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Semantics of Foundation

katlittrell's picture

Words continually evolve, their connotations and definitions shift and are forgotten and replaced as the generations pass. The mutability of language causes people to connote certain words differently. This semester, I am taking an course cross-listed in both English and Biology called “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories”. This comment from one of my classmates prompted my essay:

Because I misunderstood the way we were defining ‘foundational,’ I tried to build a claim about how [modern evolutionary theory] was in fact ‘foundational,’ because it was founded on scientific stories, just as the Great Chain of Being was founded on people’s faith in God. It was eventually explained that our functional definition of ‘foundational’ needed to be both ‘static’ and ‘purposeful’, and that my reasons for legitimatizing my point were incorrect based on a misunderstanding of the word itself. (Gisele)

In class we constantly discuss multi-layered concepts such as evolution or foundation. It is unsurprising that we, as a class, interpret these ideas differently, and sometimes even conflictingly. Because of this conflict, we must try to establish working definitions of these core ideas. That way, we can discuss the intricacies of complicated concepts without being lost in circular discussions about semantics.

Because of this, I would like to consider the different ways of looking at the varying possible meanings of foundational stories. The intended course definition of foundation was: “The action of establishing, instituting, or constituting on a permanent basis” (Oxford English Dictionary). If we associate the term “foundational” with this definition, the theory of a foundational narrative becomes similar to the foundation of a building or roots of a tree in that there is a definitive beginning and ending place: if you go back or forwards far enough along the line of the story’s logic, nothing exists beyond the foundation. The stories associated with this definition are fixed and unchanging: for example, the tale of Genesis in the Bible, or the idea of a Great Chain of Being. By contrast, narrative stories are those which explain life in terms of change, a mindset which allows for constant revision and addition to the story: for example, the constantly modified tale of evolution, from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to the story of evolution told by present day biologists. The story of evolution has itself evolved due to the influence of more recent discoveries such as Mendelian genetics and greater understanding of DNA and genetic mutations.

Of the many other possible meanings of foundation, the following definition confused the class: “A basis or groundwork on which something (immaterial) is raised or by which it is supported or confirmed; an underlying ground or principle; the basis on which a story, fiction, or the like is founded” (Oxford English Dictionary). This definition yields a different interpretation: foundational stories are those from which all other stories are sourced, a base from which individuals or society draw their belief systems. Under this definition, Genesis, On the Origin of Species and the modern theory of evolution are all possible foundational stories. It is this definition of foundational which I shall use in the rest of this paper, unless stated otherwise.

Confident enough in his theory of evolution, Darwin presented his claim that the scientific theories of his contemporaries were incorrect. His view postulated that the geological record was merely incomplete, the classification system used by naturalists of his day inaccurate, and the idea of creationism “[rejected] a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception” (Darwin 200). He insists that any discrepancies in his theory are a result of lack of data rather than inaccuracy.  To argue that all animals were created as we see them today is to insist that God created multiple similar types of animals such as breeds of dogs, horses or pigeons separately; this argument just doesn’t hold weight when we consider that different breeds of pigeons, for example, can interbreed and their offspring appear to revert to an earlier common ancestor with very different characteristics (Darwin 110-113).

Mostly accepted today as one of the foundational theories of science, evolutionary thought has filtered down into every facet of society: no longer is it acceptable to say in academic discourse that all beings have a pre-destined place in society, or even that humans are the pinnacle of life, or are in any way more highly evolved than any of our animal contemporaries. This evolutionary thinking powers ideas such as the American Dream, founded in the belief that anyone can succeed, regardless of social position at birth.

Social mobility, self-improvement and being able to break out of one’s societal place developed from the idea of evolution. the idea that there is no longer, in fact, any such thing as a fixed place in society for the individual is no longer expected. For instance, that the child of a lawyer or doctor does not have to become a lawyer or doctor. In this way, evolution has become such an integral, foundational part of our collective consciousness that it is hard to fathom that as recently as a hundred years ago the story of creation found in Genesis was embraced as truth, a valid explanation for the intricacies and injustices of the world.

Though conceptually different, all of these foundational stories explain the way the world is. The attractiveness of the theory of evolution lies in its embrace of change. Other foundational theories can not compete with evolution’s flexibility; in this way, evolution is one of the core reasons for the erosion of religion in the western world. Religion does not offer the same ability for explanation and adaptation to new circumstances as evolution does. No matter how our understanding of the world changes, the theory of evolution can, and has, changed to fit it. Darwin himself implies that there is a hierarchy of species, that those which are more highly evolved have progressed more. He mentions the superiority of British flora and fauna over those of more “savage” parts of the world; in our contemporary, politically correct life of equality I doubt that contemporary biologists would even consider making that same claim.

While evolution is not a foundational story in the sense that it is not fixed; it can continue forever forwards and backwards on an immense scale of time, slowly changing. It remains foundational in the way that it forms part of the groundwork of our modern society. It is the story from which many of our beliefs - including personal, scientific, political and moral - stem.


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Broadview Press Ltd. Peterborough, Ontario. 2003. Print.

Gisele, Hannah. The Evolution of Words. Serendip, 2011. Web. February 10. 2011. /exchange/node/9140.

Oxford English Dictionary, definition “foundation”. Web. February 10. 2011. http://dictionary.oed.comcgientry50089131query_type=word&queryword=foundational&first=1&max_to_show=10&single=1&sort_type=alpha


Anne Dalke's picture

On the evolution of words (and ideas!)

So, Kat--

the first thing that tickles me here is that you take, as your point of departure, a posting by one of your classmates on the evolution of words; this is co-constructed dialogue in action on the web, for which I thank you!

What amuses and interests me next is that you found your paper on a search for "foundations," that is, on a clear, certain, shared definition of terms. As you'll see in a paper I wrote on this topic-- Where Words Arise, and Wherefore: Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration-- I come @ this a little differently, from the presumption that 

ordinary language is not "supposed" to be unambiguous, because its primary function is not in fact to transmit from sender to receiver a particular, fully defined "story". Ordinary language is instead "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a more sophisticated, bidirectional communication function. A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story. An unambiguous transmission/story calls for nothing from the receiver other than what the transmitter already knows; an ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation.

I'd be interested to discuss this possibility with you further.

Then you go on to explain the difference between two meanings of "foundation"-- "establishing, instituting, or constituting on a permanent basis” vs. functioning as an "underlying ground or principle, the source or basis for belief"; you "found" your discussion of the importance of evolution, as a "foundational story" for our culture, on the latter. This takes you into the shady territory of Social Darwinism-- "the American Dream, founded in the belief that anyone can succeed, regardless of social position at birth," "an integral, foundational part of our collective consciousness," where I'd also welcome more conversation (reading the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett is going to lead us here, also).

You claim (again anticipating Dennett) that "religion does not offer the same ability for explanation and adaptation to new circumstances as evolution does"; I'd enjoy talking about that with you further, since (as you'll see on the Science and Spirit site), I begin with a different assumption, that

the exploratory seeking that Quakers call "continuing revelation," the process of constantly "testing" in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information...are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms.

And lastly: your observation that the "attractiveness of the theory of evolution lies in its embrace of change." Is that what your classmates have being saying? I've been hearing just the opposite: that "thinking about our world differently is rightfully terrifying."