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Evolit: Week 2--First Reactions?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Anne and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you thought about this week. But if you need something to get you started, what are your first reactions to reading Darwin's Origin of Species? to the idea that it is an example of a "work in progress"? to the notion that it responds to earlier "foundational non-narrative" stories about natural history with a "narrative" story that at least contains the seeds to a "non-foundational narrative" story?


amirbey's picture

the origin of species

Reading the “On the Origin of Species” was quite a tough task because I found it a bit boring, and sometimes very repetitive.  Darwin uses a lot of examples in order to sustain his theory and observations, and since I already have some background in the field of biology, I saw myself skipping some examples and notions when he was trying to explain his discoveries.  Also, it has always been hard for me to understand right away a text, even in my native language which is French, and I am therefore very glad that we base our classes’ lectures on the explanation of the essential parts in Darwin’s book.  I had also a hard time understanding where this class was going and it was on the last Thursday that I realized that it was evolving, at the same rate evolution would be evolving, with some natural selection, representing a selection of topics and explanations.  As the discussions go on, we evolve in our knowledge and understanding and I am really starting to enjoy the way the class is taking!

Student Blogger's picture

The Origin of Species

In seventh grade, I was first introduced to the theory of evolution in my general science class. I never questioned it or thought it to be controversial, as I was never taught the idea of creationism.  When I learned about evolution more extensively in high school, I again did not really think it was a controversial subject matter because my professors did not force us to whole-heartedly believe the theory, they simply told us the facts and moved on to the next topic in the course.  


The Origin of Species was the central topic discussed during the evolution portion of the course, and I did not ever consider reading the actual text and simply thought of it as a stepping stone in biological history that was mentioned in biology courses.  This is why I am finding it difficult to read as a novel.  I have a preconceived notion that The Origin of Species is a scientific text that radically changed the way that human evolution was thought to have occurred, from having a religious influence to being backed by empirical scientific facts.  So during the small groups, when we were analyzing the language used by Darwin, who he wrote it for, and how personal he made the text, I began to think of it as a novel, which I am somewhat uncomfortable with.  Hopefully, throughout the course of the semester, I will be able to find a balance between accepting The Origin of Species as a novel as well as a scientific paper.  

enewbern's picture

Week 2

When asked to read the Origin of Species "like a novel" I wan't quite sure what to make of it. I decided that I would just read it as I would a novel for a history class. I tried to pay attention to the details but I not drown in them, which helped I think. The reading was still pretty dry, but it made it a little easier to work through.

I thought that the discussion this week did help to clarify some points of discussion from the previous week, but I feel as if I am missing some critical piece of the puzzle that is this class. I understand that we are discussing the idea that subjectivity does exist to some extent in most works and that should be kept in mind when evaluating any story, but I don't really see where this class is going after that point. Are we going to start analyzing Darwin's story? Or go some other direction entirely? I guess I'll have to wait and see.

kbrandall's picture

Reading Darwin has been

Reading Darwin has been sometimes interesting, sometimes boring and sometimes frustrating.  The problems are similar to those I've had in more modern and drier scientific writings-- the big ideas are interesting (even fascinating) but the details bore me. For Darwin, the details were the most important part-- the proof, the observations that started everything. Because of this I'm trying to understand them. I don't want to take for granted that his proofs make sense-- otherwise known as "suspending disbelief." That feels like a betrayal. We spent a lot of time in our discussion group talking about how Darwin adresses the readers and how he tries to get us to suspend our disbelief. After further thought and reading, I don't really think that's right. He doesn't want us to suspend our disbelief, he wants us to read skeptically-- until we become convinced. He includes the arguments he thinks we may have, specifically so he can disprove them. This device is ueless, unless his audience really is coming up with arguments.

He is deliberately  giving us a more complicated picture, one which includes cases against as well as for his theory. It reminds me of the discussion we had about learning in elementary school and in high school/ college-- being taught what to think or how to think. The only information I've had about evolution before has really been of the elementary-school variety. Darwin is inviting argument.

jrlewis's picture

Initially, I approached On

Initially, I approached On the Origin of Species as a sort of autobiography.  Darwin writes in the first person singular as narrator and describes his thoughts and experiences to the reader.  I began to wonder whether the story of evolution might have begun differently had Wallace rather than Darwin published the first account?  How much did personality and literary talent contribute to the power of the story of evolution?

After Thursday’s discussion, I think I have a better idea of what it means to read a text as a novel.  A closer analysis of the text, presented some difficulties with my attempt to read the work as an autobiography.  Darwin does not consistently narrate in the first person singular.  He switches to the first person plural to emphasize specific points in his argument.  

