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The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories: EvoLit

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Anne Dalke's picture

Welcome to The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, offered in Spring 2011 @ Bryn Mawr College. This is an interestingly different kind of place for writing, and may take some getting used to. The first thing to keep in mind is that this is not a place for "formal writing" or "finished thoughts." It's a place for thoughts-in-progress, for what you're thinking (whether you know it or not) on your way to what you think next. Imagine that you're not worrying about "writing" but instead that you're just talking to some people you've met. This is a "conversation" place, a place to find out what you're thinking yourself, and what other people are thinking, so you can help them think and they can help you think. The idea is that your "thoughts in progress" can help others with their thinking, and theirs can help you with yours.

We're glad you're here, and hope you'll come both to enjoy and value our shared imagining of the future evolution of ourselves as individuals and of our gendered, scientific, technological world. Feel free to comment on any post below, or to POST YOUR THOUGHTS HERE....

themword's picture

Making Your Writing Come Alive

Powers uses very detailed and strong descriptions. While it is good to used detail and strong descriptions in writing, I feel like Powers is going to far. He overuses such descriptions, employing them in practically every sentence. I believe he is trying to make to many references and make it obvious that the group of people he is talking about is creative writers. In a nutshell, think he is trying to hard to make his writing come alive.

mgz24's picture

Why Generosity

 I've been thinking now about Anne's question in class about why we're reading this novel, and I keep going back to the part in the novel where they say that there are only 24 possible plots to write, and they debate whether that is true or not.  I'm starting to think that in a broad sense that may actually be true.  Because I think there really is a limit to what kinds of stories can be told.  I think that the variation comes not from the plot, but from the story.   Similar to how there are multiple stories of evolution, there can be multiple stories for a certain plot line.

kgrass's picture

Origins of Mesquakie

  In class today we discussed what Generosity may have evolved from, and sources that may have inspired Powers. It motivated me to explore the origin of the name of the invented college, “Mesquakie College of Art”. Mesquakie is the name of a Native American tribe that settled in the Great Lakes region, and who were forced to leave their homes when European settlers came to the area. These people were displaced in their own homeland, much like Thassa had been when she became a refugee. 

katlittrell's picture

Lucas Carpenter's "Tumbleweed"

I went to Lucas Carpenter's show tonight (March 13th) at the Milkboy in Ardmore, and this song reminded me of the discussion we had earlier in the semester about the relation between religion and the theory of evolution.


"Tumbleweed" - Lucas Carpenter

cr88's picture

Memes and "Hidden" Skyhooks

 (I wrote this post during an earlier discussion, but I realized I forgot to put it up on Serendip)

In thinking about memes and their origins this week, I couldn't help but think of this particular scene from one of my favorite movies, "The Devil Wears Prada." 

mindyhuskins's picture

Don't Get Stuck on the Idea

I know I've been gone for a while, and I do sorely miss the conversations in class, but I have been keeping up with the postings and I have noticed a trend I wanted to comment on. It seems that no one likes Dennet, at all, at least not the idea of the Library of Babel. If I had been in class and seen more conversation and more ideas, my idea may be different, but this is what I think now. This Library idea is not new to me, it is something that I have read about for years. My classmates seem to be either confused, unhappy, or unaccepting of the idea altogether. While I do not believe this idea is completely valid, I enjoy what it brings to the table. Everyone seems to be hung up on the idea rather than interested in exploring what the idea means.

ib4walrus's picture

Unconscious agency

 The title to this posting may seem a little contradictory at first to me at least.  When I think of agency, I think of something that I have at least some control over.  From this definition, the word control would imply that the outcome of my action has some intentionality behind it and because of this, doesn't it mean that we must be aware of both our action and the intended effect it will have?  This is where I began become confused during last Thursday's discussion group.  We eventually reached a point where it seemed to be agreed upon that there might be times where we would unconsciously affect someone else.  If I remember correctly, it was said that we might say something or do an action which causes affects someone else who sees or hears us.

ashley's picture

Wonderings as a Ball O' Yarn

I'd like to go back and address a topic we discussed before the break. The basic question of 'why don't we stop trying to figure it out...?' was brought up in a classmate's post, which to me brought the idea of ignorance as bliss. There are those who question every little thing and want answers for every minute detail of life, while there are others who prefer to leave those unanswerable questions alone and just go on their daily lives without these daunting questions looming overhead. In some situations, the blissfulness of ignorance may seem best, eliminating any internal turmoil. What happens when we ask questions is that we get some answers; what happens when we open our eyes to our surroundings and become involved is that we find out things that may be unpleasant.

phyllobates's picture

Everything Includes the Container for Everything

  I was just reviewing my class notes on the Library of Babel.

Lynn's picture

Genetics, Environment, and...?

 A recurring theme that I have observed in the last few class meetings is the idea of agency. I freely admit to craving agency as much as the next person; I'm uncomfortable with the notion that my life - my very existence - is either predetermined or simply out of my hands. I have been raised to take responsibility for my actions, and cannot fathom that such responsibility might never have been mine in the first place. No, I believe that we have agency.

