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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....

mindyhuskins's picture

Memes: wait, what?

Dennet has a very particular way of describing memes as if they were living organisms. He seems to describe them as tiny microbes or viruses or bacterium that invade our body for a purpose, which is to reproduce and survive. I am very interested in the ideas he is putting forth about biological evolution and its further applications. However I feel like he took this meme thing a little too far. By the time I was done with the reading I realized he had spent all that time comparing a simple idea, like the idea of free speech, to a microbe of some sort that actively tries to reproduce and further its "species". I found this to be a little too far out there.

hannahgisele's picture

Are We Selfish or Smart?

Thursday’s discussion group made me consider the extinction of certain genes from our genetic makeup. While the idea of certain qualities dying out is romantic and self-important (i.e. pointing to certain traits as ‘special ones’ worth passing down), a classmate of mine voiced the point that recessive genes do not disappear entirely from populations. Instead, they may lie dormant until they are joined with other recessive genes. In this way, people carrying such recessive genes may not be expressing their traits phenotypically, but they are carrying them amongst all the other recessive genes that are denied expression.


hlehman's picture

Trees and Math

“Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree- the Tree of Life- by one algorithmic process or another” (51). 

ib4walrus's picture

Are we that different from computers?

 In Tuesday's discussion, we talked about the difference between computers and humans.  I think it might be safe to say that most people believe the difference to be our concept of free will and the confinement that computers experience because they run accordingly to their program coding.  The computer outputs whatever the coding of its program tells it to.  However, what if we stretch this idea of a program in a broader sense?  What guides us in our actions, what we say and our behavior is due to our morals, principles, beliefs, etc.  We develop this code of ethics due to influences from out respective cultures, parents and other institutions (educational system, religion, etc).

the.believer's picture

Watson and the progress of supercomputers

I am speechless at the accuracy and speed of Watson. If I were just listening to this broad-casted on the radio, I would not recognize Watson as a supercomputer. I wonder whether an algorithm could be written so that the computer's random behavior (outcome) has the capacity to socially interact with humans and to learn from its experiences.

This clip speaks for itself:

ems8140's picture

Memes: worth saving

Thursday’s discussion with Professor Dalke touched briefly on the concept of memes, which Dennett describes as “a handy word for a salient (memorable) cultural item, something with enough Design to be worth saving—or stealing or replicating” (143). Memes are an important part of what separates humans from other species. Dennett states, “we are different. We are the only species that has an extra medium of design preservation and design communication: culture” (338). Without culture, that which has been designed by humans would not be maintained. As described by Dennett, “a meme’s existence depends on a physical embodiment in some medium; if all such embodiments are destroyed, that meme is distinguished”(348).

tangerines's picture

My Computer is My Baby

Our discussions this week featured Watson, the computer who won Jeopardy! and thoroughly trounced its (or his) human opponents. On Thursday, my group considered how similar humans are to computers. Because of the other class I'm taking with Professor Dalke, Gender and Technology, I've learned to be wary of drawing boundaries between things without serious consideration. Therefore I suggest that we are not very different from computers – they are extensions (or perhaps even mirrors) of ourselves. Computers' abilities seem as limitless as the human imagination; already with computers we are able to communicate more efficiently, explore our interests and try on roles with relative anonymity, and complete tasks that would otherwise be impossible.

kgrass's picture

Make me a Genius

On Tuesday, we discussed how humans think, and whether our lives are ruled by just a bunch of algorithms. Computer intelligence is possible because of these algorithms, but does our brain work the same way? While discussing this concept with a friend, she told me about a documentary she had watched about a grand chess master (which can be watched online for free.

Lethologica's picture

The written word: evolving?

 In class on thursday we briefly discussed one of the issues inherent in our understanding of any given work or piece of text, especially older ones: the fact is, words evolve just as much as anything else does. The definition of any given word can change over time, but more than that, the connotations of any given word will change over time, and quite quickly. Because of this, when reading just about anything, one must understand and remember that there is no single, definitive meaning  for the words on the page. The connotations of that word might be different for the author than they are for the reader, or even for general society.

jhercher's picture

Dennett and such

One of the things I like best about Darwin's idea is the fact that it's conceptual.  I mean that you don't have to have a strong background in biology or chemistry to understand what he's talking about  You couldn't read and really comprehend someone like Newton or Einstein without a strong background in physics and math.  Dennett underlines this perfectly.  He's a philosopher, not a biologist, but he can still change the way we think about evolution and natural selection. 