“Before applying the principles arrived at in the last chapter to organic beings in a state of nature, we must briefly discuss whether these latter are subject to any variation” (122).  It appears that he is trying to engage the reader in the process of reasoning out his argument.  The narrator is acting as a guide or teacher to the reader.  

lparrish's picture

evolving thoughts

Non-narrative foundational to narrative foundational to narrative possibly non-foundational - this is how the story telling style has evolved. Personally, I had always played with an understanding which meshed the three. The Great Chain of Being was in place to show how close a certain creature could be to God (or the supernatural being of your choice, if one should exist). The Tree of Life was a way of seeing that all creatures are united or tied together through a common bond of life. Emergence fit in because I could say that the origin of emergence was God (or other supernatural being) or that such a being allowed this process to happen. I even started rationalizing the creation story to blend with emergence. The bible doesn't say how long a day was. During the time when day had just been separated from night, one day could have meant a much longer time and the events of the biblical day could have happened in the form of emergence.

I created my story so that it would answer a lot of questions. It would summarize a lot of observations, yes, but I don't know that I particularly like it. Formulating a new story is being much more difficult than I had hoped. But Darwin breaks things down and I like his writing. My own understanding of evolution is going through its process of change.

ibarkas's picture

Reading Darwin differently

What remained with me from Thursday's class with Professor Grobstein was the question of whether or not Darwin was a foundationalist.  I had been having trouble understanding what it meant to read "On the Origin of Species" as a novel until we were presented with that question.   I began to read Darwin with that question in mind and I think it has helped me pull back from focusing simply on the science of the book and pay closer attention to certain questions that may arise when someone is reading any novel-how is the author trying to get his main idea across to his readers and what does this tell us about the author himself?  Before I attempt to read between the lines and answer these questions regarding Darwin, I am still struggling to reach a final conclusion regarding the question of whether or not Darwin was a foundationalist.  When first learning about evolution, I was told that evolution was not predetermined-it was a random process and if we were to go back in Earth's history, things would most definitely have occured very differently.  Consequently, I assumed that Darwin wrote the Origin of Species with the same idea in mind-that there was no predetermined "goal" of evolution.  However, is there a real clear cut difference between randomness and a predetermined goal? We considered this question in biology lab today and the conclusion that was reached was that natural selection can be considered a random process that is not approaching a predetermined goal.  However, if natural selection was approaching a predetermined ideas, would it still not be a random process? I am not sure that randomness implies no predetermined goal because something can be random with a predetermined ideal.  It is true that Darwin refers to the process of natural selection as random at points throughout his description; however, if it is established that random does not mean nonpredetermined, than how can we make the conclusive decision that Darwin was not a foundationalist?  There are also other points in the book where I begin to question if Darwin was really a foundationalist.  For example, at the bottom of the first paragraph on page 127, he states, "...I attribute the variety, from a state in which it differs very slightly from its parent to one in which it differs more, to the action of natural selection in accumulating differences of structure in certain definite directions ".  To me, "certain definite directions" implies foundationalist thinking, but I may also be unclear as to what Darwin means by this phrase.   . 

 Lastly, going a few lectures back to when we discussed the difference between science and literature, I came across a quote given to us by our Organic Chemistry lab instructor in our lab manual that I thought was relevant to our discussion:

Do the poet and scientist not work analogously?  Both are willing to waste effort.  To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each.  Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision.

--Marriane Craig Moore, Bryn Mawr College Class of 1909

Marina's picture

week two.

I am finding Darwin's writing to be a challenge to my ability to focus. The text is very dry, and I have to force myself to get through the chapters. I also find it hard to retain the wealth of information he provides in each chapter. In our small discussion group with Professor Dalke there was some conversation regarding Darwin's audience. I find myself leaning towards the belief that Darwin intended his work to be read by a wide variety of people. This is supported because although there is a significant amount of esoteric name-dropping, he still provides descriptions to back up all his ideas in an attempt to make it clear to someone unfamiliar with his references. Another student in the discussion mentioned how he could have been writing for anyone who would listen because he was proposing such a novel, groundbreaking idea. I agree with this view as well. However, sometimes his explanations can be a bit confusing and complex because of the many terms and esoteric references he employs that implies it was written for a smaller audience- possibly other naturalists, Darwin's peers.
The conversation regarding the suspension of disbelief and how it occurs in literature but not in science is an interesting subject. Obviously, literature requires the suspension of disbelief in order to allow yourself to enter a fictional world. In science, however, the answer is not so clear. Because science is often thought of as something that deals in facts and data, the idea of the suspension of disbelief would probably not be as readily applied as it is to literature. Yet, I think that science and the suspension of disbelief are very connected. There are many situations in science where one has to question reality and go against what is thought of as the truth or fact. Darwin's theory of evolution itself requires a degree of the suspension of disbelief because many people of his time probably had to suspend their disbelief in order to entertain his new, groundbreaking idea.
aybala50's picture

Darwin, On the Origin of Species, God?

I found this interesting article written in 2008 about what has become "Darwinism" and the point of view different groups have about it, specifically Creationists. I think it's a short, interesting read and brings up interesting questions.

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Week 2

What struck me most about this past week's discussion was the similarity between the debate surrounding Evolution, Creationism, etc. as stories developed to explain something to the constant struggle historians face in attempting to reconstruct an event and distinguish hearsay, "memory", eye-witness accounts, etc. from the bare "facts".

