Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Week 13 - Learning about literature from evolution and evolution from literature?

Paul Grobstein's picture

So, what do you think? Does our look at biological evolution help us think about literature? And our look at literature help us think about biological evolution? In what ways?  Is the combined exploration generative?

J Shafagh's picture


This class has definitely made me think about the evolution of stories.  Being a Bio major, all I really ever think about and accept as "true" or the concept that is "less-wrong" is biological evolution.  To me, it just makes sense.  I never thought, however, of applying biological evolution to the evolution of other things, and writing my second paper in the course helped me to do that.  In addition, now the evolution of stories seems to be a real concept to me.  And I realize that biology is also a story that is evolving over time, as all stories do.  However, I still think that the disctinction needs to be made that the story of evolution is progressively aiming towards getting things less wrong, whereas, the story of literature may not have such a goal.  Furthermore, while I definitely still appreciated the concept of evolution before taking this course, now I have been able to apply it in a new context and subjectmatter, something which has made me more appreciative and aware of its existence in our everyday lives.

I.W.'s picture

Getting unstuck

It is interesting to come back to this question having had another half of the semester go by.  Having read Howard’s End and On Beauty and discussed them for weeks in relation to biological evolution I have come to think that it isn’t really that generative to discuss the implications of biological evolution on a single novel or even on two.  I think that biological evolution can only be successful applied to large body of work.  All the writings of an author over the span of their life, or they evolution of style through the ages, but in one novel it is actually quite useless.   On the other hand I do think that applying literature to each and every experiment done can be incredibly generative.  It forces the scientist to confront the basic assumptions that they have places their faith in and whether they are truly deserving of that honor.  I think that far too often science become so stuck in its path that the scientist forget that ultimately they are not trying to prove a hypothesis but come closer to the truth.  Thinking of science as a story allows for the much needed fluidity of thought which can lead to fantastic things. 

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

this class

This class was fun! Not only did I learn how to view science from a completely different perspective but the things we learned and discussed are easy to apply to everyday life. Everyday we make trials for ourselves and explore different possibilities to discover a "less wrong" right. Much of the time we do this subconsioiusly, but recently I've been able to catch myself doing "experiments." I learned a lot from this class about human nature and how that relates to life and living, and from that point of view it is easy to see how most literature can relate to biology and vice versa. Now that I've had this course its hard to see one without the other; science is a story and literature is how you tell a story. Science like literature can have many persepectives. 

Julia Smith's picture

The View

So today I was sitting in the health center and the View was on television. Barbara Walters was talking about a Vanity Fair interveiw with Bruce Willis, and Bruce thought that morality was devolving in the United States. (I know, what are the odds, right?) His reasoning was that when people start flashing their private parts at cameras (Britney Spears, etc.) that our country is actual losing its morality. 

I thought that was an interesting way of looking at it. Could it not be a loss of morality but an evolution of a different kind of morality? Is it possible for morality to "devolve"? What do we think?

kaleigh19's picture

I have to say that I think

I have to say that I think that this course has been exceptionally useful--er, generative. I think that, especially as college students, we have a tendency to put things like literature and science up on a pedestal from which we can learn and become better people. It is rare that we are asked to create or deconstruct something that we value highly, whether it be canonical literature or empirical science. I think that crossing the boundaries of the disciplines, melding science and literature, necessitates a boldness that cannot come from passive reverence. For me, this course has rendered both science and literature exponentially more accessible. The ivory tower has toppled.


Katie Baratz

LS's picture

Combined Exploration


I think that combine exploration is generative, but I am still not sure how I feel about the process of evolution and the evolution of stories.   This class really provided for me a different way to look at the process of evolution and the process of science.  In some ways I feel like it broke down scientific barriers in my mind, giving me more freedom in my scientific exploration.  I am definitely seeing storytelling in a new way in terms of science.  I am not sure if in terms of literature I always though of literature in this evolutionary manner, I am not really sure how I though of it.  I definitely did not think of it as static and I did think of it as evolving, so perhaps the reason I do not feel like the way I think about this subject has changed is because I already thought this way.  However, I do think that combined exploration is generative on many different levels and in many different disciplines.  I think that courses like this are necessary to broaden this process and broaden exploratory thinking and learning.

