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Week 5 - Evolution/Stories

Paul Grobstein's picture

From biological evolution to .... ?  What about the general ideas; are they transplantable/useful/generative in additional contexts?  Looking forward to these and other thoughts as we talk about Dennett and emergence ...

Student's picture

free will?

In our section last week, we talked about free will- whether or not we have it, whether anyone can really have it... I think it's interesting that we may be programmed to believe what we're going to believe, by chemical interactions in our heads, which would really limit the concept of free will...or does free will start after that point? Start after, if we are perhaps so programmed, within than program for us to make our own choices?  If we have no free will, does that mean we have no will power?  At the same time... we can say free will does not exist- that are choices are made for us, but is that really helpful?  It takes away responsibility from us on nearly all levels.. but, on the other side, if we really have no ultimate control over our choices- if we labor to make a decision that ultimately has already been made for us, then we're just programs waiting to play out... just waiting for time to pass and for our programmed decisions to be made..

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

free will

To some extent human deffinitely have free will; some more than others. The difference arises in the surroundings of an individual: their parents, what is set as right and wrong by the society around them, and morality. Like free will, morality is seen at many different levels depending on an individuals beliefs.

When looking at humanity on a community level it is so individualized you can't put a specific characteristic on the whole species. But if you look at humans from a larger perspective, it seems as though we do make our own choices be them right or wrong, good or bad.

Jenn Dodwell's picture

Methinks he doth protest too much....

I keep wondering why Dennett has the compulsive need to repeatedly subordinate religion in his discussion of evolution.  Yes, it is clear that science and theology are two very different disciplines.  Yes, I understand that he believes more strongly in evolution than he does in intelligent design.  Howver, the way he constantly adopts a condescending tone towards religion; such as in his claim that the "kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us.......that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in...."  is offputting, and less persuasive.

 One of the key ways to lay the groundwork for a convincing argument is to first acknowledge the valid points of the side against which you are arguing. (and if the other side does not have any valid points, then why would you take the time to write a 500-page book on something that is so obvious?)  By acknowleging the valid points of the other side, you meet the members of that side "halfway" so to speak, so that they are more inclined to engage you in debate.  Also, in acknowledging the strong points of the other side at the beginning of your argument, your argument becomes more impressive, because you have shown that you are about to take on a challenge; to show how your argument is even stronger than the already strong argument of the other side.

 First of all, I feel that the counter-argument (or the complicating argument) to evolution (that of intelligent design) is far from childish and naive.  Religion is incredibly complex and nuanced, and the debate between whether to take the word of the Bible literally for figuratively is not something I can ever see being resolved.  Therefore, for those who believe in the story of creation, it is a real challenge to reconcile the undeniably convincing evidence of evolution with their conviction that the words of the Bible speak the truth. 

 Thus, for Dennett to just toss this reality aside makes him look childish and naive.   Plus, he immediately alienates a good chunk of his potential audience; those who are deeply religious.  The result is that there are fewer people that he will be capable of persuading. 

 In the end, I would say that Dennett does more "telling" in this book than "showing." He poses his argument against the theory of intelligent design as more of a rant than as a logical, sophisticated, well-balanced proof.  The result is that his haughty and pretentious tone diverts our attention from his otherwise sound and convincing case for evolution.

hayley reed's picture

When Germs Talk, Maybe Humans Can Answer

There is a very interesting article in the Sunday’s New York Times about communication between bacteria that fits perfectly with our discussion about language. Supposedly what distinguishes us from other animals is that human beings are the only species with language. But, other species do have a language of sorts. As the article proves, even bacteria have a language. The article titled “When Germs Talk, Maybe Humans Can Answer” suggests that communication among bacteria is prevalent. In addition, bacteria have the ability to signal each other to decide when to attack. Interestingly enough, bacteria can work in groups to decide when to take action and can assess when their numbers are big enough to achieve their goals. “Quorum sensing” as scientists call it occurs when bacteria communicate in a forum. If this communication does not take place the bacteria will decide to attack.

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

Blondes: an endangered species?

In our small group (Prof Dalke's class) someone brought up the theory of blondes becoming extinct. This topic interests me as well and last semester I wrote a paper on it. I thought people might be interested in reading it so here it is: (I don't know if the punnet squares will work.)

It has already been determined by research that evolution changes the genetic makeup of organisms, and therefore, their appearance and abilities through natural selection. Darwin, the first to propose this realization, makes it clear that the process of natural selection allows for the organism with the strongest traits to succeed biologically. But it seems that all of this has happened millions of years ago and it’s hard to believe that changes are still happening all the time. The process of biological change is slow, but is it possible that in only a few generations people might be able to see the next stage of human natural selection?

In 2006 Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost published his theory on the origin of blondes. Frost proposes that the genetic alteration to the dark-haired gene occurred within 35,000-40,000 years after the original Homo sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe (10). The blonde trait was developed within certain females to compete for mates with the dark-haired women (6). Frost is quoted: "The increase in competition for males led to rapid change as women struggled to evolve the most alluring qualities." It is easy to mistaken a genetic trait for willed change. The trait appeared because it was what men preferred for mates, and their preference exponentially increasing the movement of the blonde gene into the next generations (10). But if the development of blondes was due to competition could there be the possibility that blondes could become extinct because of competition as well?

