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Evolution of Myths, Memes, and Me

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Evolution of Myth, Memes, and Me

            Evolution comes in many forms: people have a misconception concerning Evolution because it is a theory and how the word “theory” has evolved in itself, and how Creationism evolved into Intelligent Design through environmental influences. Literary stories have evolved as well, for instance, from Pride and Prejudice to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or from the myth of the Olympians to Gods Behaving Badly, any vampire reincarnations stemming from Dracula, which in itself grew from Vlad Tepes. Even on Bryn Mawr’s campus we have the Pem Arch tradition—not to split the poles—which stemmed from the Obsessive-Compulsive urges of a student starting only a few years ago. All of these are not unlike the progress of our class, of any class, changing itself over the course of a semester, and the evolution of consciousness on a personal level. I have come to discover that, as no man is an island, no area of study can exist alone. Science and Literature are hardly separate, both arising from the human mind and the human desire to observe, organize, and explore our world. Through a careful analysis of the preceding topics, I will be able to explain my own evolution throughout the course of the semester.

            The word theory has two different conversations depending on the subject in which it’s discussed. In literature or in everyday conversation, a theory is a wavering supposition, i.e. “I have a theory that I won’t do well on this paper because it was written last minute.” It has little evidence to support it; it’s more guesswork than anything else. In everyday conversation, perhaps the type of theory we are most exposed to, a theory is little more than a speculation. In science, however, a theory is quite different. In science, a theory has a mountain of evidence behind it to support it, has been tested over and over again and stood up to all of the challenges its opposition can throw at it; essentially, a theory, in science, is the closest thing to a “fact” that you will find in science. We, from the class, know now that there is no essential “Truth” and that there are no facts in science—what’s true one day may crumble the next. But there can be very good stories. It is perhaps this discretion between the literature/ conversationsal “theory” and the science “theory” that has caused so much trouble with Evolution and Religion. The layman’s idea of theory makes Evolution out to be little more than guesswork, “Well, we think this is what happened, duh-huck.” Perhaps by aligning the theory of Evolution with the theory of Relativity, or the theory of Continental Drift, the theory of Electricity… perhaps through that, we will be able to impress upon “non-scientists” the true meaning of theory.

            Most pointedly, maybe through explaining the difference between a conversational theory and a scientific theory we will be able to approach the topic of Evolution in public education. I think that a good part of the reason there are many opponents to teaching Evolution in schools, or oppose to teaching solely Evolution, is because they don’t really understand the difference between one theory or the other. Not by only showing the American population, but by explaining the difference between a good scientific story and a bad scientific story to our children—that will make a true difference.  

            For instance, we could show them the striking similarities between Creationism and Intelligent Design. In response to environmental stimuli, Creationism seems to have evolved into Intelligent Design, that is, the story that life is too complicated to have evolved from single-celled organisms into what it is today. Thus, it must have an intelligent designer, i.e. God, Yoda, Professor Grobstein. Despite what many ID proponents want us to believe, this story is simply thinly veiled Creationism with some science thrown in for good measure. A common argument made by Intelligent Design supporters is originally from William Paley,

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever. ... But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think the answer which I had before given would be sufficient.”

That is, there is no way that watch could have lain there forever for it was much too complex to have come from nature—thereby, it had to have a designer. But the mere mention of a designer, of some force greater than thou, automatically makes it Creationism… because it requires that there has to be a Creator. But blatant Creationism cannot stand up as a scientific theory, so it evolved into something that could possibly be an alternative to the theory of Evolution: a sudo-scientific theory purporting to have as much evidence as any other scientific theory. But the mere mention of a Creator destroys all of its credibility as “scientific,” and becomes a foundationalist story (pardon the “F” word). So, in fact, there was no evolution in theories at all—it was merely a costumed version of the old story.

