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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories 05 Forum

Welcome to a forum (embedded in a course) on "The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories." Post here, each week, your experiences, thoughts, explorations into the usefulness of biological evolution in understanding literature, and the use-value of literature in contributing to a deeper understanding of evolution. Forum discussions from past weeks can be found in the Course Forum Area.

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

Go to last comment

glad you're here ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-01-17 10:00:31
Link to this Comment: 12050

Welcome to the on-line forum for The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories. Like all Serendip forums, this is a place for informal, public conversation. "Informal" in the sense that no one is going to worry about how you say things here. And no one is going to worry if you say one thing now and change your mind later (in fact, that's a good thing here). The idea is to share "thoughts in progress". Its a place to put thoughts you are having that might be useful to other peoples' thinking and to find thoughts that might be useful to yours. And its "public" with the same idea in mind, that everyone can make use of and contribute to everyone else's thinking. So what you say here can influence others in our class and, potentially, people anywhere else in the world as well (who might in turn contribute some of their own thoughts to our conversation). Hope you enjoy being here, and thinking with others. Looking forward to seeing what we evolve together.

Invitation into torytelling
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-01-17 15:48:51
Link to this Comment: 12052

I add to Paul's welcome my own--am very glad you're here. And I add to his general invitation into this "useful public conversation" a specific set of queries I'd like you to respond to, please, by early Wednesday evening

How would you characterize your own story-telling style? Do you tend to the "uniformitarian" or to the "catastrophic," to continuous or discontinous types of tales? If the latter, which type of "catastropist" are you: "Biblical" (one who emphasizes plan, intention and plot resolution) or "modern" (one who doesn't tell stories-that-have-a-purpose)? Can you give an example of one of your tales?

Alternatively, you might tell us another story: are you looking for in this course? Is what you've heard and read so far "continuous" or "discontinous" with what you're seeking?

Looking forward to hearing from you-- Anne

first public mistakes...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-01-17 15:54:25
Link to this Comment: 12053

...of the semester!

what i MEANT to say (before that last post slipped away from me) was "Invitation into Storytelling" and "WHAT are you looking for in this course?" (now: see how easy it is to correct oneself?)

Week 1 response [expectations/my writing]
Name: Kelsey Smi
Date: 2005-01-17 20:06:03
Link to this Comment: 12054

I honestly don’t know what I am looking for in this course. It will fulfill the second half of the science requirement. It will also count towards my English major. Other than that, I have no expectations, other than that I would like my knowledge about evolution to increase.
In terms of storytelling, I don’t especially enjoy the activity. However, when I write personal essays, they tend to emerge as loosely constructed free writing. In this sense, they are uniformitarian.

Posting 1
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-01-17 20:27:13
Link to this Comment: 12055

There is a popular myth that the more classes you take on evolution the less godly you become. Im here to test that because I think thats an interesting view. I find it fascinating that todays class touched upon the tension between biblical interpretations of events or catastrophes, defined in the modern sense and what I suppose you can call modern interpretations.After the Tsunami there were programs on television that alluded to the Tsanumi being an event that was orchestrated by God to basically warn us of our immorality and so called 'wickedness." The very need for that interpretation to be provided suggested that either people wanted to explain the disaster in a manner that was appealing and wholesome or that they really believe that the state of affairs lacks some definition of the way things should be and are. I would have to admit that in order for closure after an event of such magnitude, a biblical type of explanation is often more comforting but at the same time the geological explanation was more realistic for myself. To be fair to the media and television there were several documentaries and other mediums which explained the event in purely scientific ways and that was great. Im rambling on but the point is that many different types of interpretations were made available as people tried to fathom and understand what had happened. In that respect this course is very pertinent. Im very interested in this kind of stuff and the truth is I have to admit that it will fulfill a science requirement that I have left. However this course is not just about the requirement for myself. I am very interested in evolution and dont know a lot about it. I also love literature and dont get much of a chance to take many classes in it. Hence Im very excited about reading books Ive never read and in the process getting a healthy dose of science that Ive always liked but not been very good at.

As far as my writing style goes, I suppose I like being catastrophic just because its fun to be discontinous and surprising. However my discipline doesnt necessarily allow it since continuous writing is perhaps more appropriate for understanding whay things happen in politics. There are many events that are suprising yet their explanation needs to be more uniformatarianistic (is thats a word:)!!) Hence Im a catastrophic soul stuck in uniformatarianism. Thats just another reason for taking this class because I get the feeling Im going to get to unleash my catastrophic style of story telling while at the same time learning a bunch of great stuff.

First post.
Name: Brittany P
Date: 2005-01-18 00:36:04
Link to this Comment: 12057

My writing, whew... where do I begin? I guess the basic answer is that I'm a pretty straightforward uniformitarian, storytelling-wise. I took a short fiction class here last semester, and I found myself analyzing my own stories as I wrote them, or in some cases, even before I wrote them---searching for a "point," as it were. With regards to fiction (both writing and reading) I'm pretty anal about wanting everything to have a message, if not having it all "resolved" in some significant way by the last page. For example, "Waiting for Godot" made me want to bash my head against a rock. For an opposing example, I love most types of political and (weird juxtapositoin, I know) post-apocalyptic literature. They almost always contain some sort of social message.

I don't know how this jives with the fact that I'm an evolutionist. It's almost as if I search for meaning in smaller, more identifiably "human" creations in lieu of looking for it in the greater processes of the universe. I *know* humans can, do, and, in my opinion, *should* include some sort of message (doesn't even have to be a moral) in their fiction, even if that point is that there is no point or something equally nihilistic. On the other hand, I like explanations of "scientific" phenomena to be as objective as possible. Go figure.

And now for something completely different: I want to pimp out a book to you all. It's called "The Seven Daughters of Eve," and it uses mDNA to trace human ancestry back to seven "founding foremothers." I'm no biologist, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the book's findings. But that's not the fun bit... the most interesting aspect of the book is that the author, Bryan Sykes, spends the latter half of the text creating a fictional "story" for each of the seven daughters. I guess he feels that this creative touch will make the scientific parts of the book more accessible. It just strikes me as interesting that religious texts work the same way: they use individual stories to explain the larger forces behind creation. So maybe Sykes is stealing a page from the Bible...?

Uniformitarian Water Imagery
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-01-18 01:28:16
Link to this Comment: 12058

I believe that I am an uniformitarian storyteller and I think that all stories are continuous. Catastrophic stories are just unfinished, they stop before resolution, before the balance shifts and as people recover from a catastrophe or adapt to it so that it becomes the new norm. The discussion in class reminded me of the theory of ying and yang (or at least my Westernized concept of it). Good things and bad things happen, yet they balance out. Sometimes really wonderful things occur and sometimes catastrophes happen. I believe that having a variety of life events, a diverse human existence helps you appreciate what you have.

I know that we were only supposed to write one paragraph, but I wanted to post a little bit about something that Anne said at the end of class. She mentioned the beauty of the water imagery in the simulation and I can’t help but agree with her. Water imagery also ties into my thoughts about ying and yang. Wave imagery, the ebbing and flowing of tides can easily be used as a metaphor for the ebbing and flowing of fortune and luck. Returning to the Noah Story highlights how water is associated with purity, a means of washing away sin or wickedness, making the tsunami catastrophe even more ironic and, for me, more poignant. For more ties to water imagery, I would recommend Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” which ties back into the topic of evolution because it can be interpreted as a response to the Industrial Revolution, an era that has greatly impacted our ‘modern’ lives.

Storytelling and Expectations
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-01-18 12:53:24
Link to this Comment: 12059

To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what my storytelling "style" would be. At first thought, I would think uniformitarian - continuous and very reliant on the present. But when I read further on catastrophism, in the Biblical sense, I would suppose that would be more appropriate. I wish to write children's stories, and those are generally (but not always) didactic in some way - teaching a moral, and usually accounting for past actions or events as a reason for the current situation.

As far as what I'm looking for in this course, I hope to gain a better understanding of the theories of evolution, and also to improve my writing habits and styles. The course material sounds very interesting, and I'm looking forward to a new semester.

Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-01-18 13:09:29
Link to this Comment: 12060

The idea that a catastrophe can be generative as well as destructive is a very intriguing one. It's also very difficult for us as humans to enthousiastically support this idea. Especially in our Western culture, we are taught or encouraged to be compassinate and to be greatly saddened by human suffering and death. So when you put a positive spin on catastropes, you can be seen as uncaring and cruel. We also live in such a present-focused culture that it's difficult to appreciate long-term positive consequences when the short-term is marked by great destruction and suffering.

I really respect the Thai viewpoint about the tsunami (as described in the New York Times artice "Meeting Death With a Cool Heart"). They don't really attempt to fully explain the catastrope or wish that it hadn't happened; they just accept it. Their detachment allows them to cope.

Week 1 Response
Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-01-18 13:32:25
Link to this Comment: 12061

I am most certainly a uniformitarian storyteller. I feel that often times catastrophic stories are built on a lack of understanding or current knowledge that may or may not be known at some later point. Therefore from the stories I only tend to look for the concrete facts, and ignore the interpretations as to why those things have happened. I suppose the best example comes from my studies of genetics. I have learned how one minor change in the DNA can have huge phenotypic consquences. If one does not fully understand what the mutated gene was responsible for, then the story of what happens seems catastrophic. However, if we understand what is really going on what the gene doesn't function we can predict the results and find a linear path.
I do not know what to really expect from this course other than to perhaps look at a concept of evolution outside the context of science.

Journal writing
Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-01-18 13:40:31
Link to this Comment: 12062

Journal writing is a kind of story-telling that fascinates me, in that the more I think about it, the more unitarian AND catastrophic it seems. Each journal entry on its own can stand as a continuous sort of story. The writing style is often train-of-thought and there is often a common purpose to each entry (self-reflection etc). However, looking at the journal as a whole, it may seem rather catastrophic, especially in that the "story" never really ends. Entry dates may be spaced so far apart that each new entry seems like a catastrophic event. For example, I started a journal in high school that I regularly updated. For the past 2 and a half years of college, however, I have only added three new entries to it. I didn't write in the journal at all my sophomore year, so when I picked it up again, I didn't know whether to give an update or just write a "normal" entry. Although journals on the whole may have a discontinuous, catastrophic feel, they are still held together by a common thread (the author), and so in reading the very first entries and the most recent, one can appreciate a change (or evolution, if you will) in the writing as well as the author.

On a SIDE note- There is a very interesting commentary on the tsunami by Hendrick Hertzberg called 'Flood Time," in this week's New Yorker. It starts out with "Nearly Four million men, women, and children have died as a consequence of the Congo civil war." Hertzberg goes on to list more and more events like this until finally reaching the recent tsunami. The reason that the world is so wrapped up in the tsunami, as opposed to other more "lethal" tragedies, according to the author is that "this is a drama that has victims and heroes--but no villains. No human ones, anyway." I found this idea really interesting and applicable to our discussion of catastrophies. Civil wars, massacres, epidemics, and not least of all tsunamis, can all be classified as catastrophes, but I think Hertzberg's idea that the ones we "care" most about are the ones not caused by man. any thoughts?

Name: Annie Sull
Date: 2005-01-18 14:18:07
Link to this Comment: 12063

I am taking this course because story-telling and evolution, and the connection between the two, have always interested me. My particular interest is 19th century British literature, which is of course hugely influenced by science, Darwinism, changing conceptions of time, etc. I am interested in reading literature backwards, in the ways that writers must--in order to move forward-- tell their stories in reverse, in the ways that memory writing serves as prophecy. The very story of evolution is one grounded in the past--one that maintains a forward looking posture by looking backward.

I thought the discussion in class yesterday was very interesting. In a way, it seems strange to classify stories as catostrophic or continuous.. it underlines the functioning of story-telling itself. We are devising a classification or 'making meaning' of story-telling with our own story. This class, along with all of our writing, this web-forum, and conversations, will be a story--an ongoing conversation that will take various directions, adaptations.

I was also interested in Anne's question about the beauty of the water image as it relates to the destruction of the Tsunami. I also thought it was a bit strange to sit in a classroom, watching a computer demonstration of the mechanics of the Tsunami. The image was silent, indeed beautiful, and explanatory. Yet the image somehow cannot be in conflict with the suffering and destruction of the Tsunami. Anne's question made me think of a really awful movie (sorry to anyone who liked it!!) called "Open Water." The pivotal image we are left with is a view of the ocean's surface and the beautiful, silent movement of the water. This, of course, masks the horrific shark attack occuring beneath the surface. For me, this scene resonated with the image we all watched on the computer screen yesterday. We may say these stories are in conflict with the more real and frightening version--but aren't they looking at the same event, from a different--albeit highly limited-- persepective? I like this scene in "Open Water" because it remindes the viewer of his/her restricted vision, of the struggle to learn a story. Like the computer image we all saw, it underscores issues of perspective and multiplicity. Silence can often be most communicative. Anyway, I guess the point is that YES, competing/multiple stories are GOOD and that it is OK if we cannot ingest a panoptic, 'true' story--as long as we recognize its limitations.

First Post
Name: Laine Edwa
Date: 2005-01-18 14:22:41
Link to this Comment: 12064

In response to the questions raised in class about conflicting stories, I think it is imperative that conflicting accounts of events do exist. People are different and they look for different meanings in the events of their lives. The stories resulting from the tsunami are perfect examples of the different types of stories that exist to serve different needs. For the geologists the tsunami continues the story of life on earth, but at a cost. The same story of plate tectonics would most likely not provide comfort to those most affected by this disaster. For them, other stories are created to mitigate the emotional response to the destruction. It is necessary for stories to conflict in explanations or accounts so that all people can benefit from them.

In my own telling of day to day stories I think I use more of a catastrophic approach, but this again depends entirely on who my audience is. I certainly wouldn't tell a story the same way to my grandmother as I would my close friends. Of the two types of catastrophic story-telling I fall under the Biblical category. I like things to be neat and orderly with an obvious conclusion.
I was attracted to this class because it was so different. Most people, including myself, tend to think that the sciences and the humanities don't really overlap. I'm interested in finding more ways in which the two disciplines engage in conversation.

Response: Week 1
Name: LT
Date: 2005-01-18 15:09:19
Link to this Comment: 12067

I’m really not sure how to characterize my story-telling style in terms of catastrophic and uniformitarian. I think that the best way to describe it would be that I prefer to write many connected uniformitarian stories to create a bigger catastrophic story. I usually write fiction, and I think of my stories in groups. The individual stories are continuous, but read together they show a discontinuous series of events, each with ramifications for the person or people the series of stories is about. I’ve never tried to analyze my story-telling style before this, though, and a greater understanding of my own writing is one of the things I hope to gain from this course.

I think that the idea of many different stories concerning the same event is very interesting. The story of the flood is a good example. There was a time, though a long time ago, when experts were convinced it was true. Now, thoughts have changed so much that to voice a belief in the Biblical account would leave a person open to ridicule. I like the idea of ideas being overturned. It seems like many of the important moments in the world’s history have come with the restructuring of fundamental beliefs. I hope that that idea will be explored more in this course.

Week 1 Response
Name: Haley Brug
Date: 2005-01-18 15:56:09
Link to this Comment: 12069

I would characterize my own story-telling style as uniformitarian. I like my stories to be accessible to my audience and easy to understand. I think that while I don’t always set out to make a point with my stories, by the time I’ve finished writing, there always seems to be one. Writing stories in a catastrophic style seems almost foreign to me. I’m not sure that I could write something that didn’t have a real purpose or was discontinuous in plot. I would certainly be willing to try.

I am excited about this class not only because of the subject material but also because I believe having to post my comments and papers online will be a great step of personal growth for me. I have never done something so “public” and that’s why I am looking forward to this class.

Conflicting Stories?
Name: Kaitlin Fr
Date: 2005-01-18 15:58:47
Link to this Comment: 12070

When I read the first New York Times article last night, I was excited to see that notion of deep time that has been prominent in my mind since I first heard of the tsunami's impact. Yes, the damage done is saddening, and of course I have sympathy for those whose lives were lost and those who mourn them. But at the same time, it gave me a sense of confidence in natural processes, that humans only have so much dominion over this planet. As a student of geology, these catastrophes fit so well into the concept of uniformitarianism, and I have a hard time seeing them as conflicting ways of telling a story. Because the plates were moving just as they have for millions of years, this event took place, and there is some sense of pattern to that. This catastrophe gives me faith in uniformitarianism, if that makes any sense.

At the same time, I understand that the story of deep time and the events that occur within these extended periods is not a human story, that these are individual life spans in which this catastrophe is a single story rather than part of a larger one. As much as I'd like to place events in context, it's hard not to tell my own stories as catastrophic ones--continuity just seems so boring and predictable in contrast with catastrophe. It can also be so frustrating, though, too tell these catastrophic stories while in the back of my mind I know that they are part of a larger, uniformitarian one.

Name: Eleanor Ca
Date: 2005-01-18 16:07:49
Link to this Comment: 12071

My own way of telling stories is what I would consider uniformitarian; natural and purposeful, developing into the events of the story and reasons not only for what happens in the story but also for telling it. I have told catastrophic stories, when I was younger as an experimentation, though I generally was unhappy with the result- I didn't have a reason for doing what I did, generally. I think I understand the world in a uniformitarian way. In my mind, the unexpected and unimaginable seem to just have to fit in somehow to the way things have been and shall continue to be.

I am taking this class because the topic sounded so interesting to me (and the first day of class only found me more enthused over the course topic), and because finding a class that I wanted to take that fulfilled the science requirement seemed to me such a feat. I, much like Haley, look forward to stretching myself as I shall in this class, making my work public. It scares me, but I hope to grow (evolve, perhaps?)

Is there a "real" story?
Name: Jenn Gerfe
Date: 2005-01-18 16:17:19
Link to this Comment: 12073

One of the things I find interesting is the fact that many stories seem to be trying to give an explanation with the fact of what actually happened or is happening. In both “biblical” and “modern” thought there seems to be a search for a single meaning. However, there seems to be a problem because once more than one person witnesses an event there is more than one story for a single event. In order to understand stories or any actual event or concept it is necessary to understand that there is no “real” answer.

I remember the first introductory biology lab last semester there were people who were having trouble with the idea that you can not “prove” anything. Biologists make observations and tell stories about what they think happens. If the stories make sense they stay and are taught, but that is what makes biology so dynamic. There are new things that come up and require the old stories to be revised. In terms of evolution this seems to happen when areas feel the need to place disclaimers on biology text books stating that evolution is “just a theory”. The problem arises that evolution is not the only theory in the textbook.

My story telling style would probably be uniformitarian. I’m fond of making plain continuous shifts since it feels more comfortable.

romance and response
Name: Sarah Klim
Date: 2005-01-18 16:23:00
Link to this Comment: 12075

I am a firm believer in the validity of uniformitarian stories. I like to think that history proves that there is nothing new under the sun, either human or chemical.

I really don’t understand the uniqueness of catastrophism – just because its unpredictable doesn’t mean that it relies on unknowable forces. Science is ever evolving to explain the world. Moreover if we use the story of generative catastrophe isn’t that an understandable plot that we repeat over and over in our descriptions and analyzations of the world around us? Which in effect makes it uniformitarian because the theory is patterned over and over. Though I think its easy to fall into this paradigm – and its important to recognize the anomalies. Prof. Grobstein’s example of the downfall of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals reminded me of this article:

I think it is important not to get *too* locked into the romantic storyline of generative catastrophe.

Also – I’d like to suggest Arthur C Clark’s short story “The Star”. It’s a really beautiful and thoughtful story about a Jesuit priest’s […or some sort of catholic order, its been awhile] scientific studies out in space with a bunch of atheist scientists. They discover a dead solar system whose exploding sun would have shown brightly in Earth’s skies around 0 A.D. I can not recommend it enough.

In response to Ghazal Zekavat’s “Journal Writing” post – (12062) [not really sure how that works] – I think the idea that “the ones [catastrophes] we "care" most about are the ones not caused by man” is problematic. I would suggest that civil wars, genocide and massacres are not catastrophes because they are entirely predictable. Tensions mount and people throw stones. This does not follow the first definition of catastrophe that Prof. Grobstein offered – an overturning of expected events. IT could follow the second definition – the resolution/conclusion of a tragedy. But I really don’t believe that violence can end violence or that there will ever be ‘a war to end all wars’ – moreover the violence is the climax, or is normally portrayed as the climax in movies today. I think these human dramas are tragedies because they are preventable and predictable. Epidemics and tsunamis are scary because we can not control them and until recently we could not forsee them. Now that we are beginning to understand viruses (avian flu) and we can predict geological shifts that cause tsunamis, we add tragedy to catastrophe. What can we prevent by making more vaccines and what could we have prevented by installing the infrastructure for warning systems?

Post #1
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-01-18 16:30:30
Link to this Comment: 12076

I am not sure what type of storyteller I am. I really enjoy writing, but I am still exploring different styles and techniques - and still trying to figure out what type of writing I enjoy most. As of now, I feel like I somehow like to include a little of each, and I’m not sure which style I focus on most – but I am hoping this course allows me to find that out. I definitely enjoy writing a story that has surprises, as they are more exciting to write and read in my opinion; but I also feel that a story needs some type of point, no matter how strong and poignant or relatively meaningless that point may be. If I were to decide on the type of catastrophic writer that I am, I would have to say biblical since that style brings in the idea of purpose and meaning. I don’t see myself writing stories that have catastrophic events and surprises that have no greater meaning – but I am definitely willing to try that out.
I am really looking forward to this class since I love to write and absolutely love learning about and discussing evolution. I’m hoping this class will teach me all sorts of new things about myself and writing style and will strengthen my love of writing and make me more confident in my story-telling abilities.

Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-01-18 16:47:53
Link to this Comment: 12077

What is interesting on first reading the "classic" tales of great floods such as Noah's Ark and Gilgamesh, some questions arose in my mind.
I wasn't quite sure why the raven was mentioned in Genisis as initially being sent out to find land but then the dove was used. Is this another instance in which the dove is the "good" and the raven is the "bad" omens? Also, it is interesting the God says to Noah that he will not send another flood to kill living beings. If indeed this story had a preceding event, did the writers truly expect that there would never be such another event? How would those same writers alter their story if they knew that there have been many floods after? It seems as though, even without the benifit of hindsight, closing a story such, claiming that the floods will never come again, is leaving the story open to more criticism than if the story were left open for some interpretation. Thus, the Bible's story seems to represent more of a catastrophe. If the moral had been that vice and sin in man result in God punishing the living things of the earth, than future floods may be explained more. It is also very interesting reading the Gilgamesh story which in many aspects is very similar but also has very prominent differences; that Utnapishtim is chosen by a God not necessarily because he is without sin, and that the organization of the animals is different, leaving the choosing more up to Utnapishtim than the Gods.

Name: Britt Frem
Date: 2005-01-18 17:01:31
Link to this Comment: 12079

I, like many others, am already enjoying this class. I was told by my older sibling (and sibling-figure) that it's important to take at least one class every semester that makes you think about the meaning of your own life. Some classes can't do that so well. But a class which emphasizes analyzation of how I--and others--tell stories puts some spirituality into academics. Moreover, I like the idea of a team-taught class because it helps relieve the class of ONE single correct idea.

I found Ghazal Zekavat's comment about how the world came together to respond to the tsunami catastrophe BECAUSE it had no human villain very interesting. Is it just very easy for humans to come together as a race when they are fighting against something that is not human? Do they not, then, have to worry about reactions of fellow human beings? Or was it just because huge tsunamis don't happen that often? Famines--killing more than 170,000--happen quite often (in comparison.. RIGHt?I don't know, hence the question marks)... granted, they are somewhat man-made due to soil erosion and deforestation... and there are relief efforts, but seldom as extensive as the ones happening now. Are there more politics involved in such catastrophes?

On another note, I too find some photos of huge waves, raging forest fires, or massive lightening stores beautiful. I think I would have to make a conscious effort to connect the images (which are, frankly, pleasing to the eye) to the horror that they caused in order to be disturbed by them. I think we feel like we ought to act disturbed when we see such shocking images, but maybe that needn't be the case.

Name: Ariel Sing
Date: 2005-01-18 17:05:20
Link to this Comment: 12080

I realize that I am taking a different track here, but I thought an interesting point was the origin of the words catastrophe and uniformitarianism. Catastrophe is from Greek, the verb is katastepho. In Greek (according my Liddle and Scott Greek - English Lexicon) it has a number of meanings: to trample upon, to overturn, to turn back, to twist up, or to come to an end (in the Passive it also means to be subdued). The word itself has two components, kata and the verb strepho. Kata simply means motion away from or against, and strepho is to turn, to divert or to twist. Uniformitarianism comes from Latin (all info on this is from my Chambers Murrey Latin-English Dictionary), the root is uniformis (an adjective meaning, shockingly, uniform) which originates from unus and forma, the former means one and the latter shape. Besides the fascinating changes found in the Latin word versus the ones found in the Greek word, it is interesting to note that the ideas are so old, so integral to a large part of our collective culture.

Also the idea that katasrophe is a summation of events at the end of a Greek tragedy makes sense on a number of levels. Most literally it is the final aspect of the play and thus relates to the meaning “to come to an end”. However it could also be argued that it relates to our modern idea of catastrophe because a summation of the events in a tragedy are generally rather disastrous for all involved. Thus the katasrophe is a body of events that are negative, just as a catastrophe would be described today.

Name: Michael He
Date: 2005-01-18 19:26:37
Link to this Comment: 12082

I'm taking this class because its unique, and my storytelling and personality type is definately catastrophic. I don't look for the present to shed light on the past, nor do I expect to find continuous patterns of development. This is not to say that I don't like complete narratives or cohesion, which I do, but I like to start with chaos, or to make chaos out of stillness, and get meaning from there. I feel the uniformist perspective too often leads to error by priveledging theories before facts are discovered, or by sweeping facts under the carpet when they conflict with such theories, as Darwin and countless scientists have done. Also, there isn't much room to argue with a uniformist who maintains everything has been occuring at the same rate for eternity. In terms of writing, the stories in my poetry tend to veer away from a didactic biblical style, and stay open to interpretation in a modern catastrophic style, though in both styles the urge to comprehend remains.

In response to the comments about the tsunami being easier for people to make public, I agree because there isn't anyone to take the blame, except God or the environment, and neither of them have much to say. The only finger pointing for the tsunami has been to the watch group appointed in alerting tsunamis, which didn't even monitor Sri Lanka because of perceived unlikelihood, and communication networks for not warning others after it hit. In situations with famines or massacres there are always guilty governments, ideology promoters, dictators, agriculture programs, or idle countries who refused to give aid when they could, so the breadth of blame is much wider. These entities tend to take more time fabricating stories to vindicate their public selves than trying to rectify their mistakes. Why people don't respond with aid more to famines, where there is a long period of suffering far after the start, than to tsunamis, I don't really know, except that I guess since when the story of the tsunami is communicated it reflects less human culpability, and therefore more sympathy on the part of donors.

In response to generative catastrophes, every death is generative of some new form of life, from the nutrients soil absorbs from our corpses to the information you absorbed reading this with the death of whatever time it took you. The forms aren't always considered just or equal, though, as dinosaurs and the tsunami victims would attest to if they could.

Name: Jessica Ro
Date: 2005-01-18 19:49:22
Link to this Comment: 12083

I was struck, in class, by the idea of this search for where the flood happened and this logic that if every culture has a flood story, there should be an event. I've always assumed that the reason every culture has a flood story is not because it happened, but because everyone is interested in teaching and learning from what a flood story teaches: The cycle of wickedness, punishment, rebirth; the relationship with nature. I think I read and write things uniformitarianly (is that a word?)because that's how I connect with the past. I read and write assuming that the laws that govern people, the things that matter to us, remain the same. I've also been thinking about the different definitions of catastrophe, both an overturning and a wrapping up. They're not incongruous in storytelling, but often work together,the only satisfying way to end. Originally, I was taking this class to get science credit for an English course. Now, all my classes this semester seem to be about storytelling, and it seems like I should pay attention to that.

Chaotic Rambings
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-01-18 21:03:02
Link to this Comment: 12089


As a biologist, I have always been intrigued by the theories of evolution, the scientific validity of one idea vs. another and so on. As some one who has lived intimately with nature and the environment, and has grown up in the presence of many grandmothers and their flavored interpretations of creation, I am also intrigued with the storytelling aspect of evolution. I don’t think I will be able to shell out a laundry list of what I expect from this class, philosophically or otherwise. However, I do feel that the general journey of this course will tickle various senses, and get me thinking about stories, facts, and observations in ways that I have not yet imagined.

I’m also fairly uneasy about classifying my own storytelling style since I am unsure about the fundamental meaning and differences between uniformitarian, catastrophic etc. This ambiguity stems from my aversion to categorizing things in general since I am a believer that life and nature and human thought follows the Principle of Disorder, and the more we try to streamline trends and patterns, the more chaotic things get. Do I mean that all storytelling is catastrophic to some degree?

Name: Robyn Sche
Date: 2005-01-18 22:19:06
Link to this Comment: 12092

I think the question of catastrophic or uniformitarianism (oh unhappy term) storytelling can yield a few answers from me (or just one really ambiguous one). Poetry seems to thrive upon catastrophic effects; the line must turn, and poetry is most satisfying when it surprises or astonishes (to borrow a spot-on idea from Apollinaire). For instance, in Wilfred Owen's "To Eros," this stanza:

"But when I fell upon your sandalled feet,
You laughed; you loosed away my lips; you rose.
I heard the singing of your wing's retreat;
Far-flown, I watched you flush the Olympian snows
Beyond my hoping. Starkly I returned
To stare upon the ash of all I burned"

features a fantastic turn, finishing the "I watched you flush" section in the middle of the next line, unexpectedly, with "Beyond my hoping." It's jolting, much as catastrophes are, and expresses by this jolting, a certain measure of human unhappiness. The poem itself isn't absurd, and builds its impressions around a continuous theme, but presents the emotions in a catastrophic way. This isn't the deepest analysis of a poem ever, but the surprises and lack of predictable logic in poems recreate a catastrophe of the senses, although there is a uniform theme. Often poems have a dreamlike quality, which further suggests a catastrophic, surprising nature to them - line A connects to line B but not by way of explanation, just to further the creation of an effect, an emotion. Poems are stories (and I guess I'm just talking about a certain type of poem, a romantic, subjective sort of poem, as opposed to Buckminster Fuller's poetic treatment of industrialization) that duplicate the sort of catastrophic nature of life in general. Ah - it's a difficult question. As for what I'm expecting of this class I don't know yet, I'm open to whatever direction we take and will probably have a better idea after tomorrow.

Wilfred Owen's "To Eros"

In that I loved you, Love, I worshipped you,
In that I worshipped well, I sacrificed
All of most worth. I bound and burnt and slew
Old peaceful lives; frail flowers; firm friends; and Christ.

I slew all falser loves; I slew all true,
That I might nothing love but your truth, Boy.
Fair fame I cast away as bridegrooms do
Their wedding garments in their haste of joy.

But when I fell upon your sandalled feet,
You laughed; you loosed away my lips; you rose.
I heard the singing of your wing's retreat;
Far-flown, I watched you flush the Olympian snows
Beyond my hoping. Starkly I returned
To stare upon the ash of all I burned.

Name: Robyn Sche
Date: 2005-01-18 22:27:17
Link to this Comment: 12094

Sorry my comment was late, I forgot about the 5pm deadline... :(

my writing style
Name: Alexandra
Date: 2005-01-19 08:20:52
Link to this Comment: 12098

I’m not sure if I would classify my story telling into either one of the two categories. I feel as if it would depend on the kind of story it was and on my audience. In general I suppose I tend to like stories that have a purpose, that have if not a didactic moral, at least some sort of structure. I feel that both the uniformitarian and catastrophic styles could provide an understanding of an event, just in different ways. They do not have to be in opposition to each other. The flood can be explained because of plate tectonics or the wrath of God, but in the end, both explanations strive to explain an event in our history, to make sense of a disaster. The bible attributes the great flood to the evil of mankind. However, even the scientifically minded New York Times Article by William Broad, argues that the tsunamis had a purpose and that without them there would be no life. In conclusion, I suppose that what ever style I choose, I think I would always want to find a cause to an event, without which it would be meaningless.

Name: maria scot
Date: 2005-01-19 12:28:13
Link to this Comment: 12105

I suppose that when I think about the stories humans have told themselves over the centuries I view the tales as attempts to make sense of the world, to account for what we see and what goes on around us. It might seem counterintuitive that events such as tsunamis and earthquakes that trigger human suffering on such a large scale are, in fact, necessary for continuing human life, but it only seems that way if we consider human emotional responses to be some sort of accurate indicator about the “goodness” or “badness” of a given event. In my mind, they are not. It seems interesting to me to think about this designation of “good” and “bad” that we create and what purposes those emotional responses serve and in what contexts they are useful. It’s the question of why the emotional response that we have to an image of parents searching for missing children seems incompatible with the knowledge that tsunamis and earthquakes must happen in order for life to continue. We can intellectually comprehend the role that natural disasters play in the cycle of things and the internal dissonance we experience of simultaneously being capable of intellectual acceptance and appreciation and our emotional view of the tsunami as a “tragedy” is due to the fact that our emotional responses stem not from objective assessments of the overall positive or negative impact of an event but rather from the way in which our brain, and by extension the way in which we perceive the world, has evolved.

Name: Rebekah Ba
Date: 2005-01-19 12:50:10
Link to this Comment: 12106

As I've been thinking about the ancient tradition of the flood story and the examples we've read from the bible and Gilgamesh, I've been struck by what we've lost now that we live in an age without such stories. If someone were to argue today that the tsunami was actually orchestrated by the gods in order to punish human wickedness, I think most people in this class would regard such a view as primitive and probably highly disturbing. How could we say that the victims of the tsunami were just receiving what they deserved at the hands of the gods? It's barbaric.

But one thing the flood stories do is preserve the emotional gravity of the event. Now, reacting to the tsunami, we are able to say, "It's tragic, but it's just part of the way the earth works. We're just a bunch of little, insignificant specs on this planet who have no control over such larger forces." We're not viewing ourselves as the center of the universe anymore, we're not able to give a reason for our suffering; humanity seems less meaningful and less important. It takes away from the sense of catastrophe. I certainly don't believe that the tsunami was an act of god, but at the same time I wonder what it means for humanity to feel so humbled and so devoid of control, to have to view ourselves as just little insignificant ants forever at the mercy of the forces of the universe.

on the fence
Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-01-19 16:07:41
Link to this Comment: 12114

I find that it is impossible to be either strictly catastrophic or uniformitarian in storytelling style. My style depends on the context, audience, and a variety of other factors. For example, when I tell a story to a friend, I enjoy using surprising, unexpected elements. But when I write academic essays, I tend to use a more continuous approach which relates many elements together.

Also, I think that a good story should have elements of both styles. Without "catastrophe" there is no drama, and without continuity, there is nothing to hold the story together. Perhaps my view is based partly on my indecision, but I find it very difficult to focus on one style when nearly all stories are more complex than that.

Name: Lauren Zim
Date: 2005-01-19 17:55:14
Link to this Comment: 12122

As a story teller, I suppose I'd consider myself catastrophic. I may not understand the terms correctly, but I am attracted to the idea that catastrophe may in fact be generative. I enjoy reading and telling stories that have a purpose, something the reader or listener can take away with them. Otherwise, what's the point of reading or listening? In my mind, a good story is one that comes full circle, as the catastrophic supposedly do.

Name: Iva Yonova
Date: 2005-01-19 22:39:24
Link to this Comment: 12127

In class on Monday I was thinking about the word catastrophy and catastrophic. the definition professor grobstein gave included sudden and unexpected. i strongly disagreed with that and couldnt help but think about it throughout the rest of the presentation.
the example of the tsunami seemed to be consistent with my ideas so i am going to use it. first of all, the tsunami was predictable, not only that it was discovered some time before it occured (although insignificant). with time and the development of science and technology earthqackes and other similar geological phenomena will be predictable in an enough advance period so that human (and not only himan) loss will be minimized. that is why i would rather substitute sudden and unpredictable with something that humans cannot control (for now).
i realize right now how uniformitarian my thinking is but i do believe that everything in the world is entangled into an intricate web and one thing always be explained logically through its anteceding events. humans do not neccessarily see all those connections and for some reason like to think of them as twists of fate or religion-connected occurences. the continuous way of story telling clearly accounts for that: people egoisticly tell stories largely concerned with the human point of view and miss to account for the "big picture". in conclusion, i wouldnt say that continuous story telling is bad, but only that it is biased.

Name: Jessica
Date: 2005-01-20 17:45:53
Link to this Comment: 12135

I found this today. Not sure if we're getting into it later, but just wanted to keep us current.

What Is Evolution?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-01-21 09:44:27
Link to this Comment: 12140

Welcome to Week Two of the Evolution of Stories. We'll begin discussing "what evolution is" this week, with assistance from the first four chapters of Mayr's book on the subject. If you have questions, responses, confusions, revelations, continuities, catastropes as you're reading....

please post them here--

Jargon & equilibrium
Name: Brittany P
Date: 2005-01-22 14:52:04
Link to this Comment: 12156

Serendip deleted this twice already, I'm getting tired of retyping it... *argh*

For a book that's supposedly a layperson's guide to evolution, I was surprised at the amount of jargon/specific information Ernst Mayr used to support his case. For example, some of the little box-charts he included were all Greek to me---I don't know the difference between euryoec and stenoec, what propagules are, and what the presence of peroxisomes means. I guess I'm just woefully ignorant when it comes to biology, and that's my own fault... but still, I wish Mayr had included a tad more explanation in a few of his examples. :)

As to the book itself, good so far. I particularly like the way Mayr "lists" the evidence for evolution in different fields of science.

What I was surprised *not* to find was an explanation, or at least acknowledgement, of punctuated equilibrium. Wasn't that the New Hot Thing a few years back? At least, I seem to remember a lot of brouhaha over the idea that species evolved in direct relation to changes in their environment, and that the tempo of evolution echoed these changes, either speeding up or slowing down in accordance with environmental shifts. Because the tempo of evolution wasn't constant, the fossil record has gaps where evolution was occuring too quickly to leave a sizable sample of intermediate specimens.
When Mayr writes that "according to Darwinism there should be smooth continuity in the sequence of fossils in succeeding strata. Alas... the fossil record presents us with almost nothing but dicsontinuities," I thought he was going to launch into an explanation of punctuated equilibrium. Instead, he explains the gaps in the same way Darwin did: "the extreme imperfection of hte geological record."

My question to anyone who knows: whatever happened to punctuated equilibrium? Did it get disproven, or was it never as widely accepted as I thought it was?

Various comments and questions
Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-01-23 00:29:53
Link to this Comment: 12166

In response to what Brittany said, about punctuated equilibrium: I'm pretty sure that theory's still out there, and hasn't been disproven... I kind of wondered about that too. It was odd he left it out. I guess it's possible he'll talk about it later.

I had a little trouble getting into the book, since I read a little bit of Ernst Mayr once to research for a paper and he just seemed very arrogant. He doesn't really show much respect for counter-arguments to his beliefs. I couldn't help but notice that his list of books summarizing the controversy between creationists and evolutionists were all anti-creationist books. Not that I'm a supporter of creationism, but there's a difference between disagreeing with a belief or theory and disrespecting it.

A couple questions and things the book has made me wonder about so far... As he was talking about how the fossil record for the soft-bodied pre-Cambrian organisms is virtually non-existent, I started thinking about how many organisms and species have left absolutely no trace that they ever existed. It's really kind of sad, if you think about it- so many little lives that have left no record, that don't live on in any memory. And one day when the Earth is gone it'll probably be the same for humans.

What he said about radioactive dating of fossils being possible if they're in volcanic rocks, because they're among the only ones with radioactive minerals- I wonder why that is. That they in particular would have radioactive minerals, that is. And I also thought it was interesting, what he said about ancestral structures like gill slits being embryonic organizers. I was left a bit confused but intrigued by that and disappointed he hadn't pursued the topic a bit further and made it a bit more understandable.

Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-01-23 14:24:57
Link to this Comment: 12170

Evolution is the gradual change of something over time into something that can be classified as different. However, gradual does not imply that it happens at the same rate, it implies that a series of smaller steps are required because too large a change all at once would be most likely detrimental. However, the series of small changes can happen rapidly, as with the explosion of the mammal population after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Factoring in the fact that even the smallest change to the genetic code can drastically alter phenotype, it seems to me that the book supported the commonly accepted sciencetific theories of gradual and rapid speciation. Thus showing both punctuated equilibrium (periods of rapid change) and gradualism(slow change over time) It also shows that everything must build on something else and there is a meandering path between "simplicity" and "complexity".
I found the book repetitive. I had heard all of these theories before and was hoping for something new. I was suprised, however, that when talking about the origin of life, he failed to mention the fact that scientists have managed to create organic compounds from inorganic compounds. While it isn't actual life, all life is made from organic compounds. So while we haven't made actual life, we have made the building blocks of life. I was also suprised that while he went into a long discussion about why bacterial species are hard to classify, he didn't speak at length on the definition of species in other organisms.

