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What Might Dennett Help Us Conclude about the Purpose of Story-Telling?

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 What Might Dennett Help Us Conclude about the Purpose of Story-Telling?


Unlike Darwin, whose argument was structured around data and observations, Dennett’s is one of analogies. One might say he used stories to attempt to convince us of his observation about a particular story. Dennett observed that evolution, as theorized by Darwin, cannot coexist with religion if we really look at what it tells us. In fact, the theory seems to threaten other stories which seek to explain how life came about. I am not inclined to agree with him on the point that religion and evolution would have difficulty coexisting. Dennett didn’t convince me to see the impact of evolution the same way he does.

When discussing Dennett's Catholic atheist reference (Dennett 515) with a friend, she told me about Greek orthodox atheists. They go to church and are involved in church activates because of cultural reasons, but don’t believe in god. Although this might sound ridiculous at first, it seems to have a presence in certain communities (Horowitz). At first, we might see the purpose behind enjoying what religion has to offer in the cultural context meanwhile not accepting the story that religion advocates as being true. Dennett certainly seems to recognize this dilemma as extending beyond just the Catholic atheist, but to many of us who “[love] the heritage, firmly convinced of its value, yet unable to sustain any conviction at all in its truth.”  He certainly acknowledges the importance of cultural memes.  But can one have it both ways? I think Dennett himself does something analogous to the Catholic atheist when he tells his son about the campfire song. It’s beautiful and comforting in his eyes, but not believable. Can he have his cake and eat it too here, just like the Greek orthodox atheist or the catholic atheist? In a way, it almost seemed to me that mentioning the campfire song seemed to show that he too, in the context of his broader argument, was not practicing the rigid views of evolution he was arguing for. If one sees evolution as the universal acid and believes what Dennett is trying to say, it might be difficult for such a person to appreciate and pass on the themes of a story with no belief whatsoever in what it is actually saying. Dennett’s stance is one of black and white. Either you agree with the notion of evolution and common descent and reject other creationist stories, or you naively accept what other stories tell us. His story is not one that provides comfort or emotional peace as it rejects purpose and the meaning we so often place on life in general and human life in particular.

This is why I do not agree with Dennett’s larger story. I think that you can appreciate the campfire song and believe in what it is telling us while also believing in the story of evolution. It almost seems that his views the campfire song is contradictory with what he is trying to say, and that if you strictly adhere to what he preaches, there is no room for cherishing the theme it conveys and wanting to preserve its ‘meme.’

      Even though the notion of the catholic atheist, as mentioned by Dennett, seems contradictory, those who define themselves in this way draw meaning from religion even though they do not believe in god. We can see from this scenario that many practice religion for reasons much greater than just a strict belief that god created the earth in seven days or that eve ate the forbidden fruit (or the details of any other creation story). If we look for a moment at the bible, we know that it is a very old story. Even though the specifics may or may not be just exactly what happened, they serve to pass on themes that for generations we have considered most important in cultures. I think it is possible to observe religion and listen to the stories it tells us in order to better or lives and even better understand ourselves. I am not convinced that it’s necessarily to believe these stories describe exactly what happened in the creation of the world. Evolution, as introduced by Darwin and expanded upon by modern science, may be a story that we can see as legitimate and persuasive to us based upon the evidence which supports it. But, just as we don't have to believe that every detail of the bible is true, it seems that we don't have to believe that evolution occurred without any purpose or creator. I say this after not being completely persuaded by Dennett. I tried to look past his analogies and lengthy stories used to make his point. Even though he clearly feels strongly about what he is discussing, I attempted to look at what he was saying without emotion. I later reflected upon the story instead of its teller. Whether or not I like how the author is putting his ideas, it was important to look at them without judgment. After doing this, I saw that I actually appreciated Dennett’s telling me what he thought on the matter, because with our critique, the evolution of a story can proceed.
Dr. Grobstein asked if we could do better than Dennett, and if we were satisfied with the story about evolution he was trying to tell (Grobstein). Can we take evolution as being a logical and well-supported theory about our existence and still find meaning in our coming to be here in the world? I think the answer is yes. One might not necessarily believe that the earth and its creatures were created in seven days as a literal story of what actually happened, but instead see the evidence we have for the evolutionary course, as told by Darwin and say that there just might be a director of the process.
I think that the beauty of the evolution story is that it continues to evolve. The New York Times article which says that “Darwinism must die so that evolution can live" alludes to the fact that the way we see his story now has greatly expanded from Darwin’s version years ago. All stories, even religious ones, evolve. Many may not take the seven-day version of creation literally. We live in a time in which the stories we tell are revised continuously, and that’s ok. We can even look at stories of the past and draw some meaning from them; they are not totally useless. We learn morality from religious stories. We learn about the origin of the evolution story from the words of Darwin himself, and how much of his life was devoted to finding an answer to how life came to be. From Darwin we can maybe see in ourselves our own interest in finding answers to the questions of life.
In agreement with Dr. Grobstein, I did find Dennett’s book a worthwhile read for sure. Even if one may not totally agree with what a particular story has to say, it’s the questions initiated by the story that may lead a person to greater understanding. When realizing that I had formed opinions while reading this book, I too realized that this is yet another purpose behind storytelling. Although slightly different from the culture-building mentioned previously, the question and thought-provoking purpose behind storytelling seems just as, maybe even more, important. Forming opinions seems productive because we can proceed in search of more data and share our ideas with others. I admire Dennett, as dogmatic as I at first perceived him to be. I admire him because he took the initiative to share with me his viewpoint. His story about a story has importance even if one were to see things differently. It is important because it introduces and idea about the significance of evolution now and in the future. Just as religious stories would be important even if a listener did not have faith as a strict fundamentalist. Stories can evolve and coexist and our perception of one can be expended upon with the introduction of another. After reading Dennett, I have a better understanding of my own viewpoints and I believe this realization has given me a different outlook on the purposes of story-telling.