Also, Dennett has a series of awesome TED talks, <> that I definitely recommend watching. 

vlopez's picture

Culture & Bio

I happen to agree with Dennett in that memes are essential for biological evolution.  In order to have biological evolution, we first must have something that instigates this change.  And as we see in our daily-life, culture, or memes, are a very important part in the process of our development.  We see people change because of the culture they have acquired or because of the culture they are developing.  As Dennett states, culture has truly set us, humans, apart from any other species.  We have the ability to evolve in more ways than one, which is incredible but also very much a mystery.  A mystery because we are all individuals with individual thoughts and actions; therefore, there is a very large spectrum for our cultural evolution.  This is why I b

alexandrakg's picture

Week Five

Dennet writes, "what we are is very much a matter of what culture has made us" (Dennet 340).  I am interested in bridging the gap between cultural perceptions of humanity and scientific perceptions of humanity.  A big question since the dawn of civilization has been where do we come from and why are we here?  I don't understand why when science was created to explore all possibilities and find the answers to existence, its conclusions are so easily rejected.  Can we ignore the truth if we don't like it?  Can something still be possible if we cannot quite imagine it?  I can't begin to imagine billions of years of history and change, but just because it's scary and different and something I don't fully understand doesn't mean that it is not valid.

AnnaP's picture

Dennett's Dangerous Idea

In last week’s webpaper, I wrote about the exciting and progressive possibilities that evolution presents for education, and the ways in which people like Paulo Freire already seem to embody some of these ideas. User hlehman wrote about the idea of evolutionary education too, asserting that:

“Evolution is about change and questions, an ongoing process and story to explain why things happen. It is important for children to have a positive exposure to the story of evolution because it allows them to open their minds and see what science does for us.  Science provokes people to think in a new way without limitations or rules.”

ewashburn's picture

Cultural Memes and The Human Selector

Daniel Dennett's discussion of the "meme" as a cultural equivalent to the "gene" is supposed to be geared towards applying the theory of evolution to other concepts, such as the development of culture. But the problem I see in this model is the conflict between the inherent idea of randomness in evolution, and what seems to me to be an inherent element of design in culture and in cultural memes.

KT's picture

Complication Made Easy!

 “Problems in science are sometimes made easier by adding complications.” (Dennett, p.38) 

alexandrakg's picture

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

 Something interesting Dennett points out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea is that while Darwin did not point out specifically a 'creator' as the cause of variation or evolution, he does rely on the idea of a 'mechanism' pushing the process forward.  The parallel to Hume was actually quite striking, who wrote of a grand 'mechanic' who tried and failed until he got the world right, "Many fruitless trials made: And a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages of world-making" (Dennett 31).  Though Hume did not his own idea seriously and was merely musing for the sake of argument, it is certainly interesting.  Hume did not imagine that there were nothing at all behind the evolutionary process, and to a certain extent, neither did Darwin.

Vivien Chen's picture

Humans vs. Robots

 When asked, "Do you find it odd that teaching a computer chess is easier than teaching it Jeopardy?" I contemplated this for about a minute and realized that I do not find this odd at all. I agree with the statement that teaching a computer/robot chess is easier than teaching it Jeopardy. When I was younger, I played chess at a pretty competitive level. I learned it was very much like a mathematical equation. Chess is based a lot on probability and statistics; the key to the game is to predict the next move of the opponent. Chess is also a reaction-game - when a specific move is made, there are a limited amount of choices you can make to react to that move. Therefore, a computer would have an easier time computing the probabilities involved in the game.

OrganizedKhaos's picture

Lost in This World

I must admit that evolution is no easy task to conquer. I would like to now place Darwin right up on the pedestal with Albert Einstein and other great geniuses. Why wasn't he there before? I am not sure, maybe my gut reactions and morals were holding me back from holding him to such esteem but after attempting to piece together a course syllabus on evolution I found that the subject is not only complex but never ending. It pours into other disciplines and weaves its way into society and popular culture. I can see how some people can find great excitement from such a theory because, I feel like there's so many questions that still need to be answered and so many answers that still need to be understood. I think I might have a crush on evolutionary theory.

cr88's picture

Evolution and Revolution

 I'm going to admit straight off the bat that I skipped class on Thursday to attend the Teach-In about the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that was taking place at the same time. While feeling guilty about this fact and simultaneously watching news coverage of and Skyping with people taking part in the events in Cairo, however, I got to thinking about the evolutionary paradigm as it applied to the revolutions taking place in the Arab world. Much of the language used to describe the path these revolutions have taken has been organic, with words such as "spread" and "grown" used to describe the way in which the events in one state have had a ripple effect throughout the neighborhood. This got me thinking about how these events could relate back to evolution and natural selection.

Lethologica's picture

The Journey or the Destination?

I left class on Tuesday puzzling over the thought, the possibility, that evolution is driven not by any invisible plan, or even competition and fitness, but by opportunity and exploration.  After finally coming to terms with the idea that there might not be any goal that evolution is trying to reach, that there is no true purpose, and finding that I rather liked it, I slowly began to realize this idea has actually been quite prevalent in my life, but in different forms. I cannot even begin to guess the first time I heard that it wasn't the destination that mattered, but rather the journey taken to get there. Beyond my own history, I also came to realize that this idea is popular in general culture.