Name: Kate Shine
Date: 2005-01-24 12:59:43
Link to this Comment: 12189

I agree that Mayr can often seem arrogant. He wrote that "most" people who believe the earth was created my some kind of God believe no species on the earth has ever changed or evolved. He doesn't even consider that the two views might not be wholely incompatible.

He also seems to skip over a lot of basic tenets of evolution,at least in these first few chapters. At points he launches into radical detail without giving any kind of introduction or explanation of where he is coming from. For example he will avoid mentioning DNA and oversimplify things as he writes about genes, then when he can't avoid it anymore will just start writing about specific molecules in DNA without explaining what they are. Then he includes these ridiculously complicated charts and doesn't even explain what point he is trying to make with them. I have studied biology and feel I understand evolution quite well, but his "storytelling" method really doesn't hold my interest, and I don't feel that it has taught me much. I don't know how someone without a solid science background would get much besides a very muddled and generalized picture out of this book. I'm hoping I will get more out of it as I continue to read.

I also am very interested in the idea of punctuated equilibrium. In the introduction I believe Mayr wrote that it was a complicated detail he chose not to include..but I think as far as what evolution's relation to creating stories might be, it could be a fundamental detail.

week 2
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-01-24 15:12:11
Link to this Comment: 12193

Sorry not to have gotten as far today as I intended (see notes, which we'll continue with next week). Do think though that some serious discussion about what one understands by and/or means by "science" is important for our conversation in this course, both generally and specifically in relation to evolution. And thought we had a good start on that. Thanks to all for contributions and, of course, we can continue the "science" discussion here and in class Wednesday. WILL get to evolution, and to some of the issues already raised here, next Monday.

From Lot's wife: a catastrophic story...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-01-24 15:43:11
Link to this Comment: 12195

While we're archiving: might as well include the past as well as the future.
Here's the *huge* snowman I told you about, as figure for
my story of our on-line discussion of varieties of storytelling styles...

My other "image" for today's class was the "möbius scarf" Debi Peterson knit for me; see Möbius Strip for a "mathworld" explanation how this works. For me, it operates quite nicely as an image for how stories may look different from different perspectives ("inside" and "outside"?) , yet on another level, "be the same" (form a single surface?)....

Evolution as told by Ernst Mayr
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-01-24 16:37:53
Link to this Comment: 12202

Evolution as presented by Ernst Mayr is truth. As I read the book, it seemed textual and hence at first sight in some ways the truth, or accepted knowledge. I had to constantly remind myself of the existence of so many truths regarding evolution and in general science.This was a problematic annoyance that when mentioned in class excited me because I was not the only one who felt as though he was almost assuming a religious type knowledge that was truth and hence unquestionable. Science in and of itself is questionable and thats what makes it progressive as Professor Grobstein mentioned becomes a pooling of observances that result in consistencey. Mayr belives in only his own consistency and does not present it in a way that welcomes other theories. However to be fair to him he does include sections on how diffferent people think and study the process of evolution and the origin of life. However even in that presentation is a sense of his being right and the others being wrong. Nevertheless he does present a good overview of the concepts of evolution which are relatively new to a person whose last biology class was in high school.Also not knowing a lot about the topic fascinated me and I must say Mayr's story of evolution is very interesting and logical enabling my ignorance to form an opinion based on only one source. That scares me but as I sometimes got so into what he was saying that I let my guard down and let him simply tell me the story.

I suppose evolution as I understood it was the gradual change of organisms in population and diversity according to the environments that they were exposed to. I think the most fascinating assertion made by Darwin was that "all organisms on Earth had common ancestors and that probably all life on Earth had started wth a single origin of life." (Mayr. pg. 21) I always had heard that and actually had read it in some Quranic scripture and so I found that all the more interesting. To see religious scripture make a similar assertion as Darwin and some modern evolutionists was to be honest strange. Religious scripture obviously was vague but nevertheless I noticed that.

I tried really hard to read this as a novel but the technical jargon made it too much like a text. However I did form my own story, the Mayr story but removed the technical words to form a shorter story of evolution. I found that both easier and more accessible. I think I need to read more of this book before I really figure out how this 97 year old man has presented and told the story of evolution. I dont think he means to dismiss other interpretations but his style of writing is extremely textual and hence taken to seem like he thinks his story is truth.

Why I must take notes on Mayr
Name: Kelsey Smi
Date: 2005-01-25 17:10:31
Link to this Comment: 12224

Professor Grobstein indicated in class that we should not take notes on what we read. However, I am continuing to take notes because I don't agree with everything that I am reading. In writing down notes, I will best be able to address the topic of evolution when I write my critique. I also like to be efficient, an end which is best achieved if I can reread my notes rather than continually returning to the text.

On Mobius scarfs and Mayr
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-01-25 21:53:28
Link to this Comment: 12228

Anne¡¯s Mobius scarf and the article that she posted (although I didn¡¯t understand a lot of the math equations (hmm, what kind of story telling is math?)) gave me some imagery to relate back to our first discussion about story telling style. The concept of the Mobius strip (and my interpretation of it) reflects my continuous view of stories. I believe that all stories are linked together and that they flow continuously into each other and are built off of one another. The Mobius strip also has a way of incorporating the catastrophic view. The twist can represent catastrophe, something unexpected which disturbs what would otherwise be a circle. The shape still holds constant(supporting my continuous view) and eventually, the band twists so that it is back to its original orientation (resolution/circularity/revision/reflection). Also, because the twist is part of the Mobius band, catastrophe can be seen as something that can be expected, something that is a part of life and a part of stories. Eventually, something unexpected is going to happen but it will resolve itself.

In one of the links, (Paul¡¯s 'notes', I think) it was written: ¡°I don't "believe" in stories, wherever they come from. I listen to them, learn from them, and make use of them when I find them useful. To "believe" in a story is, for me, to end the ongoing process of discovery, of "getting it less wrong", and that's not something I'm inclined to do. I'd rather go on changing/evolving/emerging.¡± Since, as I have already stated, I am an uniformitarian thinker, cross-referencing and linking is what the story of my life is all about. The point is not to ¡®believe¡¯ in a story but to perceive it, and by doing so, to interpret it. I think that it is undeniable that stories exist and that just by living our lives we create our own stories (our thoughts, perceptions,and interpretations)

So, now that I have written about Mobius bands and reiterated and expanded on my theory of stories, I should probably write about Mayr. I agree with many others who have posted saying that he is bias (he does not emphasize the importance of creationism as a stepping stone that lead to the theory of evolution and that he is overly technical and should go into more details in his examples¡­). Every story has bias and I think that Mayr¡¯s faults make his book a more interesting read. His statements are provocative (Mayr (page 5) ¡°we turn to science when we want to learn the real truth about the history of the world." His biases challenge us to think critically while reading his story. Our interpretations of the text should try to fill in some of the ¡®holes¡¯ in Mayr¡¯s book, to tell a story about our experiences with the text.

PS: How do you create links in posts? It would help to be able to so easily refer to other postings or items of interest.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-01-26 07:30:22
Link to this Comment: 12231

Having said that "all stories are linked together and that they flow continuously into each other and are built off of one another, " Carolyn asked, "How do you create links in posts?" The observation and the query seem to me directly linked: one of the exciting things about the web is its, well, webbiness...the easy ways in which one can move in multiple directions of exploration. A "uniformitarian," as Carolyn says she is, would naturally want to be able to link.

So here's how; it's fun and easy. Go to our course home page, where you'll find A Hands-On, Interactive Approach to HTML. It's filled w/ lots of web-weaving tools, including how to make links. If you get stuck, stop by my office or Paul's, and we'll show you the tricks of the trade.

links plus, and a report from the trenches
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-01-27 12:55:57
Link to this Comment: 12272

Actually, if you look at the bottom paragraph of the instructions on the page where you post comments, you'll find the html syntax for creating links. Each message has a "message-id" (look in the yellow area for "link to this comment:"). To make a link to some other message, you put in your message something like (if you were referring for example to Carolyn's message above)

As <a href="#12228">Carolyn said</a> in her posting ...

and it will come out later looking like this

As Carolyn said in her posting ...

"will come out later" is interesting, both conceptually and practically. Your web browser doesn't actually show what it gets from another computer; it interprets what it gets and shows that (tells a "story" about it?). The stuff between <'s and >'s provides some instructions for interpretation (not though always reliably followed).

On a practical level, you should always use the "Preview for HTML" button below the posting window to check what your posting will look like (more or less) when it is interpreted. This is not only if you are making links but generally. In Carolyn's posting, for example, there currently appear a lot of funny looking characters. That's because she copied and pasted from some word processing program that uses hidden interpreting symbols that caused the browser to do some intepretations other than those intended. This sort of thing would show up in the "Preview for HTML" window and one can then fix them by retyping some of the characters in the posting window (click on "Preview for HTML" again to see the changes).

On another note, interesting Wednesday conversation, with a few ideas that I thought were worth noting (for myself and any one else interested) ...

Re "things can always be explained logically based on antecedents events" vs "principle of disorder"

Re Mayr

The View from Upstairs
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-01-27 20:57:27
Link to this Comment: 12281

We also had an awfully interesting conversation upstairs on Wednesday afternoon. What I remember most strongly, and found most useful, were these things: first, the play between the notion that

I suppose this was our version of the conversation going on downstairs, in which you were posing an opposition between the notion that "things can always be explained logically based on antecedent events" vs "principle of disorder"--only instead of two storytelling styles, we were thinking about how a certain sort of story might be generated in opposition to (as a way of "cleaning up"?) the world-as-it-is (okay: as we perceive it)...

As we were playing w/ these counter-notions, my students taught me the meaning of a word I'd never heard before, one I have continued to roll over my tongue. I knew about "entrophy" (the distribution of energy within a system--the disorder of which tends to increase in time), but not about "enthalpy"--which is its heat content, or quantity of energy (which also tends to decline). (For more on this, see Energy, Entropy, Enthalpy.) Measuring how much energy there is, and observing how it is ordered, might be another way to talk about the process of evolution....

So: your assignment this weekend is to read four more chapters in Mayr, to think about what he's showing us about stasis and change, about randomness and order...and to post your reactions, thoughts and questions here by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Mayr's ideas on "truth"
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-01-29 15:55:16
Link to this Comment: 12309

This week's reading brought me back to 10th grade Bio and my endless (and seemingly futile) attempts at figuring out the whole evolution, hybrid, and genotype "thing." It was interesting to try and read this text as a story - I found many parts more suited for storytelling than others. It seemed at the beginning of each chapter (or sometimes subject), Mayr would explain the historical context behind the ideas he was about to introduce, which I personally found most interesting and much easier to understand than the technical terms and explanations which would soon follow. I will admit, however, that I now understand much more about the theories of evolution, and Mayr’s explanations for why certain theories must be false, while others must be “true.” I found many of his claims against other theories and his very firm statements that they “are not true” much more interesting and plentiful after Monday’s discussion (though perhaps before I just wasn’t paying attention to his blatant exercising of opinion with regards to his expertise.) And it made me wonder if a young, up and coming scientist will soon come and blow all of Mayr’s theories away, after we discussed on Wednesday how those new to the field or on the peripheries of it are almost always the ones to make key, paradigm shifting discoveries. Mayr to me seems a very intelligent scientist, but perhaps he is too involved with his subject to ever see any outside, alternative possibilities to his theories?

novel vs. science text
Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-01-29 17:09:38
Link to this Comment: 12312

I've been struggling to read "What Evolution Is" as I would a novel instead of a science text. This has made me think about the fundamental differences between a novel and a science text, which leads to what we were discussing in class: Is science really unique?

Beginning with the book, there are a number of things that prevent me from reading this like a novel, some of which have been pointed out by others. First of all the complexity of some of the jargon and examples make it difficult to breeze through and concentrate on larger concepts. The details just bog me down too much. The structure of the book, which "tells the story" of evolution through asking and answering questions, organized into neat little sections, seems much closer to an academic text than a novel. The content vacillates between overly simplistic introductions and overly complex explanations. It seems like Mayr didn't quite know how to write for the audience he intended to, and he missed the mark.

But I should stop criticizing Mayr and get back to my point. My expectations from a story, for example a work of fiction, include characters that I can follow through space and time, who experience emotions and take part in events. I expect to be able to interpret the story to make my own meaning. If the story is more about an idea (like evolution) than a person, I expect a narrative of the idea with enough left open that I can interpret and come up with meaning. But Mayr's book doesn't allow for this. He tells us what is right and what is wrong. I don't think this is necessarily the nature of all science texts--many allow for personal interpretation--but there is still a didactic element in science texts (which I guess is necessary since the purpose is didactic) that's not present in many other stories.

Science in general, if it's presented in a fair and open manner, should allow for personal interpretaion and thus it should not be viewed as a completely unique discipline. But I don't think that Mayr's book represents this kind of science.

center of the story
Name: Jessica Ro
Date: 2005-01-30 11:50:34
Link to this Comment: 12321

Like much of the class, I am also struggling to stop thinking of this book as strictly a science text. Where I find the good story to be, however, is not in the actual theory of evolution, but Darwin’s discovery of it. I like it when people develop ideas, like natural selection, that once they’re explained make sense of so much that came before. Even better are all of Darwin’s ideas that made more sense decades later as the field of genetics expanded. (Though I’m just realizing it now, I realize I’m attracted to this because of my uniformatarian outlook.) Mayr seems to appreciate this too, and attribute it to Darwin’s unending genius.

Mayr also puts Darwin in the center of the story in more tricky ways. I especially likes when Mayr talks about organisms achieving “success in Darwinian evolution,” (101). Rather than evolution existing, and Darwin doing his best to explain it, it’s as if Mayr believes Darwin thought of evolution, so everyone better do a good job of it.

Also, I find myself reading this with a completely self-centered, human-centered eye. (There was some better phrase for this Prof Grobstein used on Monday while talking about Titan.) I keep trying to picture the earth existing for millions of years without people. I know this is ridiculous; we’ve only been here for the blink of an eye. But the only way I know how to mark time is by history, stories, events, births and deaths. What was a day like when no one could separate it from the one before or the one after? Its so obvious (maybe geologists have an easier time of accepting it) but it feels counterintuitive. We are raised with humans at the center of our universe. I’m trying to get myself away from that.

Evolution as a Storytelling Style
Name: LT
Date: 2005-01-30 14:20:59
Link to this Comment: 12327

After Wednesday's discussion in Professor Grobstein's section, which mentioned that Mayr's writing style can contradict the points he tries to make, I found myself thinking about that as I was reading the next four chapters. I kept comparing Mayr's storytelling style to the versions of evolution he mentioned. Just as he says unfit individuals are eliminated by nature, Mayr sets up the theories he disagrees with and, one by one, gives evidence against them until he believes he has proved them to be utterly false. This leaves only one theory remaining - the one Mayr set out to prove true. The surviving (or successfully reproducing) individual is deemed most fit, just as Mayr's remaining theory is.

Of course, this differs from Mayr's theory of evolution in that his writing style has a definite goal in mind, while he constantly stresses that there is no end goal to evolution. This makes me think think that he's writing more to oppose other views than to prove his view, which would certainly fit his antagonistic style of writing.

I don't mean to sound so anti-Mayr, but I found reading this section to be fairly frustrating. I know a little about many of these concepts from high school biology classes, but Mayr never seems to expand in the directions I'd like to know more about. I found lots of details on subjects I already knew, but very little new information.

Name: Ariel Sing
Date: 2005-01-30 14:42:51
Link to this Comment: 12328

Outside of my real biology textbooks (the fifty pound ones that cost the equivalent of the price of a small country) I have always read books on science as something along the lines of theory summation. I enjoy them (sometimes) and I am educated by them, but I guess I never considered them in the same category as my textbook.

I have found Mayr’s book to be unclear and close-minded. More than once while reading it I have been glad that I already understand the topic that he is discussing, otherwise I would be floundering. I agree with Kate here, the most irritating aspect of his writing, for me, is that he is ridiculously general in certain areas, but when he needs to use an example he does not choose the correspondingly simple one. Instead he pulls out something obscure and confusing.

The nice thing that I have found while reading the book is that I am constantly reminded of all of the aspects of evolution that I learned about in the past. My personal favorite evolution text is called The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. I read it years ago, sometime early in high school and I still remember most of the details. When what Mayr says confuses me, I can usually hunt up a more clear example that was mentioned in The Beak of the Finch.

If I had to label this book with a style I would call it academic archaic. Statements are often repeated, they are unnecessarily convoluted and the flow of the chapters does not seem natural. In other words, Mayr needed an editor and a whole lot less arrogance. Also frustrating is his treatment of science as if it were a religion. What has been so-called proven must be right, there does not seem to be any space for new information, unless it corroborates what is already believed to be correct.

Something New
Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-01-30 14:45:05
Link to this Comment: 12329

I wish I could look at Mayr from the perspective of someone who isn's a biology major. Whenever he makes mistakes or arrogant statements, I have a habit of simply ignoring them or understanding the core of what he meant and not the words he used. I realized something interesting about myself when reading this book. I read it the way I read all science text books but it's the way most people read novels. When I read a novel I take so many notes so I don't get confused. I get annoyed at the writing style or something the author says easily. I also have a horrible habit of believing whatever the author tells me as truth for that story. However, when I read this book, I take no notes, I take all his statements with a grain of salt, and I really don't care about his writing style. He has evidence to back up a point he's trying to prove. Since his aim is to make his theories outshine the others, he's going to point to their flaws and not to what's good about them. It's like reading a newspaper article that's trying to convince you of something.
I suppose the thing I love so much about evolution is the randomness and order combined into one. Natural selection, selective mating, etc all create order. Animals breed with the best mates; they survive because they are best suited to their environment. However, the genes that the offspring gets are random. It's interesting because it's almost as though the other things are trying to compensate for the randomness.

View from as many places as possible
Name: Lauren Z
Date: 2005-01-30 15:27:17
Link to this Comment: 12330

What I am finding most unexpected about Mayr’s book, and this course in general, as it is actually causing me to question Evolution, whereas in high school my doubts were few. Perhaps this is because Mayr has gotten a lot of bad press on the forum lately. But more importantly, I am starting now to question the special status I formerly attributed to science. In my mind, science was singled out for its objectivity. I felt that science had a special ability to explain the “truth” about the natural world, and that explaining the ethereal was a job best left to the humanitarians. Now, I am starting to view science as a discipline equally hindered by the perspective of the individual. I remember that in his lecture last Monday, Grobestein claimed that the “view from nowhere” is not possible, so instead scientists try for “the view from as many places as possible.” I don’t think that Mayr has this view. He is only interested in viewing the world from the Darwinian perspective. Granted, he does point out existing criticisms of evolution, but he tries to explain these inconsistencies in such a confusing way that I have become considerably more doubtful about the theory of evolution.

Name: Eleanor Ca
Date: 2005-01-30 16:16:17
Link to this Comment: 12332

Whether I believe that evolution is an indisputible truth or not (I have difficulty with indisputible truths), I must say I am enjoying reading its story and the stories that it supports. Having, as I do, limited experience with the concept, I am eagerly reading and perhaps too willingly accepting the arguments put forth by Mayr in the book. That humans as well as ferns and plankton came from a single origin of life in the first place boggles my mind and awakens my imagination. I have, since discussion in class, become more aware of Mayr's seeming unwillingness to consider other points of view and other possible stories, but for me looking at his presentation of the story of evolution has been a valuable and enjoyable experience. Though I do not necessarily feel that the book was written for a person with as little knowledge as I have, I certainly have gained, from this reading, a desire to learn more about evolution.

Name: Haley Brug
Date: 2005-01-30 16:41:08
Link to this Comment: 12333

As I continue reading What Evolution Is I am beginning to analyze it a little less and to enjoy it for what it is. There are only a few places where I can look at it as a story, and they are usually when Mayr talks about Darwin and the historical aspects. I find these parts very interesting and I always wish he would add a little more detail to them.

Some of the science is also fascinating. Most of it is information that I knew beforehand, but Mayr looks at it in a different way, or points out something I never thought about considering. For example, I was struck by the way he presented developmental interaction, beginning with the competition between an individual's organs and structures. I think that's why I'm enjoying the book so much, because I can mold my thinking a different way for a little while.

Like some of the others, I am a bit frustrated that Mayr brushes over things a little too quickly, assuming that all is understood. It makes some parts confusing and difficult to read. However, he makes up for it in others, and I am still looking forward to reading more.

Name: iva yonova
Date: 2005-01-30 16:50:03
Link to this Comment: 12334

The book itself to me is very uninteresting in the sense that I don't feel like it is a very unique and different type of reading. I see it simply as a science book which is trying to explain the Darwin theory of evolution... it is only told in a more informal and nonscientific manner...
The interesting part however is disscussions in class and the forum because I see all those different views and oppinions...

I explain myself the situation this way: When I read a book I do not analyze it as I am reading it or right after I have read it. I think that the beauty of books (or good books at least) is to let them absolutely persuade you in what they are saying and see the matter from the viewpoint they are offering. There is no point to argue with what you are seeing every step of the way because that simply means that you are not trying to understand it and see the logic behind it. After I read a book I give it time to linger in my mind and find its place there... and then I could start analizing it or disagreeing with it.
When you have read the book and really got in between the lines then you can actually have a more competent oppinion about its truthfullnes and objectivity.

And right now I am at the point when I am just reading and absolutely and unquestionably agreein with Mayer... I also feel that I am going to keep agreeing with him even after having read the book because having a generally fundamental knowledge in genetics and a little bit more extensive one in chemistry I can see the connections he makes and the logic behind his arguments.


another thing that really got me thinking in wednesday class was the "truthfullness"-of-the-world issue. I see and appreciate people's questioning of the world and science and knowledge, but I feel its too big a spoonful for people to handle. If you really want you can practiclly question every single aspect of life and the universe and everything... and no one will ever find THE "right" answer. that's why I try to abstain and work with what we already have as a possible explanation or "truth"... it makes it easier and is way more progressive than the denial attitude...

Mayr, novels and theories
Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-01-30 16:51:51
Link to this Comment: 12335

Am I the only person who likes Ernst Mayr? I think he's great; I think evolution is great. Granted, What Evolution Is isn't exactly a beach read, but I think it's important to put a few things into perspective about Mayr, before we write him off. As Arshiya mentioned in class on Monday, Mayr was ~ 97 when he wrote this book. (He was born in 1904... and still kicking!?) What Evolution Is isn't even his most recent book; he just published a new book in 2004 about biology! I am in absolute awe of this man.

A lot of you are saying Mayr is arrogant in his writing, and he expects everyone to eat up his theories as fact... but really, evolution is his LIFE, how else is he going to treat it? I like the idea of reading Mayr as a novel, in principle, but I agree that it's very difficult. We are, in essence, reading a story, but that doesn't mean that it reads like one. I find it easy to confuse the term "story" with "fiction," and I think that's where a lot of the confusion comes from. Unlike a typical novel, Mayr is presenting us with evidence and published data from journals among other things. If we're going to treat Mayr's book as a "novel" then we should compare it to other "novels" like Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Maybe I'm making a really obvious point, here, but I think it's just easier to read a scientific piece as a THEORY as opposed to a novel.

On another note, as far as "scientific" writing is concerned, I think the style is largely uniformitarian. This isn't to say that there aren't interesting twists, but in general, science sets out to explain and make connections of things. The goal, anyway, I think is to create a continuous body of knowledge...

Name: Jenn Gerfe
Date: 2005-01-30 16:52:14
Link to this Comment: 12336

I found portions of these chapters made it more difficult to read the book as a novel. The genetics section was rather distracting because it seemed at times like a catalogue of terms. When we were given terms it seemed hard to read both with the fact that it was rather discontinuous that it took me out of the story and the fact that I had already had my own idea of the concepts. It was sometimes hard follow concepts that felt like they were being horribly oversimplified, though I do understand that Mayr was not going to mention every detail about the study of genetics.

In talking with Dr. Grobstein after class on Wednesday the idea that oftentimes scientific stories tend to be better written by someone who is not a scientist. As a scientist it sometimes feels difficult to explain certain topics. I know I personally have a great deal of difficulty explaining to people exactly what I’m doing with my summers. I believe that Mayr is incredibly intelligent, yet I can see that being an expert on something would cause challenges when trying to convey that knowledge.

Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-01-30 16:53:10
Link to this Comment: 12337

Something that I am really enjoying and trying to appreciate about Mayr’s book are the different levels of evolution that Mayr illustrates. Lauren wrote about the history of evolution through Mayr’s writing. I like the way she described the evolution of the theory of evolution in Darwin’s (well, Herbert Spencer’s really) own words ‘survival of the fittest’. In a way, that is what scientific exploration and experimentation (I am thinking back to our classroom discussion on the scientific method) really is… a theory is used to explain observations until a new theory is proposed that differently explains the observations or until new observations are experienced and the theory changes to incorporate the new information.

I also liked Mayr’s description of genetic evolution. It gave me a different entry point for the story of evolution. (evolution within evolution… genotypic evolution as a more focused view which connects to the broader view of phenotypic evolution). It reminded me of our class discussion on the types of story telling. You can approach a story from many different perspectives a narrator of writer must pick a level (or chose to interweave levels) on which to tell a story (a spectrum from broad (continuous) to focused (catastrophic)). There are many choices story teller makes (with or without conscious awareness) and the summation of these decisions makes each story and each telling of the story unique. Mayr tries to be both continuous and catastrophic (while reading the book, I noticed that he repeated uses the word continuous… he occasionally wrote the word catastrophe but not nearly as much… leads back to the question about science writing…). Mayr’s examples are catastrophic, but he wants to tell a continuous story. He wants to write about the evolution of the theory or evolution.

One of the things that I am really enjoying about this course is how it is helping me see science in a new way. The scientific texts that I have read have always struck me as pretty dry; they were informational rather than entertaining. We even use different words to name books from the different fields (texts v. novels). Attempting to read Mayr as a novel has breathed life into the science. Being creative and imaginative with the science has really helped me appreciate it more. One example is when Mayr mentions the German concept of ‘Bauplan’ which Mayr translated from ‘Body Plan’ into ‘map’ or ‘blueprint’. If I had been reading the book as a scientific text, I would probably have overlooked that piece of information; Mayr barely mentions it and it doesn’t seem so important. (also I would be reading it as a science text; I would not read it as part of the story, but just as a piece of information). Reading the book as a novel, however, I was struck by the images and ideas of a ‘Body Map’. It made the exploration and examination of the human genome seem more like an adventure. (it reminded me of pirates searching for a great treasure only to discover it wasn’t what they imagined it to be… the ‘junk’ DNA or the seemingly small amount of genetic difference that separates humans from monkeys) That is not an experience I can ever remember having with a science book.

View from upstairs, underneath and upside-down!
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-01-30 17:02:45
Link to this Comment: 12338

I’ve been arguing with myself a lot lately over ideas about continuity, discontinuity, chaos, order-disorder, perfection, reality, truth, existing-not existing …and especially the physics and science behind these very human and visceral assumptions. And I apologize if my posting seems disconnected and purposeless but unlike traditional science, I have no ambition to “asymptotically approach any truth”!

What comes to my mind first is the conflict between Mayr’s stories about Darwinian evolution and my own. So, I have always thought that evolution was a random, indefinable, and uneven process (and I explain this later on). But Mayr clearly talks about natural selection as being an even process. He says that everything is changing in a distinctly directional sequence. Mayr explains survivability as being a non-random mechanism of elimination. In fact, he also breaks down the process of natural selection and calls it a “two-step” process. To me, this seems very contradictory to the ideas of genetic variability, segregation and adaptedness, which seem to occur as discontinuous processes that are neither even nor predictable.

But what I have been most interested with is the conversation that we had on the continuity/discontinuity of life.(Dalke .) I believe that the world is a place of constant disorder. Natural systems exist simply because they happen to and no other explanation is either necessary or more accurate. For decades, biologists have been discovering exactly how dynamic ecological systems are. It seems as though change and chance happen almost too frequently for any kind of continuity or reason to settle into place. Mottled Wood Owls feed on Rufus Woodpeckers which feed on Dung beetles simply because randomness brought them to overlap within a similar geographical area. There is no reason, no calculation and certainly no certainty that this food chain will continue to exist. Molecules bump into each other at random. Even DNA and genes segregate at random. Nothing happens for a reason, although academics, research and scientific explanations are stories that impose continuity on a fundamentally catastrophic universe. It is this very chaos that makes life so romantic.

This is from a book called the Principia Discordia which is the sacred scripture of the Discordian religion.

“I am chaos.
I am the substance from which your artists and scientists build rhythms.
I am the spirit with which your children and clowns laugh in happen anarchy.
I am chaos. I am alive, and I tell you that you are free.”

reaction to Mayr
Name: Kate Shine
Date: 2005-01-30 17:05:14
Link to this Comment: 12339

As I continue to read Mayr I've tried to be more open to his writing style. I think one thing that bothers me about Mayr (besides his seemingly illogical jumps from point to point) is that before he even explains his own arguments he first criticizes all other perspectives that have been developed through history, without seeming to highlight what each actually brought to move the field forward.

I think that science is a collaborative effort that constantly moves to get things less and less wrong. I get the impression that Mayr does not often see these shades of gray, but believes that all wrong is equally wrong. This contradicts the concept of evolution in that each species adapts optimally to its niche in the environment. Is it not possible that the theories of the past were evolved to optimally fit their historical environments in the past and they only became obsolete when the available evidence changed? This is an interesting thought, but I don't know that I actually believe it. However, I do think there are more nuggets of truth in antiquated theories than Mayr may be willing to admit.

Name: Annie Sull
Date: 2005-01-30 17:22:05
Link to this Comment: 12340

In Professor Grobstein's discussion group, we talked about the parodox of Mayr's "essentialist" method in telling a story about diversity, "non-directional change," and relativity. Many of us agreed that Mayr's style seemed to subvert his own conclusion. Now before making this observation, we have to ask (and someone did) if there are different contexts and perhaps allowances for a literary story vs. a scientific story. Is it fair to hold the biological story (which refutes the notion of destination, progress, etc) against Mayr's own "literary" story? This perhaps gets at the very question that we are asking in this course: is it useful to use biological evolution to understand literary evolution (the generation and propogation of stories) and vice versa. This is a complicated question, but I think it would be a mistake to view science and literature (or art, philosphy) as separate/isolated disciplines. Mayr, in fact, tells us this in his refutation of alternative stories of evolution. So much of the opposition that Darwin confronted was not simply due to differences in scientific experiments/conclusions, but rather, it was due to nineteenth century thought-patterns regarding essentialism and finalism. These thought-patterns infiltrated literature, philosophy, art, every mode of human thought (one need only look at some of the 19th century scientific philosophies, such as Positivism, that were manifested in literature ). In taking the time (albeit extremely limited) to discuss these opposing world-views, Mayr admits the relationship between science and philosophy. This is why his essentialist story-telling style is so odd. He does not present the currently accepted story of evolution as part of an evolutionary process (which it is.. I think it would be very interesting to examine the ways that this story reflects aspects of today's philosophy.. especially postmodernism), but as the end-point in a long-running trajectory toward perfection.

Name: Brittany P
Date: 2005-01-30 20:23:11
Link to this Comment: 12348

The next four chapters of "What Evolution Is" haven't succeeded in endearing me to Mayr's style. Maybe this is because I just can't read this book as a novel---and I've tried, I promise! I *do* enjoy reading science books (not textbooks, I mean--stuff like "Adam's Curse," which is a lot of fun if you read it as a novel and not a textbook, ie. with a big pinch of salt). Out of those I've read, this one comes off as very textbook-y. The format just turns me off. This might be closeminded of me and not Mayr's fault, but I just can't concieve of a "novel" that includes tables, charts, and graphs, numbers its key ideas before expanding on them, and italicizes the "thesis sentence" of each chapter. Additionally, the novel does not "evolve" as real stories "evolve." I got no sense of progression from the book. Rather, it's organized into discrete, individually-digestible sections that are rigidly delineated by lots of boldface titles and line breaks. Progressing through these sections, I don't feel any continuity.

For example, let's take chapter 8, which is entitled "The units of Diversity: Species." Mayr begins with discussing how many species there are, how to deal with gaps between species, and the significance of sibling species. Only afterwards does he discuss what actually defines a "species" and the controversy surrounding the word. And only after that does he give the three different uses of the word "species" which he considers essential to understanding the concept (he does so in the supplement Box 8.2, which begins by explaining the "great confusion [that occurs] when these differences are not clearly recognized." Hm. This could possibly explain my great confusion at the beginning of the chapter... anyway). After clearing this up, he explains "The Meaning of Species," which is actually more a discussion of hybridization, and then ends the chapter with species definitions for asexual organisms (which are different from the three essential species concepts in Box 8.2... I think?)
Reading chapter 8, I got a strong sense of relevance, but a very weak sense of progression. Sure, everything in the chapter dealt with species, but it was more like reading fact-cards pasted together than a chapter in a novel that took what had come before, considered it, expanded on it, and then moved recognizably forward.

Um... since that was all complaining above and it makes me sound really picky, I just want to add that I think this book works---just as a textbook, not a novel. Mayr is obviously an amazingly erudite and accomplished scholar, and the fact that he wrote this at 97 is nothing short of astounding. The format just isn't my cup of tea.

More Mayr!
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-01-30 22:45:50
Link to this Comment: 12361

As I read more of Mayr this weekend, I felt it became more theoretical and hence a harder read. I dont think I was able to absorb as much Id like to. However at the same time I was able to ascertain my feelings for Mayr's writing style a lot more as I read on. Yes hes a little pompous but I find the stuff so fascinating that I suppose it doesnt bother me.
However its fun because his feelings are so evident in his writing that I suppose hes a very honest writer which is always a good thing. I still dont think Im over the fact that hes so OLD!!

I found it most interesting that besides humans animals also exhibit variation amongst their species. For instance tiger 1 is not tiger 2 and there are distinctions among them. As simple and obvious as that sounds, I dont think I looked at it like that nor did I think it was important. Precisely this simplicity is what I like about the book. It makes simple things fascinating that you wouldnt think of. It is in these details that I feel Mayr is successful in educating me. It isnt necessarily in the greater picture which makes sense and I believe it but in the more simple little details that Im able to peice together a knowledge I actually dont know much about.

On a another note, I found it both scary and fun that mammals were once insignificant when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Hence today's dinosaurs are in some sense human beings whose rule over the Earth may not be sustained forever. Perhaps evolution has a different destiny in store for Earth. I know that sounds a little bit crazy but I really enjoyed that part in the book.

Thoughts about "
Date: 2005-01-30 23:18:00
Link to this Comment: 12365

Thoughts about "What Evolution Is"
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-01-30 23:18:34
Link to this Comment: 12366

I can see how the class is struggling with “What Evolution Is,” I don’t think I am having too tough of a time because I really enjoy reading and learning more about evolution, but reading it as a story rather than a textbook is a little challenging. It is certainly more interesting than a text, but not quite a story that flows easily and intriguingly. Some of the information in the book I am already familiar, if not comfortable, with… while other parts seem heavily text-y and consist of loads of new information. I don’t feel like I will be able to retain vast amounts of what I have read…but I am definitely getting the gist of what Mayr is telling us about evolution. To make it more of a novel, I think Mayr should have used a more flowing style. The layout is so textbook-y that it is hard to overcome. I still find the information interesting, since I love the story of evolution so much, and am not struggling too horribly much… for which I am thankful. I am looking forward to discussing more about this book and its ideas in the upcoming classes.

Name: maria s-w
Date: 2005-01-31 01:11:29
Link to this Comment: 12373

I’ve also been thinking recently about the stories we tell ourselves and the purposes they serve and it reminded me of an article I read a couple of weeks ago. I read it before I came back to school, but remembered it recently because it seemed to me to be such a clear example of an individual taking a story, a legend actually, that he had been told since he was a child and how it was revised in light of his experience with the tsunami, the first paragraph of the article reads:

“For generations, the people of Poompuhar have spoken of the days when their sleepy fishing town was the capital of a powerful kingdom, and traders came from Rome, Greece and Egypt to deal in pearls and silk. Then, more than 1,500 years ago, it was gone. The thriving town, according to ancient Tamil-language texts, was "kodalkol" - "swallowed by the sea." Perhaps, archaeologists and historians thought, the sea water had gradually risen. Or, some think now, perhaps it was something else. "Nobody knew what had happened," said Murugaiyan, a 38-year-old fisherman whose family has long talked of an ancient kingdom that vanished. On Dec. 26, though, it all became clear to him, when the tsunami slammed into coastlines across Asia and Africa. "Now I know," he said. "It must have been another tsunami."”

The story of the ancient kingdom will likely still be told from generation to generation, but the experiences of this generation will inform and alter the telling of it. If the storyteller no longer considers what happened to the kingdom a mystery but rather the previous occurrence of a tsunami, the focus of the story may shift from describing the grandeur of the ancient kingdom to describing the horror and power of the wave that destroyed it.

While I understand the complaints made by others regarding Mayr’s “arrogance,” I have to admit to some impatience with the notion that it is at any level Mayr’s responsibility to extend to creationism a credibility that he does not feel it is due. Regardless of whether one agrees with him or not, I don’t understand why he is responsible for sugar-coating his views on creationism…I mean, the book’s title is ‘What Evolution Is’ and as responsible readers we should all acknowledge that as objective as that title sounds it was written by a man and therefore cannot help but be a subjective account of evolutionary theory and its history. The references made to creationism are not flattering, but most of the major threats to evolutionary thought come from creationists and religious groups and it seems reasonable to me that as someone who has clearly sided with evolution, Mayr would not pander to those who want to undermine the theory which he has spent his life supporting and studying. My guess is that Mayr has spent much of his life having evolutionary theory challenged and is more than aware of the views that exist outside of it but (1) doesn’t think there is much legitimacy to them and (2) is writing a book about evolution, not evolution and the theories with which it competes to explain why the world exists the way it exists. I guess I just don’t have the reaction that a lot of people do to his writing style, I don’t feel as though he’s trying to present any profound ‘truth,’ I think he’s making an argument, presenting his case and that it’s our responsibility to evaluate his arguments critically.

On the principle of disorder
Name: Rebekah Ba
Date: 2005-01-31 02:59:16
Link to this Comment: 12375

I know that the forum has been dominated by a fascinating dissection of Mayr for the last few days, but I want to backtrack a little and return to the concept that was batted around in last week's class sessions, "the principle of disorder." I think that Anne touched on the way I'm thinking in this message, although unfortunately I haven't yet gotten the chance to view the article she linked to.

In recent years I've become more and more aware of the idea that complexity and chaos only *seem* totally complex and chaotic, but are actually governed by certain rules on the local level that end up creating a whole that is somehow wonderously ordered and organized. I'm actually a bit obsessed--I noticing this everywhere now, these "emergent phenomena", in everything from Wikipedia and Usenet to insect colonies to education, and it's really shaped the way I think about the world.

As I said (er, gushed?) last class, I feel overwhelmed by the story of evolution I'm experiencing in Mayr (to such a degree that I think I'm too excited to pay much attention to his obnoxious qualities as a writer). It IS a catastrophic story, one of the most catastrophic I can imagine. How could all of this end up working out? Meteors hitting, reptiles rafting across oceans, extinctions, and the unlikely rise of these funny-looking primates--talk about an epic. And yet, there is a system, there is some order underlying all of these wild happenings. No one could have predicted that meteor--but we have a thorough story of what happened in the aftermath and WHY it happened. I think that makes it all the more exciting.

I know in class I've vigrously defended the catastrophic worldview, yet considering this "principle of order-out-of-disorder" I realize that it's actually an interesting reconciliation of the two. I'm afraid I might have to excuse myself from the catastrophist camp and move a little closer to the uniformatarians, planting myself firmly in the middle.

Name: Maja
Date: 2005-01-31 03:42:59
Link to this Comment: 12376

Unlike most other people in the class, I didn’t find it all too difficult to read Mayr as a novel. Clearly, it was not the same type of entertainment as John Irving, but he didn’t fall into the category of my biology textbook either. Perhaps it’s the scientist in me that can appreciate his efforts to simplify the scientific papers into a text that is informative and accessible to the general public. We often loose sight of the underlying work and the stepping stones that lead to that one experiment that brings us to a discovery. Mayr spares us of all that tiring and tedious detail and summarizes the big ticket items for everyone. Through my research, I’ve realized that months of hard work and experimentation can sometimes go into a single statement that is made in one sentence of the published journal article. And it is fascinating to think that he took all those papers and theories and experiments and compiled them into a cohesive and continuous text. I also feel, however, that with every new resummarization the text on some level looses on its reliability and becomes more subjective as it is presented in a unique story-telling style (Mayr’s style just happens to be one that most students are finding irritating, though I don’t think that his arguments should be discredited because of his attitude… a distinction between the two should be made).

