the capacity to tell stories, to go beyond experiences, to conceive/explore/bring into existence new worlds, to create meaning out of randomness

Non-foundationalism: evolution beyond genetic inheritance



Intention and meaning didn't precede evolution but were brought into existence by it?

Humans share with all other living organisms the wherewithal to explore forms of life,

and can do so as well though story telling


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