**In writing this post, I've noticed I've become much more hesitant to state "facts", but rather leave things up to interpretation by the reader.  It has become hard to write a sentence about anything, really, without quotation marks to qualify that what I am writing is how I may see things, but another version of the story, or another story altogether, may come up with a different explanation.

Back to my previous thought, historiography traces the different sources available and analyzes their usefulness by determining who was writing, why, when, etc. It is really impossible to have a "good" source without qualifying what it is good for. For example, British sources discussing the happenings of the Boston Tea Party would be good for learning the English viewpoint on the revolting of colonists getting increasingly determined, whereas it would be almost useless in learning why Bostonians felt so imposed upon by the latest tea taxes. In this same vein, the stories we have been looking at, Darwinism, for example, are probably "good"stories for some occasions, while others may be a better fit at other times.

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

Reactions to Darwin

I think the biggest question in my mind right now is, just what defines "Darwinism"? Somehow I can't see Darwin, the strict empiricist we've been discussing, being thrilled by the fact that there is an ideology named after him. Ideologists believe that their ideas are fixed, unchanging; immobile. It seems to me that an ideology of evolutionary thought is just as dangerous as an ideology of creationist thought.

I've always heard Origen of Species described as excruciatingly boring and dense piece of work. Boring it may sometimes be, but dense it is not at all. I've had denser introductory science books. I think this is what impresses me most about Darwin so far: he is an excellently clear writer.

As for other observations, I keep returning to Professor Grobstein's depiction of "the earth is flat" as a useful theory that people use every day. Are there ways in which the theory of evolution or its supposed ideological opposite, creationism, are "useful"? Obviously scientists use the theory of evolution and genetics to understand how bacteria change and evolve, for example...but how does the every day layperson conceptualize these theories on a daily basis?

rmehta's picture

idealizing stories

In this past week’s discussion Professor Grobstein mentioned how Darwin’s story of Evolution was questioned at the time of publication because it conflicted with another accepted story of the time.  This got me thinking of the nature of stories in general and how one is most remembered or kept alive throughout the years.  Are not the most successful stories the most controversial? Furthermore, this controversy plays into how much a story is idealized.  It seems that the ideas that are in opposition to others and those that consistently initiate a new critique are the ones that are considered the most “special”. The other point that I thought was interesting was the idea on how a certain discipline tends to idealize specific stories.  Science, for certain, idealizes Darwin and his theology. Can the English discipline do just the same? I guess here in exists one of the distinctions and troubles I am beginning to see between these two subjects.  What Science idealizes and is most selective about is not the same as that which a literature critique is concerned with.  Both disciplines share the notion that the importance of a story is measured in its ability to be useful in describing other portions of that subject. However, what is considered useful within these stories is different between science and literature; science tends to promote the analytical while literature seems to promote the theoretical.  Does a notion of tangible proof come into play here with what is idealized and what is not?...I’m not really sure. I’m wondering if there is a systematic narrative to those stories we idealize.  Being a Type A personality, during class I imagine making a list of distinctions between Science and Literature.  I’m slowly trying to figure out if the distinction is as divided and “list-like” as I originally thought.  

amoskowi's picture

Expanding relevance...

What I find most striking about this class so far is how it encourages me to really question what is being presented- and through that questioning to continuesly develop my own notion about the distinctions between literature and science, and determine which differences are results of limitation in our societal understanding and which are inherent in the subjects even if they took their most ideal form. I think both differences exist, and for me determining what falls under the second catagory dominates my internal dialogue on the material. It is, you could say, my crack, what I use to filter information presented in class and outside.

One of the things that continues to surprise me is how much other course work tends to remind of of the topics and discussions in these classes- I've actually devised a symbol for my notes on readings, regardless of what class they're originally for, that indicate relevance to what we bring up in discussion. My most recent find was in a packet on they mystical experiece in a portion that compares and contrasts the historian and the mystic in a manner I feel is related to the designations of scientists and literaries. "The historian "calms" the dead and struggles agains violence by producing a reason for things (and "explanation") that overcomes their disorder and assures permanence; the mystic does it by founding existence on his very relationship with what escapes him. The former is interested in difference as an instrument to make distinctions in his material; the later, as a plit inauguration the question of the subject." (Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable). I feel that the model of the mystic here is one you see in many writers and even some critics- think deconstructionism which, in according to a simplified definition, has failed if it makes logical sense.

dshanin's picture

Darwin's foresight

Reading the original Darwin years after studying modern evolution has been a real pleasure.  It is incredible how foresighted his ideas were.  Despite lacking any sort of scientific basis Darwin, on observation alone, realizes the key to evolution is hidden within reproduction.  This is an extremely powerful observation, especially considering Professor Grobstein's "science is a story based within our factual understanding" model.  Darwin's story is still absolutely correct, even though the factual framework on which it is based lacks every hallmark of modern biological understanding.

