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Week Three (Tues, 2/1): Science and Nonsense


See "The Brittle-Stars Danced. The Stingray Smoked a Pipe," NYTimes 1/30/11, for a delightful "dissolution" of science and non-science into science as nonsense:
"In the 19th century ... describing species no one had ever imagined — was often fantastical. It is hard for us now to appreciate just how strange and wondrous the world seemed .... Nonsense was almost a byproduct of natural history .... The reader of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is in the position of an explorer: the landscape is strikingly new ... and a new species is encountered at every turn, each more exotic than the one before. Nonsense is full of fabulous beasts, mock turtles and garrulous eggs ...."

Darwin states that “His reason ought to conquer his imagination ... in extending the principle of natural selection to startling lengths” (212). Isn’t science then ... asking us to trust in something that we can never know, and to imagine what then might be possible?... it puts science and literature on the same plane of being different types of story-telling.

We're beginning to notice other "boundary-crossings"
between the two cultures of literature and science:
jhercher found a poem called "Darwin" by Lorine Niedecker;
mgz24 noticed some emerging  "Nonfiction:
Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated"

I. My job, til spring break:
keeper of the course and
troller of the forum (and the relevant news!):
here to remind you what you need to be doing,
and to take note of what else you might be noticing,
where the trajectories of y/our thinking are heading

first, the coursekeeping:

for today, you read the second 100 pages
in On The Origin of the Species: Chapters 5-8 (pp. 178-268);
for Thursday, we'll continue discussion,
based that text, in our small groups

next week (Feb. 8-10)
finish reading the book:
Chapters IX-XIV (pp. 269-398)

a week from Friday, Feb. 11: Webpaper #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 postings in our on-line conversation), 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?
    should it be taught?
  • 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

We can discuss details in small groups (your small group leader is your writing teacher for the semester); we'd be happy to encourage collaborative projects, or those that exploit the resources of the web (active links to your sources; images or soundtracks to make your papers more inviting....).

You will all be posting these papers on the web, in your on-line portfolios (a different site from our course discussion board; detailed instructions for posting webpapers are available on our homepage). We will respond to the papers on-line, but not be grading them: think of yourself as building a "window" through which others who are interested in evolution might look.....


II. Trolling the forum

[inspired by Dawn's etymology of "evolution,"
the evolution of the word, per Wikipedia]:
"In modern English usage, the verb form of troll refers to a fishing technique of slowly dragging a lure or baited hook from a moving boat, waiting for fish to strike. The word also evokes the trolls portrayed in Scandinavian folklore and children's tales, where they are often creatures bent on mischief and wickedness.

Early non-internet related use of trolling for actions deliberately performed to provoke a reaction can be found in the military, by Navy pilots "trolling for MiGs" in Vietnam. "Trolling for newbies" was popularized in the early 1990s in the Usenet group, alt.folklore.urban: a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users, presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone that only a new user would respond to them earnestly. These types of trolls served as a practice to identify group insiders, and was considered a positive contribution.

In Internet slang today a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, off-topic messages in an online community, with the intent of provoking other users into an emotional  response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

In that context, my "trolling" involves some dimensions of each of these meanings; it's an intensely pleasurable process of looking for newness, for intriguing --and provocative-- ideas. Here's what I found in this week's "catch" (and there are lots of other fish in the sea!)

* lots of bad titles ("week 2 posting" suggests you're meeting an obligation, not thinking aloud, inviting others into conversation)

* some great avatars (figuring the diversity of life forms in this room!?--
KT, phyllobates, jhercher, mindy):


*continued problems w/ posting (PLEASE use the "Word" icon when cutting and pasting from Word; otherwise lots of html garbage can knock
out all the posts following yours....)

*other issues w/ negotiating Serendip
(notification problems solved?
still haven't heard from some of you....)

