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Life Story: Foundational or Non-Foundational

ems8140's picture

The topic of evolution is able to encompass many ideas, beyond just the realm of organisms changing and developing. However, based on the perspective with which one views the world, evolution may not even be possible. As discussed in our class the Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, there are two main types of stories: foundational and non-foundational. These two types of stories differ greatly with regard to the possibility for change. A foundational versus non-foundational outlook on life reflects the different effects and potential for diversity among individuals.
            The main components of a foundational story include the fact that they are timeless, hierarchical, inevitable and fixed. John Calvin and his theory of predestination would fit into this category of story and view of the world. Predestination is the concept that God, or some higher being, has predetermined all the events in each person’s life and knows everything that will happen. This theory of life certainly fits the mold of a foundational story. It follows with the idea that life is hierarchical, in that people are either good or bad as destined by God. In describing predestination, Calvin stated, “for they [individuals] are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others” (Brians). This quotation also relates to the fact of predestination that even if an individual did not want to experience “eternal damnation,” it was out of their control. Because life is predestined, with a fixed story, even if an someone were to do something drastic to try to change their life story, God or a higher being would have already predicted it and known about it. When a person makes a decision or behaves in a certain way, some may view it as the individual using his own character and motivations to make that decision. However, based on predestination, God has control over that person, meaning that God had already determined how that individual would act. Calvin explained this idea when he stated, “predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which he hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind” (Brians)
            Based on this information, I believe that there would be no chance for evolution to occur if this was truly the way of life. Because life is out of control of the individual and organism, there would be no chance for free will or change. Only when God deemed it time for a change would it occur. It is my belief that in order for evolution and advancement to occur, there has to be the opportunity for chance. Those people who believed in predestination during Calvin’s time would not want to think that God would ever allow something to happen by chance, which is likely why they followed Calvin’s philosophy of life. Given his ideas on predestination, there would be no diversity among the species or organisms because there would never be an opportunity for change. Darwin believed the opposite of Calvin as illustrated when he stated, “several cases…of occasional and strange habits in certain species, which might…give rise through natural selection, to quite new instincts” (Darwin, 228). This quotation helps to show that variations among organisms are likely to happen by chance because they are “occasional and strange,” just like a non-foundational story.  
            Quite the opposite of a foundational story, a non-foundational story allows for chance and change. This type of story relates to time, is complex, inexorable, and variable. One’s life story could be considered a non-foundational story based on these characteristics. When reading the section on embryology in Darwin, I found myself relating this concept to development through the life of an individual. He describes how “some characteristic points of difference could hardly be detected in the young age” (Darwin, 371). I took this quotation to mean that at such a young age, children may all appear similar. Time for each child to evolve and develop into their own person, each with their own distinct personality, outlook and beliefs is needed for diversity. Using a non-foundational story outlook, the opportunity for individual distinction and diversity is present. Those with a foundational view may lead to similarity among individuals because God already predetermines each one’s life and there is no opportunity for change. As explained by Darwin, variation among people is necessary because “it profited the young to follow habits of life in any degree different from those of their parent, and consequently to be constructed in a slightly different manner” (Darwin, 373). This is an important view because by allowing the young to be different from their parents, it allows for change and development, both of the individual young and the human population overall. If children were to be raised to be exactly like their parents, then there would be no diversity in thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc.
            One way in which people differ, possibly as a result of varying from the habits of their parents and being “easily rendered by natural selection different to any conceivable extent from their parents” (Darwin, 373), is how individuals react to situations in life. Based on the non-foundational approach, when presented with a difficult or disequilibrating event in life, people have the choice to either assimilate or accommodate to the situation. This ability to choose acts as an evolutionary and adaptive trait for people to determine their own future. A foundational approach to interpreting negative events in one’s life would likely lead that person to believe it is God’s will and would only assimilate to the condition. However, by acknowledging the fact that one’s life story is variable and complex, a person can accommodate a disequilibrating event. Accommodation leads to ego development, as described by personality psychologist Dan McAdams. When a given situation cannot fit into a person’s current ego level, they may choose to accommodate the event and advance his or her ego development, coping abilities and cognitive complexity (McAdams). This improvement may be adaptive because dealing only with simple processing will not lead to success in life and could lead one to be unfit for the environment of day to day living.
            A non-foundational outlook appears to be the more practical and well-adapted way of viewing life. If people were to think of life as a foundational story, as John Calvin would have, then I believe there would never be the opportunity for change among the population. Each person would continue to go through their lives without ever questioning why they were expected to act or behave in a certain way. With a non-foundational story approach, people are in control of their own life story. This sense of control in a chaotic world helps to promote adaptation and development, which is necessary for progress in life.
Brians, P. (1998). John Calvin: Free Will and Predestination. In Reading About the World, Volume 2. Retrieved from (Accessed Feb, 2011).
Darwin, Charles (2003). On the Origin of Species Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts.
McAdams, Dan, P. (2009). The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology, Fifth Edition. John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2009, 371-381.
Meagan Steiner. Discussed with her idea of predestination as relating to foundational stories. Feb, 2011.
Predestination and Free Will. Retrieved from (Accessed Feb, 2011).


Anne Dalke's picture

Questioning Progress

You begin this essay with a review of the differences between foundational ("timeless, hierarchical, inevitable and fixed") and non-foundational stories (time-based, "complex, inexorable, and variable"--but surely you don't mean inexorable? isn't the punch line here that the outcome is NOT inevitable??). You then offer Calvin's story of predestination as a classic example of a foundational story, and next  --here's where the project gets really interesting!-- suggest that our life stories could be seen as exemplars of non-foundational stories. You argue that taking a non-foundational outlook offers opportunities "for individual distinction and diversity," and for "questioning why we act and behave in certain ways"; doing so gives us "control of our own life story." Your finale is the claim that "this sense of control in a chaotic world helps to promote adaptation and development, which is necessary for progress in life."

So let's back up a couple of steps. Is progress necessary in life? What makes "accommodation" superior to "assimilation" as a coping mechanism? Have you here essentially "assimilated" evolutionary theory into McAdams's science of personality psychology? Why is it necessarily more "practical or well-adapted" to view life as under our control, rather than recognizing how much variability and chance makes it OUT of our control?? And finally, why valorize diversity? I've just finished reading a book by the Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, in which he explains that he always approaches people "from the standpoint of the most basic things we have in common... rather than empahsizing secondary differences such as the fact that I am a Tibetan, or a different color, religion, or cultural background.... relating to others on that level makes it much easier to exchange and communicate with one another."

Why make communication difficult?