That being said, an interesting limitation of Darwin is his hesitation to fully ascribe his theory to human society.  Most of his examples involve domesticated animals being manipulated by a skilled breeder.  He recognizes that similar natural forces are responsible for wild animal form and function but stops there.  He does not wish to cross the line by ascribing humanity’s condition to a simple randomness of environmental pressure.  Though his theory is completely applicable to humans he stops just short of explaining their existence with it.  Darwin quite intentionally leaves room for God in his work.  Part of me wishes to indict him for this lack of conviction but I also understand his predicament.  It is a large fundamental leap to move from beak size corresponding to diet to environmental factors favoring the evolution of a brain capable of metacognition; thinking about thinking.  It is this most abstract of abilities that truly defines our humanity yet it’s unclear evolutionary advantage makes it a puzzle piece that is hard to fit together with the rest of Darwin's theory.  Darwin recognizes the imminent value of man's defining ability yet struggles to apply the "life / death" nature of natural selection to such an organic concept as abstract thought.          


Rica Dela Cruz's picture

There were many topics

There were many topics discussed in class this past week that I found very intriguing. Firstly, I thought the question of why evolutionis so controversial to be interesting. Why is it that people accept other scientific discoveries such as F=ma orthat the earth is round, but some have difficulty fully accepting evolution? I believe that F=ma because I learned this in physics and I believe that the earth is round because I learned this from my parents, but I have never actually felt an upward force onmy feet from the ground when standing or have never seen the earth as round with my own eyes.  I even believein evolution, yet I have never actually seen the process. Is it because the origin of life pertains to two different stories that people have trouble believing it? But can’t there be two stories for F=ma or the earth being round? What if the bible had said that there is no such thing as force or that the earth is cube-shaped, would there be controversy with these topics then?

I also was somewhat surprised to hear that Darwin was not the first to propose the theory of evolution. When I think about evolution, I also think about Darwin. I learned about Darwin as the founding father ofevolution so it is interesting to know that he had just expanded on a topic that naturalists were considering. Before reading Origin of Species, I was expecting Darwin to write about this new idea of variation and selection. After reading the first couple of chapters, I realized that he was really arguing and disclaiming already known ideas about variation and selection.

Lastly, I was a little confused about the different stories of evolution (ie. Non-narrative foundational, narrative foundational, and emergence). The term foundational does not seem right since looking at all three pictures, there seems to be a base to all of them. In addition, I do notreally see a difference between the tree of life and emergence because both seem to branch out in ways that separate out species and both do not look like they could stop and extend to some highest point. 

eawhite's picture

Darwin Makes My Head Hurt!

Reading Darwin makes my head hurt. It is beginning to explode with thoughts and ideas that aren’t at all normal for me. While finishing the reading for last week I found myself writing down some pretty profound thoughts. Darwin made some very interesting observations of the variations found in pigeons, beetles and other species and explained them as factors of use vs. no-use or advantages vs. disadvantages. If I change the creature name from those listed in his writings to humans, I then have to ask: Are humans just poorly cross-bred creatures, extreme anomalies or monsters of some kind? Have humans because of their ability to rationalize and think mucked about with evolution and natural selection by way of medical miracles, technological tampering or what we call advancements or perhaps through wars to the degree that we have altered our own existence? Who holds the blueprint for human design?

Darwin wrote “Natural selection acts solely through the preservation of variations in some way advantageous…it follows that as each selected and favoured form increases in numbers, so will the less favoured forms decrease and become rare…Rarity…is the precursor to extinction” (pg. 162).  If that is in fact true then how does one explain the explosion of criminality in the world? There are no advantages found in the biological processes of the criminal mind. Why can’t societal ills become rare and extinct?

aybala50's picture

work in progress?

I have to be honest, reading Darwin has been an incredibly frustrating process for me. Not only is the process complicated, I am also really bored reading Darwin. In class, it was interesting to me that the discussion of whether "The Origin of Species" is boring was looked at from different point of views. It was pointed out that compared to literature of Darwinian time it is not a bad read, but to me it's still boring and this specifically makes it really hard to read. 

In any case, on whether Darwin's story is an example of a "work in progress" I think since we can't ask Darwin what he was thinking, my best guess would be yes. The whole time he's writing he's moving on to something new by saying "and now I will" which to me means that he is moving forward step by step. Also he uses other's work and adds to it. Again, to me that means that Darwin's story is a work in progress that is building new ideas as it progresses. 

eolecki's picture

Reactions-Week 2

There were several things that struck me while reading Origin of Species and also while we discussed it in class.

 The first thing that really stuck out to me while reading it was how the book is an example of a work in progress.  Every chapter Darwin talks about what he is going to add and what further research needs to be done. While most scientific texts are viewed as complete, The Origin ofSpecies is distinctly a work in progress. 

The next thing that really caught my attention was the amount of references to observations that are completely explained by genetics.  It amazes me that Darwin had so much insight he was describing complex genetics years before they were actually proven. Darwin talks about what would now be known as sex-linked traits and linked traits, all of which can be described at a molecular biological level.  That aspect of the book, Darwin being able to deduce information about genetics long before it was even thought of, really made the book much more interesting to me.  I felt like I was guessing what biological concept Darwin was alluding to.