For decades now, scientists and observers have spoken of the disappearance of blondes, expecting the gene associated with blonde traits to become “extinct” within two hundred years from today. Since 1865 scholars and lecturers have hypothesized the demise of the blonde population for a variety of reasons including male preferences to brunettes or “bottle blondes” and the fact that the blonde trait is characterized by a recessive gene (1).

In 2002 several media reports stated that the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a study in which they found that this gene will become obsolete within the next couple centuries due to the fact that there are too few people actually carrying the gene for blondeness. However, The WHO countered the media by denying the accounts of said study: “In response to recent media reports citing an alleged World Health Organization study predicting the extinction of the naturally blonde hair gene, WHO wishes to clarify that it has never conducted research on this subject. Nor, to the best of its knowledge, has WHO issued a report predicting that 'natural blondes are likely to be extinct by 2202'. WHO has no knowledge of how these news reports originated but would like to stress that we have no opinion on the future existence of blondes.” (3)

According to the Hardy-Weinberg Theory that measures the frequencies of alleles, the amount of genes never changes (7). The majority of scientists, today, when asked, stated that although there may be a slight decrease in the number of blondes, its percentages within the human population will remain consistent. There are a few number of blonde genes out there however. Interestingly, both blonde and dark-haired couples are able to give birth to blonde children (as long as both parents in the dark-haired couple contain one blonde allele). (9). These Punnett Squares show the second generations of both couples:

A = dark-haired allele a = blonde allele 

Dark-haired parents with blonde genes (Aa and Aa):











Dark-haired parents without the blonde gene (AA and AA):












Blonde parents (aa and aa):











One dark-haired with blonde gene and one blonde parent (Aa and aa):











Because the blonde gene is a recessive gene, the only way it will show up is if there is no dark-haired gene to override it. Just because a person is dark-haired does not mean they do not possess the blonde gene, it simply means the dark-haired gene is more powerful genetically. As seen in the Punnett Squares, two dark-haired parents with a blonde gene have 25% chance of giving birth to a blonde child. Two dark-haired parents without any blonde genes have 0% chance of giving birth to a blonde child. Two blonde parents (with both genes being blonde) have a 100% chance of giving birth to a blonde child, and one dark-haired parent with a blonde gene and a blonde parent have a 50% chance of giving birth to a blonde child. In order for the blonde population to either increase or decrease, these probabilities would have to change, and as the Hardy-Weinberg Theory explains, they are not going to.

Frost’s theory seems to agree with Hardy and Weinberg. Once the gene for blondeness surfaced and was passed into the next generation, and then the next, and then the next, and so forth, blondeness became a prominent trait among women who would continue to give birth to children with blonde traits even if they were dark-haired (10).

It is hard to predict the outcome of any genetic evolution because it take such a long time to, first of all, establish a trait, and second of all, change. There are many traits that do not get passed on. In fact, people with six fingers or webbed toes are considered freaks of nature when in actuality blondes are a similar mutation that is just a bit more genetically popular. The human population today is huge. For blondeness or any other trait to be completely effected (negatively or positively) in the United States, yet alone throughout the world, would take unimaginably long, and preference from the majority of all people. Even though the World Health Organization did not, a completion of such a study regarding the demise of the blonde trait or any other gene would be really interesting.




  1. Blonde Extinction
  2. Blondes Aren’t Going Away
  3. Blonde Extinction Risk Overrated
  4. The Masquerade: White Supremacy, Capitalism, Consumerism, and the Blond Ideal
  5. Clarification of erroneous news reports indicating WHO genetic research on hair colour
  7. Hardy-Weinberg principle
ekorn's picture

a bit confused by the story

In Dennett’s writing it has come to my attention that within the text itself lays philosophy.  It was toyed with in an earlier set of posts, “A Life of Sleep” and “RE: sleep”, but I believe it may be found throughout the book, despite the response to the original post.  An interesting example I found was on page 201 when Dennett states, “Nothing complicated enough to be really interesting could have an essence” (a phrase deemed by Dennett to be the “fighting words of some philosophers”).  Additionally, Aristotle himself was a philosopher and is frequently mentioned in Dennett’s text.  When I looked up the definition of philosophy, I was given this answer, that it is the “pursuit of wisdom, a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means” (Merriam-Webster).  The definition makes me question the fundamental differences between science, as we in this class are being taught to understand it, and philosophy.  In evolution, as I have said numerous times, I have not witness personally the process by which anything has evolved, nor has Dennett, nor Darwin.  Though it is true that Darwin made some highly important observations, when all is said and done they seem to be no more than speculation into the theory of evolution.  I may be totally off here, but I am wondering how Darwin’s observations can be divided from speculation, and then in turn how science is not one and the same as philosophy (if we come to understand that there are no truths in science).  Maybe what I should be asking is what the difference between science (the one with no truths) and philosophy are...

