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Fact or Fiction

ekorn's picture

      It’s my conviction that man has and will always search for the one ‘true’ answer to life’s most pressing questions, “How did we get here?”  The question posed seeks to answer how modern day Homo sapiens came to be corporeal and how his/her outlying environment has shaped and impacted the species.  In Ernst Mayr’s book This Is Evolution, we are presented with various answers to this question but only one solution, Darwinism (the “fact” that evolution and natural selection allowed Homo sapiens to exist and flourish in the Earth’s ecosystem) (Mayr 2001, 275).  However, biology and the story of how man came into existence cannot be viewed in such a concrete manner.  We must constantly redefine what we know to be ‘fact’ by new observations, observations that may remold and redefine what we believe to be true. Therefore, it should be understood that as stories change, so do their meanings.  It is by these standards that we come to discover that stories must be understood as fiction, not fact.
 In the 1970’s, some time before Ernst Mawr published his take on the story of evolution, he published an article in the journal Systematic Zoology.  In this article, Mayr discusses biological terms, specifically their “Origin and History”.  For our purpose, it behooves us to look at the terms as metaphors of sorts for the way we should view evolution itself.  Mayr opens his article by stating “the most important aspect of the history of biology is neither the discovery of new facts nor the establishment of new laws, but the development of new concepts and the maturation or revision of existing concepts” (Mayr 1973, 83).  About terms specifically Mayr can be quoted saying, “once a term has been given, it tends to hang on tenaciously even when its underlying meaning is changing radically” (Mayr 1973, 84).  If we look at terms in relation to the concept of evolution and how man came into being, we may similarly note that the more observations we make about our past and the past of other species on Earth, the more the meaning or story of evolution changes (whether or not the change is ‘radical’). 
 It’s interesting that in this article Mayr toys with the notion that meanings sometimes aren’t fixed, but when it comes to his later stance on the story of evolution, he believes there to be one fixed manner by which evolution has occurred.  In order to understand why Mayr may be wrong in his rather authoritative and assumptive stance, we must go back to the basics and understand the fundamentals or principles on which biology relies.  One author states that to be a biologist “is to seek for, to search for the innermost and the uttermost of nature’s secrets, the nature of life itself” (Glass 1957, 9).  He continues, additionally noting, “It is the essence of the scientific mind not only to be curious but likewise to be skeptical and critical---to maintain suspended judgment until the facts are in, to be willing always, in the light of fresh knowledge, to change one’s conclusions.  Not even the ‘laws’ of science are irrevocable. They are mere summaries of observed phenomena, ever subject to revision.  And it is the essence of the scientific method to rely only upon observations” (Glass 1957, 13).  It would be irrational to claim that Mayr, by these standards is neither a scientist nor a biologist, but it seems rather that he does not adhere to such principles (principles that were established prior to the publication of either of his previously mentioned texts in the late 1950’s).  Mayr’s take on the process of evolution is clearly biased towards Darwinism, indirectly creating a dogma out of it.  Though he admits that evolutionary theories can eventually be rejected, he sees no need to explore any manner by which Darwinism can or could possibly be falsified.  Additionally, going back to the notion of relying on observations instead of facts, Mayr focuses solely on what he believes to be concrete facts or “mountains of evidence” for evolution; implying that it is the only version of the story and that is the ‘truth’ (Mayr 2001, 264, 275).
 To imply that there is one truth impedes upon our learning and being taught new concepts and notions.  We cannot proceed in the world of science or in the world itself without questioning it to some degree, despite what authorities before us have said.  We should be taught “To see a problem unfold, to see progress impeded by traditional ways of thought, to learn that scientists make mistakes as well as achieve success, to observe what experiments brought illumination, and why…to observe how frequently the truth of today is synthesis of opposing counterviews and countertheories held in their time to be irreconcilable” (Glass 1957, 13).  These teachings help us to “damn forever the legions of biology textbooks which serve up to hapless students a crystallized, anonymous biology seeming to have descended perfect, like the divine city out of heaven” (Glass 1957, 13). In his book What Is Evolution, Mayr is essentially serving his readers or students if you will, a ‘crystallized’ and ‘perfect’ answer to how evolution occurred and how man was made.
 After we come to the realization that Mayr is telling a story we must come to an understanding that no two people have the ability to tell the same exact story.  By default, every story is fiction because every story has room to be improved or modified.  By implying that a story is true, there is no room granted for error or falsities.  Mayr implies that Darwinism is the only explanation for evolution and in turn it is the only way to explain how we essentially became who we are.  The story is not a closed book, for man is still in existence and is perpetually changing.  We make new observations everyday that fall into our understanding of who we are, whether it is in a biological sense or not.  To conclude that evolution is a fact rather than a series of observations is to imply that our definition and the meaning of evolution cannot change---when change seems to be, and has always been, inevitable.

Glass, H. Bentley. The Responsibilities of Biologists. AIBS Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 5.  (Nov., 1957), pp. 9-13. Stable URL:
Mayr, Ernst. What is Evolution. New York: Basic Books; 2001.
Mayr, Ernst. Origin and History of Some Terms in Systematic and Evolutionary. Biology Systematic Zoology, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Mar., 1978), pp. 83-88.
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Anne Dalke's picture




Your questions , your probing, the way you write (“how Homo Sapiens came to be corporeal”) caught my attention right away—and I liked the fun of “the story is not a closed book,” with which you end. And I couldn’t agree more that Mayr shuts off this sort of exploration with his refusal of fiction, his declarations of fact.

The problem I have with your paper is precisely that agreement. The lectures we’ve been hearing for the past three weeks make exactly this claim, of course: that science is a process of gathering new observations and revising stories based on them. I was surprised to see that Glass was making these arguments as long ago as 1957 (which makes me wonder why they seem so radical and disturbing to so many in the class—any idea?). But what I don’t see is you moving on from these ideas to try out a new claim or two of your own.

You did turn up that very interesting earlier article by “Mawr” in which he acknowledges that we cling to old words as their meanings change—but rather than working that idea through his book, you turn to another “authority” (what makes Glass authoritative you don’t explain) and quote him @ length. What makes Glass’s claims more believeable than Mayr’s? Or Paul’s? Or mine? Or yours? Wherein lies what we can say we know? Does it involve digging down to find “fundamentals or principles” on which to build an unassailable tower? Or is there some different sort of action required?

In my Gender and Science class, we just finished an essay by the physicist Karan Barad, “Meeting the Universe Halfway,” which ends with this quote from the poet Judy Grahn:

“To understand, to get to the basis, the root or hidden meaning, is the wrong tool to bring” to our own work. “Perhaps interstand [or better yet intra-stand] is what we do, to engage with the work, to mix with it in an active engagement, rather than ‘figuring it out.’ Figure it in’” Knowledges are not innocent representations, but inter-actions of natures-cultures; knowledge is about meeting the universe halfway.

Can the methodology of archeology (you’re an arch major, right??) help us here? Let’s keep on exploring this idea—