            But there are true evolutions in other stories. Pride and Prejudice, which is Bryn Mawr’s favorite book according to Facebook, has grown more popular since Jane Austen wrote it in 1813. It has been adapted multiple times, into movies in 1940, 2003, and 2005, not to mention 1980 and 1995 television versions. Its stage adaptations are endless. But it has, more recently, adapted and evolved even further. Seth Grahame-Smith recently published his book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, taking Austen’s original story and augmenting it to include zombies, mayhem, and ultra-violence. Said Grahame-Smith of adapting the original story, “‘You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there… it was just ripe for [zombies]’.” The classic novel has evolved from what it once was, from what made it popular for young women of all ages, into something that can be fully embraced by readers of all types… just by adding zombies. And, thus, the story is propagated and persisted once again.

 Now, let’s take a look at the classic Greek myths of the Olympians: Zeus, Hermes, Ares, Aphrodite, etc. Zeus, the head honcho on Olympus, throws thunderbolts and likes to chase tail. Hermes is the messenger of the gods, a musician, and a trickster. Ares likes violence and Aphrodite is all about love. Apollo and Artemis are twins, one of the sun and the other of the moon. They are all revered by the ancient Greeks, given homage in sacrifices and gifts of ambrosia and gold, and protect their favored lands. But in Marie Phillip’s 2007 novel, Gods Behaving Badly, things have changed. A modern take on the Olympians, the gods and goddesses live in London in the present day, reduced to demeaning modern jobs and possessing almost no supernatural powers. They are no longer worshipped as they once were; people don’t even know that they exist. Zeus, former leader of leaders, is reduced to a wizened, senile old man locked away from modern society. However, by the end of the story, a young human heroine is able to restore the gods to their former glory and reaffirm civilizations’ faith in the Olympians. Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this modern take on the Greek myths enables a variety of readers to become more familiar with Zeus and the other gods, allowing the story to continue.

One of my favorite literary evolution topics is vampires. Hardly anyone today could claim to have an unawareness of Twilight or ‘Salem’s Lot or any of Anne Rice’s takes on the vampire story. Today’s vampires are dark, brooding, and sexy—hence the leagues of fandom that salivate over the fictional bloodsuckers. But vampires weren’t always so attractive. The grandfather of modern day sultry mosquitoes is, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula, a seducer in his own right, did not do it through physical attraction. In Chapter 2, the protagonist Jonathon Harker writes "As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me... a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal…” Dracula made people physically ill simply with his presence—it stands to reason that he might have some trouble standing up with the sex appeal of the modern vampires. He made up for it in terror and power. A hypnotic gaze, the ability to change into a bats or fog, or just being made of pure evil… Dracula’s the original devil spawn. It’s even more interesting to note that Dracula is actually an evolution of Vlad Tepes, sometimes called “Vlad the Impaler,” the man who through his enemies of spikes and watched them bleed to death. Though regarded as a savior to the nation by his people, Crown Prince Vlad III was renowned for his criminally harsh punishments and torture methods (see previous mention of spikes, also: burning, skinning, roasting, and boiling people, feeding people the flesh of their friends or relatives, cutting off limbs, drowning, and nailing people's hats to their heads). Stoker’s take on vampires is also due in part to Countess Elizabeth Bàthory, the Hungarian countess who tortured and murdered hundreds of young women, most notably by draining them of their blood… and then bathing in it. (Is beauty still only skin deep when you absorb it through your pores?) Yeah… I’d like to see Edward Cullen stand up to that. The trend in evolution, it seems, is to grow more and more attractive to the humans—their prey—perhaps in order to catch them unawares.

There have also been evolutions of stories on Bryn Mawr’s campus, namely the Pembroke Arch tradition. When approaching Erdman through the arch, one will notice a set of black metal poles—the ones closet to Thomas Great Hall. When friends walk through the arch, they must not split the poles, and must instead walk through them together, otherwise their friendship will be destroyed and they will hate each other forever. Various anecdotes have been given to support this superstition, but it interesting to recognize the reality behind this tradition. Only a few years ago, a student who dealt with Obsessive-Compulsive disorder would frequent a path through the arch. It would bother her to no end if she and her friends walked on opposite sides of the poles. In order to make her feel better, her friends invented this tradition and it soon caught on. So who knows which tradition will come next?

