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The Evolution

Sophiaolender's picture
As our class made its way through the term, our evolution as a class mirrored our own personal evolution, as well as the evolution of the stories we read. We began the year reading On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, then moved into Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett, then Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, and finally, we finished the year with The Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt. The books that would be used in a class specifically called “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories” were chosen with great purpose. Each book mirrors a stage in biological evolution, and if we can create foils out of the books and the evolutionary stages, we can delve deeper into the meanings of these books.
At the beginning of this term, we read Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, a book documenting Darwin’s travels, tracing the animals of our world back, and theorizing on the process of evolution. His ideas are written in a straightforward, yet story telling manner. Darwin writes differently than one might expect a scientist to write – he writes as if he is present, and just documenting his ideas as they pop into his mind. Most scientists write only facts, without the hint of the person who is actually discovering the information. Darwin writes honestly and factually, but without losing his own self. I would relate Darwin’s factual and straightforward book to the first stage of the living creature in biological evolution. Darwin’s book is like the single celled organism in the evolutionary timeline. The first hint at living organisms was this bacteria, which paved the way for the future while remaining simple. It was the first hint that things would be different from now on, but it is not an intimidating or scary step. Darwin’s book began to open opportunities for people to become acquainted with science more intimately, and on a more normal basis. At the time the book came out, people did not realize their own involvement in genetics. Because of Darwin’s book, the grander population understands the basics of our involvement in the evolution of genetics and the evolution of people. This is a huge deal, as it really allows evolution to continue, but in a smarter way. Bacteria did the same thing – it allowed living things the ability to grow and become something grander and more amazing than anything that could have even been imagined at one time. Darwin’s book had a single purpose of getting the facts into the public, just as bacteria is not multifaceted – it has one job, and it does that, and that only.
The next book we read in our class was Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. This book was an obvious launch point from Darwin’s. It is an immediate response to On The Origin of Species. It is intelligent, and it argues the ideas presented by Darwin. Dennett writes a critique of arguably the most famous “scientific” book, while mentioning the flaws in Darwin’s argument, as well as expanding on Darwin’s ideas from a modern mind, in a world where we understand much deeper the arguments that Darwin was once trying to make. Dennett’s book is not perfect, and our class responded to it in a very mixed way. We did not like a lot of Dennett’s personal input. We found him to be longwinded and a bit irritating in his repetitive and wordy manner. Dennett is like the savage animal of biological evolution. The savage animal demonstrates a strong sense of evolution from the bacteria that came before it, but it is still a response to fact, still categorized under nonfiction. This savage animal of books is a bit uncivilized in its manner. The book was not a great piece of writing that a true lover of writing would greatly enjoy. Its appeal was in its responses to Darwin’s ideas, and Dennett’s brilliance lay in his easy to understand explanations of complicated scientific ideas. He easily created metaphors to explain the scientific ideas. This was a very interesting move on his part because it brought the book out of a simple critique and into its own category of nonfiction mixed with some hints at fiction. His metaphors made the information easier to understand, thus inviting a larger audience. Dennett was so much like a savage animal, not perfected by any means, but still so much more interesting than what came before it, and with still the hint that the predecessor was so very much inside.
Our class then moved into Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This poem is so tricky for me because I do not know whether I can classify it as fiction or nonfiction. In one sense, it is an obvious fiction because it is a work of art – it is a poem and was invented in the author’s mind. But in another sense, it is so clearly nonfiction, as it is a work describing life, and describing the world as one man sees it. What is not real about that? Leaves of Grass is an extraordinary and enlightening poem that brings the reader on a journey through the mind of a man, exploring the world, and visualizing it in a unique way. Whitman’s work is so original and so unprecedented, but it is a clear evolution from the Darwin and the Dennett that we studied in class. Whitman writes in a very original way, but he is still writing about life and about the world, the same topics that intrigued Darwin and Dennett. This is still an exploration of living and the reasons we live, and those are the reasons Darwin did what he did. Whitman’s work was like the unevolved human. There is so much humanity in Whitman’s work that it is so obviously evolved from the savage animal that was Dennett, or the bacteria that was Darwin, and yet, of course, the ideas are strongly connected, just as the unevolved human has a strong connection to the savage animal.
The last book we read in this class was Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American. This beautiful novel was such an evolution from the books we read earlier in this term. It spoke of the same ideas – of the world, of life, but in deeper, more emotional, and stronger ways. Where Darwin spoke of animals having sex, Hustvedt touched us with her beautiful prose depicting the encounters of the main characters with the people they love. Where Dennett explained metaphors for the impossibilities of our world, Hustvedt showed us how to accomplish anything. And where Whitman rambled on about the beauty of the world, Hustvedt let us borrow her eyes, and the sorrow-filled world opened up around us, only for her to paint its silver lining. Hustvedt deepened the emotions we had gotten used to reading about, and allowed us to feel them. The book was a stunning response to the books that came before it, as it did more than evolve on a fictional level. It evolved in every way, in that it allowed us to evolve, in reading it after the three stages of evolution that came before. I have to connect Hustvedt’s book to the modern human, if not the future of humans. I believe the future of our species lies not as much in our evolving bodies, but in our evolving spirits and minds. Hustvedt definitely opened many doors with her novel, and allowed people to see truth in the way Whitman may have wished from his own book. It is a piece that can be brought into the future, as it allows for learning and self-evolution.
The books we read this term were four well picked works that evolved within themselves, while allowing for the class as a whole, and on a personal level to evolve beautifully into its place today. As biological evolution evolved, so does everything, and if we use the glasses of evolution in viewing everything, we can become more intricately informed about the process of the world.


Anne Dalke's picture

re-constructing a logic

We’ve had so many challenges to the texts selected for this class, that it’s a real pleasure for me to watch you re-construct a logic for the sequence we’ve just undergone. Of particular delight is your decision to make the same “interesting move” you describe Dennett as making: creating vivid metaphors to explain your ideas.

What is of course most striking, as a text, about your project here is your re-framing our four texts, by Darwin, Dennett, Whitman and Hustvedt, as a biological sequence, evolving from bacteria, to animals, to humans, to modern (or future) humans. But of course all metaphors have their limits, and where I got tangled up was in the comparison you develop between Dennett and Whitman. The former is “savage,” the latter…how different? How a “clear evolution,” not from the fireside poets who proceeded him in American literary life, but from Dennett, who proceeded him in this course? (Because of course, chronologically if not course-wise, Whitman came first…!)

But what is most powerful to me, as argument, is what you do with Hustvedt: how you are able to show the work that her text does in the context of this course. Your description of her gesturing towards the continuing evolution of our “spirits and minds” is of course evocative of the work of Freeman Dyson which I referenced in class on Tuesday; his discussion of “The Future of Evolution”
like yours, focuses on the idea that the inanimate matter of the “geosphere,” having been succeeded by the biological life of the “biosphere,” is now evolving into the "sphere of human thought," which he calls the “noosphere.” I’m not crazy about the neologism, but I am very struck by the idea with which you conclude—that the evolutionary structure of this course has positioned all of you to go on evolving, in heart, spirit and mind.

I very look forward to seeing where this takes you!