Date: 2005-01-31 11:44:05
Link to this Comment: 12378

I feel, as many others have posted, that the philosophical distinction so essential to Mayr's presentation of evolution, that of typology versus population thinking, is inherently undermined by his tone, style, and presentation of the facts. Additionally, while he supports the idea that populations evolve to fit their respective environments rather than to gradually become a more perfect being, his own presentation of the theory of evolution refutes this. He looks scornfully on pre-darwinians and creationists, making it clear that his own "evolutionary synthesis" theory of evolution is the ideal theory which evolution has evolved into over time. While I find such inconsistencies annoying and undermining, I don't think they detract so much from the overall reading experience. If anything, they make it easier to read it like a novel, because the inconsistencies between style and substance rip you out off a factual, "textbook" reading facade, and make you realize just how controversial and discontinuous the theories of science are as they try to wrap themselves around the ever evolving world of facts.

Name: Michael He
Date: 2005-01-31 11:45:07
Link to this Comment: 12379

^ that was by me

Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-01-31 15:02:11
Link to this Comment: 12386

Lots to say after a very thought provoking class today.

The idea that Mayr presented Science as religion made sense to me. That implies that the very thing that he is reacting against, is the style to which he is conforming. Science is not a fixed structure and if presented in that way it becomes "real truth" and that becomes a disturbing factor. But in all fairness I do not think Mayr meant it in the way that we are taking it. Mayr's writing style suggests a reactionary story telling style in the sense that he is reacting to the criticisms that have probably plagued him throughout his life. Hence his constant and occassional outbursts and demeaning of all other views is in a sense a reaction to a highly emotional topic.

It struck me in class that perhaps the reader's intention is as important as Mayr's writing style. If the book is read as a casual readthat is meant to be both entertaining and informative. The low blows to creationist thought isnt really a problem. Its fun and interesting but it doesnt make one hate him. However read critically we may come to a different conclusion. Hence the way one reads it affects the way one critiques it. The truth is I know so little of this topic that it doesnt bother me what his personal quirms are. It simply entertains me from the dryness of his theory sometimes. It fascinates me and I think for someone like me its a good book. It teaches me something. So when Professor Grobstein asked the question, "Does his writing stle compromise his content" I would have to say it doesnt. Yes at a critical level its bothers me that he is so rigid but then I think of my grandmother and it all makes sense. For someone who has probably had to hear a lot of bad stuff about what he essentially believes is the story of truth, it must have made him both bitter and focused on his own story. Hence now its his turn or always has been his turn to be as demeaning towards the other versions of the story. Theres no doubt that it bothers me that he sometimes he just talks about Darwin and ignores the importance of Lamarck (this is highly debateable) but I still feel as though theres an explanation for his disdain for the 'rest.' Thats awfully uniformatarian of me but like I said Im a catastrophic wannabe in a uniformatarian body! Hence the 'crack' becomes very important in this book and how can one avoid the crack because the crack demonstrates who we are and what affects us. Can we simply ignore our experiences when writing a book? I think the point of expressing your views scientific or not, right or wrong, views permeate and influence and hence must be given the consideration they deserve.

Mayr's style
Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-01-31 15:11:30
Link to this Comment: 12387

There was something I wanted to comment on in class today, but we moved away from the topic too fast- someone had said something about how perhaps Mayr has spent previous books providing better evidence for what he believes in, and arguing more fairly against people who disagree with him (that wasn't it exactly- I'm just typing from memory). I suppose this might be true, but I know that the only other book I've read by Mayr- written some 20 or 30 years ago- showed the exact same arrogance and dogmatism that he shows in What Evolution Is. I don't recall the title, but I was researching a theory of his called the Biological Species Concept, and I found it ironic that it was his own writings that were the least helpful. He didn't do justice to the many counter-arguments to his theory, and acted as though the theory were virtually flawless, which I found extremely confusing since elsewhere I'd heard people call the theory nearly obsolete.

Another thing- in response to what Ghazal said about how evolution is Mayr's life, and so it's natural for him to treat it as fact- I think that might be one reason why he writes about evolution as he does, but part of it I'm sure is just his own personal attitude towards science. Just as another example, I recently read a book called "T.rex and the Crater of Doom" (cheesy title, but it's a great book) by a man named Walter Alvarez. Now, Walter Alvarez has devoted virtually his whole life to studying the K/T (dinosaur) extinction. He was on the team that first put out the theory that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, some 25 years ago. But his attitude couldn't be more different from Mayr's. The book is told a bit like a story, again- talking about the progress that's been made researching that extinction in the past few decades, but he emphasizes again and again how it's been a group effort. He emphasizes the importance in questioning widespread beliefs, in endless theorizing, in backtracking, in following up on opposing theories to see if there's anything to be learned from them. I don't remember him ever using the word "truth" (though I could be wrong). So I think a lot of it is just attitude... And ultimately I'd say the attitude of people like Walter Alvarez is far more helpful to science that that of Mayr.

Reading Mayr as a novel
Name: Eileen Tal
Date: 2005-02-01 11:03:27
Link to this Comment: 12417

I know it is an unfair comparison, but this exercise in broadening our definitions of what a story is reminds me of an Onion article "Grad Student Analyzes Phonebook". And while "What Evolution Is" has an argument, some characters, and thematically divided sections, it comes up short when we are made to compare it with stories that have people, dialogue and plots.
I'd probably warm up to the book if I weren't constantly disappointed that there will be no drama. It's making me think about how I read novels- I remember lines or passages that feel really true, and then I stockpile them like facts when I want to think about possible meanings of life. Although it's not the conscious thought, I guess I know what I'm doing, which is taking other people'sword for most everything.
I squirm somewhat under the narration of this book, because I don't know the terms he is using, and I imagine he would be exasperated to find me reading it, looking for salient points and graceful denouements and finding only his life's work written in his vernacular (it's like technical terms are his slang), written for the world while refusing to speak in anyone else's words. "anyone who cannot explain hs work to a fourteen year old is a charlatan"- kurt vonnegut.
I wouldn't call Mayr a charlatan, but I think of him as a mind that doesn't believe in lowering the bar, and for all that i fail to appreciate in his story, I only blame myself for preferring confessional, conversational, even stiff and formal but always literary language.

cracks facts and science fiction
Name: sarah k
Date: 2005-02-01 15:41:14
Link to this Comment: 12419

A couple things – I think the use of the word “crack” in describing the input of “cultural background / personal temperament / individual creativity” is deceptive. Despite its inclusion as a “feature” and not a fault in the system, the word crack implies that the rest of the system is whole, and that the perspective only enters the system in one place. Our observations are limited to what we perceive – perceptions limited by our own senses and what we think we should see. Then this data is further subjected to our interpretations of what it means, what it should mean and how it means that. Whether we confirm or reject the hypothesis or description is irrelevant – the whole process is socially constructed and each step is subjective. I think its important to remember this because when we talk about “facts” (as we did last class) and their subjective analysis we need to remember that the facts themselves are subjective. Who decides what is worthy of facthood and why and how – all questions that stand behind the word “fact”. I’d agree that they can be useful for description (especially when you’re in a community of peers and you all agree on the summary) but facts are cracked out too. Additionally – while the distinction between the “traditional” and “evolving” science is valid, I am not sure how many scientists actually practice evolving science – the very use of the word fact implies that it doesn’t (wasn’t that Kuhn’s whole critique?). The community is not open nor is it inviting – not only to fellow intellectuals (of the more literary persuasion) but also to the general population. Anti-intellectualism isn’t a hatred of intelligence, thought, debate, discussion or education. It’s a reflection of class differences and therefore something we’re all complicit in. The point being – if we’re going to talk about science as it is done and as it has been done, I think we should use the traditional definition. If we talk about what science could someday be – or indeed what we are trying to remake it into within the class itself, the ideal model is appropriate. Science fiction [“I’m not a fan I Just read the stuff”]- a really good source of stories about what people (much of the time actual scientists) think about science – its politics, potential and meaning. It inspires and explains the inspirations of the field (inspirations being one of those cracks) and it’d be interesting to look at the relationship between the fact and fiction and compare it to research being done “in the field” or lab. How did these stories evolve out of science’s stories and what is their legitimacy in either field (literature / science)?

On Mayr dispute
Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-02-01 17:40:49
Link to this Comment: 12423

It is really interesting how disscussion of Mayr has been so centered on his style and his audience. Many people keep talking about his bias, experience, etc, which brings to mind the crucial issues about authorship and readership which pertain to every form of literature or writing, though we tend to think less of them when reading textbooks. What is the responsibility of the author when he/she writes? How accountable are they for the outcome of the "reading" of the work? What is the reader's responsibility? Who does the work belong to? the author or the reader?
It seems, in class, that different readings of Mayr seem to approach these questions differently. I personally have had a difficult time reading Mayr, not for what he has said specifically, but rather I don't count myself one of his audience, and therefore dislike his overall style of writing (it being more technical than works I enjoy). Perhaps then, that I don't find his language too offensive simply because I see his audience as those already interested in what he is writing about, and assume that they would agree with him. Can we therefore blame Mayr for the faults we may find while dissecting his book, when perhaps we were not specifically meant as his audience while he was writing? But, as a piece of written work, meant to last for posterity, is Mayr giving up his right to his work for future audiences? As a piece of published work, is the book open for any interpretation, regardless of author intent? I don't even seem able to answer these questions myself.

The other thing about last discussion that I had issues with was the statement Professor Grobstein said, "the issue is not belief in the story, it is understanding the story and being able to use it." I have a hard time thinking that a story cannot be "believed in". There are, undoubtedly stories that are meant more for practical use than belief, especially stories with talking animals, or science fiction stories; stories which, rather than meaning for us to believe that the tortoise and the hare really had a race with each other, we are meant to understand and put to use the moral of the story. But I find it had to believe that there are no stories meant to be believed, especially thinking of the open diffinition we are giving to the concept of stories. But once again, like I have said before in class, the matter of belief comes down to a personal decision. One person may believe in certain stories such as religious stories, while another person may just use the "moral" of the story and not believe in the events. I cannot give any examples as to how I feel because they would be personal examples, and could easily be debated by other people.

All the above are certainly reasons why I have always loved English classes, because there never is a "right" answer for everyone; that everything can be debated.

some thoughts
Name: Annie Sull
Date: 2005-02-02 00:06:52
Link to this Comment: 12428

I have been thinking a lot about evolution and science and how many opinions there are regarding the projects of each. In class, we agreed that science is a 'story' and there are always multiple story-telling methods. It was very helpful for me to think about science as a 'social activity' -- as a story emerging from a collaboration between members of a particular culture, temperment, etc. In light of this description, I was surprised to read Robin Gimour's description of science as an "imperial ideology," one that lays increasingly grand claims to fields it had "previously thought closed to it" (Gilmour 111). Science--as a colloborative social project--can be called an ideology, and is its agenda can certainly be seen as imperialistic. I think Gilmour's description helped me to work out some of my difficulties in understanding evolution (as Mayr describes it) as directionless. This claim for a kind of neutral, nonteleological evolution (and I am not doubting its accuracy), I believe, achieves more than just scientific explanation. Perhaps THIS evolution, and the kind of language used to describe it, has evolved out of the kind censure that Gilmour puts forth. THIS evolution (I am speaking in Mayr's language) is not the narrow, essentialist ideology of creationism, for example; it is not an arbiter between higher/lower, simple/complex, good/bad. This evolution recognizes individual differences and characteristics rather than generalizing about groups or 'types.' I think it is helpful to think about evolution-- as it is understood yeserday, today, in all times -- as (in part) an ongoing social project, an ideology, if you will.

Another thing on my mind is the idea of evolution as reverse teleology.. while it recognizes no destinations, it seeks origins. Evolution is the business of imagining the past retrospectively, of tracing lineages to their common point of descent. When there is insufficient evidence, an evolutionist fills in the blanks. It's interesting to think of evolution as a retrospective narrative and the kind of trajectories that are cast backward.

a.k.a. "sunshine"?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-02 17:39:18
Link to this Comment: 12438

Am a little unsure whether this is a new thought, or just a re-run of last week's View from Upstairs. I'd very much "liked" (is this a synonym for "wanted to believe in"?) the version of science's storytelling style that had been circulating among us last week: that it accounts for catastrophes by taking a longer view, placing them within a larger continuum...

but I think I heard in Paul's expanded story today just the reverse: that evolution is the construction of a continuum ("heritability") within catastrophe ("the sun's falling apart," formerly known as sunshine).

P.S.: Things Fall Apart
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-02 17:43:50
Link to this Comment: 12440

I know that some of you are reading (or have read) Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart in English 250. Am wondering how/if the tale we got today of "things falling apart"=generating new forms works as a description of that story. Maybe a local example of when/why falling-apartness doesn't inevitablylead to the construction of something new, but to death that just...

stays dead?

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-02-02 18:24:40
Link to this Comment: 12443

Thanks for attention/engagement in extra large group session. Think the conversation about randomness and its role in evolution was a useful one. The dependence of evolution on entropy, the possibility of order from randomness, and the idea of unpredictability as a variant of narrative uniformitarian story telling all seem to me significant. But, like last time, there are things we didn't get to. Apologies for that, and to those of you waiting patiently for some more of the evolution specifics.

A quick sketch here of some of the things I would have liked to have gotten to (and, of course, will at some point, in one form or another). Talking about variation in the abstract is fine for a broad brush view of the story of evolution but a deeper appreciation depends on a better understanding of the genetics that underlies both inheritance and variation. Of particular concern is that genes influence but do not in general determine organismal characteristics and that it is organisms rather than genes which are subject to differential reproductive capability (Mayr is pretty good on both these points). Additionally significant is that variation reflects both gene mutations and, in sexual populations, a mixing of parental genes in the offspring. Both contribute to the variability of organismal characteristics but the mixing also tends to keep populations more similar (at least genetically) than they might otherwise be. Because of this, population change tends to occur without clear divergence ("anagenesis") into distinct populations unless two populations become isolated from one another. In the latter case ("cladogenesis"), there is an interruption of gene exchange ("reproductive isolation) and so populations may diverge from one another both genetically and in form/function. The latter, in general, reflects both the inherent randomness in the system and any selection pressures that are different for the two isolated populations. It is the cladogenesis process that helps to make sense of the nearer and more distant patterns of relatedness in "clumpy diversity".

This kind of tree-like pattern may make it useful to think of different kinds of organisms as different branches of an ongoing exploration of a space of the possible kinds of organisms (perhaps akin to an exploration of the possible kinds of story telling?), with the variation among organisms being the different versions of what has been generally discovered so far that creates the potential to generate new forms. To put it differently, in evolution there are, at any given time, multiple equally "successful" outcomes of exploration and variations of those outcomes, each reflecting lots of past (ancestral) observations. And this, plus continuing random variation, provides the grist for future explorations. Here too I think it may be worth thinking of parallels to story telling and revising. An interesting feature of the later is that stories can affect one another directly as well as by inheritance. While the inheritance feature is most strongly emphasized in the recent history of evolution of the story of evolution, there are a variety of reasons to suspect that some equivilents of a direct effect of stories upon one another (co-evolution as well as lateral spread of genetic material) will become a more prominent part of the story of evolution in years to come.

We also touched much more briefly than I would have preferred on the issue of whether there is "progress" in evolution. There is, as Mayr says, no reason to suspect a force "guiding" it in any direction, but there are features that are best described as exhibiting some directedness because of the internal dynamics of the process. This area too is likely to see substantial development in years to come. In short, perhaps the most important conclusion to be reached both about evolution and the story of evolution is that they are dynamic and to a significant degree unpredictable because of the central role that variation (and interactions among variations) .

I hope this, however sketchy, contributes to the ongoing conversation. Looking forward to hearing/talking more about what you all think not only of Mayr but additional takes on the story of evolution as well.

Random things flit in and out
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-03 01:05:15
Link to this Comment: 12459

I came out of class feeling confused, yet strangely satisfied.
My head is an eddy of "how's" and "why's" and "what the hell?s" !
Here's my attempt to create an appearence of order while the real jumble is much too scary to investigate into !

1). So Mayr argues that the 2nd law of thermodynamics and entropy only work in closed systems. Therefore, evolution need not proceed towards a state of higher disorder as predicted by these two theories. Prof G described how “closed” systems refer to however you want to define them and in such a case the universe is a closed system. I want to know why things become disordered only in closed systems. I guess I am trying to understand what it means for things to innately proceed towards a state of higher disorder. In what way is disorder a more adapted state for molecules to reside in? What is the relationship between the state of disorder and the state of potential energy? Doesn’t it seem intuitive that molecules, reactions, natural systems would proceed to a more stable, equilibrium, less energy and state of less disorder? How is disorder / entropy different from chaos? (yup – means I need to do moooooooooooore reading !)

2). I have also been thinking back to our class on 1/31 about the scientific method and “the crack”. As far as I understand, the crack refers to an element of subjectivity, influence of culture, education, temperament that is inseparable from the scientist’s style of storytelling. I think I also remember Prof G saying that Mayr believes that his stories are truth. And then we were asked whether Mayr’s belief in truth impacted the content of the book and the reader. It seems that Mayr’s belief in his truth is “the crack” and the feature that we have been talking about. That inevitable feature in ‘What Evolution Is’ that recognized it as Mayr’s book and not my uncles. Does this crack now allow science to start claiming truth? And how do you draw the line between Mayr’s personal truth and the social truth that is imposed on the reader when he/she reads his book? Yet, it seems silly to tell an author to write completely objectively. Where’s the fun in that?

3). Does biological evolution seem inevitable? Suppose, the process started all over again, would it end up the same? Suppose if life evolved in different geographic locations, would it come out the same? How do we reason with this sense of convergence, order even? I guess we have mostly been talking about the evolution of biological organisms, but what about the evolution of storytelling in different cultures? I feel the same themes / arguments apply to the idea of social evolution as well. If life is thought to have arisen from a common ancestor, does the evolution of cultures, or the evolution of stories also have a common ancestor?

…still thinking …

small note, big question
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-04 11:52:22
Link to this Comment: 12520

First: a "semantic" note: I very much like the description of different organisms as different branches of an ongoing exploration, but I'm not sure that "exploration" is the "right"/most "accurate" word here (though it's certainly hard, any more, to talk about "correctness" in this space....!). If randomness is just, well, randomness, undirected, w/out a goal, well...when that process of randomly trying out new things is called "exploration," I think we have a "story" on our hands, one that gives "meaning" to what is innately meaningless. It has the sound of "willfulness" to me; to my ear, there's just a taint of the pathetic fallacy in that term "exploration"....

And then a far bigger question. When Paul said, in class on Thursday, that things become more disordered BECAUSE of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, I thought, no: the "law" is "just" a "story," it doesn't explain WHY. So, like Arshiya, I've found myself wondering, too: WHY does the random action of molecules lead "innately"/inevitably toward more randomness? Why is the state of greater probability one of greater disorder? Why doesn't randomness proceed to a more stable state?

"Tell me why..."

Name: Brittany P
Date: 2005-02-05 02:38:44
Link to this Comment: 12523

Some more random stuff...

I have to admit I was shocked when I got to Mayr's description of human evolution and read this: "Man is indeed as unique, as different from all other animals, as had been traditionally claimed by theologians and philosophers. This is both our pride and our burden." Judging by the rest of the book, I would have guessed that Mayr fell solidly into the category of those who consider humans to be just another group of evolved animals. But he thinks we're special, somehow, because we can "think" better than other animals.

My question is this: what if "thinking" is just another evolutionary adaptation, like wings on birds or gills on fish? Mayr gives lots of other instances of behavioral evolution (dolphins swimming in pods, for example). Why is thinking any different? Are we "more unique" than those dolphins because, whereas we think up antibiotics and space travel and Big Macs, they muck around in the water and have a good time? I'm trying to figure out at what point an adaptation becomes something more than an evolutionary tool for survival. Can any species ever transcend evolution in that way? When do "different" and "unique" become "better"? (Do they? Should they? Or are all animals equally unique, because---don't take this in the wrong way---separate but equal is inherently unequal?)

Onto the class discussion, which was really interesting. I'm still not sure I understand the waterwheel/thermodynamics principle. If everything in the universe moves towards disorder, how did life "break free" of this law (even momentarily) and create order? How did those first organic compounds in the primordeal soup climb into that waterwheel and ascend? Why is that waterwheel even *there*? I mean, if the 2nd law of thermodynamics is absolute, why was there the tendency to organize in the first place? Also, why is life is allowed to break those rules? Is there any other property/system that moves towards order?

On a more technical note, I was wondering how the 2nd law of thermodynamics works in a universe with gravity. The universe started with the Big Bang, a supercompressed ball of matter that sucked all the matter in the universe into it. By drawing this matter together, isn't gravity itself a physical property that tends towards more order? Or is it simply one stage of the ascending waterwheel that descends again with every Big Bang?

Ernst Mayr Dies @ 100
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-05 08:57:15
Link to this Comment: 12524

The man who provoked Brittany's questions, called in his NYTimes obituary this morning "the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith," died on Thursday. The obituary details the significance of Mayr's contributions to understanding the role of geography in the origin of new species, as well as his founding the fields of philosophy of biology and history of biology. Two bits from this account snagged in my mind: one about his eating habits, the other about the way he argued. Between 1928-1930, Mayr collected more than 3,000 birds in the South Pacific:

He had to live off the land, and every bird, after being skinned for study, went into the pot. As a result, he is said to have eaten more birds of paradise than any other modern biologist....

Dr. Mayr, a strong believer in the Hegelian dialectic as a way of advancing understanding, was known for his definitive proclamations, which often inspired as many heated rebuttals as nods of vigorous agreement...."no one will agree with all his positions, analyses, and opinions....But anyone who has failed to read Mayr can hardly claim to be educated in evolutionary biology."

"a very real thing"
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-05 09:06:19
Link to this Comment: 12525

That posting "flew away" before I was finished. There was a third very striking thing in Mayr's obituary, one I'd like to return to in class:

When he went to New Guinea...there was a popular school of thinking known as the nominalist school of philosophy that held that species did not, in reality, exist. They were merely arbitrary categories, little more than names...."The coincidence of what Western scientists called species and what the natives called species was so total that I realized the species was a very real thing in nature."

disorder, progress, etc
Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-02-05 13:19:32
Link to this Comment: 12528

There is so much going through my head from discussion and Mayr that I can't really focus on one idea right now.
I'm still intrigued by the idea of disorder leading to order. The vast example of the sun "falling apart" which leads to life on earth is increadable. And it makes me think of how different our interpretations of something can be. Most humans view it as sunshine, normal and ordered. If the sun doesn't shine, it seems like disorder.
The idea of whether or not evolution is "progress" is also stuck in my head. I think that Mayr did a decent job in this section, explaining that evolution is not linear progress because it can cause retrogression into simpler forms, etc. But I don't think that he did enough to emphasize the randomness of it all.
I was also bothered by his emphasis of "human uniqueness". I've always thought of humans as another animal and I can't buy his argument of brain power making us unique. I think that other animals could be just as complex and "highly developed" as humans, but in different forms that are beyond our comprehension due to our limited perspective. This connects to the quote from Mayr's obituary where he said that species must be "real" because both Western scientists and indiginous people recognised the same species. But this could just be due to our limited perspective and way of looking at things and classifying them...

Mayr's story
Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-02-05 14:45:34
Link to this Comment: 12529

I found it interesting that Mayr made it seem as though non-human animals lack any capacity to think or reason. I was wondering how we know this. Clearly the human brain to body size ratio is larger than any other known animal, this has been calculated. But that does not mean they do not thinnk. Also he places a lot of merit on verbal capabilties, however, humans raised without language since birth often appear severly mentally retarded and have only limited speaking capacity even when they have people who work for years with them. I remeber watching a tv show in this very intelligent species, when the baby was shown relationships between words and concepts from an early age,it gained a huge vocabulary, although it could not speak. There have been parrots that could recognize shapes and then say their name. Therefore, it would seem to me that language is a poor indicator of whether or not something can think or how highly something can think. I am not saying that other animals can think on the same level as human, however, maybe the gap isn't as large as we seem to believe it is.
Another thing I wondered was whether or not humans could control evolution, give it a purpose. The movie Gattaca shows this type of a world. People are more or less forced to use genetic selection of the s-called best embryos or else their child will not succeed. One scene in the movie shows men and women in line getting DNA tested to see how smart, strong and susceptable to disease (physcial and mental) potential mates are. In that world where your DNA determined everything, people who weren't as genetically fit couldn't find jobs, etc. The reproductive disadvantage of not being some standard became present and humans tried breed their children to be ideal. This type of thing, if possible could lead to a giving evolution a purpose. People would purposely have children who were smarter, perhaps this means that overall brain size to body mass would increase. Would we move towards this well-rounded human ideal that we construct thus controlling in some way evolution. Mayr states that larger brain no longer equalled a reproductive advangtage, however, there is little in society today that does, most individuals have children and most in wealthier nations only have a few. However, if we continually selected the "best" of thousands of possible children (Since we have around 8 million or so possible gene combinations in our gametes if I remember correctly) over generations it begs the question whether we could cause evolution to occur, just like in the word game where we found a pattern that could arise from a disordered set of letters after many generations.

Thoughts... not necessarily connected...
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-02-06 08:12:53
Link to this Comment: 12545

I'd like to comment on Liz's Comment, I wonder if such a society that would choose their mates based on DNA would take into consideration those with genetic mutations, extreme or minor, for isn't it the mutations that generally throw a species into the possibility of evolving? (Of course, the majority of these mutation-commenced species don't survive, but mutation is a necessary part of evolution nonetheless.) I must say I've been anticipating reading chapter 10, because every other chapter made references to it throughout the entire book, and I kept thinking "chapter 10's going to have to have a ton of material in it" - and I was right. Though it was incredibly dense, and I often had a rough time trying to remember what I was supposed to be connecting these ideas to, I enjoy making connections like that when I can, so it was rather enjoyable to me. Also, a quote from page 188 struck me for this course: "...heated controversy over whether macroevolution is nothing but an unbroken continuation of microevolution...or rather disconnected..." (Mayer, 188). It seemed to touch on the ongoing argument between continuous and discontinuous, and I thought I'd share :)

Name: maria(h)
Date: 2005-02-06 11:25:16
Link to this Comment: 12549

There have been parrots that could recognize shapes and then say their name. Therefore, it would seem to me that language is a poor indicator of whether or not something can think or how highly something can think. Okay, here’s the thing: while it is tempting to say that the apparent disparity between a parrot’s cognitive abilities (“bird-brain”) and it’s language abilities (which would appear significant) proves that there is not a correlation between the two, such a comparison grossly underestimates the complexity of language and the fundamental differences between an organism being able to make use of a system of communication on their own in the wild (certain chimps have various calls that signal to the others when certain predators are approaching, for example when a bird of prey is seen the call used would be different from the call used to alert to a boa constrictor), to acquire a system of communication (for example teaching apes ASL or yerkish) and the uniquely human linguistic abilities that are simply not found in other species. No other species is able to construct a language that follows grammatical rules or to manipulate syntax to create new meanings. Humans raised without language that are then brought back into society are basically unable to acquire normal language or cognitive function, but it’s questionable how much bearing that fact has on the uniqueness the human *capacity* for language. *Capacity* is the key word here, one can always prevent normal development by not exposing a person to the necessary stimuli, but it is the ability (within a normal developmental context) to develop language at all that is remarkable.

On a different note, the stories we tell under the name of evolution seems (to me) to be an interesting issue. Evolution as it was understood by Darwin (and the way in which he intended other to understand it) versus the general public at that time who were exposed to the ‘survival of the fittest’ version that seemed to view the evolutionary process as separating the ‘strong’ or those organisms that were ‘intended to survive’ are quite different, the most noticible difference being that humans have a tendency to put value judgments on things…organisms that survived must have been ‘better’ in some objective sense than those that didn’t survive. I feel as though the same things applies today with the current notions of what constitutes evolutionary theory. My guess would be that LOTS of people would say that to *some* degree they think evolutionary theory is a useful story in terms of accounting for the world around us (and so they accept it and make use of it, though the extent to which it melds with other stories people have obviously varies a hugely) but how many of those people would define evolution as the process by which “the strongest animals survive and pass on their genes” when clearly, reading Mayr’s book, evolutionary theory is so much more nuanced and complex than that. The way that I’ve always thought about evolution is as a sort of process that while constantly going on can’t be ‘understood’ in the present because we make sense of the evolutionary process by comparing what ‘was’ to what ‘is’. It’s a characterization that we make ‘after the fact.’ We can’t ever ‘control’ evolution because it’s not an entity that can be manipulated (as much as the notion makes for a good movie).

Chance vs. Necessity = Catastrophic vs. Uniformita
Name: Lauren Z
Date: 2005-02-06 13:07:09
Link to this Comment: 12553

In chapter 10 of What Evolution Is, Mayr’s deals with the question of whether evolution is driven primarily by chance or necessity. He leads us to the conclusion that both play an important role: “One can conclude from these observations that evolution is neither merely a series of accidents, nor a deterministic movement towards ever more perfect adaptation” (Mayr’s 229). He claims that both processes operating simultaneously drive evolution. Animals evolve by adaptation, (i.e. by necessity); however, adaptations exist only because of random variation (chance). I was wondering about the implications of this claim for our classes’ experiment in which we consider evolution a “story,” rather than a “theory” in the traditional sense. Is Mayr’s assertion that evolution is the result of “virtually simultaneous actions of two seemingly opposing causations, chance and necessity” indicative of a catastrophic or uniformitarian story telling style? (Mayr’s 229). Earlier in the course, most of us considered evolution a uniformitarian story, but now I think that further reading and discussion have made it seem like both continuous and catastrophic. I am reminded of all my classmates who insisted Anne put them on the line between the two theories. I am now wondering if it is possible for a story to fit in only one category.

Yet another reaction to Mayr
Name: Alexandra
Date: 2005-02-06 13:19:25
Link to this Comment: 12554

So unlike most of the class, I’m finding Mayr to be a well structured biology book. Yes, his style is pompous and it often presumes that his view of evolution is the only right view, but as an introduction to the often complex theory itself and as a story of the evolution of evolution, I think he does an admirable job. I also found that that the idea of science being a social activity about which Prof Grobstein talked about in class is actually well supported by Mayr story of evolution. As Newton famously noted “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”. I believe that the story of Mayr’s account of the emergence of evolutionary thought is very much in keeping with this idea. He emphasizes the emergence of evolution and the various theories that were already existent prior to Darwin that were invaluable to Darwinian evolutionary thought. For example he emphasizes Lamarck’s view on adaptation (use and disuse) explains it and finally refutes it. However, despite the fact that Lamarcks theory is now disproved, Darwin’s quote from class emphasizes how instrumental the Lamarck’s theory was to his own theory because it introduced to concept of change over time.
On another note, I found the lecture last wed to be absolutely fascinating. The idea that disorder actually creates order and that the 2nd law of Thermodynamics is in fact necessary for the existence of life is very intriguing. However, it made me wonder whether or not the evolution of so many different species is actually a tendency towards more order. Surely there is more order in several, unicellular species, than in the enormous variety of complex species that exist today?

Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-02-06 13:35:25
Link to this Comment: 12555

Thinking about the idea that the human race is special, somehow- somehow superior, there's a quote I really like that I think is relevant, by Stephen J. Gould. It leads off the fact that chance plays such a large role in evolution- that if you were to turn the clock back and let events play themselves out again the world would be entirely different, and that changes in the environment can come at any time that make the "fittest" organisms suddenly unable to survive.

"Look in the mirror, and don't be tempted to equate transient dominance with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival."

I really like that. It's a very humbling thought. We may be "unique" because of our high brain-to-body ratios, because of our advanced capabilites for speech- but ultimately what does that mean? Neanderthals had higher brain-to-body ratios than we do, and (from what I recall) there's evidence that they were also capable of speech as well. We survived and they didn't, but we could easily have died instead. It's interesting to think about... All the chance occurrences that have led up to how the world is today. If a chance asteroid hadn't wiped out 50% of all species 65 million years ago, we wouldn't be here right now.

Another thing I was thinking about- completely unrelated, had to do with what he said at the beginning of chapter 10 about bacteria becoming resistent to penicillin. I remember hearing something on the radio recently about a similar thing that happens with insects and pesticides, and there's a solution that's been introduced that interested me. What they do is only use pesticides on 95% of the field, and in the remaining 5% they let the insects be. As a result non-resistant strains are allowed to stay in the population, and the population as a whole is less resistant to the pesticide than it would be otherwise. I thought that was interesting.

On human superiority
Name: Rebekah
Date: 2005-02-06 14:18:41
Link to this Comment: 12558

This discussion on the notion of the evolutionary superiority of homo sapiens is interesting--as Maria(h) pointed out in her post, complex linguistic capability is a good litmus test for complex, abstract thinking skills, and humans exhibited more developed abilities in both of these than any other known species. Maybe I've been getting into this book, but I can't help considering this issue from an evolutionary standpoint: of course, the only way to really gauge how "superior" we really are would be to take a look back from the end of time. And in fact, I woudln't be all too surprised if these unprecedented abilities unique to us eventually end up driving us all, and possible the rest or a good deal of other living organisms, into extinction. We've also demonstrated, more recently, an unprecedented inability to live in a way that doesn't undermine the lives of other living entities.
One other entirely disconnected idea: in the section on altruism (Mayr, 256) I was somewhat puzzled by the assertion that altruism extended to "outsiders" of particular human clans is unreconcialble with natural selection. Mayr himself acknowledges that "hominid history is a history of genocide"--obviously, something that isn't good for anybody's genotype. Universally ethical, kind behavior towards fellow humans, even when it's inconvenient, sounds like one of the most effective self-preservation measures humans could exercise. Is this not possible because of the complication introduced by humans' group mentality, which suggests that an individual, even a universally altruistic one, won't be preserved by this trait as long as they're associated with a targeted group?

Defence of Mayr use of the word "fact"
Name: Jenn Gerfe
Date: 2005-02-06 14:51:29
Link to this Comment: 12559

There has been a lot of complaints that Mayr is describing the current view of evolution a “fact”. We have discussed the cyclical nature of science, and how there always seems to be a new theory that works better than the previous one. The way we were talking it seemed like everything in science will be discounted with a better theory at some point. I know that things are constantly rewritten, but there are certain principles that are retained even as the stories change.

When the average person thinks about a theory they think of a speculation, though people also tend to believe in other “truths”. Indeed much of what people hold as truths are in fact scientific theories. We can not prove that the earth revolves around the sun, but it is a theory. Scientific theories are the best ways that scientists are able to explain how the world works with the limited knowledge that we have. There is the idea that as we learn more and make more observations that we can refine the theories and create a better understanding of what is going on.

In order to communicate with people who associate science with truth and theory with uncertainty it is necessary to describe things as scientific facts. Mayr is writing about a subject that has brought up a lot of controversy, which has likely influenced the way that Mayr has presented his material. If Mayr was talking about the fact that DNA was the molecule of heredity he would probably not have the same problems, though there were strong debates over the subject before it was widely accepted and understood better. It is not just Mayr who uses this technique to address people. In the November 2004 National Geographic there was a cover article whose title was “Was Darwin wrong? No. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.” A link to scans of the cover and first page that demonstrate the way National Geographic portrayed the story. I found the format of the title interesting, the way it showed how they seemed to portray a discussion of evolution on the cover, but the article was actually rather clear on the views on the issue.

Conceptions of Time
Name: Laine Edwa
Date: 2005-02-06 14:59:34
Link to this Comment: 12560

Throughout my reading of Mayr I've paid attention to the specific words he uses to describe time in the evolutionary process. Words like "gradual", "rapid", "rate", and "slowly" made perfect sense to me as I read Mayr like a novel, skipping over things that didn't immediately make sense. When I thought more about the words he uses and the amounts of time (millions and millions of years) that they actually represent, I got caught up in the way I perceive time and whether or not that has an effect on the story of evolution.

I cannot imagine what 544 million years is like. I say the words and in my head I think that's a really long time, but I don't think I'm really grasping what an incredibly LONG time that is. I am used to encountering words like "rapid" and "slowly" in a completely different context- things like rapid-dry nail polish or slow-cooked chicken. I find it hard to think about the word rapid representing millions of years of change.

I'm wondering if the difficulty I am having in accurately envisioning the time span of evolution affects the way I understand the story of evolution. Can I really understand the term "rapid" when it stands for a million years or more? I feel as if my reading of evolution as been skewed by my inability to accurately understand the time frame of evolution.

Random Thoughts
Name: LT
Date: 2005-02-06 15:49:29
Link to this Comment: 12563

Wednesday's discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as comments on the possibility of humankind driving itself into extinction, made me think of an analysis of the theory behind Deep Ecology. The essay "Ecofeminism," by Freya Mathews, says that the actions of humans are to be viewed as a natural part of nature, even when they're destructive. If humans should make this world so unfit for our survival that we die out, some form of life will probably continue living. From our demise a new species could be born, millions of years in the future. I know it's not an especially original idea, as dozens of science fiction books will attest, but I thought it was interesting to see a connection between different ideas.

The theory that even disorder can produce some form of order is almost reassuring. As the sun is destroyed, photosynthesis occurs. As prey is captured, predators thrive. One thing is destroyed, but another goes on. Admittedly, it also implies that the cycle must one day end, such as the time when the sun finally runs out of energy to give forth.

superiority and then perfection...
Name: natalie
Date: 2005-02-06 16:03:12
Link to this Comment: 12564

This may be a bit repetitive, but in the least, a dilemma we all have taken notice of. This is a response to “on human superiority” (message 12558) We may have charateristics that are unique as homo sapiens or so called superior. But are we really capable of getting inside the head of an insect or even a dog? If we could maybe then we could actually compare and see whose characteristics provide a “summary of observations” or story. No matter how many Dr. Doolittle movies are created, we still have yet to understand the “other”, a species or animal or breed with different linguistic capacities than our own. I understand what can be said about a complex linguistic capability, but if we understood the languages of other animals. What if insects were plotting against us and we don’t even know it, the competition for the “struggle for existence” may be at a higher probability state than we assume.

But what I originally hoped to mention was the continual use of the word “perfection” in Mayr’s work. Specifically on pg. 140 Mayr relates natural selection to the production of perfection. However, instead of forging a relation, he rather asks us the question, why is there no correlation between natural selection in any sort of effort to “produce perfection”? From a literature perspective, you will have to forgive me, it has been a long time since I have set foot in a course relating to anything scientific, this word perfection is heavily charged. And for me brings up religious connotations as well. I don’t know that this dubious “summary of observations” of science, can really speak of perfection at all. What god or higher power/ authority defines that?, If he/she or group of gods can not exist in the arena of science at all…
What is interesting about science is that there is no inherent approach to deducing purpose or meaning within the limits of their continual research and methods. That science may never be teleological or goal directed, even if we do manage to show that not all things in life are due to chance. Or that even below the surface level of chance, there is a pattern which is reproducible; in terms of, for example, the game we played online in class last Wednesday. Where as, if we were in a room full of philosophers, would it not be our job to research meaning and purpose first between all the lines of the stories we tell? And how can science really avoid doing so in all their innovation and discovery?

more thoughts on Mawr
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-02-06 16:15:55
Link to this Comment: 12566

I am a lover of the story of evolution but Mawr’s book got harder and harder to read as it progressed. It definitely has an overwhelming feeling of being a textbook and was hard to handle in anything but small chunks. I really feel like he could have made the book much more interesting and readable had he used a different format, or went about the telling of the story and information in a different way.

On the idea that Mawr writes his book as if everything he believes is factual: I feel that he has that right. It is his book and he is allowed to write his opinion as fact if he wants to, since indeed, this book is not a textbook (the book only feels like one, which is maybe why so many of us have a problem with him being so matter-of-fact).

Also, Wednesday’s discussion was really interesting. Talking about chaos and order definitely got me thinking, and I learned a lot of great new information for outside discussions with peers and friends. I like that this class allows us to get away from Mawr’s book and discuss the more interesting points he makes in our own way. It’s a great way to understand the material and the concepts, without boring us all!