evanstiegel's picture

This class has caused me to

This class has caused me to view many things in a different light. I can take a step back and view emotions, interactions, relationships all in an evolutionary manner. All of these things and many more abstract things have evolved into what they are now. Stories evolve, science evolves, everything has changed into something different than what it was in the past. Rather than being wrapped up in my own personal problems, I now view myself and the rest of the human race as a species. By viewing the human race as a species, I can see more easily how emotions that I feel are evolved traits. Is this useful? I think it can be when I'm overwhelmed with a certain emotion. To see this emotion from a birds-eye view lessens the emotion and can therefore bring me back to normality. The other side of this is taking the importance out of feeling certain emotions. Some emotions should be felt. By now having the ability to trivialize emotions, I fear that I may not feel a certain emotion to the extent that I should. Maybe this is a temporary ability after taking this class. I guess I will just have to wait and find out...

ttruong's picture

Characters and Actions Mismatching

I have to agree with Gaby in that Smith purposefully destroys Howard's life using very inane, unbelievable situations. The characters' actions are sometimes too arbitrary for me. their actions are not very congruous with personality types that were delivered to the readers. it's like the crimes don't match the profile.

I'm still very much confused about Victoria I can't really label her as anything. She's just so random and acts conflictingly. I'm a little frustrated at Smith because she simply used Victoria for other purposes concerning other characters without fullly developing Victoria as a character. I think when I read a book i prefer to have character has a sort of persona they they fit nicely into, making it very easy for readers to find understand their next actions with the background information given.

marquisedemerteuil's picture


thanks for reading my post! :-D you=cool

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

the story of evolution and the evolution of story

This course is a wonderful example of how to apply a certain line of thinking from one topic to a second topic in order to more thoroughly analyze that second topic. It is amazing how sure we are of ourselves in our thinking, when in fact, we may be totally off. I believe that this “thinking outside of the box” approach to any subject matter is important to maintain its intellectual integrity. In this class, I felt we made great strides in our thinking about evolution and literature by cross analyzing each topic with the other’s fundamental methods of analysis. By thinking about evolutionary theory as a story, we were better able to escape the confines of accepted evolutionary thinking, which allowed us to better question its validity. Similarly, by thinking about literature as an evolutionary project, we were able to analyze literature from a unique perspective that most of us hadn’t considered. Ultimately, this type of cross-analysis allowed us to think more creatively about certain topics that allowed us to arrive at more original conclusions. While this type of thinking creates hypothesis that are more spread throughout the spectrum of less wrong and more wrong, it is this type of thinking that allows individuals to come up with groundbreaking work. While it is still important to include the more traditional teaching and learning that includes the momorization of current theories and building upon them, it is just as important to question those accepted theories now and again. It is this type of thinking that I feel has been lost in modern academia, and it was great to experience a class that brought it back.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

the end of "on beauty"

though i mentioned this in prof grobstein's discussion group, i've wanted to write about the end of zadie smith's "on beauty" for a while now. i think the ending reinforces the maliciousness of the book.

howard has an affair with victoria, which i don't think is believable. i don't think howard's really such a bad guy, and i think he'd be able to fight her off. more importantly, if victoria looks like nefertiti, and has her pick of all the boys at wellington, i don't think she'd be interested in a middle aged art history professor. perhaps she's trying to spite her father, but i don't think she'd bother. she doesn't seem to have that much against monty anyway. this plays out like a cheap lifetime movie:

"victoria began taking off howard's belt. he wanted to stop her, but he could not. then she took off his pants. he sat there."

"vee, i cahn't do this" shouted howard.

"oh yes you can, howie sweetie, i know you're hot for me" replied vee.

i think smith constructed this not only because she views academia as a big orgy of repressed unproductive people, but to ruin howard's marriage, because one affair didn't do it. kiki leaves him and won't even tell her whereabouts. strangely, she leaves and doesn't kick howard out. he's the one keeping the kids. i think, as she's our "earth mother" she would kick him out and keep the house and kids, but smith has invented this contrivance so that howard's house is howard's end. then he's got his important tenure gallery talk. smith's goal is to make him as ridiculously unprepared for this as possible so he can't have academic success, so that he runs dry as a professor, as a husband, as a father, and as a human being. nice, huh?