I.W.'s picture

The Words of Our Stories

In anthropology we had this discussion on how the English language reflects and increases the subjugation of women.  I began to realize how our language limits and changes the “truth” of our stories.  All of our experiences are reshaped in our ability to tell them and recount them in words, but since no experience can be fully and accurately explained through words, language alters our memory of events. 

            This reminds me of my math teacher senior year.  The girls in my grade had the tendency to overuse the word “awkward”.  Whenever an experience was uncomfortable in any way we would label it as awkward, rather than taking the time to think of a more accurate word.  One day after we referred to some event as awkward my math teacher began to yell at us about how the word awkward was ruining us.  He claimed that by not looking for the word the better fit the situation we were severely limiting our vocabulary, because every time we did not call up the correct word from the depth of our brain the chance we ever would again lessened. He continued to explain that by calling situations awkward that were not caused them to be falsely remembered as awkward. 

            After our discussions of “truth” and stories I have come to fully agree with my teacher.  The words we use, even if only in our mind, can completely reshape an event.  Over time the actual experience is lost to us but we will still remember the words we associated with it.  It is frightening how powerful language is controlling the way in which we think and how limited we are by the words we have been taught. 

marquisedemerteuil's picture

big brother is watching you...

if you read 1984, everyone's favorite book at the moment, orwell makes a similar point to your own. "doublespeak" in the book seeks to limit language, so since people will only know this revised language, full of abbreviations and not real words, people will not be able to rebel against society because they cannot conceive of rebellion, they have no words through which to articulate that thought. so does thought really exist outside language? notice we use language to articulate that point. i would argue no, and it's not that doublespeak prevents the people in orwell's world from understanding a non-linguistic concept, rebellion, but rather that rebellion does not exist for those people. it is natural to assume that the language we use relates to "universal" concepts that everyone has, whether or not they can articulate them, and i believe that language controls rather than limits our thought process.

CT's picture

Language does shape thought

I am not sure if I agree with your point on language, that "the language we use relates to "universal" concepts that everyone has, whether or not they can articulate them".

Having grown up bilingual, there are definite sentiments that I can't express in both languages, despite being familiar with both of them.

I don't think that it is necessarily impossible for someone to learn either language and learn these new ways of nuances of expression. But language is such a cultural phenomena and shapes the way we think in at least degree. Therefore I would argue that the strategy of eliminating certain strains of language in 1984 is a logical way to shape the way people think.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

on language

hey caroline, you've actually misrepresented my point, that quotation begins with "it is natural to assume that" and then the second part of the sentence is what i contribute. so i'm saying there aren't universals. besides if "the strategy ofeliminating certain strains of language in 1894 in a logical way to shape the way people think" then they can't think of points they can't articulate so here i think you're proving the claim you're trying to dispel. also, your post is called "language does shape thought." well yes, that's what i'm saying, i'm saying thoughts don't exist outside language, language creates thought.

it seems to me that the reason we come up with "thoughts" we can't "articulate" is because we have, and can only think through, language. if language is a system of articulation it must contain its opposite, which means not being able to articulate. to rephrase, because language gives us thought, it gives us the inability to describe all of our thoughts.

let's say that you want to come up with an idea but can't. this is pretty common: when you're trying to write a paper, and especially when you're reading a book or viewing art that just doesn't suit what you do and everyone else in class is having a great philosophical discussion about it and you can't think of anything to contribute. if you can't always come up with thoughts, you are still defined by how you think, simply because you *can* think. what could possibly transcend thought? i'm mimicking the argument for the limitation of language. does the fact that you can't always articulate what you mean imply that thoughts exist in a realm beyond language? does the fact that you can't always even invent a thought mean that you are actually searching for something beyond thought and thought is limiting you? NO!

this is badly written, and i'm only now beginning to experiment with this philosophy. there is a lot i need to prove here, so feel free to challenge me. hopefully throughout the duration of this course i'll be able to compose a compelling argument for my unusual point of view.

i think the main thing i need to do is prove that everything contains its opposite. that's a pretty suspicious claim. i always find that to be true, for example my video art class watched the piece "mediations" by gary hill (1976, 1989) in which he buries a speaker in sand. so what makes language visible, the sand grains moving on the speaker, is what destroys language. i really wanted to discuss this in class the other day because it is so like what we're studying, but in didn't come up in "Group G." (for Grobstein, as well as Gaby -- eerr, Marquise de Merteuil.)

Christina Cunnane's picture

In response to Professor

In response to Professor Grobstein's post with the quote:
"Man is, above all, a storyteller. He lives surrounded by his stories and by those of others. He sees everything that happens to him through these stories; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it."

I think this is 100% true. Almost everything in our life is based upon our ability to tell stories, to communicate. This is furthered when going out into the "real world" where companies have interviews and applications programs and schools have essays to determine whether or not you are a successful communicator. Maybe this process is in and of itself natural selection. Communication does not make you as a candidate, but it certainly doesn't hurt. You could be a great story teller and write a superb essay or have a superb interview but if you all other qualities you won't be chosen. Story telling ability, however, could break you. You could look fabulous on paper and sit down for an interview and all that could come out of your mouth (or writing, or other way of communicating; I don't want to rule out people with disabilities as good communicators) is the word banana. You probably won't get the job. So maybe nature is selecting for story telling, at least in humans by favoring it so much. People in power must be able to tell stories.