Name: Eleanor Ca
Date: 2005-02-06 16:46:24
Link to this Comment: 12568

Because I do not read a lot of science books (I have used science textbooks for science classes but not many others), I do not have anything with which to compare Mayr's book. I found it more readable than I had textbooks I used in the past, and while I did not necessarily feel that this was written for me, I found it about as clear as straightforward as I ever have found a science book. Upon finishing it I felt I had a better understanding of evolutionary theory than before, and one upon which I would like to build.
It has occurred to me that the story may have compelled me as it did in part because it was presented as fact. While this is a story that could be told many different ways, so in theory is any story I might tell or any story I might choose to read in my free time (a novel). When I read a story I want to believe that it is true and when I tell a story I either believe it to be true or to be something that could be true. Maybe science cannot claim to determine "truth", but this story is a part of the evolution of our understanding of evolution, and this part of the story was told by Ernst Mayr. So it isn't truth. Having tried to understant Mayr's story, I can look elsewhere for other stories, for the story of evolution told in a different way.
I may be less inclined toward criticism, having so enjoyed addressing ideas about which I knew next to nothing as I read this book. Perhaps next time I look at I shall feel differently.

Name: Haley
Date: 2005-02-06 16:48:04
Link to this Comment: 12569

This week I found Mayr's section on human evolution the most intriguing part of the reading. It was controversial yet gripping at the same time...I have always been interested in the mysteries that surround it. It used to be such a big concept to grasp, and I am only now starting to fully appreciate it. For awhile (and before my first biology class) I could not shake the image of the cave man. Now, of course, I realize how much richer our evolution has been.

Mayr seemed to provide the information on human evolution as a point of view rather than a fact, which caused me to think a bit more. As I read, I was reminded of the article I stumbled upon in a National Geographic once...questioning whether humans descended from Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, or a combination of both. There was also the concept that we all may have descended from one woman-who scientists named Eve, I think someone posted that idea here awhile ago.

The final chapter of the book was also particularly intriguing. I feel as if I have learned a great deal from this book, and I am looking forward to discussing it.

Whew! So we have made it through Mayr
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-02-06 16:58:17
Link to this Comment: 12570

After finishing Mayr, there is so much I am still working through… and reading through the class comments have given me more ideas.

Reading Mayr and asking ‘What Evolution Is’ has lead me to another question; what is progress. Some of the posts Natalie, Jenn , Liz , and others really intrigued me. Liz talked about the future of humanity by referencing Gattaca, a movie which reminded me of the novel “A Brave New Word” (by the way, is T.H. Huxley (who was mentioned in the book) related to Aldous Huxley?) Both of these story telling media ask the question, where is humanity headed? Are we progressing/evolving in a positive direction?

The direction of progress relates back to our class discussion on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We discussed how life sustains itself on disorder (the sun breaks down, plants photosynthesize, plants get eaten, animals get eaten, animals die, decompose back to the earth). Taking this chaotic view into account, is there a perspective on progress that is constructive, optimistic, positive? The more we progress, the more we seem to move away from the evolution, we seem to be aiming to transcend evolution. There are medicines to cure/relieve many ailments. We have developed techniques to allow people to live (and pass down their genes) with what would have otherwise been a mortal condition. We genetically modify our crops to make them more resilient and resistant to insects. Our lifespan and longevity is getting progressively longer. I do not argue that that progress in the field of medicine is a good thing (and I definitely don’t want to argue a case for genocide/eugenics), but are we digging our own grave. The growing resistance of medicines and pesticides that Mayr talks about could lead to problems. What happens if a ‘super’ disease develops/evolves that is resistant to all forms of intervention/medication that we have. Or perhaps a ‘super’ pest will develop/evolve that will eat our crops. Diseases like Alzheimer’s disease appear in elderly people. Are we not capable of living for so long; is that a ‘natural’ means of correcting the balance which we have disturbed? I am still working through these questions (and I doubt I will reach an answer… just develop more questions…). Mayr has helped me begin to develop an idea of ‘What Evolution Is’… now I am starting to wonder what the implications of evolution are…

Mayr on species concepts
Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-02-06 17:00:30
Link to this Comment: 12571

One thing that has always fascinated me is the different species concepts, so I was interested to see what Mayr had to say about this. Mayr admits that there are different species concepts and that there is sometimes an incompatibility between them, so other definitions of species need to be applied. It seems that he really glossed over the species issue quickly, which I think is to be expected from him. He mostly plays mind to the biological species concept, which is the traditional species concept (I think) and mentions that the typological (or morphological, as i learned it) is the only other one that may be applied. While those two species concepts are the two MAJOR concepts, I remember reading, years ago, that there are at least five more which scientists use. "What evolution is" is kind of a tricky book, in the sense that we REALLY have to be aware that it is Mayr's take on evolution. It absolutely reads like "here are the facts" ... but I still believe taht Mayr had good intentions with the book, although if *I* were to write a book about evolution, I'd probably try to make it not only more accessible, but also les concrete.

Name: Britt Frem
Date: 2005-02-06 18:27:11
Link to this Comment: 12574

Mayr's book may be over for most of you, but I still have a good bit to read tonight. Here are some comments until then...

Many of us (especially Dr. Grobstein) were discussing how Mayr doesn't emphasize chance--or should I say catastrophy?--in his book. I've been paying much more attention to that, and see that in some cases he does give a lot of credit to randomness. For example:

(pg 141) "MUCH of the differential survivial and reproduction in a population are not the restult of selection, but rather of CHANCE... potentially favorable gene combinations are undoubtedly OFTEN eliminated by INDISCRIMINATE environmental forces."

Mayr's obituary mentioned how species were decided similarly among different cultures the coincidence of what Western scientists
This reminded me of an argument I had with my dad about whether science was a universal discipline or whether western science and eastern science (and southern science, or whatnot) would remain distinct. Although not specifically related to evolution, it brings up the question of whether science can brige cultural divides more easily than other disciplines. ...All right, I'll read and think some more before class tomorrow.

More Mayhem, More Stories of Evolution
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-06 20:04:57
Link to this Comment: 12577

And the questions keep piling …
I am really thankful for the postings in the forum. They have kept me thinking, agreeing, and disagreeing all weekend!

1. Mayr’s expression on the progress of evolution is risky. I am immediately repulsed by the idea of evolution as a directional and progressive process. He seems to say that largely evolution is uniformitarian: where one can draw upon the past to tell stories about the present. But he says it is the mechanism of evolution that is catastrophic or discontinuous: random fertilization, mutations, variation. My unease about this argument basically relates to Mayr’s definition of “progress”. Instead of thinking about “more evolved” as “more complex”, shouldn’t we focus on ecological indicators of adaptability? Isn’t how adaptable or successful a species is determined by its population size, energy efficiency, reproductive success etc.? I don’t buy the whole “humans are more complex, therefore more evolved” argument.

2. I also think that this is a great time to start talking about social, cultural evolution and the evolution of stories. I was thinking that as analysts of evolution and other theories, we set our own criterion for what constitutes successful species, or factors that can drive natural selection of a particular trait. But if what metaphysicists say is true and everything and everyone is a figment of our own imagination, and Dawkin as right and all we are is selfish genes, then it seems to me that we no nothing at all. What if the real driving forces of evolution are actually cultural? Let’s say that instead of camouflage in the African savannah, hyenas are actually selected on the basis of how well they cooperate as a group or how adapted their hierarchical system is to finding food etc.

What if we don’t have that biology? And stories is all we’ve got …

About Previous Posting
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-06 23:21:59
Link to this Comment: 12586

Thousand apologies for the dreadful spelling mistakes in the above posting !

Goodnight Serendipzzzzzzzzzzz

appreciation and addition
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-02-07 08:51:40
Link to this Comment: 12591

This, friends, is one of the richest explorations into both science and evolution that I've ever seen. Thanks all. There's more than enough here to keep not only us but many others thinking about evolution in terms of observations, stories, implications of stories, and new questions requiring new observations, stories, etc for many years to come. And more than enough to give us a take off point to move on into some broader implications of the story of biological evolution, including its possible significance for literature. Thanks again to all.

We don't NEED more but ... an interesting and relevant article about avian brains appeared this past week (see links at the bottom of my notes for another class. Its an argument that "story" (in particular the names applied to things) is an important element of science that is somewhat independent of observations. And it bears as well on the issue of "uniqueness" (and "perfection"?) of humans, suggesting that birds may have a more sophisticated brain than they are being given credit for in many current scientific stories. Not human, different, but ... also successful?

Name: Jessica
Date: 2005-02-07 12:00:58
Link to this Comment: 12596

(Sorry for this lateness, but I just have to post something about this, if only to get it out of my head)

I am fascinated by Mayr's section on Altruism. This is the kind of thing science does that I can actually have some use for.

The biological story of how we have ethics, morals, conscience is an amazing question. As Mayr asks "is not selfishness the only behavior that can be rewarded by selection(256)?" I'm taking this Sociology of Deviance class right now. One main school of thought is about the functionality of deviousness, about how none of it (crime, violence, deviance that leads to positive social change, people like Ghandi, etc) would exist if it didn't serve some purpose in society. Also, there are theories about how everyone starts life in a state of low self-control, and have to be socialized to delay gratification enough to not just rob people and have sex constantly (I am grossly over simplifying).

These are connecting in my mind as two different ways to tell the same story, the story of ethics, in a biological and sociological sense. I think the reason I thought of myself as a continous person, three weeks ago when we started asking, was b/c I like to look at the laws that govern human behavior as continuous; people loved and hated and laughed and cried and all of that bs thousands of years ago just as they do now. But now, through Mayr, I'm trying to look at every act of kindness, every altruism, as a catastrophic event going against the rest of evolution. Maybe I'm overreaching to far in the other direction now, possibly.

I'm excited, because I didn't know this kind of science got to talk about this.

Name: Kate Shine
Date: 2005-02-07 13:00:24
Link to this Comment: 12602

This whole concept of catastrophism vs. uniformitarianism has been gradually fermenting in my brain these past few weeks. I've noticed that I've started to shape and categorize materials from other classes in light of these concepts.

One passage from an article by W.C. MgGrew called "Culture in Nonhuman Primates?" particularly struck me as relevant to our discussion. The quote is, " Investigators of other species must constantly walk the line between anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. Anthropomorphism brings with it the temptation to overly extend the principle of uniformitarianism. Anthropocentrism must remain mindful of the old adage, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

I've struggled with this passage for quite a while now and although I still feel I cannot fully get my mind around it, it's raised a lot of questions in my mind. Anthropomorphism in this context, as I understand it, is perceiving animals to have human qualities. I believe this is a kind of storytelling humans are prone to do. However many people also have a problem with this, because they want to draw a sharp line between humans and animals, often around the concept of "culture." To people like this it is almost impossible to prove any true similarities, and they have a huge problem with the idea that animals may have any form of culture. I myself believe there is enough evidence to support non-human culture in some animals. I suppose this makes me an anthropomorphist, and perhaps a uniformitarian to some extent? This surprised me because I had not previously thought myself a uniformitarian, it just seemed too conventional and conformist a stance. However, in this case I believe the idea that animals can have culture is actually quite creative and controversial.

Purpose in evolution
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-07 16:16:00
Link to this Comment: 12618

I thought this link would be interesting. Apparently the Vatican is also wondering if there is a "purpose" in evolution.
Its very short and doesnt answer any questions but nevertheless interesting.

Name: Annie Sull
Date: 2005-02-08 14:13:49
Link to this Comment: 12693

I'm still having a hard time with the notion of "purpose." I feel like this word has accrued such negative meanings lately.. that if we say something has "purpose," we've somehow adopted that positivist, linear mind-set which no one likes these days.... It was helpful in class to distinguish between different kinds of purpose (1. an interpertation that an individual imparts on something else; 2. Purpose that exists within an entity itself; and 3. the idea of a plan/intent governed by an external (or that same) entity) --(the fact that we spent so much time discussing what 'purpose' meant. . . and that we had to agree upon which story we meant when talking about 'purpose'. . . shows how slippery the concept is) It seems to me that there isn't a difference between these three understandings; in fact, they could all fall under definition #1. If you think of the world as a composite of overlapping systems, each individual entity will acquire a different purpose based on which system we are looking at. To humans, the purpose of a tree is to produce oxygen; to a bird, it may be to provide a place for its nest. These are the different stories we choose. It's one thing to say that evolution is not a design; that there is no endpoint. . but I still think it is a bit more difficult to say it has no purpose. I still don't really know what 'purpose' means . . It seem detached from time and always changing. It is only what we name it in the aftermath of an event, or perhaps when looking forward at a hazy future. The word 'purpose' will always invite the deconstructionist; one can remove the layers of meaning inscribed upon this word... but when you get to that blank space underneath . . it is not "no-thing" you find, but everything. . . and saying that there is no purpose is just as "story-like" as any other meaning we choose.... I don't know if any of this made sense . . . so sorry for the rambling.

Purpose and Rules!
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-08 15:52:42
Link to this Comment: 12695

I think, like Annie said in her forum, it helped to define purpose in the context of evolution. After giving it some thought, i realized something simple and easy, that purpose in evolution meant that the intelligent design of the universe and life was orchestrated by a higher being, I suppose we can safely say God. I know all of you are saying DUH!! but the point is that I did not assume that purpose meant that God had something to do with evolution but rather that the will to live or do something or achieve something is somehow purpose. The ball falling down a mountain has the purpose of reaching the ground because certain laws of gravity will guide its goal. Hence in some way purpose was defined differently in the context of rules. The question hence moves forward by asking whether rules have a purpose. Do the rules within which we operate have a purpose and where did they come from. For instance I was reading an article about when the universe began. They say that the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years approximately. However as we move back in time towards the beginning of the universe (towards time=0) the rules that have applied in the universe, at a point close to zero stop making sense. Hence I ask whats the purpose of the rules if they stop making sense at a certain point. Im obviously not equipped with the knowledge to understand all of this very well, but its nevertheless unbelievably fascinating. If I were not scientifically and mathematically inept this is the stuff to study. Sorry thats a random thought. I think the randomness I have posted will amply confuse all of you so I apologize.

Animism, Purpose, and meaning
Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-02-08 17:04:26
Link to this Comment: 12697

I know we are all thinking about "purpose" now since last class, and I don't want to kill the idea, but I'm still thinking about it too. I was thinking of the old belief of Animism. Basically, the belief is that everything has a soul, even inanimate objects. I'm not particularly knowledgable about the religion, but I have been reading a few internet sites since I remembered the concept from High School Religion class. Here are a few links which brush over the idea:

Of course, when one gets into religion in answer to the question of purpose, one crosses over into another field which many people may be hesitant to discuss, due to its subjective nature.

There is another issue I want to raise. We have been suggesting that Evolution is a story. We have also suggested that perhaps Evolution doesn't have an ultimate goal, a purpose (just as a suggestion, barring any objections). But in saying both of these, aren't we contradicting ourselves? When we think of a story, there is generally expected some outcome, or conclusion to the story arrising from Character progression, action progression, or moral significance. Indeed, for me, a story that hasn't progressed to a point in which an end is presented or foreseeable in the future, isn't a story at all. A story progresses and developes just as organisms due during evolution. To see evolution as purposeless, or without point or reason, is rather depressing. Perhaps it is true that humans want to see purpose in things; we have adages "Carpe Diem" and such to add meaning and purpose to our lives, but what would life be without such purpose? Would evolution be significant if it had no purpose? Why do organisms evolve if they have no ultimate goal? For me, I'd rather believe that every thing has a purpose, has significance than think that the process of life and the amazing things that have arisen from evolution, is just an accident, and has no future.

Interesting Answers
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-08 23:14:16
Link to this Comment: 12702

So, procrastination has finally paid off...
I found an amazing site that basically provides the Bible's answers to contemporary questions. For example:
- What was Adam, the first man, really like?
- Where did the flood water come from? or go?
- Did Noah need oxygen above the mountains?
- How did the fish survive the flood?
- Are dinosaurs mentioned in the bible?
- Does DNA similarity between chimps and human prove that they have a common ancestry?

I could go on, but I'll let you check it out ! Cheers...

Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-08 23:15:56
Link to this Comment: 12703

The site that I was so enthusiastic about is:

Islam and Evolution
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-09 15:17:43
Link to this Comment: 12711

Professor Grobstein asked me what the muslim take on evolution was and is and since I wasnt very helpful I found some websites that offered some perspectives. Im sure there are many but these were a few I encountered.

These were just two. I think they maintain that it is God's will that life exists and hence I suppose its like the position of the Catholic church. But I think since Islam lacks a central school or authority that proclaims what their position is we get an array of positions on the matter.

These are not anti evolution but there are some.

further directions to follow...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-09 18:42:40
Link to this Comment: 12718

I dropped by this evening intending to "clean up" the forum on Mayr and "open up" a new one on Dennett...but am finding myself led, instead, to gather together a number of references and links which arose this afternoon, as folks in my section were helping one another along w/ our individual story ideas and expansions....

You might want to check out

That should keep you occupied...
@ least til next week.

from Mayr to Dennett ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-02-11 17:15:08
Link to this Comment: 12800

A fresh start? Actually its all archived, and one really can't ever quite go home again but ... a new book to read and some new space to explore, evolve into?

So, last thoughts on Mayr or first ones on Dennett or ... a mix of the two? Here's a bridge topic to think about if you need something:

If there is no "purpose" in evolution, how come both Mayr and Dennett seem so pushy, ie purpose-full? Aren't Mayr and Dennett both products of evolution? And, if so, how can they have purpose if the process doesn't?

See you all on Monday, to talk about the first chapters of Dennett.

another way in...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-12 10:16:44
Link to this Comment: 12811

The New York Times Book Review is featuring Alan Lightman's new collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, this weekend (2/13/05). The reviewer observes,

Science happens to be excellent training for literature; it calls for both narrative ability and a grasp of style, and it sometimes seems as though the "arts-science divide" simply reflects the humanities' refusal to believe that anything that originates in a lab could possibly be attractive.

Not a bad way (by my lights, though I expect Paul may tell the story somewhat differently!) to describe the arc of this course, which begins with biology as the ground from which culture arises, and out of which it is (purposively?) made; that is, it uses "science as excellent training for literature...."

the god gene
Name: Britt Frem
Date: 2005-02-12 19:31:14
Link to this Comment: 12821

Many of you have probably heard about the new book out which claims that humans have a predisposition (via evolution) to believe in a god. An editorial in the nytimes talks more about this:

If you don't feel like reading the whole article (not that it's long), I think you'd still find humor in the first paragraph:

***An "analysis" of Democrats and Republicans from the Ladies' Home Journal in 1962 concluded: "Republicans sleep in twin beds - some even in separate rooms. That is why there are more Democrats." That biological analysis turns out - surprise! - to have been superficial.*****

Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-02-13 09:31:29
Link to this Comment: 12824

I can't get out of my head what we talked about last class. We talked about all the things that evolution can create. I was thinking about whether or not morality is an evolved trait. Morality varies from culture to culture, however, almost any culture has the idea that "good" (I mean this based on some created standard by the society), productive, non-threatening members of society should not be harmed. That seems to hold true in most animal societies too. Most animals, especially those with larger brains seem to have a set of ingrained rules that apply to society, most likely some sort of instinct. Perhaps I am applying human ideas to the animal world, but there does seem to be some ingrained set. Therefore perhaps humans are more instinctual than we really think. Perhaps we rely more on some inborn sense of morality. If so does that in some way take away our sense of purpose? I mean if we are just following what evolution created perhaps there is no purpose at all but we feel the need to create one. Perhaps Mayr is afraid that there is no real purpose and that his the reason for his being so pushy. I wonder why is the sense of purpose so important and why is creating purpose so important. Would it remove our ability to live more happily if we were to feel that purpose was a human construct? It would seem to me that from how purposeful that Mayr is, he would say yes or perhaps shirk the question all together.

Moral sense test
Name: Rebekah
Date: 2005-02-13 10:22:29
Link to this Comment: 12826

Given the recent fascinating discussions of human morality in our classes, some of you may be interested in reading about(and maybe contributing to) this research project being conducted at Harvard on the notion of a universal moral faculty. There's annoyingly little on the details/history of the project and their hypotheses on the website, but I guess this is because they're still collecting data through the test and don't want to risk skewing the results in any way. Worth checking out anyway:

Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-02-13 12:48:30
Link to this Comment: 12828

In response to Professor Grobstein's question about purpose:
I think that it is very hard to write about anything without having a distinct purpose. It does seem paradoxical to write about evolution, a process lacking in purpose, in a narrative that has one, but I think that it's unavoidable to do so. If one tries to write without a purpose, it is very difficult to be coherent and organized. The result will likely seem like it's about nothing, and no one will want to read it.
This ties in to the idea of truth. Many people accept in a philosophical sense that absolute truth does not exist, but it is hard to avoid the concept of truth for practical purposes. Dennett writes on p. 22 that "one of the things we deem precious is the truth." It is hard to think about the world without thinking about truth. Later on, Dennett writes that "I love the world so much that I am sure that I want to know the truth about it" (p. 82, note 10). When studying the world around us, it can feel very unsatisfying to only accumulate observations. There seems to be a tendancy to seek "truth" whether or not one really believes that it exists.

Name: Ariel Sing
Date: 2005-02-13 14:29:15
Link to this Comment: 12830

I love the the op-ed article that Britt posted a link for. The general the idea is a fascinating one: we all have the gene VMAT 2, but depending on which variant you have, you are either more or less likely to believe in a god. I think that this article touches upon another point though, and one that we have not discussed, humor in science. Now that I think back on Mayr’s book I realize that part of the reason it reminded me so much of a textbook was the lack of humor. One can write as many dry facts on a page as one wants, one can even link them together and report the correlation's, but that does not make it good, or approachable writing.

On a entirely different topic, I found it interesting that the controversy about Intelligent Design being taught in Dover PA has now reached international news. Here is the link to an article about it on BBC:

At the bottom of the BBC article is a bit about a new museum slated to open in Kentucky that will take viewers “on a journey 6,000 years back in time, to the Garden of Eden, to a time when the creators believe dinosaurs and man roamed the earth side-by-side.”

Also of note is that Ian Wilmut, the man who ran the Dolly cloning project, has been given permission in the UK to clone human embryos so that he can study a motor neuron disease called MND. Here is the link in BBC: Also for comparisons sake, here is the link to an article on the same topic from Aljazeera’s english website:

Name: Kelsey Smi
Date: 2005-02-13 15:10:40
Link to this Comment: 12832

Belief in God is an iteresting concept. It seems incredible that it could be genetically related. Instead, it seems more probable that it is related to knowledge. Meaning, the more education you have, the less likely you are to be religious. In the honors English and philosophy block class that I took senior year of high school, I had 54 classmates. At the end of the year, 48 of them had no problem saying that they were athiests.

Universal Acid and Dennett
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-13 15:18:53
Link to this Comment: 12833

As I read the readings for this week, I couldnt help but feel like they were a breath of fresh air as quoted on the back on the book. I was fascinated by pretty much most of what Ive read and feel obligated to comment on how well this man writes. I followed, I understood, I enjoyed and most of all it all made sense to me. Notions of universal acid and darwin's natural selection permeating throughout the disciplines and ages is simply unbelievable. Dennett not only plays with this idea throughout the readings but chronologically takes us through a journey of how this universal acid has such far reaching consequences for other fields. Darwin is not only important for Biology but is essential for our understanding of so many things. Dennett comment regarding universal acid describing it as something that it "eats through almost every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world view, with most of the OLD LANDMARKS STILL RECOGNIZEABLE, but transformed in fundamental ways" (Dennett. Pg. 63) is simply mesmerizing and incredibly astute. His insight into how Darwin's ideas may have permeated into other disciplines and ideas but have also maintained and kept the original idea alive is very intuitive in my opinion.

The idea of algorithms was also very interesting. To view evolution as a algorithm (prior to the reading that word would mean nothing to me) helped understand evolution through a different tool and medium. That to me was simplistic yet so very new. Its almost like he thinks for you in this book and provokes further deeper thought. Where one would have stopped ordinarily is simply presented as the starting point in this book and I like that idea.

On Dennet
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-13 15:18:57
Link to this Comment: 12834

Wow ! Many things to think about. Lots of confusion to work through.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand Dennet. The book was exhausting and I found it difficult to sieve out relevant things from what seemed superfluous and wordy sentences. But here is something…

So Darwin’s dangerous idea (I am guessing) is that design and order can emerge from algorithmic processes that come out of no pre-existing Intelligence or Force. I felt that this book, more than Mayr, seemed to very forcefully jeopardize belief in God and assume that the two, belief in God and belief in Evolution cannot coexist.

I was particularly amused by Dennet’s allusion to Schrödinger and was thinking about how to connect his cat to Design and Order. Actually, I just read a little about his book What is Life?, and he seems to propose that life and organization is maintained by extracting 'order' from the environment. He coined the phrase - 'Negative Entropy' to describe this. It would be interesting to explore the meaning negative entropy more.

Unlike some other evolutionary biologists / philosophers, Dennet seems to believe that life is “complex” or “designed” or “ordered”. This is in complete contrast with someone like Richard Dawkins (zoologist: Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype, Blind Watchmaker) who claims that life and organisms are NOT complex. Complexity is only a human perception of design and order. And organisms are just what they are. I was interested by these different schools of thinking.

Darwin's Purpose
Name: LT
Date: 2005-02-13 16:01:18
Link to this Comment: 12835

My thoughts on purpose rather build on what Becky said about purpose - that it's necessary to have purpose in order to write well. Purpose may be necessary, but does it have to be achieved? One of Dennett's points is that Darwin doesn't discuss the topic that his writing is named for, The Origin of the Species. From what I understand, Dennett thinks that Darwin's purpose in writing was actually to describe and defend the mechanism of natural selection. However, Darwin may have intended to discuss the first origins of species and failed, but through his failure created the theory of natural selection. Would this make the purpose of his work to describe the origin of the species, or to defend natural selection? Can a work of literature have a purpose beyond what the writer intended? Or maybe the writer's purpose is something that even the writer can't fully understand until the work has been written.

Name: Lauren Z
Date: 2005-02-13 16:01:22
Link to this Comment: 12836

First of all, I want to say that so far I am really enjoying Dennett's book. His writing style is very clear, and the issues with which he deals are fascinating. I had conisidered the cultural dangers of Darwin's theory in that it contradicts the Creation myth told in the Scriptures, and in doing so destroys man's elite status as a unique creation of his God. What I had not conisidered prior to reading Dennett is the idea that natural selection is an algorithmic process, mindless and mechanical. Obviously, these ideas are related, but I had never connected them in this way. I will, at least for now, continue to suggest what I did in my paper: that perhaps the evolutionary process in itself, however mindless or mechanical, could have intelligence behind it. I was happy to see that this was brought up by Dennett. At any rate, I'm am looking forward to this week's discussions.

Name: Iva Yonova
Date: 2005-02-13 16:36:45
Link to this Comment: 12839

I am really amazed that most of the people in the forum seem to like Dennett... Although I agree that his writing is much easier to read he is maybe twise as arogant and imposing his opinion that creationism is absolutely fake while evolution is "THE TRUTH". Not that I don't agree with him... I'm absolutely on his side but after the criticism Mayr took in our discussions I felt that Dennett's not going to be apreciated...

Nevertheless, I find Dennett wonderful to read: easy flowing and logically structured... and I like his perspective very much on top of that:)

In my paper I was discussiong the clash between evolution and creationism and now that I'm reading Dennett I feel really bad because I was thinking along what he is talking about but I definately could not explain my point as clearly... and was probably uncomfortable taking such a strong opposition to creationism... anyway I love Dennet so far...

And finally a reference to prof Grobstein's question: we discussed in class the second law of thermodinamics and how everything strives toward disorder... isn't that the purpose of evolution... I mean, a cingle type of organism is much more order-like than 100 000 different types of organisms...

PS a very cool postings site about creationism vs evolution: ...and you can check out the it's really interesting...

PSS im sorry for the extreemly disorganized posting but i had quite a few different things to say:)

co-existence and purpose pushovers
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-02-13 16:42:41
Link to this Comment: 12840

I like Dennett's book a lot - though a little dry at times, I enjoy all the thought that he's put into it and the many theories that he comes up with. Though I'll agree with Kelsey's idea that it seems as if there is an inverse relationship between education and 'religion' (if one can even define that), I personally find that idea very troubling. I go to church every Sunday, and though I would not dare to claim any good deal of intelligence (there is much too much that I don't know), I do go to Bryn Mawr, so I suppose I'm not completely daft - and I feel that faith in any form is an important part of remaining human, sane, and happy. I don't want to convert anyone by any means, but I do want to pose the idea that the two ideas - evolution and religion (intelligence and faith) - can co-exist. And I find it somewhat comforting that someone else has put so much effort into it, and so much more time into thinking about this idea than I have. I'll agree that both Mayr and Dennett are pushing their ideas as "truth" - or in the least a solid basis for thought and theory, but I think that our purpose in reading them is to decide for ourselves what we want to think, and to know more of the theories out there so as not to remain in the dark.

Dennett and Evolution as an Algorithm
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-02-13 16:44:55
Link to this Comment: 12841

So far, I am really enjoying Dennett's book. His writing style is clear and there are flashes of fun in it that make the book an interesting and informative read. I can't wait to see what else he has to say and the discussions that are invoked by his thoughts.

The idea of evolution as an algorithm was extremely interesting to me. I am a firm believer of evolution already, but putting it into these terms was a great new way to think about this theory. I had certainly never thought of it in these exact terms previously (although I may have had thoughts similar to this idea, but definitely not defined as algorithm). But calling it an algorithm brought great clarity to the evolution. To me, it just makes sense. Evolution is a mathematical process that tries different answers until the correct one is found. I love it! This is definitely an idea I would love to discuss further inside as well as outside of class with friends.

On a related note: When I first started thinking about evolution as an algorithm, I was worried that the explanation for this would lead to a creator. I do not and never have believed in God, and plan on keeping it that way. But as soon as I asked myself this question: Does evolution as an algorithm mean God exists?, Dennett answered for me. He said no it didn't necessarily mean that because there is randomness (ahh the word returns!)involved. So the algorithm can include some trial and error. I was thrilled. Dennett seems to have some great thoughts and some great ways of explaining them. I love the idea of the algorithm and can't wait to see what other ideas Dennett has.

Name: Eleanor
Date: 2005-02-13 16:54:44
Link to this Comment: 12842

Dennett does appear somewhat arrogant in his descriptions of creationism and of evolution as absolute truth, but I can as always forgive it because it is his book and I feel I can do what I want with it. I suppose I am similar to Tonda in that religion is an important part of my life, and I believe that evolution and faith can co-exist. In this way, Dennett's book addresses issues that I had tried to put from my mind while reading Mayr's, and so far I am fascinated and fairly satisfied with what he has done. I look forward to reading more.

there is no separation of the subject from the min
Name: Eileen Tal
Date: 2005-02-13 16:56:09
Link to this Comment: 12843

from the start, Dennett writes not in the vernacular but at least in non-specialized language, as well as addressing the discomfort that Darwin's "uncovering" of processes has created. while Mayr only gets metaphysical with us as an afterthought, or as the cap to a very grounded book, Dennett is already there, getting down from the start. admittedly they are dif. books with dif titles, authors and purposes, but still I feel more sure of myself in this book, even if the topics take time to steep more than Mayr's did.
what I liked a lot was his identification of what we leave unanswered, what we answer with more creations and suppositions- "since we can never know why, we must comfort ourselves in 'how'." - toni morrison. if Mayr got us there and reacquainted us with the facts of evolution- "DNA based reproduction and evolution", though the gene theory and idea of the gene as the instrument of heredity was not Darwin's- Dennett is the narration of evolution's social and intellectual history, of its evolution of accpetance and understanding in the world view, as much as we can have a cohesive world view. I will probably post later, as I am still taken with specific aspects of the reading and not addressing others.

Name: Haley Brug
Date: 2005-02-13 16:58:02
Link to this Comment: 12844

I found the first part of Dennet's book pretty amazing. True, sometimes the examples get a bit redundant, but for the most part, his writing is clear and straightforward. He never seems to leave room for any misinterpretation of his ideas. I am enjoying this book much more than Mayr. The philosophical side of evolution has never been presented to me this way before. After reading the first chapter I actually sat down and thought about why Darwin's idea was so dangerous and threatening for the first time. Dennet seems to say it is dangerous because it is true.

I really liked the analogy of Darwin's idea as the universal acid that eats through traditional thought and everything that is sacred to us. But I also liked the fact that he said that if we fear the idea in that way, we might never learn "some surprising or even shocking things about these treasures." (pg. 82). All in all, I am finding it just the right mix of engaging and thought-provoking, and am looking forward to reading more

Darwin's Delightful Idea
Name: Britt Frem
Date: 2005-02-13 16:59:00
Link to this Comment: 12845


On page 46, Dennett writes that "anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is... inexcusably ignorant." (His use of "anyone" is unjustified, me thinks. As for college students, maybe.)

His talk of Gabmbler's FAllacy (p 54) is intriguing... It's an obvious notion, but one which I occasionally forget.

on page 59 he says that some say Mendelian genes dont' exist! What is this? I he suggesting that we're still very backwards in our thinking... that mendelian genes are just another old idea that we're so anxious to hold onto?

Lastly, I thought it was important that he called darwin's idea a"scientific and philosophical revolution" (21)

A new entry point...
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-02-13 17:02:51
Link to this Comment: 12846

To me, Dennett seems to be a truly uniformitarian story teller. His style of writing pulls together so many different aspects of the story of evolution. He fleshes it out, giving more entry points for readers and more ‘cracks’ to explore. I like how he alludes to other stories to connect them to evolution. Some of them don’t seem particularly relevant, but Dennett uses them to illustrate a point, to clarify, or just to explain something in a different way. (An example is found on the page 15 the beginning of the first part of the book: “Neurath has likened science to a boat, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. The philosopher and the scientist are in the same boat…”) I like that Dennett alludes to different things and that he uses so many references. On one hand, I think I may like it because I have an uniformitarian outlook. When I read or hear a story, I tend to naturally link the information that I get to other things. Dennett does that in his book and I feel that it really enriches the story receiving’/interpreting process. There are more links in my thinking and I feel like I have a better understanding of the author’s motives and thinking. On the other hand, perhaps I like the style because it lends a kind of scientific credibility to his book. He shows the reader how the thinking of others fits into and supports his views making his book very persuasive.
Thinking about scientific credibility makes me think back to Mayr. Paul asked us to think about the ‘purpose’ of Dennett and Mayr. He said that they both seem kind of ‘pushy’. I wouldn’t disagree, but their story telling styles give their ‘pushiness’ a different feel. Mayr, I felt, we trying to force the idea of evolution onto his readers by overwhelming them with scientific facts and repeatedly referring to science as the source of ‘real truth’, making evolution a ‘fact’. Dennett on the other hand uses a different technique. He seems to challenge his readers to keep reading his book. He says that his book ‘is for those who agree that the only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. Others are advised to close the book now and tiptoe away.’ (p. 22) He is basically saying that his book (and the opinions contained within) is a critical analysis and that only close-minded people wouldn’t agree with him. I think that writing that was inappropriate, a kind of underhanded way of getting credibility and advocates but I cannot deny its power. While I feel that this ‘style’ makes Dennett more underhanded than Mayr never bothered to cover his biases for science unless it was with an unintentional presumption that people would be able to comprehend a scientific ‘fact’ that he thought was ‘universal’. Dennett’s style makes him (to me) a much deeper and more persuasive read.

Name: Brittany P
Date: 2005-02-15 00:47:06
Link to this Comment: 12904

I'm loving Dennet so far. His writing is fluid, engaging, and above all, coherent. I applaud his ability to break down complex concepts into images and ideas that a non-sciency person such as myself can easily grasp.

My favorite section of this week's reading has got to be the Library of Mendel. Apart from the fact that (spacially) it's an amazing concept, it really illustrates evolution's "progress" which really isn't progress while simultaneously explaining both its incredible logic and its inherent randomness. I found the bit about "evolutionary possibilities" and how a species' progress through time closes certain pathways to be particularly enlightening. I'd always wondered why there were, say, no giraffes with stripes. But because evolution is such an elastic concept, it's easy to forget that it operates via a strict genetic algorithm, and that preexisting genes must necessarily determine what mutations, and thus what structural changes, are possible in an animal. 1 can mutate to 3 can mutate to 5, but once at point 5, you can't change the genetics and mutate back to 2 or 4, because the genetic window of opportunity is shut.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Dennet's historical overview. I'm glad he chose to start with a background of the "philosophy" that preceeded Darwin, especially Locke. I loved reading Philo's deconstructions; they really answered a question I'd come away with from Mayr: "couldn't a Mind/Intelligence be just another evolutionary adaptation, and is it correct for humans to assume that the universe operates on the same principle of 'intelligence'?" The answer Philo/Dennet gives is yes---humans automatically assume the universe's design is based in Intelligence, just a world full of spiders would automatically assume that the universe was a giant web.

Name: Annie Sull
Date: 2005-02-15 14:22:31
Link to this Comment: 12914

I agree with most others that Dennet offers a much more fluid and engaging narrative. He is refreshing to read after Mayr because he so awake to our emotional and philosophical investments in the story of evolution. He opens his book with a reference to an important childhood song, one that still brings a "lump" to his throat.. He seems an honest, more humble writer. He writes as not only a scientist, but as philospher and human being. I even found myelf laughing with him at certain points during the narrative. I appreciate the way that Dennet places not only the audience, but himself, within the story of evolution.. this is a story that he MUST tell and one that everyone MUST listen to. He accosts the reader in a way that is not aggressive but concerned. He is sensitive to the kinds of compromises that people have tried to make in the past, and he gives them thorough attention, yet he is unremitting in his conclusion. There are some moments when Dennet seems to assume Mayr-like dogmatism (i.e.: "To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was pruced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant--inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write. . ." (Dennet 46)). What Dennet seems to be utterly intolerant of is the conscious refusal to SEE and attend to the story of evolution. There is no excuse for closing your eyes to something that you simply don't wish to see. I love his sense of urgency... it just seems so much more real and alive than what Mayr offers. Anyway, I am anxious to keep reading because Dennet's work really does seem like a story... i look forward to what unfolds.

Dangerous Ideas
Name: Jessica
Date: 2005-02-15 16:26:22
Link to this Comment: 12917

A question and a link:
So the way Prof PG described the story on Monday, it seemed that the transformation from Active Inanimate to Model Builders to Storytellers could have happened (and could happen again, or somewhere else) with different things. I mean, why were the active inanimates quarks, atoms, etc? Did the model builders have to look like multicellular organisms, do the storytellers have to create free will? Everything could look different, but fit follow the same development path? This is not a rhetorical question, I was hoping someone had an answer. (As much of an answer as this class ever has.

And if we're talking about dangerous ideas, here's one:

A new story of the future, one that's freaking me out.

Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-02-18 13:52:03
Link to this Comment: 12998

First of all, reading Dennet is certainly easier than reading Mayr, especially trying to, once again, read it as a "novel" and not as a textbook. I especially liked the beginning, where Dennet attacks the "why?" question. "Why" has been my favorite word for a long time. It's also a word that I don't believe people ask enough, and yet it is natural question to ask. Instead, people seem to jump right to the "because" answer, without really going into the question. Why? You can see it in the "game" that young kids play when they get into the phase of asking questions. The question is always "why" but after a point, we answer "because", not because it's really an answer but because we don't know the answer. Maybe that's the reason that people are so afraid of asking "why", because there may not be a provable answer. Still, it's not to say there isn't one.
I'm sorry, I know I'm repeating myself quite a bit in this idea, but it is an idea that seems to keep popping up in Mayr, in Dennett, in class. Why? Because we haven't found an answer yet.

Tracing history and ancestry through DNA
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-18 21:55:14
Link to this Comment: 13010

Dennet is so much more fun to read. I dont think hes less aggressive but I still think hes more interesting and hence grabs you. The actual reason for the post is that last night on channel 6 news, they were showing a segment on how african ancestry can be traced through genes. Basically they analyze the gene in order to find out what part of Africa, African Americans are from. The company that does it is called the African Ancestry Inc. and it costs $350 dollars. They trace the X and y chromosomes to see what tribes have the a particular same genetic code. Hence not only do they find the country or region one is from but it can be as specific as knowing what particular tribe one is from. I thought this was fascinating. I dont know if I did the science of it justice but these websites offer some information.

being pushy ....
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-02-19 14:48:08
Link to this Comment: 13015

Dennett takes an idea/perspective/story telling style from its original context in biology, where it still under rigorous examination and development and still makes lots of people uncomfortable, and blithely extends it to .... everything (a "universal acid"). So, many of us seem to like the way he writes better and that's relevant (form and content being mutually reinforcing), but what about the idea/perspective/story telling style he's promoting? Is the extension beyond biology adequately justified, reasonable, useful? Can one speak legitimately not only about biological evolution but other kinds of evolution as well (cultural?) in the same terms? Are we going to buy this story just because we like Dennett's presentation better than Mayr's, or are there problems here too?

Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-02-20 03:26:36
Link to this Comment: 13018

I'm feeling a bit lost in part III of the book, so far. I found part I much easier to understand. Part III feels much more abstract... I think it would've been easier to understand with more concrete examples.

The chapter on memes was just fascinating. I'd heard about the idea before, but never really given it much thought. And I was thinking- the self to me seems to be largely the sum of a person's ideas and memories. Those are what create a person, kind of- what define them and make them recognizable to others. And because of that I found the way that he described memes as "larvae" in your brain just using you as a way to replicate and be passed on kind of disturbing... If you view your own ideas as parasites of a sort, then what happens to the self? Where are *you*, in all that? I don't know, his description just gave me a very weird image of little larvae crowding in a person's brain and perhaps it was that image that disturbed me more than anything else.

And also, I notice that this book predates the widespread use of the internet- I'm sure if it were written later he would have talked a lot more about the internet as a way of spreading memes... It's amazing how fast things spread over the internet. The map after the election showing the United States of Canada and Jesusland, for instance- no one knows where it came from but within a few days it was everywhere.

I've also thought in the past that when I've read a good book and am trying to push it on other people, it's a bit like the book is trying to spread itself through me... And then more people will read it as a result, and spread it in turn. It may not even be a terribly good book. It may just be enjoyable and addictive- which can make it even easier to spread.

And finally, in the chapter on language, there was one bit I had trouble agreeing with- Dennett claims that the problems of free will and consciousness can be understood by humans because a perfect explanation for them exists somewhere in the Library of Babel. I don't think that makes complete sense. It is possible to be able to read and understand a sentence without fully comprehending the concept it's trying to get across- and I think it's entirely possible there're concepts out there that humans cannot grasp. For instance, take a sentence like "The fifth dimension exists." We can understand a sentence like that, and explain it mathematically (I think), but can you really picture the fifth dimension? Can anyone fully comprehend it? I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem likely to me.

memes: Dennett on Dangerous Ground
Name: Lauren Z
Date: 2005-02-20 11:46:11
Link to this Comment: 13020

This is the first time I've been introduced to the concept of memetics. It's a fascinating idea, but I'm not really sure I trust it; I think perhaps Dennett has gone a little too far. I thought that applying the concept of evolution to culture was a huge 'no, no,' especially in the discipline of Anthropology. This is an application that could easily be misused, i.e. one culture can claim to be further evolved than another. I know this was a huge problem in the early days of anthropology. And the whole idea of a meme seems very messy. How can we tell where one meme starts and another begins? How can one equate something as abstract as an idea, to a physical process that takes place in the brain/mind. Still, this was a fascinating chapter, and I commend Dennett for addressing the fact that memetics will probably not become a rigorous science. For now, I am just going to view memetics as an interesting metaphor.

Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-02-20 12:15:01
Link to this Comment: 13021

Like Anjali, I'm having more trouble understanding part III of Dennett than I did the first part. It is much more abstract, and the examples don't always help get his point across. I enjoy reading the examples and get quite immersed in them, but when they're over I don't always understand what the main point was. The example of the two black boxes was quite fascinating, and I liked how he took us through the process of figuring out how the boxes functioned, but I'm still not completely clear on the meaning of the example. In addition, it bothered me how the boxes detected "truth" or "falsehood". There are so many statments that are neither. For example, in the vein of things flying, you could state that "birds can fly" which is generally true, but not universally true (ostriches etc). Maybe this doesn't really matter since as Dennett said, philosophers can just make up random things to prove their points, but it still bothers me.
Also a question: What does Dennett mean when he says "meme meme" for example on p. 362?

Name: Jessica
Date: 2005-02-20 13:40:22
Link to this Comment: 13023

(I’d thought that “the meme meme” was the idea of an idea, like, the ‘fact’ of having an idea, that is a thing in your head in itself.)

In the “Evolution of Meanings” chapter, one idea lead me to a new question. On 416 in the footnote, Dennett mentions one of the facts you could tell an AI is “toasters can’t fly.” But the thing also “deduce surprising implications.” So I’m wondering: if you explain to the thing what flying is, and you show it a toaster, will understand? Same thing with human minds; how much info do we need before we make the inferences? Is that the point where we have meaning?

But Dennett’s black boxes don’t do it for me, like PG’s computer games in class, they never move me. I keep thinking that someone made them to be that way. They don’t work for me, because I know that someone designed these examples for this purpose. Dennett didn’t find those boxes; no matter how plausible they are, he invented them. I know my love for the Library of Babel seems to oppose this, but that at least is a thrilling concept.

I’m also getting a little fed up with Dennett’s ‘y’all suck’ attitude towards the opposition, even more so than Mayr, cause Dennett’s dropping names like he wants to rumble. At the end of some of the “the other guy is a big fat idiot” sections, I’m not always sure what his point is, other than that the other guy is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I googled pictures of all of them, just in case they do fight. Chomsky, Gould, Searle, Penrose and Godel (if he were alive) look like if they got together, they could take Dennett, easy, especially since Gould looks like a young Andy Reid. But Dennett kind of looks like classic pictures of God. Maybe he’s got superpowers.

Dennett Part III
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-02-20 14:06:52
Link to this Comment: 13024

I, too, am having trouble with Dennett's third part of the book. I really enjoyed his first part and understood most everything he wrote about, but now I am feeling slightly overwhelmed and confused. I especially don't quite grasp the concept on memes. He spent so much time on them that I feel I am most certainly supposed to understand every detail, but I just don't. I felt like maybe I understood it more when he first started explaining them without so much detail, but once the pages of memes just kept going and going, I felt like I was getting more and more lost. For example: "I suggest that the meme's-eye view of what happened to the meme meme is quite obvious: 'humanist' minds have set up a particularly aggressive set of filters against memes coming from 'sociobiology'..." I'm sorry...but... what? By the end of the chapter I so overwhelming confused and full of nonunderstanding that I just decided to plod along and worry about it later. Hopefully it will be clarified in class this week...

Dannett Part III
Date: 2005-02-20 14:31:42
Link to this Comment: 13026

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, week 2
Name: Kelsey Smi
Date: 2005-02-20 14:42:41
Link to this Comment: 13027

I am completely lost. I don't understand the concept of meme. More importantly, though, I don't understand how the transition from unicellular organisms to more complex lifeforms occurred. The explanation on page 341 doesn't work for me. Yes, unicellular organisms existed for several billion years. Great. But saying that one day a muliticellular organism invaded into an environment for which it was suited does not tell me how the multicellular organism came into existance!

Name: Ariel Sing
Date: 2005-02-20 15:01:23
Link to this Comment: 13028

I also found the chapter on memes to be confusing, but only because Dennett took the idea so far. I think that I understand the basic concepts, but then he throws in an example that seems rather far fetched. I do think that the idea of memes is an interesting one, but it all seems so conceptual. Perhaps I have been living too long in the land of the scientific rather than the philosophical, but while reading about the memes I often had to restrain myself from thinking, “so what?” How does it really effect us if we put this label on some already-obvious patterns. Yes, we can then attempt to extrapolate more from those patterns, but the information that we gather is not really based on any solid “facts”, just suppositions. I think that that is what bothers me most of all. I am not sure that I agree with what I am about to say, but I think that it is possible to construe this idea as detrimental to the acceptance of evolution, the genetic kind. There are just so many gaps and suppositions that it is easy to refute, and there are people out there who might think that by disproving this memes type of evolution, they are disproving all evolution.
Anyway, there are a lot of fascinating links out there about memes, most of which seem rather, well, extreme. But if anyone is interested I did find a link to Richard Dawkins’ essay Viruses of the Mind:

mind once again blown (it's like shooting fish in
Name: Eileen
Date: 2005-02-20 15:03:02
Link to this Comment: 13029

when my sisters feel like shocking someone or telling an unexpected joke, I play the "straight man", because I guess I feel the need for the presence of someone flabbergasted or countering a revelation with "oh no she didn't!". I mean, for whatever it's worth, I've found a social value in being the guy that gets pied in the face, but in another sense, it may be just who I am, stripped of any of this phony awareness- i didn't see anything coming, for most of the things that gocern my life- not Bush winning, not nothing.
so I'm not just flattering dennett's mind-virility or this course's legitimacy when I declare my mind blown. I'd prefer to be blase, the way i act about boys, acting like they can't hurt me or surprise me anymore, that i am beyond all that now that I'm twenty, but all that falls apart easily when we enter discussion of things like "memes", which is the "no, seriously, I'm not being poetic or humble" interpretation that we are further models of genetic expression, committing to memory and transmitting ideas, which are replacing genes as the units of evolution. i'm even reconsidering my dislike for dennett's godless universe because he writes some pretty fine sentences.
I used to really like the idea of a collective unconscious, so why don't I like the memes? it feels like the negation of human creativity, just when i've partially adjusted to a story of creation that negates God's creative control and existence. I know my open and posted disappointment is nothing but a testament to this lack of human creative power, that I can't come up with counter ideas to this new depressing one, but since it's the day of rest and I'd like to prove that I did the reading, I'm just telling yall what I'm feeling, as needless as it is.

Name: Jennifer
Date: 2005-02-20 15:11:53
Link to this Comment: 13030

I enjoyed what Dennett was saying in the third part of the book, though, I admit that it took a while before I got to the point where I understood what he was talking about. I particularly liked the discussion where Dennett describes that we never pass on memes unaltered. I think this is where I finally began to understand what Dennett was talking about because this gave me a better parallel to evolution.

I felt that I could finally comprehend what was going on since I could analyze my own stories to see changes from when I hear them and how I relate them to others. This feels like there is more purpose involved in the transmission of memes. This is a product of the way that people process information, but usually there is a thought about the best way to extend information. There is also probably varying amounts of purpose going into this since the way a story is told might have a long term purpose or just the purpose of trying to allow someone to understand it in terms they understand.

Part III
Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-02-20 15:31:00
Link to this Comment: 13031

As I read this section I kept feeling like Dennet was extending himself too far. I was thinking how a reader could feel that concepts like evolution apply to more then just biology, ie society, and misinterpret their p[lace there. I thought of how Darwinsism was misused as a survival of the fittest within in a society. I fear that blind application of concepts can occur when an author invites individuals to bridge connections between science and society when they individual has a sound foundation in neither. We cannot apply evolution to society because it often gets misunderstood. Evolution is not a process of bettering, it is a meandering that occurs while that allows the most adaptable thing to stay in existance. Stories that relate science to other can be dangerous because they often try too hard to connect science to the rest of the world and make it seem friendly, and forget about important details that can lead people to misunderstandings.

reaction to Dennett
Name: alexandra
Date: 2005-02-20 15:49:49
Link to this Comment: 13033

Since I forgot to post last week I just want to say how much fun Dennett is to read. He is very witty and very accessible. I do believe that he is every bit as pompous as Mayr, but because of his subject matter and style he is lighter and easier to read. Comparing him to Mayr however, seems to me quite useless because they have very different stories to tell. Mayr’s goal is to give a concise explanation of what evolution is. Dennett is going beyond that into what implications Darwin’s idea has for our understanding of just about everything. The idea of an algorithm that accounts for such a complex process as evolution I found particularly fascinating, especially since to my mind it shows the complete compatibility between evolution and a belief is some supreme being that might have created the rules of this algorithmic process.

Name: Haley Brug
Date: 2005-02-20 16:42:56
Link to this Comment: 13034

The first chapter of this section, on the meme, was what I found the most fascinating, but also hard to believe. One of the more interesting concepts for me was the evolution of culture. Dennett says that "cultural evolution operates many orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution", and I had never really considered that so many changes that have occcurred (such as the rapid change in height over the years) may not have have been due in any part to genetics.

I'm not sure if I believe memes "invaded" and created the human mind. Perhaps it was the way he explained it, or the way I read it, that I may have missed a better definition of "meme" and found it a little confusing. Some of what Dennett claimed made me a little wary...and some of it just seemed slightly ridiculous to me when I first read it, such as the "considerable competition" among the memes for a spot in as many human host minds as possible. Once I got used to the comparison of memes to viruses and parasites, it was a little better. I did enjoy the examples in this section, as in the first. I liked reading about the first three notes of a symphony being a meme- as in a melody not fully formed, and his grandson's "mutant meme". I think it will be a very interesting topic to discuss more fully.

evolution of ideas
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-02-20 16:50:21
Link to this Comment: 13035

I really enjoyed this section of Dennett's book. Albeit a bit confusing and overwhelming, it was a really interesting idea that I've always enjoyed studying and building on - that human culture and ideas evolve as well as our species, but at a much faster rate and in somewhat different ways. I enjoyed the idea of memes, continuously floating through culture-space - it reminded me of the conversation we had in class about whether or not everything evolves. Cultural evolution particularly interests me, perhaps more than even biological evolution, because of the incorporation of morals and cultural behavior. Ever since I was little I used to rationalize out why people do and say the things that they do, because a lot of times it would frustrate me, and this cultural evolution idea seems to fit in quite well with the (few) ideas in sociology and psychology and anthropology that I know of.

One thing that confused me, however, (and I could have just misunderstood what Dennett was saying) was how cultural evolution could affect our physical existence. Dennett used the example of height, and how in the past couple hundred years, humans have grown in average height by several feet, even, which is much too quickly for biological evolution. But I don't understand how that could simply be a product of culture. Overall though, I found these chapters particularly interesting, and it will be even more interesting to see what everyone else got out of it during class discussion.

Dennett- Part III
Name: Laine
Date: 2005-02-20 16:52:58
Link to this Comment: 13036

I agree with Becky and Anjali, part three is far more abstract and the examples that Dennett provides are not as concrete. From what I understand of it, the concept of "meme" is interesting in the way it seems to explain the way our culture has evolved. I am unclear though how art promotes human evolution as Dennett claims on pagee 343. Taken at face value the idea of memes is interesting and it seems to fit, however, as I read further and delve farther into his examples memes become more and more confusing and do not seem as applicable in the broad ways I previously thought they were. Overall Dennett has been enjoyable to read and I have found him more accesible than Mayr in terms of understanding the evolution of culture and the uniqueness of humans in that respect. I just wish that Dennett could rein himself in a bit more and use more concrete examples with fewer abstractions.

Super Duper Dennett
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-02-20 16:58:49
Link to this Comment: 13037

Like many others who have posted, Dennett is beginning to lose his luster. It bothered me in the first section of the book that he dismissed those who challenge evolution (or even adapt it) as ignorant stupid people. In later chapters, he takes this even further and I find his slander more and more distracting. Instead of adding to his argument, it detracts because it makes me want to know more abut what these other theorists/thinkers/philosophers think. I thought that Jessica's post was amusing and that she had an interesting idea. He comment about Dennett having superpowers reminded me of a section in the book where Dennett wrote about who created god (super god and super duper god). While that image is very funny, it shows Dennett putting things/life in the form of a hierarchy (an image that I am finding helpful… kind of a modified tree of life… a hierarchy of order). And what is at the top of the hierarchy? I don’t really think we can ever know. One of the other things that has made Dennett difficult to read is the shear amount of information he introduces. Also, he jumps from one subject to another; it is hard to follow his story, especially when I am trying to read the book as a novel. The book is chock full of ideas and theories, but I don’t feel like I have the time to really engage with them and think critically about them. In order to read the material for the class deadlines, I find that I don’t have the time for deep readings. I try to go back to the ideas that I found most interesting later, and the class discussions have helped, but I still feel like I am trying to absorb, interpret, and really understand a lot of what Dennett is presenting to us.

Dennett Part III
Name: LT
Date: 2005-02-20 17:01:35
Link to this Comment: 13038

I've been having a lot of trouble reading Dennett. His writing style bothers me a lot, more than Mayr's did. It seems like he gets so caught up in how he's expressing his idea that it's hard to figure out what the idea actually is. I've had to reread sections more times than I do with other books, just to piece together what he's talking about. Also, while Dennett does discuss answers to possible questions just as the questions occur to me in the course of the book, I have the vague feeling that my thinking is being shepherded. It's most unsettling.

Yes, Dennett is useful
Name: Britt Frem
Date: 2005-02-20 17:10:07
Link to this Comment: 13039

I find Dennett's aggressive story telling style very useful. He is upfront, witty, and has an obvious aim in writing this book. (His aim being that he would like to make people appreciate--rather than be intimidated by--Darwin's outlook on life...) I don't mind him bashing other scientists' ideas; the debates need to happen. (Furthermore, he provides enough references for us readers to read other people's ideas, as well.) The only line I recall being too unfair was when he said that anyone who doubted evolution was "inexcusably ignorant." His use of "everyone" is what disturbed me--foranging groups and horticultural socities probably should not be included in this "everyone." (And if he didn't mean to include such groups he should have said so.)

I did find it useful how he brought cultural evolution into his story. I was confused in class last Wednesday before Anne explained that humans today are CULTURALLY evolving, rather than GENETICALLY evolving. Or, at least, that we are evolving at a cultural level much faster than we are on a genetic level. How appropriate, then, that Dennett expanded on this notion in chapter 12. The idea of speaking, writing, reading, and listening being cultural DNA was useful, if not totally analogous. And then, how culture is like a crane-making crane... So, yes, even if this comparison is not appropriate to a professional anthropologist, it is useful to me as a student.

I hate cultural evolution
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-20 17:20:23
Link to this Comment: 13040

Ok. So I am finally admitting I like Dennet. But as much as he presents me with intriguing metaphors, I’m not sure his ideas are completely problem-free.

For me, the biggest glitch is discussing cultural evolution in Darwinian terms. Dennet suggests that in humans, cultural evolution has overshot biological evolution and that we are evolving via exogenetic inheritance. Dennet believes that cultural evolution, memes, etc. are translatable and compatible with Darwinian natural selection. I don’t buy this idea at all. I am not sure how fluid random variation, selective reproduction and heritability are with the elements of cultural evolution, memes and so on.

It’s all a bit flaky. It seems like just another manipulation to try and explain how humans are a few more steps evolved than chimpanzees or the rest of the animal kingdom. When will we give up this struggle for uniqueness?

Name: Brittany P
Date: 2005-02-20 20:03:37
Link to this Comment: 13044

Although I was interested in Dennett's discussion of the gene/meme biological/cultural parallel, I want to talk about something I read by accident (haha, *who* didn't look at the syllabus closely enough?). It's on page 154, and those of you who find Dennett arrogant will probably dislike him even more if you get a chance to read it.

Ok. Here Dennet is discussing why it's such a neat thing that evolution is a theory which can be (in the sense that it admits the possibility of being, and not in the sense of absolution) proven via facts. He decides to field the Creationist objection "you can't prove my religion wrong because it's based on faith and faith is, by its nature, unprovable." Dennet responds to this objection with more vehemence than I've yet encountered in his book. He relies on metaphor so heavily I'm not sure I understand it all, but the general gist of his reply seems to be that faith operates outside the boundaries of "rational judgement," that Creationists use the "faith" defense when they've been backed into a corner by Science, and that faith has no place in the search for "truth."

I'll say it flat out: I dislike Mayr, and Dennett gets much, much nastier here. But I have to admit I agree with his basic argument. It does seem to me that religious faith is the magic rabbit in the hat that creationists pull out when evolutionists disprove their claims. If faith really *were* the determining factor in creationist belief, then creationists would have no need to even *try* disproving evolutionists. But they have a long history of doing so, from the pre-Darwinian philosophers who pointed to evolutionary adaptation as a sign of God's plan, to the Scopes Monkey trial in the 1920s, to the Intelligent Design movement today. If creationists are so sure that their faith is correct, and if they eschew the need of any other proof but faith to uphold their beliefs, why do they bother with trying to beat the evolutionists at their own game (namely scientific proof)?

It reminds me of a story I read in a Douglas Adams book (HUMOR--please don't anyone be offended!). Two characters are discussing the Babel fish, this little animal that you stick in your ear and it translates any language so you can understand it (yes, this is what is named after):

"Now it is such a bizarrely impossible coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The arguement goes something like this:
"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But," say Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't though of that" and promply vanishes in a puff of logic."

Fictional and irreverent, of course, but it makes you think...

Great Quote
Name: Michael He
Date: 2005-02-21 07:49:26
Link to this Comment: 13054

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is such a great book (hopefully the story will translate well to the upcoming movie), and that quote makes a point that I thought about while reading Dennet, which is that rather than trying to disprove evolution scientifically I feel creationists should just use the increasing understanding of its mechanism as evidence for some sort of divine construction. The brash carpet-sweeping that such ardent anti-creationists like Meyer commit for the "entropic" and "random" elements of evolution (unexplained adaptation, changes in phenotype) actually gives the creationists good evidence for an intelligent design. As the quote indicates, when they resort to the faith supercedes proof argument that Dennet pigeonholes them into, the overwhelming evidence for evolution and for other predictable scientific processes disprove their position rather than strengthening it.

Whats also funny about the quote is that even if God did dissapear into a puff of logic, and didn't actually exist logically, the fact that the very discussion took place leads to a subjective existence. I've often wondered why scientists and theologians don't get along, because it seems to me they're both searching for the same sort of transcendental truth (God, immutable mathematical laws until they turn out to be wrong, theories of physical processes, even chaos theory and entropy frame illogic in a cause and effect universe), just going about it differently. I guess maybe because their stories end up being so similiar in fulfilling people's psychological needs, i.e stability and purpose and a sense of understanding in the world, they vie for dominance in people's minds and both try to claim logical superiority. Dennet seems to think that theology is always allegorical and imparts moral and social lessons while science is always factual and imparts objective and practical knowledge, and while this is perhaps a quaint ideal to strive for, it doesn't exist. Modern people see psychologists (individuals certified in the science of the mind) to discuss their mental problems instead of chatting with a priest about their sins in a confessional. Mind has replaced Spirit as the primary arbiter of one's health. But modern physics has already begun to converge with many philosophical tenets of ancient religions (The Dancing Wu-Li Masters is a great book about this). Personally I would wager that in another five hundred years or so modern science will understand and perhaps augment "spiritual" processes even more than it already has begun to (the experimentally-documented and carpet-swept effectiveness of prayer in physical and emotional healing, "lay on hands" experiments with plants where people with more positive attitudes correlate with better plant growth than people with negative ones, the prevalent belief in transcendent personal energy and alternate dimension/afterlife hypotheses, the correlation between spirituality and positive behavior, how Buddhist monks permanently alter their brainwaves to more frequently inhabit a delta state even when they aren't meditating, the effects of such brainwaves on their environment, "alternative medicine" curing for thousands of years in ways "Western Medicine" deems impossible, etc.). This will eventually increase to the extent that there will no longer be any distinction between Mind and Spirit, and such debates will cease among rational people. Such a rigid duality is, like the old wave-particle duality before quantum mechanics or the ingroup-outgroup one found in all racist and nationalist ideologies, antithetical to the discovery of new paradigms and thus decidedly unscientific.

Cultural Evolution
Name: Maja
Date: 2005-02-21 11:59:00
Link to this Comment: 13057

Reading Denett’s arguments that a meme is to a gene as cultural evolution is to biological evolution was interesting to me especially since I wrote my first paper on the Evolution of Culture. (Which you are all welcome to read if you are interested in my own personal spin on the matter).

I am fascinated by the topic at question, however, I’m not so sure that I would jump to agree with everything that Denett says. For example, I don’t see meme’s as parasites, and although he may have made the parallel in an effort relate his abstract idea with a more tangible one, it’s not a comparison that I would have ever chosen to make. I have personally seen, felt, and experienced cultural evolution and I can’t stop myself from personally relating to the ideas and arguments. As I have stated in my paper “For the first time in my life, I am making a sketch in print of a problem that has been on my mind for quite some time now. It is a problem that I can not avoid just because of the circumstances of my life. The only credentials I have to reflect on the subject at all come through those circumstances, through nothing more than a set of chances; my very own experiences.”

I can see how we can make cultural evolution analogous to biological evolution. However, I feel that cultural evolution remains a lot more fluid and variable because each human can experience its evolution within their own lifetime, and as Anne had mentioned in class, cultural evolution is much more rapid than the painstakingly slow process of biological evolution.

continuing ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-02-21 14:52:26
Link to this Comment: 13068

Thanks, all, for conversation today, skeptical and otherwise. Just so you know I know, I didn't quite finish today's story, so if you're a little puzzled about how the neocortex is going to help with "altruism" or Maja's story of the burning house or memes ("parasites" or ?) or fee will, that's ok. I think its all there in the notes, so you're welcome to take a crack at it yourself. And we'll come back to it, and to how it relates (and doesn't relate) to Dennett's story.

Response to today's class
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-21 15:04:05
Link to this Comment: 13069

Was definitely confused in class today.
Couldn't identify how to make the connection between the neocortex and story telling. Actually, I think I don't understand the idea of story telling at all anymore.

But from what I read in Dennet, he seemed to suggest that the difference between model-makers and story-tellers is not that model-makers are incapable of creating stories but that sotry-tellers possess certain tools that allow them to compare each of their stories, or that a story-teller's story is drawn from millions of other stories.

This seemed to be similar to what PG said sometime ago about story-tellers have the ability to imagine a parallel world.

Still thinking...

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-21 22:29:55
Link to this Comment:

Although I was told today that "they got it" (even if I didn't...) I'm not sure "they" did-- and I'm sure I didn't. Here for the record are the points (here for the answering are the questions?) where I'm more confused than I used to be:

Frog Brain Plus

Name: maria
Date: 2005-02-22 01:43:45
Link to this Comment: 13107

"I really don't think I have ever had the experience of not having experience. Of not being aware. Of not thinking." - Anne

But isn't that the point? If you weren't aware, you wouldn't be aware of not being aware. When you say "*I* don't think I have ever had the experience of not having experience" that's precisely the distinction between the existnce we're aware of having and the existence we actually have. We exist under anesthesia, we exist in coma, we exist passed out...we just aren't "aware" at those moments, we aren't "thinking" in the way that we usually use the term. I don't find this concept particularly troubling, but I think that a lot of people do. I think it has a lot to do with people thinking about consciouness as being somewhat magical, that because we think of consciusness as being "us" we tend to think of it as an all or nothing thing, that the way in which we think we exist is an accurate refelction of how and where our sense of self in fact originates.

Class today!
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-02-22 03:01:25
Link to this Comment: 13113

I got really excited at the end of class today. Paul’s comparison of the frog brain and the human brain got me thinking (like Maja) about the first paper I had written for the class. I wrote about Descartes… there is a lot said about him on serendip. In fact, he even has is own series of forums devoted to him. I am not going to pretend like I have read through it all (it would take hours upon hours) but I will admit to browsing through it. Paul’s discussion today reminded me of Descartes theory of Dualism (and I am sorry if I misrepresent any of Descartes philosophy… I am most definitely a philosophy novice, so correct me if I make mistakes). Descartes was concerned about how the mind and body interacted. He attributed a ‘soul’ to human beings and thought that the pineal gland (because it was the one structure he could observe that was not doubled, having a partner in the opposite lobe of the brain) was the gateway through which the soul could influence the body.

Anyways, I should get to the point… In class today, as Paul talked about the neocortex as our own internal story teller, I thought that the neocortex could be a modern philosophical ‘seat’ for the mind. I am still mulling this over, but I really like this idea (especially because it seems to display an evolution of Descartes idea… Gall was first to place mental functioning in the brain… Descartes placed the ‘mind’ in the pineal gland, some modern philosophers place it in the neocortex… it is its own evolution…). I have a few questions… Is mind and soul the same thing? How are mind and soul connected to consciousness? Could our story telling ability be located outside the brain (like in a spiritually significant place like the heart?)? Is the ‘mind’ less/more connected to the body in different states of consciousness (I would venture to call sleep and dreaming different states of consciousness)? Are our ‘souls’ (or minds or consciousnesses) our story tellers? What happens when you have a lack of consciousness (like maybe a coma… which I think is related to a connective web-like (and it had to come back to the web… I told you I was an uniformitarian story teller) structure in the brain called the reticular formation)? And, following off of Anne and Maria’s questions… can you have a lack of consciousness (which leads to a lot of ethical questions about coma patients)?

On another note, I thought that Brittney and Michael had a nice link when they referred us to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”… funny stuff. With all the heady conversations we have been having about suns falling apart and such it is nice to take a step back and have a laugh... (After all, we are all going to be destroyed to make way for an interstellar highway right?) and the fact that the humor has intelligence is a bonus. I am going to add another injection of humor, this time relating back to our initial class discussions. Has anyone ever heard Eddie Izzard’s “The Tyranny of Ducks”… he talks about the hole in the ‘Biblical Flood’ story? Ducks would have survived (“We normally swim down here, now we’re going to swim up here”…) He says that all the evil ducks must have survived the flood… technically, the world should be ruled by ducks… funny stuff… Makes me wonder about the ‘holes’ we don’t see or gloss over in other stories…

Well I will stop now… ‘night everyone!

taking seriously the plants' point of view
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-22 22:43:07
Link to this Comment: 13145

On alternate days this semester, I'm teaching another "two cultures-crossing" course on Beauty with Sharon Burgmayer of the BMC Chemistry Dept. Sharon thought our class on "The Evolution of Stories" would take an interest in a book she's been reading, Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, which intersects quite interestingly w/ the lecture we got on Monday about how much of what we observe in other things (like plants) can be accounted for "algorithmically," rather than by our own characteristics of internal experience and free will. As Sharon reports it, Pollan argues that our "grammar" of dividing the world into subjects and objects is "all wrong, really nothing more than a self-serving conceit":

A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he plunders for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know this is the failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom....In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors....Consciousness needn't enter into it....Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection....The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower...taking part in this arrangement. All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error the plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals--bees or people, it hardly matters--to spread their genes....I approach...the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and the natural world...from a somewhat unconventional angle: I take seriously the plants' point of view....

So, back to the drawing/discussing board: does our taking seriously the plants' point of view mean acknowledging that they use us, w/out a conscious awareness that they are doing so....?

and in this corner: the social point of view...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-22 23:15:39
Link to this Comment: 13147

Have been chewing over (among other things) that “ideal” idea of “altruism” we were given to work with on Monday. In hopes that we (at least in one small upstairs group…) might work with it further on Wednesday, I offer you, from Wikipedia, this geneology:

The word "altruism" was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism....He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to serve the... "greater good" of humanity. Comte says, in his Cathechisme Positiviste, that "[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely." Advocates of altruism as an ethical doctrine maintain that one ought to act, or refrain from acting, so that benefit or good is bestowed on other people, if necessary to the exclusion of one's own interests…altruism is distinguished from ethical egoism, which prescribes that one's actions ought to further one's own interests.

In the study of behavior, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one presumes that natural selection acts on the individual. Natural selection, however, acts on the gene pool of the subjects, not on each subject individually. Recent developments in game theory have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:

The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.

Name: Maja
Date: 2005-02-23 04:58:07
Link to this Comment: 13156

The idea of altruism is a perplexing one. Can selfishness be found at the core of even the most selfless actions? Why are some people so selfish that they refuse to share even when they have excess, while others are selfless to the point of risking their own lives for the sake of others?

From the short debate on altruism in yesterday’s class, I began thinking about the blurred lines between the action of altruism with the emotion of compassion. I believe that the two are not necessarily synonymous but are often equated with one another. Not all altruistic acts are performed out of compassion, and not all compassion leads to altruism.

I think that altruism is a mysterious phenomenon that stems from some combination of nature vs. nurture. It is possible, that over time, human altruism has progressed into a rewarding behavior almost completely independent of its original biological motive. And perhaps it has been evolving both biologically and culturally. I could go into much greater detail with this, but it would take up the whole forum, so I'll leave it at this for now.

on altruism....
Name: Anne Sulli
Date: 2005-02-23 15:33:34
Link to this Comment: 13168

Much of our discussion in class today emerged from this notion of "pure" altruism... We wanted to distinguish between better/virtuous forms and those that bear some kind of selfish impulse... It is strange that we naturally sought the kind of Platonic, essentialistic "form" of altruism in order to define the term itself.

It seems rather that there is a spectrum of altruistic behavior, and not one in which the categories / gradations are fixed.. Likewise, there is no "pure" form at one end, but maybe a assymptote that can approach, but never reach an ultimate / pure state. Pure altruism would entail a clear detriment and benefit, yet we seemed to agree in class that such results are subjective and never isolated from one another. There is no disadvantage without some concomitant advantage... we may not see that when trying to impose a "altruistic / non-altruistic classification" upon a certain event, but it is always there in some form.

The term altruism hinges on dichotomies that can never be clearly demarcated. Who is "hurt" and who "benefits" from a purported act of altruism? More importantly, how do these categories overlap? We discussed in class today the ambiguity of the self and the other regarding acts of altruism ( On whose behalf is the actor acting? Is it just the individual? Is it the family? The nation? The species? The "Unit" will determine the assignment of the benefit /detriment result).

It would be easy to say that altruism is a social construct, which it may largely be, except for the biological component of altruistic behavior.... It just seems so difficult to apply observations drawn from other animal communities to human behavior.. because we are consious, thinking beings.. story tellers that can imagine outcomes beyond the self... It seems like the only way to understand a biological basis for altruistic behavior is to consider those situations in which mutual benefit results from an "altruistic act..." If the individual is struggling against natural selection.. it seems like altruism would only be a selected trait or strategy if there was a more widespread benefit (not the clean detriment / benefit system that seems a false binary anyway)...

"meme-ing" making
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-23 18:31:11
Link to this Comment: 13186

Interesting...based on Annie's report about altruism, it sounds as if the downstairs group was today several branches ahead of the upstairs group on the evolutionary tree....

We upstairs spent most of class re-working our way from the bottom up.

Got a-holt of memes (=units of cultural transmission, aka modifiable ideas) and worked through the degree to which cultural evolution can(not) effect biological evolution. Reminded ourselves of the slow rate of biological change.

Looked briefly @ the active inanimate.

Then worked for a while w/ the model-builders. Made an important decision that they have language, because they build models, i.e. have a symbolic representational system--they see the fly in the eye, in order to reach out and grab the fly, etc. etc.

Then settled in w/ the story-tellers, whom we distinguished from model-builders not because they have language, but rather by their ability to

We ended class w/ the question, "so where does meaning come from? what motivates it, what generates it, if it's not built into the system from the get-go?"

Will perhaps get back to you on this one.

Altruism, Conflict & Cooperation
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-23 21:57:06
Link to this Comment: 13193

I loved class today!
No reflection yet. Still processing...But here's an aside:

I spent around three months last year doing evolutionary bio research on selfishness and altruism demonstrated by eusocial paper wasps. Besides learning how to avoid being stung on my nose, I inadvertently picked up some other things along the way as well! The scientist I was working with was looking at why the queen wasp is the only reproducing member in a wasp society. All sisters, workers exist simply to feed, groom the queen who beats them up every few minutes and doesn’t let them make babies! I know that this was a huge dilemma to Darwin and he dedicated an entire chapter in Origin thinking about bees and wasps. How can individuals without own offspring exist if reproduction and inheritance are the foundation of the whole theory?

The proposed explanation for altruistic behavior in insects is the idea of group / kin selection (Hamilton's Rule). According to this idea, the unit of selection for altruistic alleles of an originally selfish gene would be the colony or deme (gene, meme, NOW DEME ??), not the individual. More simply, it is the idea that in looking after your sibling, the queen, you're actually adding advantage to your own reproductive fitness. Or parent – offspring is not the only way in which an individual can ensure the spreading of one’s genes. So this is another case of situations appearing altruistic, cooperative when it’s actually just another bunch of selfish genes. Or model-makers responding to certain rules / genes.

So this scientist, although he made me sit in his lab, sorry VESPIARY (place you keep wasps) for hours with my nose against the wasp cage, is actually pretty cool. He’s also studying conflict in animal societies. For example, why do male langurs perform infanticide, kill their own offspring when clearly it seems contradictory to Darwinism? Or why do male tigers kill their cubs? (it’s always the males isn’t it ?)

So is this “conflict”, “cooperation” and “altruism” and outcome of cultural evolution or a biological one? It seems as though the things we interpret as culture are very easily explained by biology as well. Following on from our discussion upstairs, perhaps “meaning”, “purpose”, “truth” are just alternate stories. It is this ability to imagine alternatives, parallels, and to compare many stories that makes story-tellers different from model-maker paper wasps.


HTML Question
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-23 21:58:01
Link to this Comment: 13194

Why does it add those funny symbols every time there is a capital letter or comma ?

On Altruism, Cooperation and Conflict
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-02-23 22:05:38
Link to this Comment: 13195

I loved class today! No reflection yet. Still processing...But here's an aside:

I spent around three months last year doing evolutionary bio research on selfishness and altruism demonstrated by eusocial paper wasps. Besides learning how to avoid being stung on my nose, I inadvertently picked up some other things along the way as well! The scientist I was working with was looking at why the queen wasp is the only reproducing member in a wasp society. All sisters, workers exist simply to feed, groom the queen who beats them up every few minutes and doesnft let them make babies! I know that this was a huge dilemma to Darwin and he dedicated an entire chapter in Origin thinking about bees and wasps. How can individuals without own offspring exist if reproduction and inheritance are the foundation of the whole theory?

The proposed explanation for altruistic behavior in insects is the idea of group / kin selection (Hamilton's Rule). According to this idea, the unit of selection for altruistic alleles of an originally selfish gene would be the colony or deme (gene, meme, NOW DEME ??), not the individual. More simply, it is the idea that in looking after your sibling, the queen, you're actually adding advantage to your own reproductive fitness. Or parent. offspring is not the only way in which an individual can ensure the spreading of onef genes. So this is another case of situations appearing altruistic, cooperative when itfs actually just another bunch of selfish genes. Or model-makers responding to certain rules / genes.

So this scientist, although he made me sit in his lab, sorry VESPIARY (place you keep wasps) for hours with my nose against the wasp cage, is actually pretty cool. Hefs also studying conflict in animal societies. For example, why do male langurs perform infanticide, kill their own offspring when clearly it seems contradictory to Darwinism? Or why do male tigers kill their cubs? (itfs always the males isnft it ?)

So is this ConflictE CooperationEand AltruismEand outcome of cultural evolution or a biological one? It seems as though the things we interpret as culture are very easily explained by biology as well. Following on from our discussion upstairs, perhaps MeaningE PurposeE TruthEare just alternate stories. It is this ability to imagine alternatives, parallels, and to compare many stories that makes story-tellers different from model-maker paper wasps.


altruism: theory, practice (and history?)
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-24 23:23:50
Link to this Comment: 13219

Beginning altruistically: Arshiya, you'll find above the explanation for all those funny looking characters: because you, like Carolyn before you, copied and pasted from some word processing program that uses hidden interpreting symbols that caused the browser to do some intepretations other than those intended.

Moving from the practical to the theoretical...

Having been denied the downstairs conversation about altruism (while deeply engaged by the upstairs one on meme-ing making) I find myself still talking w/ you guys below, linking what you (evidently) said w/ what I was musing about above....

It was the early 19th century founder of sociology, Auguste Comte (1798 -1857) who coined the word "altruism." What's interesting me @ the moment is Comte's investment in "positivism" (briefly: the argument that the logical truth of a proposition must be grounded in its accordance with the material world, rather than referring, finally, to theological or metaphysical claims). For obvious reasons, positivists favored the scientific method. Now, the "illumination" that struck me today was that there may be/probably is an obvious connection between the social activity that is science (gathering as many stories as possible, from as wide a variety of sources as are available, and comparing them), the study of society that is sociology, and the coining of the word "altruism"--which implies a judgment on a self that does not aim for (but may actually harbor an inclination contrary to) the common good. So:...

Where'd that contrary self come from? From whence did it arise? Were there no such selves before...?

Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-02-25 17:41:54
Link to this Comment: 13227

I was thinking more about what someone said in class on Wednesday about our "Capialist" background affecting our desire to categorize different levels of Altruism. Indeed, when you think about it, why do we feel the need to categorize and label and separate things into separate groups? Why is there this need to define Altruism and label certain acts as Altruistic and others as not? As far as I'm concerned, if some act helps another then it is a worthy act, with no need to belittle it by giving an example of a much more selfless act. Likewise, if we are talking about animal acts that "humans give a human behavior to" such as a Dolphin holding another sick Dolphin up to the surface to help it breathe, is this act any less worthy than a human saving a drowning human? Whether you believe the dolphin had a conscious intent and brain behavior to decide to safe the other dolphin (as I do) or whether you think it's simply an algorithmic and consciousless act, is the act any less benificial to the dolphin in need? I feel like so much of our confusion in class discussion comes from trying to assign a specific definition to something. I'm guilty of the same thing because sometimes it seems as though if you can clearly and logically define what you're talking about, it will be easier for others to believe your idea. However, I believe it is in the emotion of the act, and in the act itself that the true value lies, and not in the definition of the act or in the comparison of the act to other acts.