so in the most traumatic period of howard's life she has him quit smoking. i would think that you'd want to smoke as a relief while your wife of 30 years is leaving you forever and while you've got an important talk coming up. one would quit smoking to please a wife and smoke when she's no longer interested because breath, teeth, and habits no longer matter. so the reason howard quits smoking is not for logic, but so that he can gain precisely 23 pounds. smith is strangely interested in everyone's weight and wants to destroy whatever handsomeness he may have possessed (i'm not saying weight does this, i just think this is her logic by giving him a sudden weight gain), and then he won't even wear a suit and tie to his lecture, because they should "take him as he is" whatever that means. smith just wants him to look inappropriate so she has another reason to mock him. then he runs around in the boston heat so he looks even worse.

then he can't even give his lecture. if there's one thing howard can do, it's his brand of research. i was hoping for a redeeming ending, where he does a nice job, an ending that says that in spite of his personal problems, he has a metier that fulfills him, he has skills and a future with them, and he'll try his best to go on and learn how to deal with his personal affairs better. but to fully destroy howard, smith has to make him screw up his gallery talk, the way he's destroyed his family affairs and his appearance. so then the ending becomes a bad indie movie: howard stares at kiki, kiki stares at howard, howard stares at the flesh on the projector, and he learns how wrong he's been the whole time. smith loves to conflate the personal with the professional. i think the idea here is that now that howard has lost his wife, he can see her true beauty, and consequently the beauty of art, he can no longer ignore that it is true, and so his research can't hold up. smith doesn't realize that there is no relation between howard's work and his personal life. it's not hypocritical to deconstruct beauty in a paper and to like pretty women outside of it.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

in this course we've talked

in this course we've talked about seeing through bad science. prof grobstein says that we shouldn't believe anything we don't test ourselves, but i'm not sure i can agree with him on this one because there's so much we're not capable of testing, and our "observations," which must be visible, may not explain all that is going on. in my studies of physics, there's been a "less wrong" way to see things, and it's always the opposite of what seems to be true visually. i think a lot of people have trouble with physics for this reason. however, if we're smart enough, we can see through bad research. after all, isn't every day of life a constant quest to deconstruct and argue against the ways in which culture manipulates us? and isn't this especially true for women, who have to deal with being the object of the gaze in the history of film and art? it's a lot of fighting all the time.

anyway, a professor of english, film, and cultural studies does a lovely job of dissecting a "scientific" article, so i thought i'd post it. i especially appreciate his last sentence:

Another Inane Bit of Pseudo-Research

Researchers in the UK claim to have discovered that the use of birth control pills “changes women’s taste in men”. (Via Metafilter, where most of the posters rightly pooh-poohed it). This research is worse than worthless in so many ways…

In the study, women were shown pictures of a variety of men. Women on the pill were more likely to chose pictures of “macho types with strong jaw lines and prominent cheekbones”; whereas women not on the pill were “more likely to go for more sensitive types without traditionally masculine features.” On the basis of this test, the researchers concluded that “where a woman chooses her partner while she is on the pill, and then comes off it to have a child, she may find she is married to the wrong man.”

OK. The article doesn’t say how many women were questioned in the survey, nor whether any control was used for other differences between the women who were on the pill and those who weren’t (maybe the difference in preferences are related to the women’s decisions on whether to take the pill or not; as one MeFi poster astutely noted, they didn’t even ask the same women their preferences first when they were on the pill, and then when they were off it).

Not to mention that the study takes for granted cultural norms (strong jaw lines and prominent cheekbones = macho) that may well vary with time and place, as well as race and ethnicity, class, etc. (The article is illustrated with a photo of Russell Crowe, presented as the epitome of macho features. I wonder if the women would have equally preferred, say, men with the features of Bruce Lee, or Richard Roundtree, or John Wayne, or Randy “Macho Man” Savage).

Not to mention that these categories themselves (macho vs. sissy, or jaw lines and cheekbones divided into two groups) are way too simplistic to account even for judgments on the handsomeness of faces, let alone for “mating choices” more generally.

Not to mention that it’s quite a stretch to extrapolate from a survey in which somebody looks at pictures of faces for a moment or two to grandiose statements about the dangers of getting married to somebody you turn out not to like.

Not to mention that, as in so many psychological studies of this sort, the assumption of norms in male and female behavior, and of ubiquitous heterosexuality, is so strong as to rule out a priori any understanding of the vastness of human diversity and eccentricity.