For a while, people have thought the ability to speak was purely a human characteristic. Now we have learned that we can teach words to other primates. However, it has been shown time and time again that they cannot form understandable sentences. They cannot create syntax and tell a story. So that is just it. Our story telling ability is what makes us human!

Dennett shares this point of view saying in his chapter about the amazingness of language, "But even if chimpanzees are, like us, innately equiped as natural psychologists, they nevertheless lack a crucial feature shared by all human natural psychologists, folk and professional varieties: they never get to compare notes."

marquisedemerteuil's picture


"Maybe this process is in and of itself natural selection."

I would argue that this can't be true because when employers select future employees it's not natural -- people are doing it, not mysterious forces of nature that are studied in the natural sciences. It would be "artificial selection" or even "business selection" (I hesitate to say "cultural selection" because I find that to be too general for this.) I find that it's easy to apply science concepts to the humanities so loosely that the humanities are distorted and oversimplified. That is a risk this class runs, but a good risk, because persuasive parallels can be found.

Katherine Redford's picture

Biology and Culture..

I find Dennet's arguement in the beginning of this week's reading to be incredibly thought provoking.  He states that there is so little time seperating us from the time of Plato, that there is absolutely no way to look at the human race at an evolutionary level.  Indeed, he says, "There has been time for only about ten generations of Homo sapiens sunce Old Ironsides was launched in 1797."  This paints a pretty blunt picture doesn't it. 

However, we cannot deny, for example, that the average lifespan of a human being is now significantly longer than it was in 1797, as well as in the time of Plato.  How does this fit into biological evolution?  While I do understand Dennet's argument, I feel like examples such as these lie on the border between biology and social/cultural situation.  IT is difficult to explain how any of this fits into the scheme of biological evolution because it has happened in such a short ammount of time.  But isn't our ability to adapt to our environment by creating and discovering better medical treatments, health and sanitation standards enabling us to live longer?  And even if this is so, does it change how we as a species reproduce? Is that relevent?

 Alot of questions.. still trying to sort through it all..

danYell's picture

language and memory

Mayr and Darwin were adamant about all species being unique. It’s sort of like the confusion I felt when I found out that every kid’s mother told them they were special. But, if we’re all special then none of us are special! One way that species are unique is that they have found the right (less wrong) methods to ensure adaptation to their environment. This special variability then is not a cause of something within them, but something acting on them. It’s cold so I grow some fur. I need to dangle from the trees so my thumb shifts position. I need to say something so I speak. What is it that I need to say?

Before language, there must have been a great refinement and expansion of memory. They say that children don’t remember anything before they are two years old. Interestingly, this is also when they begin to speak simple sentences. Our ability to speak to one another and therefore learn from one another greatly enhances our chances of survival. I have been toying with the idea of what the first memory would have been, and if the being having it was blown away, or if she just got a headache. Also, what was the first word spoken? The speaker would have had to teach her companions what she was talking about- The birth of the first story. With everyone thinking and speaking and collaborating knowledge and memory and language must have expanded exponentially.

Other thoughts:
I have been hung up on the assertion that scientists are trying to make sense of our reality, or that they are trying to explain our reality. This is exactly what I would say that artists and writers are doing as well. So now I have the bridge between the sciences and the humanities that I was looking for.

I don’t think that the shift from Vulgar Latin to the wide variety of romance languages today is part of the evolutionary process- unless modern day languages are more useful for survival, or they can express something that older languages were incapable of expressing.

Danielle Joseph

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Evolution and Culture

An interesting idea that Dennett explores is the relationship between culture and evolution.  He indicates that culture has had a significant impact on the course of human evolution by saying that, “What we are is very much a matter of what culture has made us” (340). However, he also indicates that culture itself can be understood in evolutionary terms, because, “like life itself, and every other wonderful thing, culture must have a Darwinian origin” (341).  I find the idea of viewing culture through the analogy of evolution very interesting, and I think it fits well with some of the ideas that we discussed in class.  In the same way that a non-reproducing human can affect evolution by affecting culture, an evolutionary process must take place for the culture itself to develop.  In a sense, the earliest societies are the common ancestors of the wide variety of modern cultures that have persisted into modern times through a process of sustainability that could be compared to natural selection.  Viewing culture in this way emphasizes the commonalities shared by human societies despite their unique divergence, and that major world powers and isolated aboriginal tribes are equally viable and successful in the eyes of cultural evolution.

Calderon's picture


When reading the book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” By Daniel C. Dennett I don’t believe more the idea of all animals coming from the same ancestors, but I do become more comfortable with the idea that there might be common ancestors for humans.  As Paul was asking the class during the discussion, where language comes from I started thinking why it is that if all of us are humans, and we do have things in common such as eating sleeping and many others why is that we do not share the same language? As most of us would know Roman Languages such as Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, come from the “Vulgar Latin.”  What I am trying to say is Darwin made sense not only about science but culturally too because this sort of proves that we must of come from the same ancestor and that is something many already know but if we all did come from the same ancestor why are there such different species such as ants? Dogs? I mean it is not clear to me whether he is trying to say if we all as in all animals came from the same ancestor or just humans?