In addition, I love this story and wanted to share:

adjusting the lens
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-02-25 22:18:30
Link to this Comment: 13231

Cherríe Moraga spoke @ BMC on Friday afternoon. In her talk, I heard, obliquely, a running commentary on our discussions, here, about the role of the unconscious, of the academy, of individual free will in making sense of the world:

last call?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-02-26 17:15:57
Link to this Comment: 13240

We're wrapping up Dennett this week, moving on to literature after spring break. Its a good time for thinking back across where we've been, seeing what we think we've got to go where we're going next. Anything particular we should try and nail down this coming week before moving on?

Resolution and the end of story telling
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-02-26 21:32:34
Link to this Comment: 13244

Anne, what do you mean when you wrote that the biggest illusion of academic discourse is that conflict is resolvable? What would that statement imply about hope? That hope is futile, this it is an illusion (or perhaps delusion) as well? I don't know if I can agree with that. That being said, a lack of resolution ties into story telling. Can stories be told without resolution? If it is possible, wouldn't listening/reading/perceiving the story create resolution. Interpreting and making sense of a story would seem to impose resolution on it (a reflection back on the lives of the perceiver). I don't think a story is really a 'story' unless you get something out of it and I would call this 'lesson' a 'resolution'. The lesson doesn't have to be (and I would argue, *can't*) be the same every time you hear a story; I think that resolutions are fluid and 'malleable' theories. On the other hand, I think a lack of resolution poses another interesting question. Is it possible to achieve a total resolution? One that can't be built off of (an ultimate crane that, perhaps, becomes a sky hook)? Would that be the 'perfect' story? Can that ever happen? And if it did, would it lead to the end of all conflict? And if there was no more conflict, would that be the end to story telling?

Loose Ends
Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-02-27 08:47:37
Link to this Comment: 13248

I'm still having the biggest problem with whether or not altruism is altruism if it is done altruistically. Also we keep asuming that animals only work on a subconsicous level, but I dissected ion a sheep brain in 11th grade and with the exception that the "thinking portion" of the brain was smaller than that of a human everything was there. So while I'll grant that the frog has likely little or no consicousness I cannot do the same for other mammals until I know more about their brains. Perhaps that are not as capable of consicous thought as we are, but they may be still be capable of some. In any event, I was wondering if an event is subconsious, then aren't we simply imposing conscious thought on the algorithm of the unconsicous. Then isn't the act of the ant working simply on algorithm also the same. It is likely an evolved response that we see something in trouble that relates to something we care about (this can be other things besides humans) and we go in to rescue it. I was also wondering whether humans have to imbue things with human qualties in order to care about them. While I feel that dogs can think consciously, I don't think that it is the same way that humans do. Yet we constantly see people either take animals and make them human-like or put humans on a completely higher plane of existance. To me, it would seem that both are far from accurate and I wonder why it's done.
I found the discussion that capitalism had greatly influenced how we view altruism interesting. I remeber my history class discussing the building of socialist societies and how they worked in Europe where there had formerly been monarchies, however, they attempted it in America and the society they build collapsed. They cited the capitalist upbringing. I wish I remembered more details of it. In our society everything that we give to others hurts us or at least that's how it is viewed. Therefor, we tend to relate altruism with sacrifice and I find that fasicinating although I don't have much more input for that topic.

Dennett's altruism
Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-02-27 10:20:23
Link to this Comment: 13249

I'm having trouble coming to terms with the source of altruism as Dennett describes it. What I got out of it was that Dennett argues that altruism evolved biologically when "society" began and we realized that by helping others we can help ourselves (improve our own situation, pass on our genes, etc). Which makes it sound like altruism is just a different kind ethical egoism. I do think that altruism, if one can even talk about it as one unified concept, developed over time. But I see it more in cultural terms than biological ones, so I guess it's a kind of meme (maybe this is what Dennett's saying and I'm just confused). I'm not looking for a skyhook, or at least I don't think so, but I can't agree with Dennett's biological explanation.

I also don't see where other organisms--the wasps, those amoebas--fit in with this. Can non-humans really be altruistic? And did altruism originate the same way for them? Is their "altruism" innate while human altruism has to be taught? Or is it innate for us as well?

Date: 2005-02-27 13:04:31
Link to this Comment: 13252

Dennett and Machines
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-02-27 13:17:48
Link to this Comment: 13253

I was really interested in the chapter "The Emporer's New Mind and Other Fables." It's first of all, incredible to think about what machines can do these days. The fact that they can win chess and be programmed to do just about anything is so interesting and amazing to me. I also really enjoyed the small debate concerning mathematicians minds and whether they were machines or more than machines. Also, discussing whether minds were skyhooks or cranes was also really intriguing.

As for tying up loose ends, I can't think of anything of the top of my head that needs to be discussed...although a brief refresher new hurt anyone. I really enjoyed Dennett and look forward to the wrap-up discussions of him this week.

Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-27 13:50:57
Link to this Comment: 13256

As I continue to read Dennet, I seem to be getting less interested. Universal Acid was a fascinating concept but its implication in the form of memes made me uncomfortable. He wasnt able to keep my attention at that point. This made me think, did I like Dennett bcause he sounded good or was it because I actually liked the idea of universal acid. The application of universal acid didnt appeal to me and hence what was it that I liked about universal acid. Was it the beautiful prose and flavor with which he wrote or did the idea really strike something in me... THOUGHTS

Dennett III
Name: Kelsey Smi
Date: 2005-02-27 16:00:54
Link to this Comment: 13261

I thought that it was interesting that Dennett included Rawls concept of the "veil of ignorance." In theory, it seems to be a good idea: remove oneself from one's current life and think about society as a place that could ultimately be "fair" for everyone, no matter what skills--or ultimately, profession--a given person has. In reality though, it is not without problems, especially in the United States where hard work (and achievement) are inherent values. Therefore, I find it difficult to see how any person could remove him- or herself from this way of thinking.

Algorithms and morality
Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-02-27 16:11:19
Link to this Comment: 13262

I was a bit lost by the chapter on artificial intelligence... I couldn't quite wrap my mind around what Dennett said about algorithms being able to have results that they weren't designed for. It made sense the first time he talked about it, but then he stretched the argument out to the point where I couldn't tell if what he was saying was valid anymore.

I had a thought when he was talking about how Penrose believes that the natural selection of algorithms couldn't give rise to the complexity of the human brain (on page 447). What if what is selected for is just the ability to develop new algorithms? People don't start out with mathematical abilities, and so on- they start out with the ability to learn math and language and the rest, and with maybe a basic framework to fit new knowledge into. The rest is taught, and so it wouldn't really be under the domain of natural selection...

The chapter on morality was very interesting as well, except again it was hard to keep track of the points he was trying to make since he goes off on so many tangents. The bit about the Hutterites was fascinating. I find it amazing that such a society has managed to survive so long- and that it's even grown. And when he started comparing them to bee colonies it made me think of the book Brave New World... Very very different society but there's the same feeling that the individual does not matter so long as the whole is happy. And it's interesting to think if such a society is a desirable one- if peace and harmony and happiness are worth it if you've lost all free will and individuality and creativity... I guess the answer depends on the person.

Anyway, one last thing, really briefly: about the discussion last week about the origin of life (if it's plausible that random molecules bumping together could ultimately form cells)- there's an experiment that was done in the 1950s (I think) that I hadn't realized might not be common knowledge. I think it might clear up a little confusion if I mention it quickly. Basically, a man named Miller took a bunch of compounds that were probably floating around 3.5 billion years ago- methane, ammonia, hydrogen, water- and isolated them for a while, providing a source of energy (an electric current). When he examined the mixture again he found that organic compounds had formed- including amino acids (the basic units of proteins). And granted it's a long way from there to living cells, organic compounds are still a major step.

the algorithm chapter
Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-02-27 16:58:45
Link to this Comment: 13263

I was excited to see Dennett’s chapter on AI and how Kurt Godel’s theory supports or works against the theory. Dennet seems to conlude that Godel’s theory doesn’t get in the way of AI. I don’t know if I’m missing something, but I found it difficult to get a strong sense of how Dennet used Godel’s theory to make the case for AI. In this week’s New Yorker (Feb 28th ed.) there was actually an article about Kurt Godel and Albert Einstein called “Time Bandits: What were Einstein and Godel talking about?” Einstein and Godel would often take walks together in Princeton and the article speculates some of the subject matter discussed. A lot of really interesting information is revealed about Godel in the article, for example, he had an irrational fear of being poisoned by refrigerator gasses and was afraid to go out when other “distinguished mathematicians” were in town for fear that they would try to kill him. ANYWAY, getting back on track, the article ends with a discussion of how Einstein and Godel arrived at their theories on a timeless universe. A William Blake poet is quoted as saying, “I see the Past, Present and Future, existing all at once/ Before me.” Well, THIS reminded me of the Library of Babel. In effect, Godel and Einstein argue that the entire universe is a library of Babel. Does this make any sense?

One thing I feel like I have to say about Dennet: he uses WAY too many metaphors. At times, I think he’s really clever, and at other times, I find his flowery writing to get in the way of what he’s saying. Some thoughts…. More to come!

ps- I need to learn how to insert umlauts!

Name: Lauren Z
Date: 2005-02-27 17:32:04
Link to this Comment: 13264

First of all, please forgive the tardiness of my posting; I was incorrect in my assumption that Plenary would be over by now. Anyway, I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but I have gotten extremely lost. How does Artificial Intelligence relate to Evolution? Perhaps if I understood this, I would have a prayer of understanding Godel's Theorem. But right now I do not.

Wrapping Up
Name: Laine Edwa
Date: 2005-02-27 17:33:58
Link to this Comment: 13266

As I have been reading Dennett, especially in these later chapters about theorems and computers, I find myself asking "so what?" after almost every paragraph. My doubtful questioning is only exacerbated by the fact that Dennett himself leads the reader into questioning his writing ("I hope you want to join me in retorting: So what?" p469). Although I think this tactic is often effective in addressing the doubts of the reader, for me it just reinforced my disbelief and irritation with Dennett. For so long I have thought of evolution as a strictly scientific concept and I am finding it very difficult to bring in other disciplines, like Philosophy, to think about evolution.
That said, however, something I am finding interesting in Dennett is the way he discusses culture in regards to evolution. I latched onto Skinner's idea of "survival of the culture" as the highest goal of humanity because it made sense to me the first time I read it. I don't know about survival of culture being the upmost goal, but as I was thinking about it I came up with the word "preservation". What about the idea of preservation of culture? Again, it may not be the top goal of humanity, but I'd say we all put a concerted effort into it. Any thoughts?

britt's thoughts on anne's ideas from cherrie mora
Name: Britt Frem
Date: 2005-02-27 18:23:18
Link to this Comment: 13268

I, for one, would like to hear more about Cherrie Moraga's speech last Friday that Anne mentioned in adjusting the lens

The second bulliton claiming that "we know the answer to the question we are asking" seems incredible / (ly crazy). I ask a lot of questions which I do not know the answers to (i.e. How do computers work? Why is the sea salty?)... If what she says is correct then wouldn't we have to hold all possible memes in our heads from the beginning? I just can't buy this idea in the form it was written; I'd like to know what else she had to say about it.

Next, if parenthood is what teaches us about altruism then altruism is very much socially constructed. No significant biological change is undergone (at least not by men, methinks)... oooh, unless some biological change does occur in women but not so much in men which would help to explain why some animals eat their kin.

Also, this idea that conflict is not resolvable intrigues me. What interests me even more is Carolyn's post (Resolution and the end of story telling). Basically, that if a resolution (to a story) were achieved, would that be the end of story telling? Or are there so incredibly many conflicts that such a thing is impossible?

reevaluating dennett...
Name: Iva
Date: 2005-02-27 18:48:11
Link to this Comment: 13270

As I started reading Dennett in the beginning I was truly fascinated with what he was saying and how he was expressing his assertions... over the course of the reading however he started to make some points that I didn’t really relate to the issue he was discussing (or at least what I thought it was). Right now I was reading about Hobbes and Nietzsche and I was so upset because I felt like he was abusing their ideas and inverting them in a way they were not meant to go. What upsets me even more is that I don’t really see the point he is trying to make with these references: Hobbes never meant to show society as a part of the evolutionary process... he was just trying to explain and justify the absolute monarchy as a system of social hierarchy... (Right?)

Furthermore he uses those ideas without actually stating them... I have a very vague idea about Hobbes and even worse about Nietzsche... and I feel like he uses my (the reader) ignorance to make his point sounder...

Anyway I have done a reevaluation of my attitude about Dennett’s writing and right now I am being very critical about all of the arguments he opens up...

Name: Eleanor
Date: 2005-02-27 18:51:29
Link to this Comment: 13271

I too thought that plenary would end earlier than it did (before five o'clock), I apologize that it has taken me so long to get to the posting after plenary.
I wonder also how AI relates to evolution. I believe I understand Godel's theorem (there are truths that a human can understand but cannot prove using an algorithm), but I do not understand how arguments with this theorem relate to evolution. I have found myself wondering what all Dennett's arguments amount to and why I am not seeing evolution as a "universal acid".

Name: Haley Brug
Date: 2005-02-27 19:35:10
Link to this Comment: 13272

I found finishing Dennett to be quite a task. Most of it did not interest me as much as the first part had, though I found a few instances where I was able to follow along, understand, and really think about what he was trying to say or prove. Some of the time, I was confused, and I found that where Dennett's metaphors were really very helpful in the first part of the book, they simply got in the way of my understanding in the third part. The strangest of these was the space pirate Rumpelstiltskin on page 449, which kind of jarred my thinking. I did, however, like the end of Chapter 15, where Dennett discussed individual style, and I also enjoyed the chapter on morality. I think the metaphor of Darwin's idea as a universal acid was an important one, and I was glad Dennett returned to that in the end.

Name: Ariel Sing
Date: 2005-02-27 19:45:35
Link to this Comment: 13274

Up until this point I have found Dennett to be generally understandable (although not always clear), but I really struggled with the AI chapter. I found the discussion of Godel’s theory at the beginning to be “highly convoluted and bristling with details of... mathematics,” to quote Dennett’s analysis of Penrose. I realize that there are many mathematical theories which are way beyond my understanding, but if an author is going to discuss the implications of a theory in such detail, it would behoove the author to explain a bit about the theory, which I still don’t have a good grasp on.

I did like the part on Bach, and how, although he was a genius, he was also lucky to be born at the right time, to the right family, etc. This reminded me of the discussion that we had in our group last Thursday, about the man (I am really sorry, his name has entirely slipped my mind) who is now a billionaire because he was talented at manipulating data, especially when applied to the stock market. But he freely admitted that if he had been born in a different place or time, he probably would never have survived, given his lack of “physical prowess.”

The last thing that I wanted to mention was an article that I found on BBC online, in their science section, about relating the story of science to the story of history. John Cisne, a paleontologist at Cornell, has set up a system to take population studies and apply the same theories to learn more about ancient manuscripts and how widespread their use was: “In very simplistic terms, he would take some copies of a manuscript and work out their age range... From that information, he would determine how many manuscripts were probably around at any one time, what their rate of "population growth" was and how often they were destroyed... ‘When you look at the age distribution of the manuscripts - how many survived from which century - you can get an idea of the balance between the likelihood of a manuscript being copied - or 'reproducing' - versus the probability of the individual being destroyed - or 'dying'.’” The address is

Intention, intelligence, and Turing tests
Name: Rebekah Ba
Date: 2005-02-27 21:38:37
Link to this Comment: 13277

Attempting to read Dennett's chapter on AI during Plenary proved fruitless--consequently, I haven't yet to finish the book and also really need to go back and reread that AI chapter.

As I read Dennett I'm continuing to struggle with the problems of intentionality and altruism. For both of these concepts, we struggle to draw the line at which behavior can be labeled "intended" or "altruistic": can there be altruism without intent (or perhaps, as we discussed in class last Wed., can there be altruism WITH intent)? Does the robot in Dennett's section titled "Safe Passage into the Future" (p. 422) have intent? If it were a human protecting the frozen body on its journey into the future, would we attribute intent to it? Almost undoubtedly, yes. What's the difference? Are we really just deluding ourselves in thinking/hoping/searching for proof that we're somehow different from and surpass mere machines/animals/complex series of physical laws? This seems to be the question underlying everything.

I've also been thinking about Turing tests. For a long time, I've sort of offhandedly regarded Turing tests as simplistic or archaic or incomplete--in any case, not a truly accurate test for whether or not something is "intelligent". The ability to "fool" a user into not being able to tell whether it's a machine or person seems like such a low standard for something as grand as intelligence, and also seems to depend to much on the user's subjective impressions and not the inherent makeup of the machine. But as I've been thinking about it more, I find that I can't put my finger on what it is that I'm looking for. What else is there about intelligence that Turing's tests don't capture? If I were to create a robot that looked and sounded exactly like me and sent it out into the world to interact with my acquaintances, none of whom discerned any difference, what exactly is it that would make that robot less of an intelligent creature than me?

I'm starting to become more comfortable with the fact that my thinking for this class always generates scores of questions and very, very few convincing answers.

Human Uniqueness
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-02-27 21:47:51
Link to this Comment: 13278

It seems that Dennett really wants to prove human uniqueness. What bothered me though was the fact that he claimed that there were many truths that could not be proven. If a truth cannot be proven, what then makes one sure that it is "true." I suppose it is just that I have issues with Dennett's throwing around of the word, just as we all had issues with Mayr doing the same. But the argument that our minds are separate and unique entities from all others on the planet - that humans have something that nothing we create could ever encompass - is a somewhat promising feature, even if he himself frustrates me. At least for now we can't use robots for everything - we still have some use for human contact and intellect.

Name: maria
Date: 2005-02-28 00:05:30
Link to this Comment: 13283

Okay, I know the passage I quoted below is absurdly long, but it's from the Nobel Lecture given by Nadine Gordimer and I thought that parts of it were really interesting and thoughtprovoking for me, especially in terms of what we've been talking about in class.

"In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God, signified God's Word, the word that was Creation. But over the centuries of human culture the word has taken on other meanings, secular as well as religious...[and]its most significant transformation occured for me and my kind long ago, when it was first scratched on a stone tablet or traced on papyrus, when it materialized from sound to spectacle, from being heard to being read as a series of signs, and then a script; and travelled through time from parchment to Gutenberg. For this is the genesis story of the writer. It is the story that wrote her or him into being...For we writers are evolved for that task...we spend our lives attempting to interpret through the word the readings we take in the societies, the world of which we are part. It is in this sense, this inextricable, ineffable participation, that writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being.

Humans, the only self-regarding animals, blessed or cursed with this torturing higher faculty, have always wanted to know why...Since humans became self-regarding they have sought, as well, explanations for the common phenomena of procreation, death, the cycle of seasons, the earth, sea, wind and stars, sun and moon, plenty and disaster. With myth, the writer's ancestors, the oral story-tellers, began to feel out and formulate these mysteries, using the elements of daily life - observable reality - and the faculty of the imagination - the power of projection into the hidden - to make stories."

It was her emphasis on humans as self-regarding animals that drew my attention because she equated it with the point at which humans began to want to know 'why', to tell stories. It is when we are able to 'watch' ourselves, to dissociate our internal experience of being us from our physical experience of being us...I also was interested by her mention of myths as types of stories. I personally think that more thought should be given to making distinctions between types of stories. Between a story as a summary of observations and a story as a myth meant to instruct. Anyway, I hope someone finds that passage as interesting as I did.

Name: Jennifer
Date: 2005-02-28 00:31:37
Link to this Comment: 13284

I also apologize for waiting until after plenary to post.

I did begin to lost interest in what Dennett was saying. I’m not sure why, but I did have trouble following it. It didn’t seem to be as cohesive as before.

I keep thinking about altruism. I know I usually base my ideas on the subject with the way Neil Campbell of the introductory biology text book defines the term, which is when an organism does work without the benefit of passing on their genetic material. Dennett uses cells of the human body as such an example, though bees and mole rats show similar traits. This definition doesn’t bring in the idea of knowledge of whether what they are doing is harmful. Of course, this does bring in animals that are closer to the “pure altruism” since we have animals that will die in order to defend the colony without passing on any genetic material.

Name: Brittany
Date: 2005-02-28 01:14:33
Link to this Comment: 13286

Sorry this posting is so late...
Dennett began to lose me with some of the implications of cultural evolution; he really lost me with the chapter on AI. I mean, his writing and metaphors are still witty and vivid, but I had to increasingly ask myself the question Dennett keeps posing: So What? Additionally, I'm not sure I understand his argument about the production of meaning from meaninglessness with regards to AI. Dennett's language makes me uncomfortable here. When discussing our biological evolution, he vehemently denies the idea of an intelligent Mind that created order out of disorder. But in the chapter on AI, he seems perfectly ok with the idea that AI can have a "creator" and yet at the same time be a byproduct of some "other" R and D design. Aren't these "creations" essentially two different things? Not because both were created for a specific purpose---they weren't---but because one was created by random chance and the other put specifically together?

Something else which bugs me: at the very end of "Safe Passage to the Future," Dennett flippantly remarks that "this meme (the impossibility of AI) can be extinguished." Memes extinguished? Is this *possible?* If a "meme" is unused does that make it extinct, or only dormant? In genetics, if a specific gene isn't used for awhile, QWERTY generally ensures that it can't be pulled out of the attic and re-made, so I guess that counts as "extinction." But I think memes function differently... one disproving of any idea doesn't make it extinct. If Truth itself is a cultural meme, and we've established that in Science there Is No Truth, how can *any* idea be conclusively disproven? Or proven, for that matter? How can a meme go "extinct"?

Altruism, a "dialectic," free will, and emotion
Name: Kate Shine
Date: 2005-02-28 01:44:47
Link to this Comment: 13287

I find it amazing how Anne's last post seems to gel everything I have been thinking about since our discussion of altruism downstairs on Thursday. However, I cannot quite get a handle on what it all means. I too would like to hear more about Cherríe Moraga's perspective. I am having so many ideas that are challenging concepts I once took for granted as truth, and I have the feeling that they are all somehow connected. Here are some of the questions I am asking myself, as muddled as my thoughts at the moment:

Why must there be SUCH a distinction between self and other? I agree with Annie that in many cases the benefit or detriment to self and other resulting from any specific action may be impossible to pin down- it does seem a false dualism. If there was no hard and fast distinction between self and other, would altruism be the norm and selfishness an anomaly, and not the other way around? Would the concepts themselves lose their meaning? Is nature fundamentally one way or the other or do we see animals and genes as "selfish" simply from our own skewed perspective?
It is obvious to me that human selfishness does exist. It seems somehow related that (in Cherrie Moraga's perspective, and my own intuition) that there must be some kind of "dialectic" or dualism (of the Hegelian type) for thought (and life?) to evolve but YET altruism seems to occur when this line is blurred and one extends one's concept of self to encompass others.

I have also been questioning my traditional ideas of logic/purpose/conscious thought. Maureen wrote, "I believe it is in the emotion of the act, and in the act itself that the true value lies." This comment definitely struck a cord with me. In class we pondered that an action may not be considered truly altruistic if one did not think logically about the consequences first, if one simply acted on emotion. Yet altruism seems to be all about emotion! This made me reconsider whether animals can be "truly" altruistic. A mother bear who risks her life for her cubs may be "selfish" in working to preserve her genes, but does she not feel the same emotions of love and protection that we do? Cherrie Moraga seems to feel that parenthood is what teaches us to be altruistic, what enables humans to become revolutionaries! Perhaps we do not need logical thought to be "truly" altruistic, and we do not need a logical goal in mind (like the dot on the screen) to have purpose or even emotion. What does it even mean that something is "JUST an algorithm"? This implies no purpose in design? How so?

I feel in some way actions speak for themselves, and that we as humans want to deny nature by separating ourselves from "others" (be they animals or other humans) and deny our common identity. I think this may be productive to some extent, but we should realize it may not be the only way to see the world.

Name: Kate Shine
Date: 2005-02-28 01:49:24
Link to this Comment: 13288

I just want to clarify that when I said "purpose in design" in the last post I think I actually meant something more like...intrinsic purpose, purpose the organism gives itself by creating its own design, however arrived at (ie algorithmically or by trial and error).

Name: Maja
Date: 2005-02-28 02:15:16
Link to this Comment: 13289

To expand more on what I was alluding to earlier in the week…

Compared to all other animals, human behavior is influenced by culture to a much greater extent, and is partial to conscious beliefs and desires. Furthermore, altruism is at the core of most religions and even other secular moral philosophies. Every major religion and most philosophies have independently come to the conclusion that the best way to live life is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It is possible, that over time, human altruism has progressed into a rewarding behavior almost completely independent of its original biological motive. For example, pleasurable sex, at its biological core was maintained because individuals that enjoyed engaging in such behavior had more offspring. Today, however, human pleasurable sex has come to represent many different concepts that go beyond the biological basis of procreation; such as sharing of intimacy, expression of love, mutual reassurance, and antidote against loneliness.

From the hue of different characteristics found in the human compass of altruism, it is clear that society plays a critical role in shaping ones altruistic inclinations. On the other hand, since even insects such as ants, which are said to be incapable of conscious thought, exhibit altruistic behavior, I am lead to believe that there is some sort of barren biological basis for such actions, which is refined through human nurture.

Name: Maja
Date: 2005-02-28 02:20:36
Link to this Comment: 13290

And one more thing that I thought of at the end of class on Wednesday. Here is a true-story scenario that may be a little less controversial than the US Atomic Bomb example brought up in class, but perhaps similar in the point that is being made. When the Tsunami swept away countless lives over winter break, I saw a news report where they were interviewing survivors. This one woman was caught in the drowning waters with two children, one in each hand (an 8 yr old and a 5 yr old). It quickly became apparent to her that unless she let go of one of her children none of them would have a chance at survival, and so she had to decide which child to let go of in order to save the other. Would you call that altruism?

Name: alexandra
Date: 2005-02-28 07:43:25
Link to this Comment: 13291

I’ve been thinking a lot about the unconscious and its role in human altruism. In class we talked about whether or not there is any such thing as a “true altruism”—doing something for someone else even at a risk to yourself, in spite of that risk perhaps. I do believe that there may be such a thing as “true” altruism—but that this true altruism can exist only in those creatures that possess the story-telling ability. True altruism, when a person jumps into a burning house to save someone is not a result of a thinking and reasoning process. It seems to me that it is an impulse, and impulse that results from out being able to create a story out of something that hasn’t really happened yet. Prof. Grobstein mentioned how when we dream, when we are in a state of unconsciousness, our neocortex is still just as active, creating stories out of nothing. Perhaps that is what really goes on when we do things that are seem unreasonable, at great cost to ourselves is that we are in fact able to imagine what might happen if we do not intervene. When you see a flaming house…you think of the people trapped inside and you jump in to rescue them—even though this may not be a logical or reasonable thing to do.

Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-02-28 16:05:47
Link to this Comment: 13296

In todays class we discussed the lag in communication between the bipartide nervous system. The neocortex was presented as though it was the medium through which we interpreted our world and created stories for what we experienced through the rest of the nervous system. The neocortex then made sense of it and made a story that it "liked." I couldnt help but question my reality. Is there reality. If interpretation by the neocortex is subject to internal experiences that are relayed by a nervous system that does not communicate as well with the neocortex it feels as though the whole notion of ones own reality is skewed by our "NEOCORTEX." I feel as though my "CPU" control my very being. Yes that obvious that my brain is the organ that allows me to be what I am but I cant help but feel like Im a puppet. I suppose this story is also an interpretation by my neocortex after the rest of my nervous system has communicated the information/emotion/knowledge/vision from class. I feel like im in the matrix.

Another interesting connection I made with what was being discussed about the bipartide nervous system was the role of chemicals and neurotransmitters in our brain. Antonio Damasio in his book "Descartes Error" makes the point that the chemicals in our brain allow us to feel emotion. Hence essentially I am becoming more prone to thinking about purpose as a fading concept. If what humans feel is a result of chemical reactions then how can we have purpose. Phineus Gage had a structural injury to his brain and that changed his temperament then perhaps who we are is simply a result of evolution, chemicals and brain structure. Perhaps thats why serial killers have different reactions to disturbing pictures.

I suppose im rambling and thinking and creating stories of my own but I find that Im questioning my understanding and in turn coming up with more stories that satisfy me at this point. I wonder how Im going to feel at the end of this class and as my life progresses and thinks. Are we simply robots made from randomness and A BIG HUGE MISTAKE!! I feel like a child of chance mesmerized by the conception that Im not all that special or great. Not to say I thought that to begin with but without purpose arent we just products of randomness and why were Dennet and Mayr so PURPOSEFUL when in the end there is no purpose. Then again the fact that there is no purpose was their purpose. Hence purpose is probably a human invention and we just keep creating stories because thats what the neocortex does.

Im not sad because I get the feeling I may sound that way. But thats just the snow!! I think its refreshing. Dennett however is becoming mundane!

Name: Arshiya Bo
Date: 2005-02-28 20:27:50
Link to this Comment: 13312

I still want to know...

1. Are humans, as storytellers evolutionary more advanced, not complex, than otters or model-makers?

2. Are our emotions, responsibilities, meaning that we find for ourselves simply the outcome of simple physical processes? Is meaning our alternate story? Is meaning our model?

3. Or do we indeed have a neocortex that creates stories that are not the result of chemistry? Is what our brain is doing something unique?

4. If our story-telling is indeed just a model, or an illusion, how are model-makers different from story-tellers?

Please! Someone ! Enlighten me !

Monday's Discussion
Name: LT
Date: 2005-03-01 22:56:00
Link to this Comment: 13335

One idea that struck me from the topics that came up on Monday was the idea of the creation of words and the creation of ideas. Unless I misunderstood, Professor Grobstein seemed to be saying that we can't conceive ideas until we have words for them. "We didn't have the idea of time until we had the word time" is the example I remember. This seemed strange to me - is it that we need language to understand abstract ideas? Or do we gain the ability to understand abstract ideas at the same time as language? Naming ideas doesn't seem so far from what storytellers are supposedly doing. Altruism, in the pure form that people argue doesn't exist, is a word that sums up a story. Which came first, the story or the word?

The Library...
Name: Brittany
Date: 2005-03-02 19:53:45
Link to this Comment: 13353

So class ended today with a discussion of Dennett's library-obsession... I wanted to make some other points but we ran out of time. So here they go.
I'm pretty solidly with the group that accepts Dennett's idea of a library in which all possible genetic genotypes (and phenotypes?) are catalogued. In some sense, this view *does* acquiese to the idea that everything that ever was, is, and shall be is "already there" in the library in some sense. However, I don't think this necessarily restricts our choices or our explorations as evolving creatures in any way. When Dennett posits that things are "already there," I don't think he implies that they're extant. It's rather the possibility of their being extant that is catalogued in the library. The things themselves don't exist, so in that sense we are still "creating" ourselves as we follow our evolutionary journeys. But when we "create" say, a new species, that species has its corresponding "possibility blueprint" catalogued somewhere in the infinite library of Mendel.

And this correspondence doesn't make the creative process any less significant. The library contains blueprints/possibilities of all *end forms*, not the evolutionary processes required to reach them. So there are an infinite number of ways to arrive at (for example) a goldfish. The library can't predict how or how long goldfish-building will take; it simply has the goldfish blueprint somewhere shelved away.

As to the difficulty of the catalogue system itself... if we look at the library as a conventional human library, it doesn't work. There are too many infinite possibilities, all minutely different: how would we place them next to eachother? How would we order them? Now I'm really bad with metaphysics, but I got the impression from Dennett (or maybe I read Dennett and then completely BS'd this defense, or stole it from my cache of cheesy 60's sci-fi---feel free to call me on it if it's the latter) that his libarary's "cataloguing system" doesn't really exist in the conventional sense. It's only our journeys through the library's infinite possibilities which string together the extant forms its blueprints record.
The "order" of the library is where the random, creative quality of evolution intersects with the concept of "everything's already there." Before time (and us, as we evolve within time) winds a connecting thread through the "blueprints" that turn into reality, the library is one big dark muddle of possibilities. Its "order" only becomes visible in the past tense. But because every blueprint is equally possible right up until it occurs in reality (theoretically---no accounting for QWERTY here), all blueprints/possibilities in a sense are filed right next to each other. To steal a concept from science-fiction, every point in the universe is simultaneously next to every other point, all the time. To apply this to the library, every blueprint/possibility is next to every other blueprint/possibility all the time; it's only the passage of time and reality through this infinite space that creates distance between two points (because these blueprints have actually become reality, there is now a measurable distance between two extant forms).

Ack... like I said, I'm horrible with explaining things like this. So sorry! Does any of this make any sense at all?

some thoughts about class today
Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-03-02 21:34:39
Link to this Comment: 13363

I've been thinking about the discussion in class today about whether if meanings only exist in our heads it counts as real meaning (I hope that made sense). Carolyn had said that she found that idea depressing... And I've been trying to figure out why it doesn't really depress me. If concepts like truth and justice and altruism are all human constructs, do they have meaning? Real meaning independent of us, their creators? Not really, I guess.

I think it's easy to develop a nihilistic attitude, if we believe that we are the products of algorithms and concepts that we hold dear like morality and altruism and the soul are entirely human constructs, with no real meaning outside our own heads. But at the same time... I think in a way it doesn't matter that these things have no real meaning. There is no way for us to see the universe objectively- there is no way for us to find the "real" truth, to decide for certain what purpose our lives may fulfill. There is no way to see beyond the very subjective reality that our senses relay to us. And I think the most useful way to deal with that is just to briefly acknowledge the facts and move on. It doesn't have to be depressing. A flower is no less beautiful because beauty is a human construct. Our lives have no less meaning because meaning is a human construct. And altruism may be entirely self-serving at heart ("ethical egoism", as Becky put it), but that doesn't make a person feel any less good when someone else is kind to them.

I don't know. Accepting and then ignoring the fact that nothing we do may have "real meaning" could count as being wilfully blind, but it's certainly the more helpful outlook in the long run.

more on meaning
Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-03-03 20:08:59
Link to this Comment: 13395

I've also been thinking about the role of "meaning" in our lives. Like Anjali, I don't find it depressing that "meaning" is constructed by human beings, and that it may not exist on its own. The more I think about this, though, the more it confuses me. Clearly, we place certain values on things due to our social upbringing (and because it's "human nature?") but why would we do that? Why do we pick certain works of writing, for example, to be meaninful, and not others? What makes a life meaningful? As humans, do we think that birds or fish or insects lead meaningful lives? I'm pretty convinced that birds, fish, insects, etc don't "think" about their lives in that way, so who is right? If organisms don't place meaning on their lives, why would we? Is it because we are seeing a bigger picture (or at least trying to?)? Did placing meaning on meaningless things evolve because it was beneficial to us? Another thing- meaning is so subjective. Things mean different things to different people... what's with that? Okay so we all have different brains, and we all think differently... well, why is that, I wonder? As a member of society, I would say that it's great that things turned out this way, but I still don't understand why or how it happend. If meaning doesn't exist, it almost seems TOO convenient to me the way things turned out.

"science has [not] nothing to do with..ordinary li
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-03-03 22:04:33
Link to this Comment: 13398

Jessica called my attention, during her conference y'day, to a (sort of cheesey) NYTimes Science Times article "The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome" (3/1/05). What caught my eye (among lotsa stuff that didn't) were several observations:

I've found a lot of gladness, over the past seven weeks, in exploring w/ you guys the many ways in which science and the humanities reciprocally inform one another, the many ways in which science clearly has everything to do w/ our ordinary lives. I very much look forward to more of the same after break....

When I'll bring back one question in particular which remains for me from the first more "science-y" half of the course: how do "signals 'down here' become evident 'up there' as emotions" (=how/why does the unconscious reception of sensory inputs get transformed into conscious apprehension of feeling?)

And then of course I've got lotsa questions upcoming about the evolution of stories...what stories, for instance, do you think Middlesex arise from (and why)? What revisions does it make in those stories? What new stories does it give rise to? How helpful, in short, is the concept of evolution in thinking about/beyond this text? About/beyond literature more generally?

Ending Dennet, and good ridance
Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-03-04 13:55:08
Link to this Comment: 13415

Finishing Dennet, I must say, comes with a sigh of relief! I thought the rest of the book was hard enough, but the last chapter really upset me. Even though subtitled, "In praise of Biodiversity" the last chapter seems more like a rant on Dennet's part. He outwardly attacks the practice of religion for example, claiming that religion is just practiced for its tradition and not for the true belief in the ideas. Dennet also bluntly says "Until was can proved an environment for all people in which fanaticism doesn't make sense, we can expect more and more of it. But we don't have to accept it, and we don't have to respect it." (page 517). Dennet is lauching a personal tirade in this chapter against belief systems that don't match his own and simply thinks that "We" the reader are on his side, as if he's natually right. I must say that while I could accept the rest of the book as his opinion and his studies, this last chapter takes away any respect I had for him and I feel personally attacked by having to read it.

Dennet and AI
Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-03-04 17:47:52
Link to this Comment: 13423

I have to see, the better I understood what Dennett was saying, the less I liked him. His AI chapter, which I wrote my web paper on was titled, "The Emperor's New Mind, and Other Fables." I think this is in direct response Penrose' Book, "The Emperorn's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics." Dennett spends the enitre chapter bashing Penrose' use of Godel's theorem to suggest the fallacy in AI. Furthermore, Dennett doesn't really explain Godel's theory or Penrose' theory well and only offers his interpretation on why those theories are wrong. He's so frustrating! If Penrose were to write a counter attack to Dennett's chapter, I would recommend he title it "Library of BABBLE." Anyway, I actually enjoyed Dennett because he made me think a lot about what he was saying, but I am glad to be moving on!

Name: Iva Yonova
Date: 2005-03-08 17:40:36
Link to this Comment: 13441

Something that really caught my attention in class on Wednesday was the point about how personality and thinking cannot be subjected under any algorithm what so ever; that a man/woman's actions are pure matter of choice... I don’t mean to be close-minded like Dennett but an idea has been troubling me: aren’t we, as personalities and individuals, a product of our environment? In some very convoluted way our life story and the environment in which we have been living could be dictating our actions... so all of our thoughts and actions could be just products of a very complex algorithm based on our experience.... isn’t psychology/psychiatry doing exactly that? - figuring how a person’s background has led him to become who he/she is....
I understand how bothering this sounds but we might be just products of a very complex algorithm we haven’t quite found yet...

an evolving story....
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-03-13 22:54:32
Link to this Comment: 13481

Welcome back!
So, folks...picking up from where we left off:

How useful is the story of evolution for thinking about the evolution of stories? By 5 p.m. this Tuesday, post your reactions to our first "test case" (text case?): Eugenides' novel Middlesex.

What's your interpretation of it, your responses to its genetic and literary history, as told in class on Monday...?

What have you been thinking about what you have been recently reading and hearing....?

pictures of the people from this story
Date: 2005-03-14 15:26:27
Link to this Comment: 13490

Name: Becky Hahn
Date: 2005-03-14 22:03:40
Link to this Comment: 13499

Some of what Professor Grobstein lectured about today really expanded my understanding of sex/gender. I'd always been told that sex is only biological, but it makes so much more sense that it's a social construct like gender. I had understood hermaphroditism as a straightforward combination of male and female, but now I realize that intersex is much broader and more complex than that. Not all intersex people are androgynous, as Cal(lie) demonstrates.
I am fascinated by the idea that there are multitude of sexes. It's as if the multitude of gender identities, which is much more commonly discussed, has been reflected into biology (although I know that the biology came first, thus contributing to the myriad gender identities). This makes me question traditional sex divisions. On the website for the Intersex Society of North America, one of their main points is that all children should be assigned a gender without surgery. It seems wrong to assign a gender to an intersex child, especially knowing that there's a possibility that in the future the person may end up feeling closer to the other gender. Their rational is that a "third gender" can't be used, because it doesn't really exist as a distinct identity, and that a child assigned to a third gender would be traumatized. I realize that society today is not very accepting of people who do not fit in distinct gender defintitions, but I wonder if we could evolve into a society that places less emphasis on the two-sex/gender system. Will it ever be possible to raise a child gender-neutral?

Yesterday's class
Name: Kelsey Smi
Date: 2005-03-15 05:05:16
Link to this Comment: 13504

I also thought that what Professor Grobstein said about sex and gender were interesting. As a sociology major, I previously believed that sex was purely biological and gender was purely cultural. I liked this dichotomy because it doesn't leave any room for misunderstanding. However, after Professor Grobstein's lecture, I realized that the representation of sex and gender as completely separate from one another doesn't necessarily make sense. I like the idea of the two being fluid much better.