The rhetorical trick of studies like this is that they give lame, and almost totally arbitrary, pseudo-Darwinian explanations for the findings: “As women who take the pill cannot become pregnant, they are sub-consciously attracted to sexy, macho men, rather than to men who are most likely to make a sensible long-term mate.” (If I didn’t know that these were actual researchers, I’d swear the whole thing was a mischievous parody of sociobiology).

Then, if you don’t accept the study’s extravagant claims, you are accused of being virtually a creationist, or someone who believes that biology is totally irrelevant to behavior (as one supporter of the survey put it on MeFi, “why is it that educated and informed human beings at the beginning of the 21st century still have trouble being told that many of the decisions they make in life are made in part by hormones and genetic wiring?”)

Well, sorry–I don’t doubt that human beings have evolved by natural selection, and that “hormones and genetic wiring” have a lot to do with how we act. But it’s quite a big jump from a study like this to an assertion that the observed changes in picture preferences are linearly determined, in all women, by sex hormone levels (let alone to posit a genetic cause, since no mechanism of that sort is proposed at all). (Not to mention that all talk of “sex hormones” is so wildly inflated as to be a misnomer, as Anne Fausto-Sterling has demonstrated at great length).

Sigh. If you want to learn something about human sexual psychology, forget studies like this, and go read Jane Austen or Marcel Proust instead.


azambetti's picture

Universal Morality

Is there a universal morality?  In class on Thursday we discussed whether there is a universal morality, and if so, if universal morality means the “end of the story” of morality.  I do not think there is a universal sense of what is moral, solely because there is not a universal culture.  Every culture, which is divided up into one’s household, community, state or country, has its set of morals.  Therefore, it would be impossible to have a universal morality that everyone could live by.  Each of these subgroups’ moral standings can counteract each other or work together to make a well moraled person, but since there is variation within each subgroup, the morals of the person made from the variation would be infinite.

In addition, cultures can oppose each other.  On the big scale, one culture can disagree about what is moral with another culture.  For example, some cultures feel that suicide bombers are moral since they are dying for an important cause for many people, while other cultures think that suicide bombers are completely immoral, unrightfully taking the lives of innocent people to prove a point.  On the small scale, two people, of different households can argue about what they believe to be moral.  With such turmoil going on in the world, at all levels of culture, there is absolutely no evidence supporting a universal morality theory.

Andrea Zambetti

Student's picture


So today we talked about morality... what it is, where it's come from.  On AOL news, there was a headline- "Student Places Stone for Killer -of Virginia Tech Memorial - She calls it Morally Right" ( it was ironic that we were just talking about this today and here it is in the news..also, to further the trolley example of morality a little.. in high school, my english teacher posed this- is it better to save/affect more people rather than less? There are 4 people. 3 have families, and also are dying of organ failure. One person is perfectly healthy, but without a family or others really involved to him. Logically... should we kill that person and save the organs to save the other 3 people? That way, only one person dies and three survive..even though that one person was totally fine?

Shannon's picture

Definition of Comedy

I really like Woody Allen's definition of a comedy: "a tragedy + time". I think this is completely accurate in life, as events happen to us that at the time we think are the worst things to experience... but over a period of months or years -- in the lightest of situations, maybe even days-- we realize that the whole situation was a comical mess. As a light example, if someone really pisses you off with a racist comment today, you might immediately become very angry. In a couple days or a week, your attitude will change... and you will laugh at the asshole that was ignorant enough to make that remark.

I do agree, as well, that Allen's definition of tragedy is not applicable in every situation. The VA shootings were an immense tragedy and never will be considered otherwise... The Holocaust example from class -- not even close to being considered comical & almost 60 years have passed since its occurrence. It's all relative I guess... "All things in moderation", as my late grandma once said.





danYell's picture

seeing to the end

Can we see to the end of the novel? As I'm reading my favorite books I become so involved with the characters that I don't want the story to end. Just because the book ends, and there are no more pages left to read does not mean that the story ends. In terms of Smith reading Howards End, the story was just beginning for her. I won't go so far as say that I will create a work like on beauty that really continues the story, but in my imagination i create a future for many characters in my favorite books. In biological evolution the story doesnt end either. The timelessness and in some way the inevitability of further adaptation and mutation ensure that this continuation. The more I think about the story of evolution the more brilliant it becomes and the more plausible. I think the teleological method of viewing life on earth is very heavily embedded in our culture and has led to a number of spin-off ideals like the hierarchy of races or genders. In this way, i find evolutionary theory, which branches instead of climbs, as very useful for thinking about equality between humans and further between species.

