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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....

hannahgisele's picture

Which Came First? The Word or the Meaning?

In preparation for my second essay, I’ve been looking into the etymologies of words, and the ways in which words have evolved. In an earlier post of mine (one written on 2/6/2011), I delved into the subject of the ways in which words shift in meaning, but didn’t touch on the flip side of this evolutionary process: when a definition remains the same over time, but the word used to describe it is the constant that is being modified. In another class I’m taking (Female Subjects with Bethany Schneider), we’ve spoken about the eradication of the word ‘hermaphrodite’ when used in reference to intersex people.

alexandrakg's picture

Week Six

 A few of Dennett's ideas are still confusing to me.  Despite our extensive class discussion, I still do not fully understand memes.  I am not sure if culture can be measured or divided into units.  Units are supposed to be very basic, so that measuring is easy and logical.  How can one begin to measure culture?  Memes seem so indefinable to us because culture is.  We had an easier time envisioning memes as a tune or phrase rather than a cultural movement, which makes sense because larger cultural movements are so much more complicated.  In other words, I can much better explain how a classmate ended up humming Lady Gaga than say the revolutions happening across the Middle East.

ib4walrus's picture

Too defined for my taste

The Library of Babel ultimately means the death of creativity and originality as we know it.  With all potential books, papers, etc. all "pre-existing" on one of the seemingly infinite shelves of the library already, nothing "new" can be thought of/written.  Any thing that's written, with whatever typos or errors in it, another "copy" already exists.  It seems that only once a work is physically created in our world does it become "realized" in the Library of Babel.  

ems8140's picture

Meme Coding

Thursday’s discussion led us to talking about the concept of substrate neutrality. When we first began discussing what this idea of Dennett’s could possibly mean, I had a difficult time wrapping my head around his belief. I took it to mean something that could be used with an algorithm because, regardless of the substrate, the same process will occur. We then applied this concept to the tennis tournament example Dennett provided. The substrate would be considered the players of the tournament and they are neutral because no matter what, there will be a winner. Even if it is a competition between a novice and an expert, it could still be considered substrate neutral. I'm not a support of this concept of substrate neutrality.

vlopez's picture

The Library of Babel

As I read Dennett's metaphor of the Library of Babel, I thought he was crazy, he did not know what he was saying.  It does not make any sense to me that everything already exists, that everything is already there, waiting patiently for someone to finally come and pick it up.  This not only goes against evolution, but is takes away credit from human beings.  It goes against evolution because in this library everything is already there; therefore, there is no room for randomness, which is part of the evolutionary process.  Everything has already been created; therefore, there are no modifications, but an entirely new book.  This is creationism instead of evolution.  By being creationism it takes away from human's ability to create.  All we do is

tangerines's picture

I want to read everything

In discussion on Thursday I strongly disagreed with the idea that every possibility in the world already existed, with the idea of a Library of Babel. I don't disagree because I want to believe that each of us matters, that we are important and meaningful in the universe. In fact, I believe the opposite: we're all much less significant than we can hope to understand, given the magnitude of the universe. I still disagree with the idea that every possible outcome is cataloged in a Library of Babel because that Library is still a foundational concept that isn't in keeping with the theory of evolution.

hlehman's picture

A new alternative

In class on Thursday we discussed human behavior and decision making as random or deterministic as produced by an algorithm.  In another class I also debated this concept and my professor brought up a new alternative.  He used the term “statistical” implying that our choices are non-determinant and the best we can do is find levels of certainty around a complex process that is full of chance (in reference to evolution in general). 

KT's picture

Yes, It Matters.

In class on Thursday we tried to find agency in a world of algorithms… a daunting task. At one point, as we struggled without an answer, Miranda gave a sly smile and suggested that we should just not think about it. She said that prior to taking this class, she didn’t think about it and her life was fine. Although I agreed with this initially, I think that argument may only be one made from frustration so I’d like to make the case against it. 

bhealy's picture

Finding Creativity in The Library of Babel

 In Thursday's discussion, our section focused on Dennett's definition of the meme, and what function is has in our culture. While this topic interested me and forced me to dive deeper into what exactly the role of the meme is and consequently what our role is in our culture, it was a shorter conversation that stayed with me the last few days. We tried to unpack Dennett's views on the library of babel, which he then called the library of Mendel to describe genetic variation. On Thursday I came to class unsure of my feelings towards this library of infinite ideas, hesitant to accept it because by accepting it I assumed that I would be denouncing the value or potential of creativity. I don't feel like that's necessarily true anymore.

ewashburn's picture

The Usefulness of Memes

 For all I think memes are problematic, I can see why it would be useful for Dennett and Dawkins to employ them. If one wants to trace cultural development, it's helpful to encapsulate certain cultural traits as "building blocks" in order to follow their development across history. I have to say, I'm even pretty intrigued by the idea of boiling an element of culture down to its most basic elements. In Professor Dalke's discussion group on Thursday, we tried to discuss the meme of LOLcats, and started breaking it down to its basic elements (a picture and a mispelled, somewhat incongruous caption) to see how it managed to spawn other, similar trends (ie. Advice Wolf, Hipster Ariel, etc.).

the.believer's picture

man-made cell

 Back to the concept of algorithm where we've decided that the well-defined process is "mindless" but the outcome is more complex and random, I thought of a 2010 scientific achievement. Scientists were able to create a synthetic genome, insert it into a host bacterial cell with its genome removed (aka blank slate). This cell grew and reproduced under this man-made algorithm. The scientists are planning to engineer the cells to create biofuels, vaccines and drugs more efficiently than current methods.

mgz24's picture

Does it really matter?