In our last small group discussion, I was asked to explain my view that there is actually no line between Literature and Science, that they don’t exist separately, and that they cannot actually work without each other. I look at it like this: all subjects, Literature and Science included, arise from the human mind and human consciousness. They are connected through the cognitive component associated with both of them, as well as their pursuit to understand human consciousness. Where Literature produces a stream of consciousness, creates stories from the consciousness, Science pursues the inner workings, the reality, and the actual structures involved with consciousness. In order to explain Science, one must use writing, to use Language and Literature, to make arguments compelling and interesting. Literature can use formulas, stratagems, psychological and scientific data to make their arguments. The mere writing of words on paper is, in itself, a scientific progress. The ability to formulate a countless numbers of words from 26 letters, the ability to construct meaningful, grammatically correct sentences from an assortment of words, phrases, and clauses, the ability to create an essay, a story, a novel—that is a science.

I look forward to science writing as part of a future career. As an English major, I embrace Literature and Language, and I enjoy playing with words to create interesting sentences that ensnare the mind and the senses. As a Biology minor, I enjoy Science as a topic that I write about. The human body, in particular, as well as the path we have walked to reach where we are today, is particularly enticing. The intricacies of the inner workings of our organ systems, the way everything works in tandem to create a living, working person, the particulars of our neurological system who make us who we are… and the ability to explore those features through experimentation and writing… I can’t get enough of it. This class, The Evolution of Stories, was the means by which I could pursue my interests in an academic setting. There is nothing that I enjoy more, except perhaps writing, than discussing scientific and literary topics in an open forum. Working my ideas aloud and listening to the ideas of others allows me to push forward and evolve my consciousness and the way I think about things. Because I don’t view Science and Literature as separate entities, I see their synthesis as natural instead of awkward. I know that, during our class discussions, others described science writing as formulaic, dry, boring… the stuff of lab write-ups and theses that numb the brain and the body. Me, I think of science writing in terms of Oliver Sacks, Mary Roach, and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett, “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry, or, the best of all, “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston. Who could read “The Hot Zone” and be bored? Ebola has to be one of the most terrifying, most captivating diseases that we deal with today. If a hemorrhagic fever is boring then you need to take a step back and look at your life. (What are you, Superman?)

Throughout this class, I have been able to evolve and learn more about myself. I am now determined to look at my beliefs as testable hypotheses. I want to learn as much as I can about science, literature, and the world. I want to be able to make a change in the American education system, and I want to be able to present evolution –and other scientific ideas—in an interesting and presentable fashion. I want to spread understanding… and I want to make this rising generation of American students become better writers. So much time in high school was spent trying to convince my friends and peers that writing was fun. That you could play with your words and your sentence structure to create witty and captivating pieces that would not only be fun to write, but land you an A with your teachers. Someday I’ll get through to them. In the meantime, I’ll just have to work on myself and my ability to understand the subject material set before me.

Finally, those vampire kids that post on that paper I wrote freshman year? You need to stop. You need to actually read my paper and post what you think, or you need to not post at all. We talked about stomping on other’s beliefs and, frankly, good for you for believing in fictional characters (coughEdward Cullencough). I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. But, at least, if you’re going to try and hold a legitimate conversation, use some evidence to back it up. Isn’t that story of any scientific pursuit? Isn’t that how any decent story is made? Evidence. Piles of it. With a good dash of veracity and contemplation thrown in. More than a claim to “know a vampire in real life.”

That’s all.


Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution, intelligent design, words, and ...

I doubt it's "all," but its probably enough.  For now.