We can also find randomness in literature the way we can find randomness in our own lives. Ever wonder how you ended up where you are? I do nearly every day. The journey here has been quite random. As with writing a work of fiction or non-fiction (fact?) the factors that influence an author are random as well : birth into a certain society, parents and siblings, educational training, tripping on the sidewalk, even finding an old copy of howards end on a bookseller's blanket in central park and deciding to buy it for 50 cents because you need something to read on the train ride home. How these factors influence the writer are equally unpredictable. Not being able to see to the end is what makes me get up every morning.


Katherine Redford's picture

interesting correlation..

Before taking this course, I don't think I would have even thought to apply our methods of studying evolution to the concepts of social evolution, nevermind the evolution of literature.  I now see how useful this can be.  I see our literary history as the fossil record of our social evolution of society.  I haven't yet fleshed out this analogy though, I'm not sure whether our literary trail is a complete record, or if there are many gaps, as with the real fossil record.  It's hard to say- there is a great deal left undiscovered, unpublished works, undug fossils.  Our species still has alot to learn in order to get it less wrong, but I think we are making progress both in the "real" world, and in this class.  Though, I don't anticipate our reaching a definite conclusion come May 4.

hayley reed's picture

Life on a new planet?

In discussing the relationship between literature and evolution I thought it would be interesting to bring up a recent discovery scientists have made. Astronomers have discovered a planet located just outside of our solar system that potentially could be inhabited. There is still a lot of speculation surrounding this planet because much of  it’s terrain still remains unexplored. But, astronomers have been able to deduce that this planet might have water in a liquid form and the star that it closely orbits is very much like our sun. So in other words, life may have the potential to exist on another planet! This discovery just blows me away because after years of speculation about life on other planets there is now actually reason to believe there might be life on other planets. Just think- the literature that future generations read could be based in scientific discoveries made today!!! Some generations get to discover new planets but, our generation is able to discover a planet that could support life.

I think my fascination with this discovery stems primarily from my fascination with the passage of time. The greatest contribution an individual can make to history is to live in the present and observe their surroundings. In a way, this idea stems back to the disccusions we shared during the first week of class. Our observations and descriptions of reality can have a direct impact on how people in the future interpret our observations. There have been plenty of people who have argued that life can only exist on Earth but, this recent discovery suggests otherwise. To sum my point up, I think what  I like most about the relationship between literature and evolution is how the passage of time seems to fit perfectly right into both fields.

rebeccafarber's picture

The relationship between

The relationship between literary evolution and biological evolution allows me to understand each more comprehensively independent of each other. As we have discussed in class recently, at the beginning of the semester we first looked at evolution in such a huge general sense. The universe as a whole was our starting point and this funneled down to where we ended - a microcosm of society in Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Biological evolution spurs from a series of random events, yet after analyzing the process as more of a story than anything else, it really is just that. Biological evolution is a demonstration of itself, further evolving as we think about it more. We give it meaning. We define it because we are the only species that puts words to it to understand it. It may be possible that the birds understand evolution as best as we do, yet have no way of communicating their said comprehension. So where does this leave us? Certainly this draws me back to Thursday's discussion in Anne's section about reality. There is no confirmed notion of reality, and the universal reality that we all experience is truth which we cannot fully reach or ever comprehend. Therefore, we have no full grasp on reality, only on our own experience of what we encounter. 

Student's picture


If I'm pressing down keys, which, to me, represent letters, which represent words, which represent sentences, which represent ideas in my head that I'm trying to translate in an accepted, understood form to relay these ideas to others.. then that moment I'm pressing down the first letter, I'm aware of my actions.  The thing is, though, as clear as I may have thought these ideas in my head, as detailed as they may have been, and as thought provoking, to me, as they maybe were, it will never translate that clearly, that perfectly, into another context, another forum.  In my head- my thoughts, my ideas, my reactions- that is my reality. The moment they leave your head, the moment we try to have them understood by others, the moment we try to communicate them, a little bit of our own reality is lost.  When we debate, the words we debate, the ideas we counter arguments with- are missing their original location- they lose something when they leave your head, but remain relatively useless- having no effect on the outside world- until you share them. I think, it's for this reason, that reality, as a story, makes sense.  My mind, my ideas, are comprised, largely from listening to other people discuss their ideas, but these ideas have lost some reality. The way I put all of this together, though, makes up my reality, and when I discuss an idea, it's of fragments of other people's realities, broken into even smaller fragments.  Reality is the story we each tell, the best we can.  What's in our head- the orginal fragments, put together uniquely- is something more. But reality? Reality may just be the best sense we can make of things, at the moment.. just getting things less wrong, hopefully.  