EB Ver Hoeve's picture


After discussing the significance of the story on Thursday and contemplating Darwin’s quote, “The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same,” I started thinking about some observations to support these ideas.  I think I found some.  Consider the Romance Languages.  Included in this branch of languages you have Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, and many more.  So then, as with all categorization, one must look to where this “branch” of Romance languages began.  All Romance Languages are descents of  “Vulgar Latin”.  This is significant to the story of evolution because from a single language, or initial language, speech has evolved and specialized into a variety of different ones-but they all stem from the same beginning and therefore all include traces of similarity.  This idea can also be seen in the cat family.  In the cat family there are currently 40 different feline species alive today that can all be traced back to a single ancestor (Wikipedia).  Like the languages, the feline family has branched out from a single ancestor over 10.8 million years ago and now include species of tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, bobcats, and many more.  All of these felines share similar characteristics and this is because they too are from the same branch.  There is an unmistakable similarity there and I think Darwin was a pretty amazing thinker to have hypothesized on such a remarkable observation.    

rebeccafarber's picture

A lot of the discussion that

A lot of the discussion that I have read has stemmed from what Dennett has described as our ability as humans to synthesize what is around us. I have always believed prior to this that what makes us the most superior beings is our ability to recognize what evolution is. After scientific breakthroughs, debates, intense research and much forethought and afterthought, the process of evolution has become somewhat understood by humans and we can determine the "facts" (as Mayr would put it) behind the process. However, I stopped paying attention to what I was reading in Dennett when I came to realize that what makes us human - our use of language, our innate love of arts, our perception - and thus what makes us superior, is just what we see. We are so blinded that only we are what matters - for instance, that we are the only species using a complex language of words - that we fail to acknowledge or perhaps even comprehend what is around us. We don't understand what squirrels are doing when they chase each other, or what birds are saying to each other when they chirp incessantly. I believe that this anthropocentric attitude is our downfall - our failure to appreciate, let alone acknowledge, the organisms and species existing around us is what fosters our attitude that we are the most important event in the process of evolution.

With this in mind, I regress to the topic of our existence being a result of a series of random events. The more I think about it, the more I am actually put off by dismay at this idea. No, the earth wasn't created just so that we could exist. No, our destiny wasn't necessarily to take over the earth and develop into the major species. It just turned out that way because that's the way the evolutionary cookie crumbled, and I fail to see how that is a discomfort. I am put at ease knowing that I may not be here had an instance of minutia gone differently in the process of evolution thousands of years ago, something as insignificant as a pin dropping could have changed our existence as a race altogether; rather, the fact that it did not means that we beat incredible odds.

hayley reed's picture

A Life of Sleep

 In reading Dennett I stumbled upon a particularly striking passage about sleep. He writes, “But why does sleep need a ‘clear biological function’ at all? It is being awake that needs an explanation…If we could get away with it, we’d ‘sleep’ our entire lives.” The more I thought about this comment the more I realized how much I disagreed with this statement. Now don’t get me wrong… I love my sleep as much as anyone else does but, having said this I would never want to sleep away my entire life. In fact, if I had it my way I wouldn’t sleep at all. The only reason I sleep is because I enjoy being awake and I can’t enjoy being awake if I am not fully rested. Unlike Dennett I do think that “being up and about, having adventures and completing projects, seeing our friends and learning about the world” is the whole point of life. I don’t think that the whole point of life is to sleep. I am different from a tree in that I don’t and wouldn’t want to spend my whole life sleeping.

An individual may be able to create a reality in their head when they dream but, it is not the same as experiencing reality. When I dream it does feel that what I am dreaming is real but, all I have to do is wake up to realize it was all just my imagination creating stories. Some may argue that we have no way of knowing that the world we live in now is a dream but, I beg to differ. Maybe I am only dreaming that I am typing on my computer right now and when I go to bed I will actually be experiencing reality but, it seems highly improbable. Without stepping on the heels of the film “The Matrix” too much, I like to believe that this world that I know is real and therefore the whole point of life is to experience this reality. I don’t think that being awake needs to be explained at all. Rather, I think anyone who wants to spend their entire life sleeping needs to do a little explaining. I am taking a rather strong stance here so if anyone in the class disagrees with me, I would love to here their story…

marquisedemerteuil's picture


i think you're extrapolating a philosophical implication from dennett's phrase that was not there to begin with. he doesn't say that people would sleep forever because that's how they want to experience life, he's simply saying that from a scientific perspective it's easier on a complex system to sleep all the time, so he criticizes the study he mentions because it assumes that animals work most efficiently and stay out of trouble best when awake and he's saying that that this assumption is unfounded.

ttruong's picture

How to make a species

After reading some of Dennett's writing i sort of feel like it was unfair to call Mayr authoritative. Compared to Mayr, Dennett does the word much more justice. one particular quote that is very undiplomatic: "to put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant--inexcusably ignoranin a would where three out of four people have learned to read and write" (46).