One of the discussions in class also sparked my interest.  When we discussed the purpose of education and whether or not it was used to expose people to stories or try to get children to believe certain stories in order to serve a purpose, I had a series of thoughts.  The reason there is a controversy about evolution is becauseit is in conflict with other widely believed stories.  But the problem with deciding what to teach in schools is much more vast than evolution versus creationism or the other few widely discussed stories of existence.  Going along with the idea of loopy science, there are an infinite number of stories.  Schools are making a decision about what they expose to their students.  It would be impossible to expose them to every possible story, because there is an infinite number.  Because of this, schools are in a way using the curriculum to teach children certain stories, nudging them to believe whatever they have deemed the best. A selection has to be made and what stories are told to children in schools really can affect society.

fquadri's picture

What do Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens have in common?

Both were good story tellers.


A few years ago, I was walking in a Barnes and Noble. I noticed a shelf devoted to literary classics such as Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein and more. What struck me was that The Origin of Species was sitting there with the rest of these books. I thought to myself, “How can a “scientific” book be grouped like that with novels?” I figured there weren’t enough “classic scientific books” out there for a whole shelf, so that’s where it was stuck. What do I mean by “scientific” books though? I guess at the time I was expecting The Origin of Species to be dry for non-science people, and full of scientific jargon, tables and figures; all of this as opposed to the beautiful language and descriptions used in novels like the other books on the shelf. So when I started reading The Origin of Species, I was a little surprised.


To me, the book was easy to read as a novel. A lot of us in class agreed that Darwin was wordy in some places. He flourished his writing instead of keeping with the rule of conciseness. I liked that. To me, it brought out a scientific story with a more novelistic approach.  Now I can see why this book was grouped with the others. Like the other novels, it tells a story, and a very good one. Sure there is no typical protagonist, antagonist, or conflict, but The Origin of Species is a mixture of literature, history, and science. How many books can you think of that can intermix disciplines like that? That’s what makes it so special to me, as well as the fact that there really is no end. It’s an ongoing story that is being retold all over the world, even 150 years later
selias's picture

on reading Darwin

What stuck with me from the small group (with Grobstein) on Thursday was Evelyn's comment about Darwin being a pessimist.  When I read the first four chapters, I didn't really get a feeling of pessimism at all.  It seemed to me that he was very appreciative of the natural order of things, and was not criticizing humans but simply de-emphasizing their role in the process of evolution. 

Her comment, however, made me think about reading Darwin in a different way - I guess I finally started thinking about what I was reading as a story that can be read with multiple interpretations.  I must admit that I had trouble reading Darwin at first, and I think it was because of the instruction to read it like a novel.  I did not really know what that meant.  Our disussion on Thursday made me realize that it's okay to read Darwin by looking at his word and punctuation choices and analyzing what he's saying in the same way one would look at a book labled as a fictional novel.  I suppose the fact that this barrier existed for me in the first place is further evidence that there is still a science/literature divide I need to work on overcoming for the purposes of this course.  I think one reason for this divide is that I have been reading Darwin in a more detached way, analyzing the facts he's presenting and completely ignoring his own voice as an author.  When I read literature, I do look for the author's insertion of his or herself into the writing.  It's an interesting divide between the two...I think it highlights the "cut-and-dry" reputation that science has, especially in comparison with the artist-centric reputation of literature.  In reality, it seems that both science and literature have examples of both detached and involved writing.

Rachel Townsend's picture

Foundational non-narratives and narratives

In our breakout group on Thursday, professor Grobstein talked about the progression from non-narrative foundational stories of creation to foundational narratives to non-foundational narratives (emergence) as many others have mentioned in their posts.  I found the discussion of this very helpful as well as provocative.  This conversation helped me to understand better some of the objections to the teaching of evolution, the one which struck me the most being the idea that humans might not be the end all, be all of life on Earth.  Professor Grobstein then asked us whether we thought Darwin was a foundationalist.  My automatic thought was "Of course not!" but then I thought a bit more about what I know about Darwin being quite a religious man and that he struggled with his spirituality and his work for much of his life.  Knowing this, I wonder whether he was a foundationalist to begin with but once he had been working on his theory for long enough to publish it and then write On The Origin Of Species he could no longer ignore following his own train of thought that change happens simply because it happens and that we are not evolving toward perfection.  This conflict surely would have made life a bit confusing for someone like Darwin who was quite spiritual.
merlin's picture

WEEK TWO!!!! Organic


Organic Chemistry lab, jan 28: in an introduction to our final lab assignment for the semester, the prof described our lab excersize as a rule-guided recount of the reation we were to carry out and the results we were to observe. Having a formal  write-up, our lab will  certainly not involve any creativity on our part. "This is not a creative writing assignment!" she professed, and insinuated that if it were then we'd all have reason to be a little nervous. I just though this would be an interesting occurence in light of what we've been discussing in this class. Can the questionable rigidity of the scientific process just be a utopia in the study of the physical world?