I think Dr. Grobstein’s view of storytelling hints to the larger theme of “Evolution of Stories.” Like Grobstein, I like Dennett because he makes me think, whether I completely agree with him or not. Thinking, conclusion-drawing, and expansion of Dennett’s story in the minds of readers might lead to improved examination later on in the story of life. Going beyond Dennett, it seems that little changes to the story passed along may inspire the creation of new stories from old, leading to an improved explanation not just for the good of the individual but for us story tellers and listeners as a whole. I think Darwin might have agreed.





Work Cited


Horowitz, Alexandra. "Some atheists go to church too, but not to worship." The Times Argus 20              Apr 2008 16 Mar 2009<            20080420/FEATURES07/804200331/1016/ FEATURES07>.


Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.


Grobstein, Paul. "The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories." Bryn Mawr College.        English House, 05 Mar 2009.


Safina. Carl. "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live," The New York Times 09 Feb   2009. 16 Mar 2009 <>


Anne Dalke's picture


I’m reading this paper as an interesting “next chapter” in the essay you began last month, which asked what adaptive functions our various forms of storytelling might serve, and hypothesized that the general function is one of facilitating community.

This time ‘round you focus the question more specifically--what is the function of Dennett’s particular form of storytelling?—and give a more specific answer: he helped you go on w/ your thinking, in large part precisely because you found yourself not satisfied w/ his story. In more general terms, then, storytelling (in this version of the ever-on-going-draft that is your thinking-aloud for this course) has much less to do with community-building, and much more to do with thinking-expanding. Do you see a contradiction, then, between what you said last month, and what you are saying now? Or an evolutionary relation?

I take your point that religious practice may be valuable without a shared belief system, but I wonder exactly what must be shared in order to participate in that community: if not a specific set of beliefs (a communal “story”) then particular shared practices? Or ethics? If you want to think more about religion as an evolutionary practice, read Karen Armstrong’s wonderful book, The History of God, which argues that atheists are the ones who have always fueled the evolution of religious thinking, by naming the versions of God that “don’t work,” and so opening up spaces for new understandings: “for 4,000 years,” Armstrong says, the idea of God “has constantly adapted to meet the demands of the present.”

On the “other side of the fence,” I’m also curious about your speculation that we might accept evidence for evolution, while imagining also a director of the process. What happens then to the randomness so “fundamental” to both the Darwinian and Grobsteinian versions of the evolutionary story? What happens also, in your account, to the subjectivity—the “crack”—that Paul has argued is necessary to fuel scientific speculation? You speak of looking @ Dennett’s argument “without judgment”—do you think that is possible? To be objective? Is there really no “crack” of individual idiosyncrasy in your reading?

Finally: I wonder if you over-generalize when you claim that “all stories, even religious ones, evolve,” that every story we tell is “revised continuously.” Aren’t there some groups of people (I would include quite a few scientists and academics in this list, as well as religionists) who insist that their stories are foundational, and therefore unrevisable? That they describe the truth, which must be preserved?