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The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories: A Syllabus

The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories:

Exploring the Significance of Diversity
Biology/English 223
Bryn Mawr College
Spring 2009

Anne Dalke (English House, ext. 5308,
Paul Grobstein (Park Science Building, ext. 5098,


"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.
Required Texts:
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection (1859; rpt. and ed. Joseph Carroll, 2003)

Daniel Dennett. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995)

Paul Feyerabend, "Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge" (1975)

Susan Sontag. "Against Interpretation" (1963)

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (The Original 1855 Edition; rpt. Dover 2007)

Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American: A Novel (2008)


Week One: Playing/Setting Things Up
Tues, Jan. 20
Welcome! A Work in Progress About a Work in Progress
Thurs, Jan. 22 What Happened to the Versus?

Sun, Jan. 25 (and each Sunday evening thereafter):
post on-line your thoughts about this (or last) week's readings-and-conversations



Weeks Two-Four:
Where Does the Story of Biological Evolution Come From?

Tues, Jan. 27 Darwin, Historical Sketch-Ch. IV (pp. 79-177)
Thurs, Jan. 29 Darwin continued
Tues, Feb. 3 Darwin, Chapters V-VIII (pp. 178-268)
Thurs, Feb. 5 Darwin continued
Tues, Feb. 10 Darwin, Chapters IX-XIV (pp. 269-398)
Thurs, Feb. 12 Darwin continued

5 p.m. Fri, Feb. 13: Paper #1 due
Write 3-4 pp. in which you think through some problem that has been raised in your mind by our discussion of biological evolution. This is not a "reaction paper" (like your forum postings), but should rather make a claim, develop a thesis, and support it with observations which you have drawn from several new resources you have located (either in the form of written texts or on the web).

Some sample topics:

  • why should evolution be taught, or not, in high school?
  • perform a textual analysis of Darwin: explain the process by which he makes meaning, examining his use of language, his underlying presumptions, etc.
  • write a critical evaluation of the evidence for evolution
Bring a hard copy to your section leader's office (Anne's in English House, Paul's in Park) and
post a copy of the paper in the course web exchange.

Weeks Five-Seven: Is Evolution a Useful Story Beyond Biology?

Tues, Feb. 17 Dennett, Part I: Starting in the Middle (pp. 17-145)
Thurs, Feb. 19 Dennett, continued
Tues, Feb. 24 Dennett, Chapters 12-14 (pp. 335-427)
Thurs, Feb. 26 Dennett, continued
Tues, Mar. 3 Dennett, Chapters 15-18 (pp. 428-521)
Thurs, Mar. 5 Dennett, continued


5 p.m. Mon, Mar. 16: Paper #2 due
3-4 pp. on some aspect of the story of evolution beyond the context of biology which is of particular interest or use to you. Bring a hard copy to class and also post a copy of the paper in the course web exchange.

Weeks Eight-Twelve: How and why do Literary Stories Evolve?
Tues, Mar. 17 Paul Feyerabend, "Against Method"
and Susan Sontag. "Against Interpretation"
Thurs, Mar. 19 "
Tues, Mar. 24 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, pp. 21-68
Thurs, Mar. 26 "
Tues, Mar. 31 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, pp. 69-113.
Thurs, Apr. 2 "
Tues, Apr. 7 The Sorrows of an American, pp. 1-152
Thurs, Apr. 9 "
Tues, Apr. 14 The Sorrows of an American, pp. 152-306
Thurs, Apr. 16 "

5 p.m. Mon, Apr. 20: Paper #3 due
3-4 pp. on some aspect of the evolution of literary stories that particularly interests--or is useful--to you. Submit a hard copy and post a copy in the course web exchange.

Weeks Thirteen and Fourteen:
Biological Evolution, Literature, and ... ?

Tues, Apr. 21 What a Biologist is Learning from Literary Criticisim;
What a Literary Critic is Learning from Biology...
Thurs, Apr. 22
What We All are Learning from One Another....

Tues, Apr. 28 & Thurs. Apr. 30
Bringing it all together--telling each other new stories
Spontaneously formed emergent groups of four or so students each should prepare ten-fifteen minute presentations reflecting on their experiences over the semester. Presentations should encourage, in a provocative and entertaining way, further story development on the part of others in the class.

5 p.m. Saturday, May 9 (seniors);
12:30 p.m. Friday, May 15 (all others)
Paper #4 and Portfolio Due.

Paper #4: 10-12 pp. in which you make use of the biological, philosophical and literary stories of the course to create a new, interesting, useful story of your own--one that might well (in consultation with your instructor) have a creative dimension.

Instructions for Preparing and Posting Your Papers
Instructions for Preparing Your Portfolio

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.

The images on these pages are reproduced with permission of Rieko Nakamura and Toshihiro Anzai;
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