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 2 Response

I wrote a research report on Charles Darwin when I was about 10 years old. Although I haven't seen that report in years, I remember writing it very clearly. Instead of simply writing about his life (which was the assignment) I also included a summary of his findings in On the Origin of Species. The research I did for that report led me to believe that Darwin's theories were true and unchanging. After reading a large part of his most famous work, I have come to realize how much Darwin did not know. Even with my extremely limited knowledge of current thoughts on evolution, I am constantly reminded of his lack of knowledge of genes and DNA while reading his book. I no longer see Darwin as a man who discovered the truth about evolution. My view of him can no longer be summarized in one sentence, since I'm not completely sure yet what my views are yet. However, I would say that the closest would be that he is a man who made great contributions to the ever changing theory of evolution. I wonder how my high school biology teacher would view my new thoughts about Darwin? I suspect she would be displeased.
kapelian's picture

By describing Origin of

By describing Origin of Species as a nonfoundational story really seems to pull away from Darwin's work as a scientific thesis and makes it seem like more of a story.  Prof. Grobstein also mentioned how the fact his work was nonfoundational was more influential then anything, because it not only was a huge step away from normal work.  When I studied Victorian Era literature in 12th grade english, my teacher made it clear that the growing split between the sciences and the church because of this book greatly influenced many of the works and writings created at the time.  If Origin of Species was such a huge influence on fiction literature as well as the world of biology, what other aspects of life did it have an influence on?  In comparision to many other works written around this same time period, even scientific works as well as fiction, the writings were very romantic.  However, Darwin keeps his writing very straight forward and casual.  My question is why did he write his story like this if everything else at the time was so different? It's obvious with the number of disclaimers that Darwin himself is unsure about how true his story is, even though others people before him wrote on the subject.  If he was so unsure about his story (which was radical enough to begin with), why go the extra mile to make the way he wrote it just as different?

Prof. Grobstein left us on Thursday to think about whether or not Darwin was a nonfoundationalist in his studies.  After looking through the beginning chapters and the reading for next week, I think Darwin was a nonfoundationalist. I wonder if because of this, it is why Darwin has a negative tone when he talks about the human race, as though he sees it bringing itself to ruin. 

Arielle's picture

"Disbelief" makes it all clear.

This week, I finally thought that was I starting to understand what it means to examine evolution as a story. It was epiphanic. It really hadn't clicked for me until we began to discuss, in our small group, the possibility or impossibility of suspension of disbelief.

I think the thing that was keeping me from being able to access Darwin as a storyteller was the fact that I found him incapable of allowing me to suspend my disbelief. His addressing of the reader, his insistence that we have to trust and believe him forced me to think about the possibility that I might NOT believe him, and to consider whether or not the work was fact, fiction, or conjecture. That consideration in itself prevented me from suspending my disbelief, since I had already classed the work, by that point, as something that HAD to be believed or discounted. I'm having some trouble articulating this concept, and I'm not sure if it's making any sense to you. Perhaps I'll try to edit this post later, if I think of a better way of getting my point across.

I'm hoping that having had this epiphany will allow me to read the second assignment (this week's chapters six through eight) through a different lense. Otherwise...well, back to the drawing board, I suppose.

Tara Raju's picture

Week Two Response

I really enjoyed the small group dynamic on Thursday- the ideas that emerged among the discussion propelled my thoughts into a myriad of different discussions. I was very interested in the idea of the “suspension of disbelief” that was brought up as one of the main reasons that students could not read the Darwin’s book as a novel. The “suspension of disbelief” is a concept, outlined by Wikipedia, is a theory that explores the relationship that individuals have with art. It “refers to a willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises” (Wikipedia). There were many students that had a difficult time reading Darwin’s work because of they were unable to utilize this concept as many of us do with several different types of mediums including books, movies, television shows, among others. Is this concept of suspended disbelief one that preventing the parallels between science and literature to be seen?

When I tried to read Darwin again I made the conscious effort to read it like a novel and failed to do so, yet again. Is our mind preventing us from looking and reading things at face value? The parallels between literature are many when we talk about them but when trying to put them into practice it seems like all the similarities vanish.

sustainablephilosopher's picture

evolution of narrative terminology

I was enthralled by the distinction of three types of story telling style this week, used to categorize the progress of stories throughout time. However, I see nothing in the etymology of "foundational" to support Prof. Grobstein's use of the word; therefore, this terminology is very confusing to me. He seems to be using it to mean a story that has a teleology/ direction/ destination. Foundational is certainly an interesting and powerful idea to work with on this subject matter - what kind of fundamental claims do our narratives rely on? - but we need to be precise with our vocabulary to tease out the full force of these concepts.