In response to Professor Dalke’s lecture, I thought that it was entertaining how many gaps there are for me with literature. Clearly I need to read some of the works that were mentioned in “Middlesex” and lectured about in class. Though I read Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone in high school, I never knew the information about Tireseus that was mentioned in class. I would be interested in knowing where that information exists so that I might be able to read it at a later date.

When I read “Middlesex”, I wasn’t sure how to approach it, so I read largely for enjoyment, though I wrote down most of the references to Classical literature that I encountered. Though the book “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is not mentioned directly, I thought that it was incredible how it was woven into part of the story, particularly in reference to Fard and who he turned out to be in “Middlesex.”

a little confused...
Name: Iva Yonova
Date: 2005-03-15 10:38:31
Link to this Comment: 13506

Yesterdays lecture left me very confused because i still feel uncomfortable with the idea of sex having cultural dimensions and gender having biological ones. Prof Grobstein explained it with the little square figure as environment influencing body and that in tern brain/nervous system which finally influences the self. Yet I don’t see how environment and culture are the same thing...

Furthermore its interesting for me the concept of more than 2 sexes... its confusing because the other sexes we were discussing are actually a product of a certain deficiency or mutation, they are not sexes in the real sense of sex... furthermore if you look at it with Darwin’s tools nature wouldn't favor an organism which is unable to reproduce so it will remain an interbreed of some sort that will never be anything but rare... i still feel that biologically there are two sexes but then culturally there might be more than 2 genders... and the cultural aspect of it is therefore much more interesting... and with regard to those people that are biologically neither male or female, the most intriguing part is their gender self-conscience with respect to their biological differences...

A random question: are there any mutations like that that are present in species other than humans?

And about Middlesex... I enjoy it and it is fun reading because the author has a very specific style of writing which I like a lot. its sometimes kind of hard to follow because he uses retrospective a lot but yet I think he is handling it very well...

Name: LT
Date: 2005-03-15 10:54:05
Link to this Comment: 13507

I've been thinking about the roles of chance and free will in evolution, and in Middlesex. Eugenides admits that the story is as much about reinventing a self as it is about a hermaphrodite. Cal chooses who he will become, instead of letting his life be chosen for him. Is this showing evolution being ruled by choice rather than chance? Or is Cal's life the only exception, the one possibility in which choice can have an effect on what evolution has determined? Being between genders, Cal has the opportunity to choose something that is determined for everyone else. This choice is a result of evolution, but does it also have an effect on evolution's significance?

Sex and Gender in Biology and Society
Name: Tonda Shim
Date: 2005-03-15 12:52:49
Link to this Comment: 13513

I'm sure I was not alone in my bewilderment during yesterday's lecture. I had always thought of gender as a social construct - femininity and masculinity and the like all being terms created by society and then used (positively or negatively) in daily life. But the extent to which gender itself is societal is extremely small apparently, and I feel like I wish I had known this all along. I wish everybody knew the workings of gender and sex in the human body, and the way it develops, or doesn't develop, and the everpresent chance that a chemical enzyme is going to mess up and you will end up far from what you started out as, as in the case of Cal. I was equally shocked when I picked up the book for the first time in the dentist's office at home over break and read the first line, because I hadn't previously had any idea what the book was to be about. I seem to be getting more and more interested in this as I continue my reading, and we continue our discussion, and I wish the general populous really knew and understood the workings of gender and sex as well.

Thoughts on Middlesex and gender
Name: Austin
Date: 2005-03-15 13:56:19
Link to this Comment: 13514

The discussion we had in Monday's class was very interesting to me. I had never thought about gender and sex both being a combination of biology and culture. And I had certainly never thought about the fact that there are many more than two genders. But it all makes sense. although the idea is not what the majority of the world believes or understands, biologically speaking it makes perfect sense that different combinations of X and Y chromosomes creates a myriad of different genders or sexes. Culturally, of course, it is even easier to understand that many genders exist, as can be seen on an almost daily basis.

As for the book, I am really enjoying it. I think his style is different and enjoyable, which makes for an easy and fun read. I like that he includes a history and that the story is an narrative account. I can't wait to get further into the book and learn more about Cal and his/her "middlesex."

Identity and Immigration and Intersex Perspectives
Name: Eileen Tal
Date: 2005-03-15 14:24:29
Link to this Comment: 13515

Eugenides has my mind going everywhere, in the conversational, circular storytelling style he calls feminine. The book's issue was identity sublimation and choice, the old stand off between free will and determinism, which takes the greek-American narrator (and author) to their cultural inheritance, referencing Tiresias, Hermaphroditus, the Oracle of Delphi, satyrs, nymphs, etc.

I loved it, because my favorite books are concerned with lineage. Oskar, the narrator of The Tin Drum, states that anyone writing about their own life (as he does) should not consider doing so without writing first about their grandparents.
I like that anyone writing about the American belief in progress, assimilation and free will has the presence of mind to address Black america, to paint the 20th century American city as it was. I like that Cal says of his Obscure Object, "there is no better argument against genetic determinism than the children of the rich".

The incantations to the muse, the knowledge of sin, or of complicity, of the chance of it all, the unfairness, at an early age (recognition of the racial divide in the riot/revolution of Detroit) makes Cal/Callie one of my favorite narrators. Descriptions of showering girls as pulsing jellyfish and wild anemones were accurate and memorable, plus they returned when Cal played Hermaphroditus in the Octopussy's Garden with Carmen the South Bronx naiad and Zora the aggressively political androgyne (remniscent of Chapter Eleven's Marxist girlfriend Meg, the wonderful dicision between the surface of water, between the above and the below.

The evolution of the story itself is great, because it accounts for the grandparents with loving omniscience. Tessie is often lost to me, and the most I feel for her is her eroticism in the woodwind, and what Father Mike saw in her: "her desperate yearning to believe there was something instead of nothing" (178). Cal's self deprecating but still sincere allusions to Olympus, mythical beings, and his juxtaposition of Fate and genes (the modern bedfellows, taken to be synonymous, though not by Cal) against his father's and his grandfather's flouting of tradition and acceptance of the American dream (turned into the American nightmare at the reality of white flight and true social structure in America) wholesale, it is almost like a tragedy, and like a satire. it has the irreversibility of a god's dictum, of an inherited gene or enzyme, it has the humor of a woman telling a story, and the hybrid aspect of an American telling a story.

It wasn't a question, but I'll end with this anyway- when Callie, during the agony of puberty and by order of her father, goes to private school, she observes that there is anothe America, one that was created 200 years ago for about two mintues, and does not take into account anything that has happened since or will happen later. Though she engages in no "canon-bashing" and makes Greek mythology a mirror to her present and past, the first person account of a fictional pdseudohermaphrodite, a hyphenated American, a lover of Detroit, is identifiably full of revision, examination, social context and perspective of "others". Omitting nothing (except Cal's adulthood- between 15 and 41??), the story has a lot in it, and I wasn't sure if I could address all of it, or even the questions.

Grobstein and Eugenides
Name: Eileen
Date: 2005-03-15 14:32:30
Link to this Comment: 13516

I think Grobstein's claim that both sex and gender are social constructs fits the fictional Dr.Luce's belief in more than two sexes, though Luce's beliefs are contradicted when he is trying to make Callie female, and says "Gender is social, sex is biological". Callie's rapid social transformation as a male, and her immersion in terminology-rich intersex culture by a fellow stripper in San Fran is a bit crazy, leaps out of the Asia Minor to Michigan realm of culture, but it was probably necessary. There was no way to find a "safe" place for Cal/Callie to explore his identity except to enter the bastion of liberalism and fog.

The thin line between biology and society in gende
Name: Nada Ali
Date: 2005-03-15 14:34:58
Link to this Comment: 13518

My initial reaction to the novel was marred with scandal and the feeling that incest was simply too much to handle. Yet I found it very hard to put the book down. It was captivating, interesting and the historical context mesmerizing. I wouldnt say that normally but this book was and is very interesting and I wanted to keep reading. As I read on the scandal disappeared and something real happened. I felt like I started uncomfortable with Desdemona and Lefty as they explored their own feelings but as time went on I felt their comfort with eachother , however aware that there was a looming giant of a secret ready to engulf them.

I think that the relationship between the fertilization and gender is interesting. Some have suggested that infact sperm and egg have characteristics that are parallel to what gender they produce. For example a sperm acts like a guy and a egg acts like a woman. As almost crazy and silly that sounds I almost want to believe it. But then I ask myself whose telling me that, my biology or my society. At some intrinsic level I feel I always knew that because I was a girl I was expected to be a certain way. At some parts of my early development I liked GI Joes and running around on the streets catching frogs and being "gross." Being this way as a child, could be seen to be a tom boy I felt the pressure of scoiety without realizing it to sometimes force myself to behave more like a girl. For instance brush my hair and wear a pretty dress without getting it dirty. Noone told me what to do but I nevertheless felt it. And hence my question becomes are the memes responsible for the creation of gender?? And I would say yes and no. I think its hard to deny that soem aspects of gender may be biological; that is breasts, penis oestrogen, testosterone, levels of oxytocin (i think thats right) but thats just the beginning. I think society then constructs classifications that further exacerbate the issue of gender by putting everyone in a box.

I think Eugenides does a wonderful job of portraying callie as one stuck in no box, searching for one when shes been in another. If that makes any sense to you than you too understand my twisted brain!! :)The other interesting thing Eugenides does is he uses science to make and instance of fate and purpose. From the discussions on what positions bring what gender to the superstitions of old women to functioning as a man when she was born as a girl and hence she becomes becomes her fate. Im not saying fate exists or not, im just saying I like the way he wrote this.

Biology and Culture
Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-03-15 14:55:53
Link to this Comment: 13520

I can't remeber if it was Professor Grobstein or Professor Dalke who said it, but I've been thinking of that Eugenides didn't think of his book as a book about biology (or something along those lines). When reading it, I can definatly see what he meant. The book so far, excepting the diversions about genes, is largely cultural and historical. But in this way, the story is also a very interesting metaphor for genetics and biology. In fact genes and evolution is history. In Eugenides narration about his grandparents and the culture they came from and the history they brought with them which in turn is passed down to the younger generation, he is almost describing the process of passing down genes and characteristics from one generation to another. There is also the story of the spoon and how his grandmother has sworn by it until it seemed to be proven false, that it didn't work, and so was used less. Can this be also a gene which falls into disuse and eventually disappears? I can definatly see the "cultural darwinism" at work.

As to the novel itself, it never ceases to surprise, even if it is in a grotesque way (i.e. the brother and sister discovering their "feelings" for one another).

Middlesex and more
Name: Arshiya Ur
Date: 2005-03-15 15:16:10
Link to this Comment: 13521

I am loving Middlesex. Eugenides has an amazing style and I particularly love his description of how his female self creeps up on him from time to time.

I am also enjoying Eugenides'unravelling of his own evolution, the story of how he evolved, the elements of chance and random and the whole lot of chaos that it involved !

After Middlesex and G's discussion on Monday, I'm left with many questions but one particularly irritating one: How does evolution, Darwinian natural selection, scientists explain non-reproducing members in a population? Evolutionarily, what is the point of two individuals engaging in sex that produces no offspring? Hermaphroditism, Infertility, Homosexuality, Abstinence.

Do we even need an explanation ?

Monday lecture and Middlesex
Name: alexandra
Date: 2005-03-15 15:31:45
Link to this Comment: 13522

Class on Monday somewhat confused me. I understand the concept that it is society and not biology that really creates the idea of only two separate sexes- male and female. I also think it’s ironic that many people use biology to condemn any deviations from these two sexes, often labeling them as abnormal. However, I don’t really understand how distinct these separate sexes are. True hermaphrodites that don’t fit into either category are pretty rare. It is useless to deny the reality that most of us do fit into one of the two culturally established sexes.

As for Middlesex, I am enjoying it very much. I think it’s very well written and entertaining. To my mind it is a perfect example of the evolution of stories. Apart from Cal(ie)’s own personal evolution as a character, there are many other fascinating aspects of an evolving tale throughout the book. Eugenides constantly references other works of Greek mythology using their general themes in his own plot. It is likewise a story of immigration in America and that is certainly a subject that has evolved for many generations of novels and spoken traditions.

Name: Jennifer G
Date: 2005-03-15 15:47:37
Link to this Comment: 13524

One of the problems that I saw (I did notice that this was touched on in class.) was the fact that Cal’s decision to be seen as male was anti-climatic or rather sudden. Callie seemed to understand that she was different physically and she seemed to understand a bit of how she was different after she had sex with Jerome; however, she still seemed to maintain the belief that she was female. It was only upon reading Dr. Luce’s report that she decided that she was male. I went back and reread the report numerous times trying to figure out what exactly made Cal realize that he was male. From what I could tell the from the report and the claim that Dr. Luce didn’t understand things because Callie lied to him was that the main issue with regards to the fact that he was attracted to women. The report speculated that most of Callie’s mannerisms were feminine and up until reading the report Callie had no problems believing that she was female. Even after making the apparently conscious decision to become male Cal had to work on behaving like a man, and even by the end Cal describes himself as “still being Tessie’s daughter”. The issue that is not expressed is why Cal decides that he is male. I understand that the decision was made rather quickly, but there was time for him to introspective later to touch on the subject. Cal does give the excuse that he doesn’t want to have an operation to change who he is; however, Cal does seem to be changing himself for the purpose of becoming a man.

Of course, the one article that I found in a journal that I could access describes the fact that most of the people with 5α-reductase deficiency that were raised female switched their gender at puberty. The article did not give reasons for the gender reversal. Though the author seems reluctant to completely attribute the person’s identity to hormonal influence.

One of the things I was confused about during class was the way in which culture influences a person’s sex. I understand that culture and biology influence gender however most of the development of one’s sex is prenatal. The body is not going to change it’s structures on it’s own. The brain might change as people age, but generally the sexually dimorphic structures are already formed. Are there cultural forces that affect puberty? From what I understand, as seen in Middlesex, culture can influence the way characteristics of sex develop but not cause changes from what is biologically programmed. No matter how much Callie wanted to develop into a girl while in school she wasn’t going to. I grant that there are ways that people can override biological surgically or with hormone therapy. Culture does influence sex in the way that people chose to identify what actually happens in terms that society tends to see people in terms of two sexes. I’m not sure.

Some disconnected thoughts
Name: Rebekah Ba
Date: 2005-03-15 15:54:31
Link to this Comment: 13525

I too am still puzzling over the questions yesterday’s lecture prompted. I keep returning to the story of Middlesex in my mind, now with this new notion of multiple sexes. In some ways it reinforces gut reactions I had to certain plot turns when I initially read the book: I was uncomfortable with Cal(lie)’s reaction to Dr. Luce’s report on her and her assertion, “I am a BOY!” Cal(lie) seemed to behave as though there wasn’t any choice in the matter: she discovered that internally she lacked female reproductive organs and seemed to believe that consequently she MUST be male, necessitating an immediate reinvention of herself as the other gender. Cal(lie)’s feminine identity doesn’t seem to be simply a result of her trying to fit in with her culturally-assigned gender—she seemed to be comfortable as a female, although puzzled by her unfeminine physical features and feelings for women. I never noticed her identifying with a masculine identity before she read Dr. Luce’s report. This troubled me. I was glad that Callie escaped Luce’s proposed surgery, but wished that Callie had considered the option of a less dramatic reinvention, accepting herself as a female-identifying, lesbian-identifying pseudo-male hermaphrodite, perhaps? Dr. Luce refused to see beyond Callie’s upbringing, but Callie refused to see beyond her biology; Luce felt she must dramatically alter her body, but Callie thought she must dramatically alter her gender identity; both felt that this biological discovery necessitated major changes, when I don’t think that should have been the case.

Reading the book, I kept asking myself why Callie was telling this story. Why did she have to retrace almost a hundred years of family history? How was telling this story helpful for her? Why does she try to account for every event in the past which eventually (after leading to another event, and another, and another) led to her conception? I feel like one effect this style has is that it makes her seem less random, as though her existence was predetermined at the beginning of time, a destination toward which all of the dramas of her expansive family history led. This notion is reinforced by the way that Callie talks about herself, long before her conception, as an observer of her family’s life, waiting in the stage wings for her big entrance. Or the way she describes herself as hanging out with her brother in their mother’s womb, years before her birth. This seems to a way that Callie convinces us—and herself—that she is not a “freak” or an accident, but the natural, predictable result of a hundred years (or many more) years of interactions among her ancestors. Of course, Callie wasn’t actually predictable, and (if you believe in free will) certainly not predetermined--as Paul said in class yesterday, even after a long series of particular incestuous couplings passing down that mutation, there was a 1 in 4 chance a child born would have 5-Alpha-Reductase deficiency. But the point is that Callie creates a story in which she DOES trace a path that leads directly to her. We all have trouble accepting randomness and lack of meaning, particularly when it surrounds events or entities that we desperately want to be special, like our self-identities. In these cases, we often find ourselves creating stories, just as Callie does in Middlesex.

I’m curious about how people perceived Callie as a narrator. It’s hard to accept that she some how found out all the details of what transpired between her grandparents during the burning of Smyrna, etc and is dutifully reporting the facts. If she’s inventing this story, why do we trust her as a narrator? Why do we believe and accept her story? There’s a fair amount of playing around with the notion of the hermaphrodite as possessor of special powers, of “sight”. Is Callie able to channel the story of her lineage due to a special sight, like Tiresius?

Name: Jessica
Date: 2005-03-15 16:09:04
Link to this Comment: 13526

The majority of my free time during this break was spent reading Middlesex and visiting my grandmother, who is quite sick. I think doing each of those things influenced, helped, the other. As a member of an ethnic minority who’s family emigrated in that last crazy century, I see many parallels between Cal’s story and mine (and then again, plenty of differences)(and this is me focusing on the uniformitarian, and not the catastrophic).

I cannot take the lens of evolution off of my life right now. My mother and I are both differently (not higher or lower) evolved versions of my grandmother. There has been so much passed down, and yet very notable variations. Most striking for me are the things that are getting expressed due to environment. Much of the debilitating fear and angst that has marked my grandmother’s life has abated in my mother and myself. At the same time, my grandmother and mother complement me on my independence, something I believe is in both of them, but the setting of their stories didn’t lead to its expression.

This (intensely personal, sorry) observation has affected and been affected by having Middlesex in my life. Meanwhile, I’m having fun silently recasting all my friends in their appropriate genders. If we did rewrite the gender/sex system, would we just add a 3rd middle gender? Or do it on like a 1 to 10 scale? We have to have some categories, for the sake of advertising.

Name: Brittany
Date: 2005-03-15 16:13:28
Link to this Comment: 13527

I loved Middlesex, though not for the reasons I expected to. Though the story of Cal's gender confusion was intriguing, I found myself most drawn to the early parts of the book and Cal's bizarre family history. To me, Desdemona and Lefty's "evolution" from brother/sister to husband/wife, placed in the context of their simultaneous transition from Greek to American culture, was the most interesting movement of the book. I especially liked the scenes on the boat from Smyrna to New York---the way Eugenedes presents their courtship, in gradual stages of increasing affection, struck me as somewhat Darwinian. Not only were they slowly "adapting" their behavior to suit their new self-identities and roles, they made their courtship *public.* They utilized and adapted to the environment of the ocean liner, from its passengers (for example, Lefty asking other passengers for information on Desdemona) to its physical structure (their "wedding night" occurred in a lifeboat).

Like biological evolution itself, the morality behind Lefty and Desdemona's relationship is complicated and fascinating. Eugenides lets us know going in that they're incestuous; so I began the first half of the book expecting to be disgusted every other page, or at least, to dislike the incestuous characters. But I ended up liking both Lefty and Desdemona. Furthermore, I wasn't as repulsed as I'd expected to be at their relationship. Logically, I mean, I still am: I recognize the genetic danger (Eugenides doesn't let you forget it!) inherent in kin to kin matches and see, from a "future children" perspective, how wrong it is. But---and I really, really worry myself when I catch myself thinking this---on an emotional level, their relationship seemed to work. Even after the Depression when things fell apart some. It seems they adapted successfully, and Eugenides is an amazing writer to make the transition seem so natural.

Name: Eleanor
Date: 2005-03-15 16:27:32
Link to this Comment: 13530

I am enjoying the reading the story of Middlesex and puzzling over Callie/Cal's journey. I felt I benefitted greatly from the lecture yesterday having had a sad lack of understanding of hermaphroditism before. The idea of many many genders at once makes sense to me and one that I want to learn more about to better understand. I would imagine that there could be a multitude of ways of experiencing gender.
I'm glad that Cal told the story of his grandparents in the way that he did. Somehow despite biological and moral objections to incest I found myselves rooting for them as characters- Desdemona's guilt and fears may have contributed to this- still I have trouble imagining how a brother sister relationship evolves into a husband wife relationship...
I'd not have read this book if I hadn't taken this class (it sounded "weird"), but I am so very glad now that I have had the chance, it's interesting.

Cultural evolution
Name: Anjali Vai
Date: 2005-03-15 16:43:47
Link to this Comment: 13531

I've been putting off posting since there's just so much I could say about this book, and I've been enjoying it so so much, that I just don't know what I could say in one paragraph. I'm also not used to analyzing a book when it feels as though I'm just reading it for pleasure- it's easy to forget that I'm reading this for a class.

Like Jessica, I've been comparing the story to my own family history... Desdemona reminds me so much of my grandmother. She's such a wonderful character. And it's a common theme in this country, I guess- of immigration and trying to find a compromise between assimilating and holding onto your roots. Cultural evolution fascinates me- the way that different cultures come together and blend, how they clash with and complement eachother. And I also found it interesting how the whole first half of the book was told as the story of how the gene for 5 alpha reductase deficiency came to be passed on to Callie- the story of all the chance occurrences that led to him/her being born. Or rather, I guess the journey of that one gene was just an excuse for telling the rest of the story.

Name: Ghazal Zek
Date: 2005-03-15 16:45:11
Link to this Comment: 13532

I think that Becky's question—why is Cal/lie telling this story—is an important one. On page 179, Father Mike is explaining his faith in the Church to Milton. He says, "That’s how people live, Milt, but telling stories. What's the first thing a kid says when he learns how to talk? 'Tell me a story.' That’s how we understand who we are, where we come from. Stories are everything." I don't think it’s just Father Mike who believes this; I think that Cal must believe this as well. I also don't think that Cal/lie is just telling the story for our sake; I think it's just as much for his/her sake, as well. There is a general fascination with abnormalities, I think, (I'm fascinated by them, anyway) and to trace down how one specific mutation came to be is kind of triumphant, in a way. I think that a lot of scientific research serves the same purpose. We just want to KNOW all the whys and hows. Additionally, incest is one of those things that makes a lot of us queasy, and to just hear that Cal's family had an incestuous past is not telling enough of a story. Hearing how, when, and where it all happened makes it so much more real, in a sense. It's easy to not care about characters or write them off when you don’t have a bigger picture, but by filling in every detail, Cal is essentially defending his/her existence. I suppose you could argue that evolution wouldn't want Cal to exist, but Cal brings such a human aspect to the story that we end up feeling grateful that Cal is there to tell us his/her story.

On a completely different note, I do research on leeches in a lab here at Bryn Mawr, and one of the things I found really fascinating was that leeches are all hermaphrodites. When you open up a leech, right around the sex ganglia you can clearly see both male and female genitalia. Leeches can obviously produce viable offspring, so I suppose it's unfair to say that evolution doesn't favor hermaphroditism. In humans, though, hermaphroditism often results in infertility, so it's a completely different case, I realize. I wonder why some species have distinct (relatively speaking) genders and others, like leeches, don't.

What struck me most
Name: Liz Patere
Date: 2005-03-15 16:53:38
Link to this Comment: 13533

I was struck by how fascinated I was by the notion of not having a socially acceptable gender. Perhaps those are not the words I am looking for but I suppose I mean that usually I adore things that break conventional societal constructs and while this was no exception, I was suprised that I found my own notions of gender altered. I have known people who chose gender, and I have known about having too few or too many sex chromosomes. However, the presence or absence of the Y in humans always for me defined gender in the diseases that I learned about. A person with the genotype XXY would appear as a normal male perfectly able to reproduce therefore nothing was changed to me. It is not that I had never heard of other genetic variations, I knew that a baby would be externally female without male hormones, however, I never thought much about it. The narrator becomes almost genderless, able to select what gender he/she feels fits better and the freedom to have no gender identity at all. I don't know why but it made me feel like the narrator had a lot of freedom to be an individual. The author could break society's/the government's conventional box of gender, that to this day chews away at personal freedoms. This book made me wish for a world where gender was no longer an issue, where people were seen merely as people without labels. While I realize this is an impractical statement, it's still something that I hope for.
I wish I had been more moved by the family history. I think it may be that I am either not moved by personal stories, except in rare instances or that I have heard other stories of incest before that were moving and I have become desensitized. Perhaps I was so excited by this notion of genderlessness that I forgot to care about much else.

Name: Ariel Sing
Date: 2005-03-15 16:53:58
Link to this Comment: 13534

I think that the discussion on the distinction between gender and sex was really interesting. I had never really thought about it before, but learning about how reproductive organs and genitalia are formed made things a lot more clear. However I agree with Iva, I am, in this case, unclear on where the distinction between environment and culture is. I was also wondering about testosterone, don’t females also have a certain low level of testosterone? I have been told by a couple women that their doctor’s told them they had elevated levels of testosterone, how does this happen, and what does it signify about their biology?

I have really enjoyed reading Middlesex. I particularly like the way that Eugenides weaves together history, biology and family. Each is a distinct part of Cal’s life, and yet they mingle to form a fascinating story. My favorite parts are by far the classical references, especially the connections to the Oedipus trilogy. I think especially interesting is the idea that the Oedipal instincts lasted for more than one generation, since this parallels nicely with a new theory about Antigone. The idea is that Antigone continues her father’s “undesirable” desires, first by being excessively attached to Oedipus, and then transferring that obsession to her brother, Polonaises.

...the ideas are brewing...
Name: Carolyn
Date: 2005-03-15 17:03:11
Link to this Comment: 13535

I've been thinking about class yesterday and trying to bring new perspective to Middlesex and have been wondering about Anne's final comments in class. She said (and sorry if the ideas have changed a little while they were rattling around in my brain) that critics of the books had complained that Cal/lie was too fluid a character. I have been ruminating about this and I wonder about this criticism; what does it say about the book? I don't find Cal/lie to be an unbelievable character, though I must say that my experience with hermaphrodites (at least that I was aware of) is limited. I think that having a fluid identity means that you are an adaptive person (so it relates back to evolution). It ties into themes of education and life-long learning. If we are not fluid, how can we adapt, how can we learn? An person with a rigid identity is stagnant... there is no potential to grow or change... that person is a dead/inactive story. Others can make stories about that person but they have lost agency/purpose/meaning (which relates "Middlesex" to Dennett). I don't think a critique that Cal/lie is too fluid is valuable. The fluidity of the story makes it more generative; it is many stories combined into one. I think that a fluid story tells more, it has more potential. In addition to telling a 'new' story, it digs into its roots and exposes them as well. (If you couldn't tell, I am enjoying "Middlesex"... I think my uniformitarian storytelling bias is shining through)

In contrast to many of the posts that I have perused through, I wasn't too shocked at the idea that there was a spectrum of gender and sex. Think of the implications of the spectrum of gender/sex the next time you are filling out a form and you have to tick a box for either male or female. From my experience as a psychology major, society and biology often interact and that their relationship is complex and impossible to untangle. There must be a different gender and sex for every person alive, or who ever will be alive. (It relates to the 'man in the door' metaphor) Gender is a issue that is often explored in psychology and I guess I took my pre-existing knowledge for granted. There is an interesting book, "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl", relating to the biological and social aspects of gender and sex. It is about a biological male (who was conveniently a twin) who was reassigned as a girl after a botched circumcision mutilated his external genitalia. Not only does he rebel against the 'assignment' of the female sex/gender that he was raised as, the book also asks important questions about the ethicacy of gender/sex reassignment and shows how underlying motives in science can be detrimental for subjects/patients.

Classical Influences
Name: Lauren Z
Date: 2005-03-15 18:23:10
Link to this Comment: 13536

As a Bryn Mawr Classics major I am really enjoying the classical influences evident in the text. Did anyone else notice that in an early chapter the car Uncle Pete was driving was "wine-dark"? Also, the books non-linear structure reminds me of the "in medias res" strucuture found in epic poetry. However, what Anne's lecture defined more clearly for me is the theme of reinventing the self that is also present in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Thanks Anne! I really like how examining the literary ancestors of Middlesex ties into the course's experiment of applying the concepts of Evolution to literature. Things are really starting to come together for me.

Cal / lie's narration
Name: Annie Sull
Date: 2005-03-15 22:23:34
Link to this Comment: 13539

Like everyone else, I am loving Middlesex. . . and (as many have also asked) I find myself wondering why Cal/lie is writing this story. . I find the narration compelling yet contradictory. Cal/lie narrates the evolution of her (I am just going to stick to the feminine pronoun for simplicity's sake) family. She states in the first sentence that she is a hermaphrodite, and the reader senses immediately that this is a story of biology--the story of the ancestry which produces Cal. In a sense, the reader has an expectation, a kind of destination in mind. While reading, I found myself trying to piece together Cal's story, anticipating the narration and predicting the evolutionary track of her family. This sense of determinism (that I felt as a reader, maybe others wll disagree) contradicts Cal/lie's winding, time-skipping narration ..

I am also intrigued by the scientific language and metaphors that infiltrate Cal's imaginative story.. She says at one point that her being came down to "chance and sex.." I absolutely loved Eugenides description of the baptismal scene ("Everything was silent. The sides of my neck tingled in the place where humans once had gills. I was dimly aware that this beginning was somehow indicative of the rest of my life. My family around me; I was in the hands of God. But I was in my own, separate element, too, submerged in rare sensations, pushing evolutions envelope" . . this of course proceeds with Cal's stream of "crystalline liquid" 221). . Eugenides often employs such biological descriptions , placing humans and everything we name as 'fate' or reason back into the organic world. Cal incessantly emphasizes the absolute haphazard, random, acts that produced her own existence; yet she counters this vision of a purposeless, accidental world in her own narration.. Cal's story strives to find reasons, to fill in the blanks, to read minds and desires, and to imagine the past. As father Mike suggests, stories are integral to human existence. And Cal tells us directly that she will assume a kind of absurd omnicience (derived from a kind of Wordsworthian de-evolutionary model): Cal and her brother floating on "raft eggs," before birth, knowing and seeing everything. . . She is everywhere in her own story: she is at once a middle-aged man in Germany, a tiny child, an awkward adolescent, and a spirit not yet born.... She is strangely the very center of, and exempt from, the evolutionary lineage she traces. . Cal demonstrates the very human, imaginative, story-teller part of mankind that escapes biological scientific history she writes. . Consciousness may be an accident, as the decrepit Lefty realizes as lies crumpled on the sidewalk, but this does not depreciate the act of storytelling that Cal cannot escape

sexual dimorphism revisited
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-03-15 23:44:30
Link to this Comment: 13542

So many of you are writing about your bewilderment/wonderment @ the notion of more than two sexes...if you want to read more about this, you might look @

everyone is bumping into each other....
but the

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-03-16 22:01:16
Link to this Comment: 13562

My section found ourselves, today, cyling back to the earliest terms of this course: in what style of storytelling is Eugenides engaged? Is Middlesex "catastrophic" or "uniformitarian"? How much is it a continuation/how much a renovation of Greek myths and tragedies? How "inevitable," how "determined," is the story Callie tells, how "random," how much the result of chance? We found ourselves working towards the notion that stories are the shapes we make of the shapeless, the form we give to the formless, the maps we make of the territory, the explanations we offer of how we came to be who we are (this akin to Ghazal's idea, above, that to trace down how one specific mutation came to be is kind of triumphant....Cal is essentially defending his/her existence....)

Nicely expressive of all this is an essay by Craig Womack, "Howling at the Moon: The Queer but True Story of My Life as a Hank Williams Song," which Bethany Schneider shared w/ me just before break. Womack says, in part, a vast terrain with many possibilities for getting lost, as well as for finding one's way, and not enough folks talking about better maps that represent the real territory in life makes the most sense to me when I think of it as a narrative, kind of like a creation story, where you start with chaos, confusion, as in the Creek story where everyone is stumbling about in a thick fog, bumping into each other and getting hurt. But then, by the end of the story, the fog lifts, individuals have banded together with the animals they ran into and discovered their clans and their place among the people....the story is like a circle; periodically, you end up back in the fog and chaos, but as you get further along, the darkness becomes more manageable, and you know eventually you will emerge out into the light of the broader landscape.

Virginia Woolf
Name: Maureen En
Date: 2005-03-17 00:14:45
Link to this Comment: 13570

I was just reading in the "Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism" for my Methods of Literary Study class selections from Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own". I wanted to share because particularly the section on "Androgyne" was very interesting and I think relevant to class. Woolf is talking about writing and the concept of a male and female voice and mind. She says that the best writers, like Shakespeare, write from an Androgynous mind. If anyone is interested in reading more, an online copy of that section can be found at

on boxy-ness
Name: Anne Sulli
Date: 2005-03-17 09:44:19
Link to this Comment: 13578

I am still thinking about the "boxy-ness" or classification of gender which Paul's group discussed yesterday (As a disclaimer, I have not yet reached the moment in the novel when Cal/lie exclaims, "I am a boy," or something to that effect). I find it interesting and complicated that many of us felt that the narration -- along with Cal/lie's identity -- leaps somewhat effortlessly from female to male. It's strange to me because the novel seems fundamentally concerned with hybridity --with the dual self: the hyphenated national identity of Cal/ie's family, the school-girl / sexual love affair between Cal and the Object, and the sibling / spouse relationship between Desdemona and Lefty, to name only a few examples. Eugenides endlessly transgresses boundaries-- he disrupts dichotomies and (as revealed during our discussion yesterday) often makes us uncomfortable. Likewise, the book is ridden with metaphors of concealment, or layers of disguise -- Callie hiding behind her mane of hair in the basement bathroom stall at school, for example, the concealed and faceless voice that Desdemona listens to through a heating vent at the temple, and the enclosed, shrouded "crocus" that confuses Callie, etc. Anyway . . . given these moments of concealment and duality.... I find it odd that we read Callie's voice as so one-dimensional.. as a voice that re-erects those dichotomies that Eugenides continually dissolves...

I guess what I feel may be a reason for this contradiction (and someone mentioned this in class yesterday as well), is that Eugenides is commenting / parodying gender categorization. Maybe it comes back to this distinction between transformation and discovery (the latter of which we find in Greek Tragedy). Discovery implies the pre-existence of something which one eventually notices, or finds. Transformation, conversely, is willing reinvention . . . an acted transition from one thing to another. When Callie says, "I am a man!" she calls upon the transformation of the self -- a reconstruction of identity. So while it may seem like a deflection of a more complicated issue, Eugenides may actually be calling attention to constructionism, to the constant creation and revision of gender identity. Identity, sexual or otherwise, is perhaps that blank space which gains meaning only through our interpretations.

Reminder: keep on reading, keep on posting...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-03-18 18:07:47
Link to this Comment: 13632

Keep on reading Middlesex, and by Sunday @ 5 p.m. post your reflections about

  • the remainder (or the whole!) of the novel
  • Eugenides' Dangerous Ideas
  • The Birds and the Bees
  • conversations upstairs
  • conversations downstairs
  • and/or related matters....

    "Looking" forward to "listening" to what you have to say--

  • Response to class discussion
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-03-19 19:57:06
    Link to this Comment: 13648

    We talked about finding passages of the book that had beautiful language. One part of the book that I especially like is the second half of page 260 where Callie is talking about the new house with its abundance of windows. She mentions that her mother grew to appreciate them. Right after that she discusses her grandfather and the windows: "Lefty cleaned them. Making himself useful as aways, he took upon himself the Sisyphean task of keeping all those Modernist surfaces sparking." She says more about the windows, but these lines are a wonderful evolution, if you will, from "The Myth of Sisyphus" to part of a single page in "Middlesex." In this way, the language is particularly well chosen.

    end of the book
    Name: Anjali Vai
    Date: 2005-03-19 23:45:10
    Link to this Comment: 13650

    I just finished Middlesex about a half an hour ago and the book is still settling down in my mind. I loved this book. I've been happily immersed in it all day, and I'm sad it's over... I'm still wondering why Chapter Eleven was named Chapter Eleven- I thought there would be an explanation at some point, but if there was I missed it.

    One thing the book made me think of was that I kept trying to classify Cal/lie as either a boy or a girl. And I wasn't doing it at all consciously- it wasn't until about three quarters of the way through the book that I realized I was doing it. I realized that my sense of a character and the way that I hear their voice depends a lot on what gender they are. There was a portion of the book- when Callie was 13 and 14, becoming friends with the Object, when something just felt off about the dialogue to me. It didn't sound right. And I suddenly realized at some point that it didn't sound right because I was hearing Callie's voice as a teenage girl's voice. As soon as I started thinking of him/her as a teenage boy, the dialogue stopped throwing me off.

    I thought that was interesting, since it wasn't something I've ever realized that I do before- and it made me realize that I don't have any sense for what "in between" a girl and a boy's voice would sound like. I don't have a sense for such a person. It's interesting how hard it is to develop a sense for a person that transcends gender. Gender plays such a large role in how I define people in my mind, and I'd never even noticed before...

    Cal/lie was a fascinating character. I loved this book, once again. It's introduced a lot of thoughts into my head that'll need to stew for a while...

    There was also a line that I liked on page 418, when Cal/lie is talking about writing his/her biography for Dr. Luce: "I quickly discovered that telling the truth wasn't nearly as much fun as making things up." That made me laugh, since that's so true about telling stories. You don't necessarily make things up, but you embellish and omit things and add things and manipulate the reader a bit maybe and it's fun. It avoids the more prosaic or darker truth, but it's fun.

    Name: Liz Patere
    Date: 2005-03-20 09:19:24
    Link to this Comment: 13652

    I didn't dislike this book, however, I think that perhaps I interpreted it a way that mocked the creation of boxes by demonstrating the manner in which people will place themselves in pre-constructed boxes rather than find individuality. I was annoyed that we kept trying to argue whther the author wrote in a female or male manner. Those are gross stereotypes and misconceptions. If you already know the author is male you will search for ways to fit him into that box. I remember explaining in my beauty class this picture I found beautiful. It was me with my friends at the Warped tour with a singer from one of my favorite bands. The picture reminded me of the beauty of the choas of this music not of personal relationships with friends, etc. However, I think in some way because I am female some people would try to find that element of connections in my picture, which clearly could be done. I never read characters the way their supposed to be read I suppose or at least I won't box people into a set of actions based on some preconcieved notion of gender. Perhaps it is merely that I defy so many of these notions myself. Okay but now it is time to get back the book and stop ranting.

    I thought that the lesson in this book was not that there should be a new box for some intermediate gender but rather that there should be no boxes at all. People should not be segregated on the basis of gender and should not define themselves by a gender. I thought it almost comdemic how Cal could just switch genders. The lack of debate to me was odd but I found that it aided in my point of how people love to put themselves in boxes. I didn't think the writing style should have changed. To me the writing style showed that the mind of the character remained the same regardless of the box that the physical body was placed in. I doubt that boxes can ever be destroyed; however, perhaps boxes can be used in a more favorable manner as grouping based on characteristics of the mind rather than the physical body. For instance, grouping people together based on personality and taste in clothing and music, perhaps is a more acceptable box. It is not ideal but neither is the world.

    In class we also spoke about how the box for the inbreeding was perhaps a postive thing or at least acceptable. The reason that I don't support inbreeding is because it is not biologically the best thing to do. There is a 1/4 chance for every gene that a person has that it will be the same gene repeated twice (I'm sorry this is me trying to grossly oversimplify). Humans carry many harmful recessive genes, and while many of these would kill a fetus in utero, some would not and result in harmful recessive mutations being expressed in the population. In any event the box generally stops people who are either undereducation or incapable of comprehending why it is not favorable to inbreed. I do not like the existance of the box, and I would not condemn someone for inbreeding, however, I think that perhaps I might look down on them for being selfish and not thinking about the reprecussions of their reproductive choices.

    Name: Ariel Sing
    Date: 2005-03-20 13:39:43
    Link to this Comment: 13661

    I just finished Middlesex this weekend, and I really liked it. I did not find the end quite as compelling as the beginning though. I still think that Eugenides has beautiful way of handling language throughout the book, but at the end I felt like some of the things that happened to Cal became more unbelievable. I realize that this a weird statement given that many, many aspects of the book seem improbable. Yet the time in San Francisco felt more like it was created for a “purpose”, more like a plot devise used so that Cal could overcome that first step of awkwardness with minimal fuss, it seemed too much like a circus. Even with that I love the book.