 From our conversation Thursday on randomness and it's impact on life, I'm still not convinced that it really matters.  Regardless of whether or not our lives are completely determined, we'll never know, so why even talk about it?  We can answer this by saying that it's more comfortable to know that we have a purpose or that we don't have a purpose, but the thing is that we'll never know.  Why not just drop the conversation all together.  For those who want to think they have control then that's what they'll believe and those who like things determined will believe that.  Then you will have the group of people who don't really think about it, and they won't be forced into a conversation.

Vivien Chen's picture

Eden on an Astroid or Eden in RNA World?

 On Tuesday's class, Professor Grobstein mentioned a couple of interesting NYTimes articles. One of them discussed the "threatening scent of fertile women" and the other, "A Romp Through Theories of the Cradle of Life" talks about the theories of the origins of life. This article in particular struck me as very interesting - not only does it challenge Darwin's conceived thoughts, but it also brings me back to Dennett's book.

phyllobates's picture

15 Billion Dollar Embryo (Hypothetical)

 My friends, right off the bat I can tell you that a human is worth more than 57 cents. The amount it costs to purchase one strand of DNA, only 20 nucleotides long, totals around 8 dollars. Imagine then, how much it would cost to synthesize a strand of DNA encoding an entire protein or genome.

AnnaP's picture

Teaching evolution evolutionarily

In continuing to explore other folks’ papers for The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, I stumbled across bee27’s webpaper, which (much like my paper) talks about how Darwin’s model of evolution can apply to education. bee27 writes:

“Freire complements Darwin's ideas of breaking free of the educational mold, suggesting a shifted focus to viewing our children as students, and as participants in their own education, and not merely inactive vessels for other people's knowledge. Through On the Origin of the Species, Darwin's radical and therefore extremely significant ideas are like a call to action for science education.”

phyllobates's picture

Randomness versus an Algorithm with a Random Step (... one in the same?)

  I have spent the last two weeks trying to convince myself that an algorithm with a random step produces a different outcome than pure randomness does.  However, after much thought I am only partly satisfied with the explanation I have generated, and thus am seeking further clarification. In the most basic sense, to me randomness implies that any outcome can occur.  Think of a board (like a checkerboard) where a space may either be colored red or black.  If the coloring was random any pattern could emerge, it could be all black or red, it could be checkerboard, or it could have no distinguished pattern at all.

ckosarek's picture

Maybe I can't be held be held responsible for my actions in a court of law (or at least Dennett says as much)

 According to Dennett, our actions are all results of outside forces, and, as we discussed in class today, that takes agency away from us. I don't buy into this. Yes, I think outside forces determine our emotional responses, but I don't think they determine our behavioral responses. There is a degree of randomness in our behavioral actions in that they are not direct results of contingencies set up by our environments. For example, say that one kid pushes another down on the playground.

OrganizedKhaos's picture

Memes and sleep

 Dennett caught my attention when he discussed what we as humans saw as the point of life. A life of exploring, learning new things is not exactly the way Mother Nature sees it. Instead he mentions that,  "a life of sleep is as good a life as any other and in many regards better --- certainly cheaper --- than most (p.340). Now that I believe is a great motto to live by considering the lack of attention many of my peers seem to pay to the subject of sleep. Wouldn't be interesting if our bodies worked similarly to bears and other mammals that hibernate all winter? Now that would be an interesting experiment, could we sleep through winter? what kinds of changes would our bodies go through?

katlittrell's picture

Dennett and Thinking Evolutionarily

It is strange to me that I agree with the concept that evolution can be applied to multiple disciplines, yet I find Dennett's theory of memes far too simplified. He draws support for his idea from biologists, linguists, historians, and philosophers among others, creating an argument drawn from both the humanities and the sciences... but the idea of memes seems to reduce everything to a very boring formula. I feel that if what Dennett says is true, then we could reduce all human thought to mathematical equations. Life just isn't that simple.

cr88's picture

Do all creations outgrow their creators?

 We talked last week about the IBM supercomputer Watson and how despite its being programmed by human programmers, managed to surpass the intelligence of its own creators to win Jeopardy! against two reigning human champions. Thinking how this creation has managed to surpass the capacity of its creators, I got to thinking about humankind's relationship with its own "creator." It makes me cringe to even type out a sentence about humankind having a creator, and this is exactly what fascinates me: have we, like Watson, evolved past the level of needing a creator?