Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Beginning, Middle and End

eawhite's picture

April 19, 2009


Evelyn White

Biology of Evolution

Paper #3

 Beginning, Middle and End 

            The universal definition of “Evolution”, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is threefold: 1. Gradual development. 2. Development of species from earlier forms, as an explanation of origins. and 3. Unfolding of events.  Neither of these definitions by themselves explains the process of evolution in terms of a beginning, middle or an end.

The question I will attempt to answer is to what extent the scientific model of Darwinian evolution has illuminated what we know about literature, philosophy, art and history; each with their own beginning, middle and end. Darwin, Dennett, Whitman and Hustvedt addressed the process of evolution within their writings from differing points of view. Through close scrutiny of their works, one can see the development of the evolutionary theory and process that Darwin speaks about.

            Darwin’s scientific story of evolution is a result of synthesizing observable data through which a new set of questions were created which motivated new observations – which created another new set of questions which motivated new observations – and therein lays the continuous loop of evolution. Charles Darwin worked tirelessly on his theory – refining and revising as the data presented the ‘truth’, though Darwin ignored fossil data as part of his understanding of the development of the species. Darwin looked at the process of evolution as the gradual development of species from a more simplistic form to a more complex form – this development, though slow, was constantly in motion. It is stated in the introduction of The Origin of Species that Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution is by far “one of the most scientific works of all time – one of those works that fundamentally and permanently alter our vision of the world” (Darwin, p.9). However, I believe the scientific fact of evolution is important but second to the development of inquisitiveness and discovery. Darwin’s contribution to the evolutionary development of all things [science, literature, philosophy, art] of and by this world has been invaluable.

Daniel Dennett agreed with the transformative power of Darwin’s idea in his path breaking study Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Interestingly, Daniel Dennett begins and ends his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, with a traditional old song Tell Me Why. I learned to sing this song – in harmony- during my summer-long camping trips as a child. We’d sit around the campfire and look to the sky ablaze with stars, singing and pondering from whence we came – tell me why, I crooned. Dennett believed that Darwin attempted to answer many of the ‘why’ questions. Though Darwin had limited technological tools and knowledge with which to develop his theory of evolution, his contribution to expanded evolutionary thought in science as well as history, literature and philosophy was groundbreaking. Dennett points out, “one of Darwin’s most fundamental contributions is showing us a new way to make sense of ‘why’ questions” (Dennett, 1995, p.25). Dennett’s novel presented no new technological theories; rather his goal was to use Darwin’s theory and build upon it an entirely new set of questions. Dennett’s mind, ever curious and full of ‘why’ questions, was compelled, through his understanding of Darwin, to bring new meaning and a greater understanding of the meaning of life and the origin of species.

The writer and poet Walt Whitman also tried to bring greater meaning and understanding of this world through his lifelong work, Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass (1855) four years before Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859). Darwin spent decades collecting data, making observations and mulling over with what he believed irrefutable accuracy the data which is comprised in The Origin of Species.  Whitman spent decades writing and expanding his collection of poems in Leaves of Grass. Darwin asked life challenging questions with regard to species origin and developed his theory of evolution by looking back to historical data for answers whereas Whitman developed his poems as he himself journeyed through life. I see Whitman’s life evolution as a continuous circle with clockwise motion and Darwin’s evolution of life as a continuous circle based on counter-clockwise motion. Both tell interesting, thought provoking stories and both have made great contributions to the evolution of all things – science, literature, philosophy and art.

Siri Hustvedt book The Sorrows of An American is an evolutionary journey through the lives of the characters portrayed in the book and also the author’s personal journey and tales told through these characters. Hustvedt, like Darwin, uses the historical past to tell her tale of fictional literary evolution. Metaphorically speaking, Hustvedt writes this way as if to caution the reader that looking back may slow down the process of human evolution; one could get stuck in the quagmire of the past life. It matters not whether it is 1855 or 2009, the search for a coherent world – one that makes sense can be found in all forms of expression. Hustvedt wrote “we want a coherent world, not one in bits and pieces” (Hustvedt, 2008, p. 276). Darwin was hoping to make sense of his world and that which came before him just as Hustvedt continues to try to make sense of her world.

Dennett, Whitman and Hustvedt wrote stories with clear evidence of an evolutionary process, one which leads the reader to ask: What do we know about the Darwinian evolutionary influence on literature, philosophy, art and history after having read the above mentioned works? We know that all things have a beginning of sorts which leads to a middle and then to an end. Darwin traced to the best of his ability, what he believed to be the origin of species; starting with a simple single cell and tracing the development into a complex structure of life through such processes as natural selection, mutation, variation and reproduction. Darwin likened this development to a tree with branches – diverging and converging.  Literature, philosophy, art and history can also be defined in terms of a tree-like lineage; starting with a simple thought and developing into a complex string of thoughts or images with which to express representations of a cultural life. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, features a quote from Alfred Kroeber (Anthropology) in the chapter entitled ‘Tree of Culture’:

The course of organic evolution can be portrayed properly as a tree of life,

as Darwin has called it, with trunk, limbs, branches and twigs. The course

of development of human culture in history cannot be so described, even metaphorically. There is constant branching-out, but the branches also grow

together again…The tree of culture…is a ramification of such coalescences,

assimilations, or acculturations


            In summary and in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then…I contradict myself; I am large…I contain multitudes” (Whitman, 1855, p.67).     Evolution can appear at times to be a contradiction; these contradictions are stimuli for further exploration so that one can understand [Dennett’s] ‘why.’ Therefore, Darwin’s scientific model of evolution not only exemplifies ‘multitudes’ but also has a beginning, middle and an end – not in a linear fashion but in a circle to begin the process all over again. Without his model of evolution being applied to literature, philosophy, history and art they would have no meaning – no past, no now, and no future – no illumination.


Works cited:

Darwin, Charles. (2003). On the Origin of Species. Edited by Joseph Carroll. Ontario,



Dennett, Daniel. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York.

Hustvedt, Siri. (2008). The Sorrows of An American. New York.

James, Simon. (2008). The Evolution of Literature.

 Moretti, Franco. (2005). Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History.



Oxford Dictionary. (1997). Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus American Edition. New


 Whitman, Walt. (1855). Leaves of Grass. New York.


Paul Grobstein's picture

beginnings, middles, and ends ... in evolution

"Darwin’s scientific model of evolution not only exemplifies ‘multitudes’ but also has a beginning, middle and an end – not in a linear fashion but in a circle to begin the process all over again"

And so an end ... isn't? And a beginning, and a middle ... aren't? And the answers to "tell me why" questions aren't either?