In this sense, we move from a teleological narrative (creationism/ great chain of being: humans were created, distinct from other animals, to be rulers of the world as our divinely appointed destiny) to a non-teleological narrative (evolution: humans are one species among many, we all evolved from common origins, things are continually changing but we do not know to what end). This reminds me of Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael, in which the Taker culture (Western society) has abided by the narrative that humans are the end point of evolution and everything in nature is for our use, whereas Leaver culture (indigenous peoples, hunter-gatherers) takes the non-teleological narrative that humans come from the earth and must co-exist harmoniously with the rest of nature to happily live.

Also, I think that all stories are fundamentally narrative, which is to say they give a certain account about the way things are/ how they came to be that way. For this reason, the use of the term "non-narrative" confuses me. The way Prof. Grobstein explained this was that time played a key role in natural science and others areas circa the 1800's; yet, I think that time played a role in the creation narrative as well (belief that the world was created in 7 days; Dr. John Lightfoot's 1859 insistence that “Heaven and earth, center and circumference, were created together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water…this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on the twenty-third of October, 4004 B.C., at nine o’clock in the morning”). The Great Chain of Being narrative may have assumed an eternal timeframe and thus was atemporal, but it still seems to be a narrative nonetheless.

I do not think that Darwin saw humans as the apotheosis of evolution; I do not think that he assumed a teleological progression of events in his narrative. Perhaps the reason that his narrative was so controversial was that it not only demoted humans from being the crowning achievement of nature, but also that it implied shared ancestry with all other organisms, that it revoked the idea of worldwide human manifest destiny, and perhaps also challenged the idea that there is an order to things/ everything happens for a reason. For these reasons, I think the evolution narrative caused many more tremors than something like Newtonian mechanics, which, though it challenged the beliefs of the day, still allowed for the ideas of order, harmony, and reason in the universe (all of which are distinctly human & appeal to the human mind). With evolution as a narrative, we face a stochastic, contingent existence - it conflicts not only with existing stories, but also with comforting human ideas.

"Disclaimer: Evolution is just a theory, creationism is just a story"
epeck01's picture

There is an abundance of articles regarding Darwin(ism)

Because of Darwin's birthday coming up so soon, there is an abundance of articles regarding Darwin.  In the New York Times, there was a book review about two upcoming books regarding Darwin, one of them comparing him to (who else?) Lincoln.  However, it an un-Darwin related article that caught my eye recently and made me think of this class. The essay entitled "Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy" ( discusses the new pressure put on scientists after Obama annouced that "he would restore science to it's rightful place" (Elevating). 

The section that particulary surprised me was when the essayist writes that Einstein believes that he has never gained any kind of moral information from science, since science (in his mind) is pure fact and therefore truth.  The writer of this article disagrees with Einstein on the point that science is fact, stating that "this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth"  He even introduces this point by telling Einstein's beliefs as a "story" and observing that science as a "Truth" is only a story.  

The writer also reconfirms Professor Grobstein's point that the most valuable scientific studies are those that are incorrect, since they fuel a search for greater knowledge.  In class on Tuesday we talked about attitudes towards science and whether science has always been viewed in the "loopy" sense, or whether that view is a more modern way to look at the field.  This article presented science as something that is culturally thought of as hard facts and right answers, yet is often truly more loopy than one might think.


Jackie Marano's picture

On Darwin...on Humans

    In Prof. Grobstein's section on Thursday, one of the questions that came up was whether or not Darwin was a foundationalist. That is, did he believe that evolution and natural selection were headed towards an ideal...the human? After reflecting on this topic some more, I am starting to lean towards Darwin as being NONfoundationalist. Based on what I have read so far in "On the Origin of Species," my opinion has been that Darwin is not at all arrogant (about himself or about humans as a species); he demonstrates a profound respect for Nature and 'her' works, he constantly credits his fellow scientists/naturalists, and he demonstrates logical thinking, not imposing his own opinion without having at least stated what others think or have previously thought (even if he does ultimately mention they're wrong!). But I think he means well, he gives constructive criticism to others' thoughts.

   I also believe part of the problem with evolution as a concept today is that Darwin, as we have mentioned in class, was addressing fellow naturalists when he wrote this work. I looked on Wikipedia and this is what I found on naturalists: "Subsets of the naturalist view include the materialist and physicalist positions, which hold that humans are entirely physical....Naturalism, combined with the natural and social sciences, views humans as the unplanned product of evolution, which is operated in part by natural selection on random mutations."

This definition seems to fit how I have come to think of Darwin quite well. He really doesn't delve much into the human as a creature that is more special than the others, and he makes it especially clear that we are not magnificent in comparison to Nature. In fact, he uses the human as the example of what is undeniably inferior to Nature. He directs our attention to the marvels of nature, but almost just as often to the lesser magnificence of our man-made immitations (under domestication). He certainly values the knowledge and insight that man's domestication practices have provided him (and his colleagues) with, but other than that, the focus on humans as unique entities in the greater realm of life is, in my opinion, greatly downplayed in this work.