Though his tone is indeed condescending I can't help but feel like its still an effective way to write. He is very polarized in his thoughts concerning the evolution vs creationism tug a war. However, in a strange way it was rather refreshing to read someone who puts himself out there, who takes a stance, who takes a risk at being utterly wrong by being so irrevocably adamant in his views--for there is always a possibility that our observations will someday serva a different story other than evolution. He doesnt stand in the safety zone of indecision or ambivalence as Mary sometimes did.

Also, I find the process of speciation very interesting;such an adumbrant process it is. The qualities that scientists ahve been using to demarcate between different species are not very clear or consistent. There is almost an element of abitrariness in deciding which collection of variations gets to be its own species or remains simply as a variation. interbreeding, production of fertile offspring, similar genetic makeup, similar morphology--those are some of the things are come into playin naming species. But even with such points on species checklist there are so many exceptions and inconsistencies. Does nature have a checklist that we just havent figured out yet or is the demarcation of species simply a human construct?

Paul Grobstein's picture

speaking of stories ...

Interesting review of an interesting novel in the NYTimes book review this weekend. Recalls Sartre's <b>Nausea</b> in which the main character, Roquentin, says

"Man is, above all, a storyteller. He lives surrounded by his stories and by those of others. He sees everything that happens to him through these stories; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it."

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

the importance of being Epsilon

I was curious about how the universe came about, after reading the first few chapters of Dennett’s book, thus I did a bit of research on my own.  I came across, Martin Rees’s “Just Six Numbers,” where he explains that for life of any shape or form to have existed in any corner of our universe, is dictated by six parameters, such as the strength of gravity, and the strong nuclear force that holds the protons and neutrons together.  In his book he theorizes the different possibility that may result from a deviation from any of these parameters.  For example: one of the six numbers Rees labels as epsilon reflects the strength of the strong nuclear force, which glues together the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom.  The bigger the value of epsilon, the stronger the glue.  Measurement shows that epsilon = 0.007, which is incredibly fortunate because if it were much different then the consequences would have been catastrophic.  If epsilon equals 0.006, the nuclear glue would have been slightly weaker, and it would have been impossible to fuse hydrogen into deuterium.  This is the first step on the road to forming helium and all the heavier elements.  If epsilon= 0.006, than the entire universe would be filled with nothing but hydrogen, so there would be no chance of any life. (Singh, Simon. Big Bang. Harper Perennial. 2005). 

Just a small change in any parameters would mean the universe would not be what it is today; it might not have been possible for living organisms to exist.  Although I believe evolution is a random process, but when you trace things back beyond the beginning periods of evolution, it appears to me that there was a structural recipe that was not random in creating the universe.   

marquisedemerteuil's picture

are observations reliable?

in class we always talk about a "summary of observations" and those observations are based on what we see, in the world or doing an experiment. but how do we know we can rely on vision, that it is "true" or "less wrong"? plato says that our visual experiences are false, and mathematics and geometry are true. are the stories we're creating meaningful in any way?

Shannon's picture

...Like it's their Job...

It's funny. We, as humans, believe that we are the most superior products of evolution. While we are the most complex known species in the universe (mammals with highly specialized systems and unparallel cognitive ability), we often surpass the possibilities of other organisms having equal success on their individual levels of survival and natural selection.

Perhaps the greatest example I can give is in regards to bacteria. Just imagine: the entire human race is demolished due to a nuclear wipe out. All animals and plants have perished, but those crafty little bacteria survive and are free to rule the globe.

Bacteria produce like it's their job... As a matter of fact, it is their job. Their incredibly high reproductive rate allows for them to be the simplest organism with the greatest threat of damage. Bacteria are immensely successful at what they do-they produce and die, produce and die, passing their nastiness onto anything & everything. In fact, they are equally successful at life as humans given their level of simplicity. They are very flexible in where they make their homes. A toilet, a toothbrush, a handrail-it’s all “home sweet home” for them.

I think the problem is that we are to ethnocentric, thinking that we are the best just because our brains are the most complex & we can speak eloquently. We may be able to “kill 99.9% of germs with Lysol spay”, but bacteria has us surrounded. Touché.

LS's picture

Superiority and Stories

Maybe we think we are the best not because we can speak eloquently but because we can create stories about ourselves that explain our surrounds and behaviors.  Maybe the fact that we think we are superior is just a byproduct of us being able to produce and give meaning to stories.  Bacteria react and act based on chemical changes in their environment.  The bacteria change, reproduce, or move because some element in their environment signals or causes them to.  In humans maybe our behavior, when all boiled down, is just reactions to signals and chemical molecules in our environment ho(like the bacteria.)  However we create stories about our behavior and give it meaning.  We have babies and reproduce with another individual because we "love" them (or for many other reasons.)  Perhaps our story of love is just the attraction that we display towards another individual because they have the right pheromone and thus we are attracted to reproduce with them.  We have no other information about organisms that tell and create stories, perhaps our definition of superior will change if we find organisms whose neocortex can make explanations up for the “frog brain”, thus create stories.