**Also! some really interesting after-
thoughts from last week's discussion.

Paul's group seemed to have talked mostly about the importance of having a shared frame of reference, a "common context," and there seem to have been quite a range of different answers to that question:

kgrass: Really, there is no absolute truth, but only personal truths that people convince themselves of to help make sense of the world and their place in it....

ib4walrus: we have now taken our evolution into our own hands....constant technological advance has allowed us to become, in a sense, immune to the changes in our environment.  Rather than having nature construct the path for evolution, we have become the masons for our own paths .... Unlike all other species who still remain susceptible to the whims of nature, humans have effectively become both the subject and the author in their stories of "evolution".

KT: While I’m a bit attracted to the idea that we can all tell our own stories and make our own interpretations, I have concerns about going too far in that direction....Without some universal truths to serve as a basis, how could we ever relate to each other, interact with each other and form societies?

hlehman: I agree that without context there is no order to understand something as complex as the story of evolution, we need to agree on our shared context

mindyhuskins: On Thursday we argued about which was more important: a shared societal context, a personal self context, or a static/invariable context.... I think all of these ideas are really the same thing just in different stages of its development....really just different forms of each other. Perhaps a cycle begins with self, then moves to societal, and then ends up as static before the context is scrapped and a new one comes to life.

Lynn: I came away with the impression that the general consensus was that, yes, commonality breeds “truth”. I find myself disagreeing, however .... I think that oftentimes people over-estimate their own influence on those around them. I’m not convinced that every single person on this planet needs the approval of other people to be confident in their own thoughts .... I don’t think that ... people need people to validate their own inner beliefs .... individual “truth” can be reached without the input of anyone else.

phyllobates: while I cannot be 100% sure ... given the amount of data that I have collected and the amount of probable other choices I have disproved, I am willing to proclaim ... what I will now call the “statistical” truth .... that the sun will rise tomorrow ... is an obvious statistical truth .... I think that most of the context that society shares is based on such apparent statistical truth .... So while it is important to acknowledge that we cannot find Plato's  purest truths, the truths that we accept are statistically significant and important in our communal and individual lives.

the.believer: will there ever be a story told that can reconcile these differences - say the story of stories where the resolution brings the two together in this the story that Darwin never finished?

Anne's group talked about the particular context that is a classroom
: our inclination to look for evidence to rationalize our convictions (our initial, "gut" reactions); what is needed to get us to "change" our minds (=our unconscious presumptions); and whether/to what degree education can do that (w/, again, many different answers).

Vivien Chen: In our discussion group on Thursday, we brought up the topic of our willingness (or unwillingness) to change our thoughts and/or opinions about something we believe in ... we feel we must maintain a certain "I'm right and you're wrong" persona. I find this characteristic of ours a bit ironic since we are learning about evolution and change and ways to "think evolutionary", yet we still sometimes have a hard time doing it ourselves.

dfishervan: none of us expressed the revision of our existing knowledge as an expectation of college ... [but] throughout our science education, we are told that much of what we learned earlier on is lies. If we ... rather uncovered the falsehoods of our elementary science teachings, the knowledge revisions made in science education would seem more organic and I think less people would assume science to be objective and static ....

.... what would happen if we had a class where we didn’t rush through novels. We’re supposed to be learning how to “think evolutionarily” and I wonder if a class not constrained by a pile of prescribed books would help us accomplish this feat. There would be a theme or topic of the class ... but the students could just be told to spend X hours reading whatever they chose.

hannahgisele: my education has helped me to become more academically and intellectually “fit” within my environment. In continuing with a natural selection-centric metaphor, my intellectual fitness will hopefully result in a longer life (potentially for reasons such as a higher income, better medical care, healthier life choices) and would most likely result in the continued, heightened fitness of any offspring I chose to have ... the extent to which we learn is a form of modern day fitness.

ewashburn: the ability of this text to shake our species' sense of itself strikes me as astounding. If we, who were familiar enough with the theory of evolution that we had redefined evolution as all perpetual changing everywhere, couldn't get out of this human perspective as we examined every side of Darwin's story, imagine how people in Darwin's day would have reacted as the theory was introduced for the first time.

ems8140: it makes perfect sense that something could never be "true." If something was true, then that would mean that this belief or theory would never have the opportunity to change/develop/advance --

So, Paul: keep on changing/developing/advancing....?