Anne Dalke's picture

is this really happening?

something pretty interesting has been happening in this forum over the past day or two...something that adds an interesting twist to Lavinia's claim regarding reality: "Can we not except that while i am writing this posting i am looking at this screen watching the little black letters appear as i type? There is no other reality than that- it is what is really happening!"

What's been happening (to me? not to the others of you who have posted?) is that when I reply to another post, I get a message that "the comment to which i am replying does not exist." hm...? what is really happening here?

Anne Dalke's picture

further testing

and now i'll try replying...

hm: i've just been told that the comment, to which i am replying

(which i myself really wrote) does not exist.

hm again,

said the humanist-turned-scientist

Anne Dalke's picture

once more

and now i'm trying again....

w/ no question about the reality to which i'm replying!

hm once again

Christina Cunnane's picture

Definitely happens...

From writing my paper, I think that I am now a firm believer in the evolution of literature. I think literature can be so completely generative. It can change and evolve in so many ways. However, I still can't say that biological evolution is exactly the same as literary evolution. It can't be. They are two different things. It would be really scary if all of a sudden books started sprouting legs and walking away. :) The evolution of literature still lacks the randomness for me. But I think although necessary in nature, it isn't a requirement for literature. The processes of the two might be slightly different, but the end product is still the same. Both have evolved into different products based on the original. It is really exciting that my favorite book could span generations of great books.

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Evolution and Literature

The biggest change in my understanding of evolution and literature has dealt with how each progresses toward new developments.  I had always considered evolution as a process that is moved forward by innumerable random factors, while literature was the result of individual creativity.  Now I understand literature to be the cumulative result of many factors outside of, and influencing, the author’s personal creativity, much like the story that I understand evolution to be.  Because of this new perspective, as I read literature I am much more aware of all of the influences and antecedents that made the final work what it is today.  Similarly, with evolution, I look at it more in the frame of a story of observations than I did before.  While I would not say that my entire view of literature and evolution have changed, this course has refined my perspective in some areas to see the similarities between them and interact with them in different ways.

eworks's picture

One Week Later

It's hard to imagine that a full week has already passed since last Monday's tragedy at Virginia Tech. Everyday there's a new article to read on the subject, usually with a new piece of evidence that I can only imagine makes those in charge at Virginia Tech shake their heads and wonder "How did we not catch this in time?" It's an immensely sad situation to think about, but one that shouldn't be forgotten or put aside too early.

What I wonder about with horrific situations like this (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami, Columbine, etc) is when and how we finally do move on. I'm in no way saying that anyone present when the Twin Towers fell will ever truly move on, but speaking from my own experience, my sentiments and feelings are much more settled now than they were on 9/11 and in the following weeks. Over the period of human development and existence, how did coping mechanisms come into place that allow us to deal and process such sad occurrences? We can easily say that early humans would never have had to deal with the devastating effects of 9/11 or the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, but they must have had their own respectively traumatic events from which our "modern" coping mechanisms developed.

When I hear about the violence present in today's world - the daily reporting on the news of the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq along with the escalating number of civilian deaths in that region, for example - I can't help but wonder if we've become desensitized to such violence. Yes, such news saddens me, but I don't find myself grieving. Maybe it's because I'm lucky enough thus far to have been spared from being directly impacted by such things that my reaction is so small, but I still find it... odd, I guess, that all I feel is a sort of indifferent numbness when I read the death tolls. Has the fact that we have all grown up in a time of increased accessibility to news in a way commoditized death?

I'm sorry if this post has been more political than most, and I apologize if I've upset anyone by talking about what I have. These are just things that have been on my mind recently, and as we continue to collectively mourn for those lost at Virginia Tech, I hope that some good can come of this sadness. That maybe it will help us to focus on the important issues present in our own nation, as well as those abroad. But for now, like I said, all I can do is hope.