Julia Smith's picture

Re: ...Like it's their Job...

 I've been doing a lot of thinking about what Deckett says about language and meaning, and perhaps we are superior beings because of things like language and our perception of meaning. 

If someone asked me before this class what makes us different from animals or bacteria I would have said "art". And now, I guess I would probably say the same thing, but I would give it a lot more thought before I spoke. I think that our abilities as people to draw meaning from something, and to be on a constant search for meaning, is something that makes us superior. Humans have evolved culturally as well as biologically, and our evolution into beings that search for meaning is what makes us superior.

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Successful species

I feel that our need for culture, art, and aesthetic pleasures are major biological weaknesses.  Yes, they are beautiful, but beautiful to whom?  They are only beautiful to us.  They have no value to any other species other than ourselves.  Their purpose is to give is a sense of order, belonging, and purpose.  As a species, we are so messed up that without them we would kill each other without reservation.  Still, culture and religion cause us to kill each other.  If we did not care about culture or religion we wouldn’t kill each other over cultural or religious differences.  Our need for and culture has caused genocide, world war, and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. 


The fact of the matter is that we are one of the worst species ever created.  We destroy everything around us for our immediate benefit.  The earth is deteriorating because of our behavior.  Who knows how many species are extinct because of us.  At the same time, more and more countries have nuclear bombs, using them as leverage for bargaining agreements.  Who knows how many countries will have nuclear weapons by 2050, and how are we going to ensure that every one of those countries is happy enough to not to use them.  It is likely that our need for exploration and creativity is going to create technology that ends up destroying us.  Therefore, we destroy the earth, other species, and ourselves.  To me, that is not a successful species at any level.

azambetti's picture


“Varieties… are just ‘incipient species,’ and what normally turns two varieties into two species is not that presence of something… but the absence of something: the intermediate cases” (Dennett 45).  I do agree with Dennett that in many cases of speciation, the species exist because the intermediate species no longer exist.  I do not agree, however, that there is no extra presence of something, like a gene, that makes the two species different. 

He is suggesting that there is a line of organisms, each more evolved than the one behind it, but the middle organisms in the line are extinct, and there is no extra presence of something that makes the first organism in the line different from the last.  Without that difference, the two organisms (first and last in the line) would just be varieties of the same species. 

I am probably being overly picky about his choice of words, but honestly, he is writing a book about evolution and the word that I felt was misused was italicized in his text.  So, I had to take advantage of the situation.

Andrea Zambetti

kaleigh19's picture


Something that has continued to perplex me after yesterday's conversation relates to our identification of an organism that is particularly generative (in an evolutionary sense) as "useful." I don't think that Paul intended to suggest that "generative" is necessarily synonymous with "useful" in the context of evolution, but rather to illustrate that generative organisms are essential to the process of evolution. In other words, if we were to knock out all the simpler organisms (which presumably have a higher generativity than more specialized and thus more limited organisms), then we might see a hole, a time of no generation of new organisms (or varieties of organisms if we're looking at relatively more complex organisms).

That said, I don't know that in the context of evolution we can say that any one organism is more useful than another. If we consider highly complex predators, like lions or tigers or bears (oh my!), even though those organisms might not be generative, they are highly selective in that they are instrumental in weeding out the less fit organisms in the species upon which they prey. Moreover, if we consider something like plankton, an organism that could be considered simple or complex (and therefore debateably generative depending on one's perspective) but not necessarily selective in that it's not directly impacting the selection of more fit organisms, this organism is still important to the evolutionary process. If a variety of plankton arose and thrived because it was better suited to avoid consumption by whales, then it's perhaps likely, too, that a variety of whales might evolve that is better suited to get at that plankton. So this new plankton, then, is useful: while it has a limited potential to generate new species and to select for less fit prey species, it can still be involved in the origin of new varieties of whales. What I think I'm getting at is that utility can go a lot of ways - it can relate to the generation of new species or varieties along a certain line, it can refer to the selective pressures placed on "lower" life forms (i.e. a lion to a gazelle or a whale to plankton), but it can also refer to selective pressures placed on "higher life forms (like the plankton to the whale). It appears, then, that utility is not a concept that can easily be kernalized, or distilled down to an aiton, or essence. If that's the case, is the concept of utility useful in evolution studies?

I'd also like to raise one more question. (N.B.: This is a personal question, so I don't know how comfortable people will feel responding.) I feel a little off-put by the idea that evolution results in the mindless, algorithmic generation of organisms, of which I am presumably one. There really is something cool about the idea that we're the beautiful results of a dice throw, but I can't help feeling that evolution implies that I'm the meaningless result of a meaningless continual process. Does anyone else feel that way? Does this mean that I'm selfish? Or is it that I'm not comfortable with a story that is inconsistent with my long-term observations of my place within my family, friends, and college? Or am I just futiley searching for meaning where there never can be any?

J Shafagh's picture

Back to the beginnings...