     I think that in many ways, it is this de-emphasis on human importance and distinction that bothers many people in some form or another. I also think that this idea is way more complicated than I could ever imagine. A quick search of 'Human Nature' on Wikipedia immediately revealed this to me ; being human seems to mean a lot of things on a lot of levels. I think our tendency is to emphasize how we are different from everything else that lives (or has ever lived) over the ways in which we are the similar when we try to define ourselves...and this makes sense. However, Darwin seems less fascinated by humans themselves, and more fascinated with what they can find in nature when they look around a bit

mcurrie's picture

My anwers to questions

Well, this class has certainly boggled my mind.  Every day I get closer and closer to wrapping my mind around the ideas and thoughts presented in class.  I feel that the most interesting topic that we talked about was about evolution teaching in schools.  I know now that we're in college everyone looks at public schooling and sees society forming clones.  Isn't there a saying if its not broken don't fix it.  And if you were asked as a child in elementary school if you are suppressed and can't express yourself freely would you say yes?  I don't know if I would.  In elementary school I at least was having a great time with no worries.  If I was taught what I have learned so far about all the depressing and unfair facts in life I feel that I would be a very sad and unsocial child.  Why not let kids have fun instead of bombarding their minds with all of the worries of being an adult.  I know that in school you are told what to believe instead of figuring it out on your own.  Still it can be nice to have a basis for your thoughts instead of stressing over what it right and wrong.  I feel like I'm not making myself very clear. I just don't think that we need to change our whole school system so that we can have more free will or not conform to everything. Because once you get older yes you have conformed to what has been told to you but you still have the choice to break away and think through what you have been taught and change your mind.  As you go through school you keep getting taught more complicated ideas but once you reach high school you are able to disagree with your teacher. They may not like you afterword for saying that their wrong, who knows, maybe the teacher will change their mind and agree with you.  Yes, children are capable of understanding some complicated ideas for example how to work technology.  But by trying to get them to understand every single complicated and inconsistent ideas could make them go crazy as I sometimes feel when I get done with my classes for the day.  I guess I see the positive and negatives of schooling but I care more about a kids well being, that they stay happy even if they are being told junk then if they are conforming to a society. 

Also in our group discussions Grobstein asked us if we believe Darwin to be a pessimist or optimist.  When I read the book I see Darwin as an optimist, ready to new things to pop into his sight so that he can explore every detail.  I can just picture Darwin as a giddy child running around finding dirt or an insect and bringing it to his mother yelling look what I found isn't it cool.  I mean can you not see it when he starts talking about pigeons or how bees form hives.  He can't stop talking about the subject until every single detail is explained and analyzed. I can hear his excitement.  Maybe if I looked a little harder and found some of his fears about evolution I could see some pessimism. But all i see is appreciation and fascination of what is going on around him and how it all comes together.  

Lisa B.'s picture


After our first lecture on the Origin of Species I had a new outlook on Darwinism. Is evolution a good story? Dr. Grobstein explained that Darwin switched the evolution story from a non-narrative foundational to narrative foundational to emergence. With the introduction of time as an element of storytelling, the Origin of Species was a historic work in scientific literature. One term, foundational, de-mystified my skepticism of Darwin's achievements. Unlike previous stories of evolution, Darwin's story of evolution assumed an endpoint.

This variation on the story of evolution was enlightening. Defining a foundational and non-foundational narrative taught me that literature could supplement science. In my opinion natural selection did not completely justify Darwin's achievements. Something was always missing in my study of the Origin of Species and that turned out to be literary criticism.  

eglaser's picture

Personality in literature and science

As this class continues I find that the gap between science and literature is rapidly closing. Science is a story, literature is a tool for looking at the world; I can't lie when I say that I find all of this to be quite disconcerting. It is so ingrained in us that science has to be... sciency. It must be studious, quiet, sterile. Yet, it is slowly being revealed that this view of science is not at all what is present in the scientific comunity. Science is deeply personal and highly subjective. Ok, I have seen that in my own readings for Anthropology (whether or not you consider Anth a science course, the approach to fieldwork is much the same as with science and has often demanded a sterility of the self) an increased desire to analyze the self along with the material. as one of my readings says, "the effective field worker learns about himself as well as about the people he studies." - Hortense Powdermaker "Stranger and Friend"

My question now is how valuable it is to alter our perception of science from the stereotypical, objective science and the new, subjective view? Yes, we should bear in mind the fact that science is not definite, that it is 'loopy.' But what does subjective science give us that we can't get through our current concept of science? What use is it to inject a scientific abstract with personality and voice? Although Darwin clearly does have a voice in 'Origin of the Species' many found it to be just as dry and difficult to read as any modern scientific article. So, what does science as a story do for the population in general?
Paul Grobstein's picture

reshaping evolutionary products: mea culpa

Sorry, I obviously should have made this forum available earlier. A couple of things appearing elsewhere that reflect our discussions this week include

Post for week of 1/26

"Certainly we see caution and uncertainty in Darwin, given his lengthy disclaimers regarding how much work is left to be done, but has this uncertainty always been a hallmark of science? And if so, why didn’t anybody tell me??"

Willingly suspending disbelief?

"that fiction requires and science doesn't?"