J Shafagh's picture


This is a really interesting topic.  In some of my work for my senior thesis, I am looking into frames of mine and mindsets.  Could a reason for this coping be that we have finally accepted the fact that tragedy has occurred and change our frames of mind to an accepting one, so that we can move on?  Obviously, when things like this happen (which we are not used to happening everyday), we are not comfotable with the idea and are initially shocked.  Over time, we come to terms with it, understand it, accept it, and then when we think back on it, it's not something so sad. (i.e. it's not as big of a deal as it used to be).  I just wonder if that is some kind of coping mechanism for dealing with those types of tragedies?

tbarryfigu's picture

The Debate

I've officially become a flip-flopper and I'm damn proud (or maybe my brain is just tired).

Although I tend to stick to my convictions (and am capable of arguing my point until I'm blue in the face) I've realized slowly that my current opinions contradict some of those that I've held for the majority of this course. Recently, i have expressed confusion regarding evolution, from the standpoint of a biology major, English minor.

I remember blogging that I had lost my ability to enjoy literature while considering evolution. Though those sentiments were true with regards to the novels we have read since the beginning of the literature section, I find I am now more confused reading scientific texts. The conversation about published articles and truth (discussed last Tuesday) really set me up for my two biology classes, in which we are constantly reading up on new discoveries. Though I find them (the articles) interesting, I am no longer anxious to jump the gun and consider the future evolution about Topic A, B, etc. addressed by them. One step in a positive direction does not illustrate the journey to come. In this way, On Beauty and Howards End have helped me to consider scientific evolution, because whereas in literature, we can often see to the end, there simply is no such concept in Science.

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Lost in Translation

One of the required 9th grade novels, “Inherit the Wind”, has now hit Broadway. In today’s NYT op-ed page, while attempting to provide a humorous and uplifting synopsis of the play and it’s connection with biological evolution, Francix X. Clines seems to ultimately provide short simplistic evidence for evolution.  Loosely transitioning from plot and character analysis to the Bowerbird’s nesting habits, the article fails to articulate its point and weakly concludes with everyone’s favorite evolutionary statistic, “chimpanzee’s DNA has been conclusively shown to be 98.8 percent the same as the visitor’s DNA.” 

The thing that actually intrigues me about this article is that the characters, themes, and controversies from the play still hold huge relevance today.  Based off the actual Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925, I have to wonder, just how much has the general public’s understanding and opinion of evolution changed since 1925?  How much effort has been put forth to translate biological evolution into a comprehensible concept?

Seventy-two years later, we are still living in a country divided by conflicting religious and scientific beliefs.  Evolution isn’t/doesn’t have to be a scary, depressing idea if adequate time is taken to explain its implications.  So who is to blame for why the actual meaning of evolution is being lost in translation?  Scientists? Well, I do think that scientists- for the most part- struggle with translating their discoveries into terms and concepts easily understandable and accessible to the public.  But it isn’t that simple.  Perhaps, lack of true understanding develops from articles like “Evolution, on Broadway and Off,” which seem to just quote “on repeat” the same basic evidence and consistently fail to actually relate numerical evidence back into the meanings behind evolution.     

Anne Dalke's picture

What does it mean to "inherit the wind"?


here's an interesting question of 'translation'/interpretation, posed to me by a colleague in another department. One of her children had just participated in a school production of "Inherit the Wind," and her family, having been to see the performance, was debating the meaning of the title. Her husband and kids both thought it meant--in accord with the Biblical source, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart" (Proverbs 11:29)--that if you cause trouble @ home, you will end up w/ nothing. But my colleague had a wonderful alternative reading: that if you stir up trouble, you will have the wind @ your back, a force to drive you forward into the future. Interesting double meaning for the Scopes' conviction/McCarthy-era ramifications of the play, perhaps? A momentary set-back, and/but a long-term evolution?


Anne Dalke's picture

And thinking...beyond?

And how might learning-and-thinking about both biological and literary evolution help us think about...

other things? From today's NYTimes (for instance) comes "Why Darwinism Isn't Depressing":

"Transcending our arbitrary narrowness of our empathy [i.e., loving our own kids more than others...] isn't guaranteed by nature. (Why do you think they call it transcendence?) But nature has given us the tools...the brains to figure out how evolution works, and thus to see that the narrowness is arbitrary. So evolution has led to something outside itself...."

Think so?