I never got to post my thoughts on here it goes. I also am uncomfortable with the idea that we are all random results of a specific process and serve no function and meaning in the world.  I mean, if we are continually being created and life is still going on, then why would any of us be meaningless in the general scheme of things?  I guess the only way in which we can make sense of ourselves is by making meaning out of our lives from our social organizations, family, cultural groups and various institutions.  So, no, I don't think we are random...I mean, the fact that that random sperm got into the egg to fertilize it can be random, but I don't think that we as humans are random and meaningless.  We create that meaning.

evanstiegel's picture

In thinking about how

In thinking about how evolution implies that we are the meaningless result of a meaningless process I believe perspective on the issue plays a significant role.  With evolution, I think that you can take two perpspectives.  In my opinion, one of these perspectives is the right one to take and the other is the wrong one.  The first one is taking a step back and while still acknowledging evolution, an individual should keep enjoy and make the most of his or her short time on earth and not dwell on the possibility that the human race is a microscopic chapter in the ongoing book of life.  This does not mean to be skeptical of the idea that the theory of evolution has grounds for how we came to be but rather use it to make more scientific observations.

The other perspective comes about from taking evolution out of a scientific context.  This other perspective, which I believe is the wrong one, is to become lost in the overwhelming, hard-to-comprehend theory of evolution.  In doing this, in individual will view everything as meaningless.  In taking this perspective one trivializes every issue or problem that humans face on earth.  Everything would simply lose importance- which I believe is very dangerous.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

one more thing

i was also thinking about the problems with the term "less wrong." prof grobstein described the term as "moving away something, not toward something," but wouldn't a line, a progression if you will move away from something to get toward something else? if there's a journey to get something less and less wrong, wouldn't we reach "least wrong" which is a lot like "right"?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

contested terms: battle!

in today's class, terms were argued about. the terms are rather large and people argued about how to make them more precise.

first we discussed "usefulness," hotly contested in class. oscar wilde says, "art is quite useless." wilde was an aesthete, part of a moment that said that art should have no purpose other than to be beautiful. but wilde also lived at the beginning of the industrial revolution (he died in 1900) and people's values were changing in accordance with technology's capabilities (except baudelaire, read his outraged 1860s essay on photography). technological innovations have clear uses -- trains get you somewhere farther and faster so you can visit relatives or vacation spots sooner with less hassle, so perfecting technology is about conforming it to a clear idea of use: "if i want to get somewhere faster than i can now, what can i build?" (i'm sure no one thought quite like that, but you get it...) wilde is contrasting this type of use he finds base with art's purpose for the soul and for intellectual (*and* contemplative!) exploration. in a sense, art is useful to every soul, but calls it useless to separate it from such a simple, goal- or product-oriented view. wilde is calling art useful by calling it useless; he is just saying that this pragmatic word is not appropriate for 'art.' i tend to agree with him on this. so if i'm asked how an idea is "useful" to me i don't know how to reply. you could say that an essay is useful in the way it theorizes a history of an art movement, but that's as close as i can get.

i also do not see useful as remotely the same word as generative, so i'm not sure how that came up in class. i see the word 'transplantable' as separate from both of those words, too.

another interesting contention in class was over the meaning of the word "reality." i see reality as a very ambiguous term. on one hand, even if "there is no reality," there truly is some kind of communal experience in the world. we can agree that we go to bryn mawr, that we know the way around campus, we can agree with zadie smith that we have grown up in a "postmodern world" (though we don't have to disdain that as much as she does, and pop culture is rather neo-modern, or as some philosophers say, like sebastien charles, hyper-modern), etc. however, the opinions we draw about this world and the way we choose to conceptualize or understand this world are very different and depend on our beliefs about many philosophies -- and this ambiguity drives much of the curiosity in the humanities. what was 18th century french society and how did their authors and historians view it? how can we view it now? what is the best way to create a history of video art from the 1960s to today and how can we interpret existing histories? the humanities draw much of their intellectual vigor and creativity from interpreting and arguing about what reality means. so i absolutely cannot see it as "the external world." what's that?

we also discussed "error" more. people cannot be errors because we are all capable of living in contemporary society; we cannot brave the elements but our brain power allows us to understand and *use* (yeah, i'll use use this way) the survival systems in place (we wear clothes, live in air conditioned houses, etc.). what killed our ancestors doesn't kill us. that doesn't make us weak, it makes us contemporary. also, organisms that are unfit and die are not "errors" because they are part of the evolutionary process -- some species replace other ones. that's evolution running smoothly, so the word doesn't apply!

i am looking forward to prof dalke coming back from her conference and explaining to me how they distinguish between the words "contemplative" and "intellectual" (remember in class she contrasted the "contemplative way of looking at the world" vs the "intellectual" one) because right now, in full indignation mode, i find that offensive. it seems to come from that strain of thought that believes that intellectuals are "locked up in their own little world" and are "isolated" from "real issues." as you can tell by my abuse of the quotation mark, i don't see any of that as true. it implies that being intellectual means not being creative, when this is the opposite of what is true. hmmm, we'll have to see...