Lynn's picture

The Size of Infinity

 I'm confused; that's the short version of this post, I think. In class, we discussed the ways in which we might compare the sizes of different infinities - whether one infinity could contain more than another. When the argument is put forth, I feel that I understand it, yet when I try to explain it to myself, I fall short. The Library of Babel contains infinite possibilities, yet there are an untold number of possibilities even greater still? I almost comprehend this, I think, but not quite... I'm confused. Really confused. If the existing possibilities are never-ending, how then can even more possibilities exist? And why would we care?

ems8140's picture

Altered Library of Babel

When I walked into class on Tuesday, I was confused about Dennett’s analogy of the Library of Babel and its relevance to evolution and our lives. However, after discussing it further in class and talking about the blog postings, I came to the similar realization of some of my other classmates. I think that the belief that all ideas could be present in the library does lead to a sense of possibility and opportunity. I don’t think the idea that every single possible option of combination of thoughts or ideas is present in the library can be plausible. I believe it is our responsibility to combine these in a unique way, thus adding to the vast expanse of the library.

KT's picture

Moral First Aid (Or Lack Thereof) - Monty Python Style


This Monty Python sketch depicting Philosophers playing soccer is a nice demonstration of Dennett's contention that "... Philosophers have been content to ignore the practical problems of real-time decision making..." (p. 496) It's a favorite of mine. Enjoy!


Sarah Schnellbacher's picture

To infinity and beyond? I don't think beyond is feasible

On Thursday in our discussion group we talked about the idea of the Library of Babel. Most of the group seemed to hate the idea that they couldn't be creative because every possibility already exists. I don't have a problem with this notion. Should I find myself a failure because I can not defy the laws of physics? Of course not. The Library of Babel analogy is saying that given laws of the universe, here are the infinite options available. Why should I want to go beyond infinity when my life is so short and there is plenty we need to discover before our world becomes boring?


OrganizedKhaos's picture

Babel On

       Thursday in our small group discussion we touched upon the idea of the Library of Babel and how everything that will ever exist in the world has already been created.  Fortunately, for us wondering minds and gatherers of knowledge there seems to be a number of things to explore.  So much that it's suggested that the infinite number of possibilities may never actually be "checked out" of the library.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

        Are we creating anything new? or simply reiterating or putting forward thoughts and ideas that already exists? This is the question i found myself stuck on even after the discussion.

Cremisi's picture

Selfish or Selfless?

 I think it's important to discuss the issue of the "selfish gene". The term "selfishness" has a very bad connotation in our culture. When we think of selfishness, that is, the trait of being concerned for one's own self more than others, we tend to acquate it with a malicious intention, cold-heartedness, lonesomeness, and anger. The phrase "selfish gene" very much throws off Dawkins original intent--altruism between closely related members of a species. Selfish makes it seem as though the gene has a mind of its own. In actuality, Dawkins was trying to say that closely related members of a species often display altruistic tendencies toward closely related organisms to protect their own gene line.

Poppyflower's picture

Feral Children

Last Thursday, the class debated over the issue of whether or not certain human behaviors are hard wired into us or if they are learned through outside influence. Personally, I believe that the only thing that is "hard-wired" into us is out ability to breath, which comes with out having to think about it, and our natural need to survive. However, it is not really hard-wired into how exactly to survive. We are not born knowing how to hunt or how to gather, these are things we are taught. But then there is also the issue of what defines us as human. Are we human because we build shelters for ourselves and because we can do things other animals can't, or are we taught to be human by other humans?

kgrass's picture


In class on Thursday, we discussed to what extant we have control over our decisions, interactions, and thoughts. We all wanted to believe that there is a sense of randomness mixed with choice that leads our lives rather than a set algorithm. This gives us a sense of agency and control rather than believing our lives are more strongly influenced by others rather than ourselves. This discussion made me think about the movie Inception. If not all of you have seen it, the movie revolves around the idea that during a dream, an idea can be suggested in someone’s head so that he/she believes it originated in his/her own thoughts. Being immersed in a certain culture and set of ideologies is very similar. A certain behavior is observed in your surroundings, you sub

Anne Dalke's picture

Mid-Semester Evaluation

By midnight, Sun. Mar. 13--please post here, as a new comment, your reflections on what's working, and what needs working on, for you as an individual and what's working, and what needs working on, for us as a group (on-line, in class). What are you learning individually? What are we learning collectively? Where are the edges of y/our learning now? What dimensions of the story of evolution and the evolution of stories have we not yet explored...are you still interested in exploring?

ashley's picture

Genes as Selfish?

This idea of selfish genes continues to puzzle me. I can't help but give genes the benefit of the doubt and believe them to simply be in existence. I don't see how they can be categorized as "selfish" when they are not capable of acting with such intentions in mind. I think ultimately what it comes down to is that these genes, which are so deemed as selfish, are in actuality the genes that are simply more fit. As we have seen in various regards, what it comes down to is who, or what, is best fit to survive and thrive. Survival of the fittest in all respects. Genes are being personified and being qualified with an ability to think and scheme. Something that is not rightly possible. I would argue that dominant and recessive genes also come into play here.