    We talked about why incest bothers people so much in our Wednesday class and what the biological/cultural reasons are for the deeply felt revulsion. I have been quizzing my friends to find out their views, and to see if they could define why they were so repulsed by the idea. So far everyone has had the same reaction, but no one has been able to figure out why. At first they will bring up the genetic inbreeding issue, but only in a very cursory way, everyone moves onto the example that they could never imagine it happening with their sibling, the idea is simply repellent. One of the interesting things that I did note was that when I asked people about step-siblings, or adopted sibling, if they did not have any, they were wary about the idea, but did not consider it in anywhere near the same category as relations with “true” siblings. However if the person did have any half or adopted siblings, they were far more revolted by the idea.

    Anyway, on a different note, I was perusing the BBC science web page and found an article on the X chromosome versus the Y chromosome. It is really interesting, it turns out that people with two X chromosomes have more genes expressed than people with an X and a Y. So people with two X chromosomes are more genetically varied. There is more information in the article itself, it is really quite interesting.

    Name: Rebekah Ba
    Date: 2005-03-20 14:09:39
    Link to this Comment: 13662

    Ariel, that article does sound interesting. Could you perhaps post a link?

    Paul's section of the class also discussed the incest issue last Wednesday. I remember bringing up something I'd read about how and why humans seem so innately averse to incest. I thought about it a bit more, and then recalled that a whole chapter in the book Consilience, by biologist E.O. Wilson is dedicated to exploring this phenomena. Although I didn't bring my copy with me to school, I googled a little and found an interview with the Wilson that explains the "Westermarck effect" that I was recalling in class.

    This is Wilson on the subject:

    "I believe the evidence shows persuasively that the original Freudian view of the origin of the incest taboo is incorrect--that some people have an overpowering urge to commit incest and cultures have created this taboo in response. It turns out to be just the reverse of that. The evidence indicates that it is due to the innate aversion to sex that arises from the so-called Westermarck effect--namely, individuals who are intimately associated during the first 30 months of life are desensitized to later close sexual bonding. All of the nonhuman primate species that have been examined for development of sexual preference also show this Westermarck effect. . . . It also explains the interactions of what we presume are genes underlying this rule of inhibition or desensitization. Note that if children are reared apart during the first 30 months or more of their lives and then brought back together again, they would have no barrier to forming sexual bonds, except being told that this is prohibited by custom and law. And then this fits very well with what we know in exact detail about the deleterious effects of inbreeding. When you marry or when you have a child with someone who's very closely related, then the chances are greatly increased that you will bring into juxtaposition rare genes in the population that cause genetic disease. So here we have an example of an understanding of what's going on at the level of the gene in human genetics, and leading up to and explaining how a certain psychological mechanism developed in the brain, which in turn provides an explanation to a wide range of phenomena concerning sexual preference, incest avoidance and all of the various myths and laws and religious prohibitions connected thereto."

    As this quotation suggests, the interview (and the book that inspired it) is really relevent to some of the themes of this class and might be worth reading.

    Middlesex and much more
    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-03-20 14:17:17
    Link to this Comment: 13663

    I proceed with caution. I proceed with the risk of oversimplifying a book so superabundant with characters, history and incident. But here goes …

    Cal (Cal has me convinced too) doesn’t believe in genetics. Genetics is the scientific version of the ancient Greek notion of fate. Genes are predestined to explain his life. And yes, genetics does account for Cal’s ambiguous “intersexual” genitalia. But it can’t explain this Greek-American’s taste in handmade shoes, his Musketeer-like facial hair or his decision to avoid gender reassignment surgery and assume life as a person of “Middlesex”. Viewed through a sociobiological lens, infidelity, the novel's favorite theme, is transformed from the stuff of betrayal and moral failing to the mere playing out of a Darwinian reproductive imperative. Despair springs from an inherited defect in the regulation of neurochemicals, not from an existential apprehension of the immorality associated with incestuous relationships. Cal offers me an alternative to genetics. "A strange new possibility is arising," he tells me. "Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain, life turns it into a mind"

    At one point in his narrative, Cal bemoans the tendency of language to oversimplify emotion. "I don't believe in 'sadness,' 'joy,' or 'regret,'" he writes. English has no words to connote "complicated hybrid emotions" such as "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." or "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants." Cal himself, once a pretty, dark-eyed girl and now a "severe, aquiline-nosed, Roman-coinish person" is a complicated hybrid: an inexpressible concept whose evolution and metamorphosis, facts and language will never capture. But then, aren't we all?

    At the end of it all, I am left with a single question. Is ''Middlesex'' -- or any novel, for that matter -- the story of its hero/ine, or the history of a particular configuration of DNA?

    Final Thoughts
    Name: Laine Edwa
    Date: 2005-03-20 15:38:51
    Link to this Comment: 13667

    I simply love this book. It's the second time that I've read it, but because of the nature of the class and the things that I was looking for within the story the entire book changed. In our discussion upstairs on Wednesday we talked about whether or not the events of this book were inevitable. I'm not sure that I know there is a definitive answer to that question because it leads me to ask "inevitable to what end?" When you ask if things are inevitable I think it is important to consider the outcome you are expecting. Do we mean Cali's birth, the expression of the gene, her change in identity's? All of these things are connected yet each one takes a turn on its own to create the story.

    In response to Arshiya's question, "Is ''Middlesex'' -- or any novel, for that matter -- the story of its hero/ine, or the history of a particular configuration of DNA?", I started to think about the different elements (family history, greek myths, etc.) of the story as the different genes in the story's DNA. Each one individually tells a separate story, but when expressed in relation to each other we get the whole picture, or story for that matter.

    Fate, Genetics, and Happy Reading
    Name: Tonda Shim
    Date: 2005-03-20 15:50:15
    Link to this Comment: 13669

    To add to Arshiya's comment, I think Cal has a very interesting take on our existence. Whether due to his Greek heritage, or a result of his tramatic teenage experiences, Cal looks for a reason in everything. I think that is why the story is so enjoyable and electrifying to read - because from the story of Desdemona and Lefty we are ushered into a picture in which we believe that there is a purpose for Cal's narration of this event. That all the events and emotions of the lives of these three generations of Stephanides are going to culminate in Cal, in the very reasoning for his existence and being the way he is.

    Obviously, genetics played a very large part in the story, causing the deficiencies and appearances of genetic material and altering Callie's/Cal's life forever. Even this is seen as having a purpose, as to bringing Cal to the person he was meant to be, and drastically changing his original story, which is ever-evolving. I feel that he gives us further reasoning to abandon the identification of two and only two genders, and move more towards what Grobstein was talking about last week - a spectrum. The idea fascinates me, and I wish more people understood what Cal so eloquently describes here.

    I found Eugenides' writing style (and Cal's narration) to be very comforting, so that I never felt uncomfortable reading about the many events in Cal's life that society would very likely consider taboo, or flat out wrong. I enjoyed his flowing in and out of Greek tragedy, Elizabethan comedy, and even throwing a little J.D. Salinger in for all our benefit. It was always smooth, never startling unless he wanted it to be so. Overall I think a very effective work and incredibly enjoyable read.

    Name: Haley Brug
    Date: 2005-03-20 18:29:15
    Link to this Comment: 13679

    Having finished Middlesex early on this weekend, I first have to say that I loved the book, so I have very few "critiques". I thought it was enjoyable and gripping to the very last and eye-opening to say the least.

    When I began reading it, I was struck by the movement backward and forward in time. I liked how we read nearly chronologically the story of Cal's grandparents, parents, and then his own life story. It has been a long time since I've read a book structured like this one. The main character is not even born until part 3, which is a little over halfway through the book. I have still not come to a decision why Eugenides decided to structure it in this way.

    Others have talked about Cal's reliability as a narrator, as well, which oftentimes bothered me. How can he know the events that take place before his birth, or accurately describe them?

    Finally, we talked about Cal's voice as either being female, male or both downstairs, and whether or not Eugenides meant to make him sound one way or another. I am not quite sure that I believe that his manner of telling his story is connected to his gender (even though at some points he adds in comments like "All I know is this: despite my androgenized brain, there's an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell" on page 20), or that he sounds distinctly female or distinctly male at any particular point in the novel. I think, like every other person, Cal is unique in his voice and in his story-telling style.

    Cycles in Middlesex
    Name: Kate Shine
    Date: 2005-03-20 22:45:51
    Link to this Comment: 13704

    I have been thinking about the concept of cycles Anne raised, and trying to see how it applies to the stories and the genes we find in Middlesex. To quote Anne quoting Craig Womack, "I think the story is like a circle; periodically, you end up back in the fog and chaos, but as you get further along, the darkness becomes more manageable..." I think this quote applies to Middlesex in a number of important ways.

    There are so many cycles in Middlesex. After reading comments I have been seeing how the story does something interesting- it tells the story of Cal and Cal's ancestors' lives as one continuous, evolving story. I think so often we, especially in America, see ourselves as standing alone in our own self-created story. But Eugenides sees a parallel between the long view of evolution as a story of genes told through the generations, and a story of personal choices and influences only truly understood through the generations.

    The example that is sticking out in my mind is that of the cycle of incest in Middlesex. First Lefty and Desdemona, and then Cal's parents commit a type of incest. Although the second generation is technically a lesser form of "cousin incest," it seems to be made more similar and scandalous by the fact that the two were raised in the same room as infants. This repeats the history of Lefty and Desdemona sharing a room, which Eugenides specifically points out. This comment highlights the repetitiveness of the history of the family and also serves as a type of foreshadowing. Eugenides in this and other examples implies that the genes continue a story that they have willed themselves to continue, that this incest in the family was somehow fated by the genes. This seems illogical at first, but in light of the genetically inhereted Westermarck affect mentioned by Rebekah, one could see how perhaps a mutation in the Westermarck gene or set of genes might give rise to the prevalence of incestual behavior in Callie's family.

    This leads me to ask myself, where is the incest in Callie's generation? There seems to be none, and this may be significant. Chapter Eleven and Callie would be the most obvious choices for incest, since they are the only members of this generation who play a central role as characters. The narrator often mentions the two as a united whole, especially before birth they are floating on rafts, the only two ominiscient characters. However I believe Cal/lie shows a significant distaste and dissconnection from his/her brother throughout the book, evidenced by the shameful name that seems to define him. Perhaps this unharmonious relationship implies from the beginning something about Cal's lack of traditional femininity in the sense of not having the protective younger sister/older brother relationship but more of a competitive traditionally male quality of the "brotherly" Cain and Abel variety. Also it may be significant that by the end of the book although both are well into middle age neither has seemed to find a definitive life partner.

    This exploration of the absence of incest in the third generation is interesting, but I still feel that the cycle MUST be passed down in some evolved form. I've begun to think that perhaps Cal/lie him/herself is the chaotic and then more well-defined and then chaotic once again "incestual form," as s/he is in some sense torn between two related selves and possesses both genders within.

    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-03-20 22:55:51
    Link to this Comment: 13706

    I have to say, I enjoyed this book. It was entertaining and different. It was in simple terms quite refreshing. However the novel’s unique style makes me curious. The book seems to begin in another world filled with incest, a village life, taboo and genetic mutations and ends up in a completely different world. Initially I felt it was a book that sought to connect two different worlds in a genetic web by using elements of Greek tragedy and scientific explanations of genetics. In some ways, the book was attempting to find some connection between genes and their ability to create consequences through our actions. These consequences based on Desdemona and Lefty’s actions to some degree affect Cal or Callie in the future. Therefore there’s a sense of how life levels all of us out and consequences are the bearers of morality. Desdemona always feared that there might be something wrong with her children. There wasn’t and she thought it was okay. But then came the twist, Callie/Cal. I think its interesting how Eugenides created a modern Greek tragedy. Perhaps his culture is permeating his work, but I think it’s more deliberate than that.

    The use of science, especially in the latter half of the book introduces another style that adds to the effective reception of the book. It’s both scary and interesting and provides a realistic and imaginable context to the book. However what is still dissatisfying even at the end is Callie/Cals transition. I dont think the book fully captured the essence of Callie/Cal's sexual journey. The trauma is superficial. While there are so many instances in the novel that Cal is confused and reverts back in forth in his/her head, it was not convincing to me as a reader.

    Name: maria
    Date: 2005-03-20 23:58:42
    Link to this Comment: 13718

    The issue of incest has clearly been present in human society for a very long time *and* present in such a way that it is a consistently acknowledged (though not accepted) part of human culture. It has been an identifiable presence in a variety of societies and because it was observed it had to be accounted for in the stories those societies told about themselves and the world they lived in.

    I am always leery of first-person narrators who tell stories that contain more information than the narrator could possible have (again with the knowledge of his grandparents relationship). If Eugenides had wanted to, he surely could have written the narrative voice of Cal in a way that corresponded more closely to the sort of stories that we are actaully able to tell about ourselves and our families. The question then becomes why Eugenides chose to write this novel the way that he did. He wanted Cal to seem real to us, on the first page one is confronted with what seem to be a number of facts that in thier specificity ("Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974"..."Dr. Peter Luce's study...") paint a picture of Cal as a almost-objective, insightful narrator. But the more I read the more I had trouble reconciling Cal the narrator with the narrative he provides.

    Name: Brittany
    Date: 2005-03-21 00:44:40
    Link to this Comment: 13723

    Like Maria, I've also been wondering about Eugenides's storytelling style. Middlesex seems the furthest thing from the traditional transsexual coming-of-age tale, and I think the fact that "Cal" is an omniscient narrator has a lot to do with it. Throughout the book, he enters his characters' heads indiscriminately; even during the same scene, he'll switch perspectives several times. The most striking example of this (in my opinion) was in that highly uncomfortable Lefty/Des lifeboat scene. Cal depicted the union from both sides, sometimes paragraph-by-paragraph. The more I think about it, the more I think that Eugenides did this purposefully. Maybe the point of the book was *not* to have a "big epiphany change of writing style" when Callie finally, physically became Cal. Maybe the entire book is an exercise in seeing from two perspectives at once. The narrative style mimics (or reflects?) its fictional "author's" ability. So when Callie becomes Cal (or even earlier, when the omniscient narrator settles for a long while in Callie), there is no significant change in style. We've already been hearing a ping-pong of male/female viewpoint throughout the book. Callie's shift should be no different.

    But. The thing is, no matter how many times Eugenides enters a female's head, I still feel a sense of detachment---like it's really Cal-the-male operating subtly from inside Des-the-female's skull. I can't explain this feeling; it has to do with his writing style, which still despite everything strikes me as "male." I'm too much a part of the tradition I was raised in, I guess. I can't define the "male/female boxes" consciously, but I know what they are and I'm programmed to file certain cadences of words, phrases, writing styles, into each box.

    a continuous story? free well vs genetics
    Name: Britt Frem
    Date: 2005-03-21 10:19:26
    Link to this Comment: 13742

    I was up late--late, late--finished the book, and it was worth it.

    I just wanted to point out something that I don't believe has been mentioned yet.

    During the last hundred pages, or so, I paid particular attention to references to previous actions of Desdemona and Lefty. Eugenides often referred to them during Milton's quest to get Cal/lie. On page 501 and 502 the story goes "Back in 1933, a disembodied voice had spoken to my grandmother.... now, forty-two years later, a disguised voice spoke to my father..." AND "Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had reveled thier secret here.. and now their son... was pulling in behind ths station, also secretly."

    I merely mention this because I think it relates to the fate/genetics/free will/chance discussion. If Cal is a proponent of free will, how does he account for the continuous actions of his relatives? Is there something "in their genes" that led them to do this particular action? Or, is it simply chance that Milton mirrored his parents actions on his last day living? (Thus making it a more interesting story.) OR, is he just saying that free will is great and everything and that he's really glad it's "making a comeback."

    I assume he believe in a mixture of this whole chance and fate dualism. (If that's not an appropriate usage of the word, forgive me. I've never used it before.) On 489 Cal says that "Fate or luck had brought me [to San Francisco] and I had to take from it what I needed." I suppose this could be a metaphor for him accepting his hermaphodism and then doing what he could with it.

    I look forward to class today.

    Passion: The Gospel Story
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-03-21 20:46:57
    Link to this Comment: 13823

    The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew

    Cal(lie)'s point of view
    Name: Becky Hahn
    Date: 2005-03-21 21:34:48
    Link to this Comment: 13832

    I am particularly interested in Cal(lie)'s point of view and specifically the idea of consciousness. At first the omniscient POV was a little unsettling because it seems unnatural for a single character to know so many details about others' lives. But once I got used to it, it made more sense because each detail is a part of Cal(lie)'s story--something that made her who she is--no matter how distant the events may seem. The idea of Middlesex as an Easter story, with Cal(lie) as the Christ figure is also useful for understanding this omniscience, and the importance of her story (as she tells it, it becomes comparable to religion--"the greatest story ever told" p. 179).

    The "gender" of her perspective doesn't matter to me so much. I usually am quite conscious of the the gender of the narrator of a story that I'm reading, but in this case I'm not. Cal(lie)'s perspective seems to go beyond gender, not in terms of a "third sex" but more of a universal, god-like omnicience where gender is not on your mind. Which seem strange from a book that is thoroghly about sex/gender...

    Cal(lie) is certainly central thorughout the novel, but her consciousness is not as present as it seems it would be. She has a way of looking at things from outside--including herself--that sometimes restricts our understanding of her own consciousness of self, despite the fact that she's omnipresent. There's a strange tension between exploration of consiousness of self and lack of consiousness.

    Name: Jessica
    Date: 2005-03-22 08:34:44
    Link to this Comment: 13858

    Slightly off topic: I read this story over the weekend, “Lost and found: Tsunami reveals a town's ancient ruins,”
    and couldn’t stop thinking about it in conjunction with this class. During the tsunami, when the ocean pulled far away from the land, everyone watching swore they saw hidden temples and ruins revealed. Most of it has now been covered by the water again, and there are discrepancies between what the archeologists say they could have seen, and what the fisherman say they actually saw with the waves blown back.

    And that’s part of the evolution going on in Middlesex. Cal/lie’s catastrophic event uncovers her grandparents’ story. Only when evolution brings Cal to life does it unearth, with verifiable, look and see, scientific evidence, what actually happened on that mountain top, and on that ship. And only in the telling of Callie’s story does her grandparents’ story ever get told (no one else is writing books about Lefty and Desdemona)

    So that’s a part of evolution that’d been right in front of my face, I suppose, but I love every week, being able to articulate a slightly different angle of these stories.

    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-03-22 13:14:47
    Link to this Comment: 13869

    In some ways the story of Callie is one of biological evolution. Especially in the use of metaphors and direct scientific knowledge. I find it interesting how Eugenides mixes science with greek tragedy and American ideas to produce a very effective book which audiences respond too in such a powerful manner. Hence the question that arises is how is it possible that throughout the other two books, Mayr and Dennett emphasize the lack of purpose, fate and intentionality that Eugenides captures so beautifully without creating much tension between the two supposedly opposite ideals. Like Rebekah, then I wonder if that is a return to the idea of free will. Perhaps the book resonated with us in a more personal way because the truth is that despite what Mayr and Dennett said quite convincingly, isnt actually what we want to believe. We want to believe in some sort of purpose because that is what gives us free will and the ability to choose. I suppose Im rambling and not making much sense but what Im basically trying to get too is that he mixes the scientific with the philosophical and the literary and produces a piece of work that sheds light upon our darkest secret. That while cells hide the mutations and the information and we're like computers, we intrinsically and socially cannot comprehend our existence without the purpose that we create through whatever medium, memes. This book grasped the human aspect of all the previous stories and thats what made this book better. Plus it was more interesting with all its scandal and honesty.

    Another interesting thing was that Cal/Callie presents his or herself as undergoing a gender change that wasnt dramatic. The most important inference from that was that Cal was rejecting the experience as being a big deal. The greater message being, that it was always in her himself and this was simply not as drastic and dramatic as we initially may have wanted it to be. Perhaps this is the single most important message of the novel.

    Professor Dalke's question about the pragmatic versus the idealist was very thought provoking. In its simplicity lay a dichotomy that was actually a continuum. Pragmatism is what age brings while idealism is what age destroys. As hard as that sounds I feel like experience removes idealism in degrees. Not to say we are one or the other. We are probably both, more or less one of the other. I just liked that question because it made me think about things I didnt think about before. It reinforces my belief that there is no such thing as a simple answer to a straightforward question.

    Name: Maja
    Date: 2005-03-22 13:52:09
    Link to this Comment: 13874

    In yesterdays’ class, some random ideas popped into my head and I thought I'd share them. First, when Ann Dalke brought up the idea that scientists use more radical story telling styles and Ariel disagreed with her, it made me think of my own opinion on the matter. Although scientist do tend to constantly build onto and off of previous theories, research and knowledge, they often find themselves reaching a brick wall and having to completely abandon one well-established theory or belief for a completely outrageous and new notion. A perfect example of that was the widely accepted idea that all of the planets and the sun revolved around the earth. I would consider that shift in the plotline to be a radical change to the story. They don’t try to subtly connect the two theories. Instead, they abruptly end one as it is disproved by the other.

    I was also intrigued by the comment about viewing ourselves from the outside, or choosing not to. I had spent the better part of my childhood (through my first year at college) not really paying much attention to myself in any way, but instead focusing on other people and their personalities, habits, and ways. It was, in a way, a self-defense mechanism that I had mastered into a state of perfection. I was so focused on reading other people that I neglected to 'read' into myself. When I was first faced with the realization of the person that I had shaped into, it almost felt like an out of body experience. It just hit me out of nowhere and all of a sudden I had to deal with the reality of this realization. It is very much an influential experience. And now I realize the importance of checking in with yourself every once in a while. I wonder how life is different for those who seem to overanalyze themselves versus those who barely notice that there may be a ‘self’ to detect.

    Egg imagery
    Name: Lauren Z
    Date: 2005-03-22 23:17:41
    Link to this Comment: 13901

    I just wanted to say a bit about all the egg imagery in Middlesex. There is the easter egg scene the night of Cal's conception. There is also the scene in which Callie is asked to translate a line from Ovid: "omnia ex ova," everything from an egg. I'm certain I had thought up quite a few more, but right now they all escape me. Anyway, I had originally associated this egg imagery with the circular story telling style that we had discussed earlier as a style that is distinctly "feminine." Anne's lecture yesterday on the story of Easter has also enabled me to connect this imagery to the theme of rebirth that is so central to the novel. Wow! The more I search, the more I find.

    Finishing Middlesex
    Name: Austin
    Date: 2005-03-24 02:20:32
    Link to this Comment: 13958

    I really enjoyed Middlesex as a jumping off point for all of our discussions in this class, biological and otherwise, as well as just a great read. Although some were wary of Cal being an omnicient narrator, yet a real person in the story, I really enjoyed this aspect. I thought that being able to see into everyone's head involved in this story was an amazing benefit to understanding the complexity of the characters and the plot. Even though the idea of the omnicient narrator who is also present in the story is unrealistic, I found it different, interesting, and a great aspect to the book. I just had to accept that, in reality, there is no way that Cal could have had all of this knowledge. But I am willing to accept that and allow the narrator to break this boundary.

    A note about the Greek references: I believe that they are not utterly essential to the story and that one can get along quite nicely without understanding their meaning, although it's a great benefit if you do. I believe that if we think of this in relation to other aspects of the story, however, we will see that one can never get the full grasp of every interworking detail of a tale. Not all of us are familiar with Detroit, but we didn't feel unsettled about this fact. Nor did we get caught up in the fact that we didn't have an idea of what it's like to marry your brother, flee from a war, live as both genders, or even that we didn't understand references to cars, trees, house layouts, or the silk industry. Some people may have understood these and therefore received the benefit of knowing a reference, but it wasn't essential to the story. Every book has unknown aspects to it, and that is what makes reading such an amazing journey. If we knew everything to be known within a text, there would really not be much point in reading it.

    Reflections on class and Herculine Barbin
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-03-24 18:48:14
    Link to this Comment: 13992

    In class yesterday, Anne chose to forbid us from using the word “guilt”, indicating that it was never okay. Personally, though, I associate “guilt” as being connected to the notion of one’s conscience. Therefore, guilt is still negative, but so is doing what an individual knows to be wrong. I remember being in Confirmation class in 7th grade and being forced to play a “game” about situations with my classmates. Basically, the teacher read a card that indicated a hypothetical situation. There would be three choices: (1) the obviously right choice, (2) the partially wrong, though creatively justifiable choice, and (3) the obviously wrong choice. I always chose the first option because I knew that if I was actually involved in those situations, if I did one of the other two options, I would feel guilty for a rediculously long period of time. Therefore, it wasn’t worth it. My classmates, needless to say, felt differently. Therefore, the word “guilt” is a perfectly acceptable word choice for me to use. However, I do not need to use it in class. I know that I have my own words that I choose not to use (rather I choose not to use them in the way that I am forever hearing them around campus), so I will respect Anne’s choice for her “forbidden” word.

    In response to Herculine Barbin, I’ve read the first one hundred pages of the book and I don’t like it as much as Middlesex. My problem is that there is no point of connection between Herculine Barbin and my own life, as there was for Middlesex. However, this book is shorter, so it is okay that I don’t like it as much.

    new book? same old story? the more things change..
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-03-25 13:17:28
    Link to this Comment: 14008

    If we knew everything to be known within a text, there would really not be much point in reading it.

    Austin's comment, which closed our forum on Middlesex, is also a pretty good stepping-off place for this invitation to read a new text, Foucault's edition of Herculine Barbin. Post here by Sunday @ 5 p.m. your reactions, responses, questions...

    Here are a number of possibilities:
    You might describe your initial impressions of this person, or of the text which tells per story, or of Foucault's commentary.
    In what ways is this tale like/unlike that told in Middlesex?
    Does it belong in Callie's family tree?
    In the literary (or scientific?) geneology of Middlesex? How can you tell?

    What sort of story is it? (catastrophic, continuous, tragic, comedic?)
    In what kind of style, and from what sort of perspective (omniscient, first person limited point of view?) is it told?

    Looking forward to "hearing" your thoughts--

    Name: Jennifer
    Date: 2005-03-27 11:01:38
    Link to this Comment: 14043

    In the discussions we have talked about male and female voices, and it has been argued that putting people into specific categories is inappropriate. However, my initial reactions to the story were at how much she sounded like a teenage girl, and while I understand that this is not the style of all teenage girls it resembles a generalization of the writing of modern teenage girls. Sometimes generalizations serve as categories, whether they are completely accurate they will get the point across. My apologies since I don’t think I could accurately describe the “typical teenage girl”.

    One of the problems I had with the book was that the details wouldn’t quite remain in my head. I would read them and then forget a good deal of what was going on. It makes what I’ve read so far confusing when I can’t quite remember characters as well. I don’t know. The book just isn’t one of my favorites.

    Middlesex vs. Herculine Barbin
    Name: Becky Hahn
    Date: 2005-03-27 12:31:29
    Link to this Comment: 14045

    I've been reading Herculine Barbin with Middlesex in my head, searching for links. One of the most important similarities seems to be the idea of fate. Both narrators write with the belief that their lives are fated to be as they are. Their fates have much to do with genetics--their physical conditions--as well as God/the gods, although Barbin stresses God's will in her/his condition more than Cal(lie). Both characters also fall in love with girls who they are fated to lose. Since both books are "memoirs" (although Middlesex is fictional) there is a constant consciousness of the ending. Barbin frequently mentions her terrible fate and how little she can do about it. The story loses some of its interest because the main character submits most of her free will to her "inevitable" fate.

    In terms of differences, Eugenides incorporated much more background and depth into the story of Cal(lie). Barbin's story is structured much more like the diary it's composed of, in that there is little serious background discussion. We are dropped into Barbin's life without a complete understanding of the context. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it limits our understanding of her background. Barbin spends much more time discussing her/his emotions than Cal(lie), yet these emotions seem flat and frequently the details of what's causing them aren't discussed.

    It's easy to see why Eugenides was dissatisfied by the hermaphroditic perspective of Barbin and felt the need to create a modern story that deals with the original causes, the medical details, and fleshes out the context. Although Middlesex may have been inspired by Herculine Barbin, I don't think it's really the same story. Middlesex is more than an evolution of Herculine Barbin, it's a new story that expresses a new identity in a different context.

    Name: Jessica
    Date: 2005-03-27 14:49:16
    Link to this Comment: 14049

    Reading Herculine, I'm weaving everything we've done before it in and out. Ofcourse, I am left with more questions than answers.

    First: The one date we were supposed to remeber for this class: 1859. So it was hard not to notice that Foucault points out that one of the most important things about this memoir is its date: 1860. In the decade that followed "investigations of sexual identity were carried out with the most intensity." Darwin and sexuality and evolution and the establishment of modern perceptions of gender and species and all of it. Did Herculine read Darwin?

    (Meanwhile, there's that damn Ovid reference on 18... can't escape those Greeks)

    Also: our intersex texts until now both deal with the transformation from female to male. So now, with two models of how people have done it I'm wondering: what would it be like for me? This is fanciful, I know. But how would my female childhood translate? What kind of man would I be?

    Herculine Barbin
    Name: LT
    Date: 2005-03-27 15:23:04
    Link to this Comment: 14052

    Reading Herculine Barbin has almost made me see Middlesex more clearly, knowing that Eugenides read it. What bothered me most about Middlesex was that Cal/lie always seemed to be narrating from the perspective of the adult Cal, especially during Callie's life as a young girl. Herculine never really removes herself from the events of her story, to the point where her emotions overwhelm it.

    Also, though I suppose this might be giving in to an impulse for nice neat boxes, I got a very strong sense that Herculine was female, never really making the transition to a male perspective. In Middlesex, I got the strongest impression of Cal/lie as male when he was narrating his experiences as female. I don't know if this was deliberate, or if it was an effect of an adult male author trying to imagine a young girl's life. In the same way, I thought Herculine sounded the most female after she began living as a man.

    On Eugenides and Barbin
    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-03-27 15:29:15
    Link to this Comment: 14053

    Like Jessica, I too have been thinking about the kind of man I would be. I also wonder how translatable Callie's and Herculine's feelings are for us,those with "true sexes". It's difficult I guess, to imagine the differences in their perception of identity and mine. I don't doubt that these perceptions are different, but how or where?

    Unlike Middlesex, this memoir was described in its blurb as an "erotic diary" . I admit I've only read up to pg 119, My Memoirs, but I think I miss the physicality, fertility and the eroticism that was present in Middlesex. I can't picture Herculine in my head the way that I could see Callie. Perhaps this is reflective of Herculine's inability to live with herself, construct any identity, and her eventual breakdown.Whereas Callie's journey seems more to reconstruct herself, rebuild the lost identity.

    Both Middlesex and this memoir have got me thinking about the relationship between sex/gender and sexuality/sexual preference. Both Callie and Herculine, initially female felt intuitively lustful about other women. I was curious whether this lust, attraction was different from what other children feel growing up. I remember as a child, it was always easier for to imagine myself with girls rather than boys. Is that it? Or are the books making a claim of heterosexuality? Are they assuming that if you are male, you're inherently drawn to women? This seems unnatural in both cases and I don't know what to make of it.

    Lastly, I am thinking about the ethics behind having a memoir like this published. Why did, what made Foucault edit, cut out entire sections maybe, add paragraphs and finally book bind with a fancy cover? Did he think that society would learn something valuable about how to treat hermaphrodites? Did he think that Herculine Barbin was a brilliant writer and needed to be read by people years later? I can't help but feel some sense of betrayal when I read this.

    Herculine, Cal(lie), and other stories...
    Name: Tonda Shim
    Date: 2005-03-27 15:38:10
    Link to this Comment: 14055

    In case I haven't mentioned it before (which I know I have...) I'm really enjoying these readings. I find it fascinating that not only socially, but biologically as well there are many different genders, caused by the tiniest mishaps in fetal construction. I also enjoyed Foucault's introduction where he stated that "Biologica theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in the modern nations, led little by little to rejecting the idea of mixture of the two sexes in a single body..." Not that sentence specifically, but what the sentence and the preceeding paragraphs had explained; that hermaphrodites had once been accepted in society, and we didn't have such distinct necessities for one and only one sex, and that it was a relatively modern idea that such individuals should be condemned. My mother didn't seem to understand my excitement when I tried to explain, and I wanted to argue with the many very conservative republicans I've been around this weekend while at home when the subject of sexuality came up, but as I hadn't been able to convince my own mother, I didn't feel that I'd be able to convince them either (not that I was invited to join the conversation, anyway).

    I think Herculine Barbin most definitely belongs in Cal's family tree, as they both underwent much the same confusion and frustration. I think that Herculine and Cal would have very positively influenced each other had they lived in the same time period, because both, after discovering their new identity (or lack thereof?), felt an intense desire to belong somewhere, with someone. Cal found it in California for a time, but Herculine never really did, which more than likely influenced his early suicide. These books will definitely at least sit together on my shelf, whether or not they're "related," although, who knows, they could each be carrying a distorted meme of some sort, and somewhere down the line, produce something unimaginable...

    Middlesex and Herculine Barbin
    Name: Anjali Vai
    Date: 2005-03-27 15:39:26
    Link to this Comment: 14056

    I've been trying to keep my eye out for similarities between Herculine Barbin and Middlesex- ways in which Middlesex might've been influenced by Herculine Barbin.

    -For one, they both talk about schoolmistresses who were romantically involved with eachother (though in Middlesex it's just a passing reference)

    -They both have that odd quality of premonition in hindsight. Herculine Barbin is filled with it. Looking at what's mentioned of his childhood and teenage years, they don't look as though they were unhappy at all- but there're sentences scattered throughout that imply that he always knew he'd have a bad life. And Middlesex had something similar... That idea of fatedness (like Becky said)- in Middlesex Cal/lie singled out in his life those things which pointed towards what would ultimately happen to him. He/she could never have known what was coming, but by singling out those foreshadowings it feels like it was fate.

    I guess it's just, again, that whether something was fate or chance just depends on your perspective- whether you're looking forwards or backwards (as someone mentioned in class, I think).

    -And then both books have the idea that by remaking their identities, Cal and Camille have opened up new horizons and their new lives look exciting and filled with the unknown. Camille ends up faring much worse than Cal did, though... I'm a little confused as to how Camille ended up so, so depressed and mopey. I kept waiting for whatever catastrophe sent him over the edge, and the worst that ever happened was he got fired from the railroad job. And he seemed to think that being out of a job was the worst calamity that could ever happen to anyone. His endless moaning and melodrama got terribly annoying after a while.

    -And finally, all the classical references, again. Somehow the ones in Herculine Barbin are harder for me to figure out from context than the ones in Middlesex were. I'm confused about Ovid's Metamorpheses, for instance- which he keeps bringing up.

    Overall, I liked Middlesex a lot better... Herculine Barbin is short so it's not that bad, but I've found myself skimming a lot. It read like a bad romance novel with way too many exclamation marks for a while. And again, I really can't see what he had to complain so much about. He had some hard things to deal with, but he really didn't deal with them very well... He seemed more spoiled and self-indulgent and self-centred than as though he truly suffered in his life.

    Eugenides interview
    Name: Ghazal Zek
    Date: 2005-03-27 16:04:19
    Link to this Comment: 14057

    I found another article in the New Yorker (surprise) relevant to what we're studying now. This article is only online actually, and you can access it here.

    The article is actually an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides from July of '02. Here are some bits and pieces from it that I found interesting:

    BILL BUFORD: What is your interest in a character, a hermaphrodite, who partakes of both genders?

    JEFFREY EUGENIDES: My interest took conscious form at least fifteen years ago when I read Michel Foucault's "Memoirs of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite." Foucault found these memoirs in the archives of the French Department of Public Hygiene. I thought they would be a great read. The hermaphrodite in question, Herculine Barbin, was a student at a convent school. She was tall, thin, flat-chested, and scholastically gifted. She fell in love with her best friend and they began a clandestine love affair. These were the facts of the case, and I was eager to read the memoirs because they contained a lot of elements that stirred my imagination: an amazing personal metamorphosis, a hothouse passion, and a medical mystery. There was only one problem: Herculine Barbin couldn't write. Her prose was wooden. Exclamation marks ended every second sentence. She was given to melodrama and, worse yet, she skipped over the important parts. "Middlesex" began as an urge to fill in those gaps, to tell the story Herculine Barbin couldn't. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about a real, living hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodite characters in literature have been either mythical figures, like Tiresias, or fanciful creations, like Virginia Woolf's Orlando. I wanted to be accurate about the biological facts.

    ...My hunch is that I liked the idea of having a hermaphrodite narrate the book because the nature of the novelist is already hermaphroditic. You're supposed to get into the heads of both sexes and to travel back and forth with ease....What I'm saying is this: the act of reading that novel puts the reader into a state of gender confusion. You move back and forth from the male realm to the female. This wasn't something I was conscious of at the time I wrote "The Virgin Suicides." I see it now only in light of "Middlesex."

    I think what Eugenides says about novels putting readers in a state of gender confusion is so true. In general, I think it's confusing enough trying to get inside the head of someone who is the same gender as us, but to have to get inside the opposite sex's head is so much more challenging. In novels, we are constantly moving back and forth from "the male realm to the female" but it's so interesting to have to do that all within one character. I think we all possess masculine and feminine qualities (although I'm not even sure that it's right to classify qualities as masculine or feminine, anymore) so when we read something that sees the world through the opposite sex's eyes, we're calling out that part of us in order to relate or understand or get inside the character's head. Additionally, I think it's safe to say that some women will relate to masculine voices more than others, and some men will relate to feminine voices more than others. Knowing that Eugenides is a man, writing as a man who was once a girl adds another layer of confusion, but, for me, anyway, Cal never completely lost that part of his voice that was Callie.

    Similarities between Herculine Barbin and Middlese
    Name: Britt Frem
    Date: 2005-03-27 16:11:32
    Link to this Comment: 14059

    While reading Herculine Barbin, I was looking for the similarites between the two novels. Since I have only read two novels about hermaphodites in my life, this may have made that easier.

    Like Becky and someone else mentioned, I think the more prominent similarity is that both authors focus on fate/destiny as being the driving force in their characters' lives.
    [in my book]
    page 14 "I was going to lose her, too, no doubt forever; for our destinies could not reunite us."
    page 20 "A change in my destiny was going to take place..."
    page 21 "My fate was sealed. That evening had dertermined the rest of my life!"
    page 35 "What a destiny was mine, O my God!"

    She also writes of the male Superintendent as being a man who "holds...whole future[s] in his hands." (And that this is horrible.) She seems to have an antagonistic feeling towards men, like Callie does. Maybe this changes later in the novel (I haven't finished it yet), but I can't help but think that one reason she finds it hard to become male is that she just doesn't like them.

    I found her comment on science ("Sciene.. does not have the gift of miracles, and even less does it have the gift of prophecy." page 39) pertinent to our discussion on fate versus free will. Perhaps the writer does not yet know about Darwin's idea (and the "fates" genes give us), OR maybe she feels that our ability to change ourselves is bigger than those genes.

    On a different topic of beautiful language... I like the usage of the verb "rent" in the sentence "..the sight of all those fresh and charming faces, which were already smiling at me, rent my heart." (page 25)

    Camille and Callie
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-03-27 16:44:00
    Link to this Comment: 14060

    I think that the story of Herculine Barbin (Alexina, Camille, ect…) is an excellent foil for Middlesex. Both Cal/lie and Camille both lived their early lives as females before it was ‘discovered’ that they were hermaphrodites. Both of the stories are written in hindsight, which, I think, really helps the reader see how the characters identify themselves. Both Callie and Camille were attracted to females but Camille seems to identify as a female whereas Callie becomes increasingly aware of how her identity does not fit the ‘idea’ of female (which is illustrated when she makes up stories for Dr. Luce, she is aware that she is not really female and makes up stories believing that they will make Dr. Luce think that she is well adjusted and leave her alone). In both of the stories, there are common themes of idealism and pragmatism; during childhood, we are idealists but to enter adulthood we must become pragmatists. As Camille and Callie grow and become adults, they must deal with societal reactions to their ‘inadequate sex’. Both are forced to choose a single gender when they are really a mixture of both (a choice that we all make, to rebel against the gender we have been assigned or to live within the definition… ). The contrasts between Callie and Camille help me to better understand the choices the characters make. Camille helped me to better understand Callie, to understand where both Callie and Camille are located on the ‘gender spectrum’ and why they acted the way they did. The story of Herculine Barbin seems more catastrophic than Middlesex. Middlesex had so many different layers, themes, and I got a lot of different ideas about a variety of ideas from the book. Herculine Barbin is more concentrated, it focuses solely on the idea of gender. Herculine Barbin seemed like more of a social commentary. Camille criticized the position of ‘Superintendent of Primary Education’ and praises religious institutions (particularly the ones run by women). After reading Herculine Barbin, I feel like I am supposed think a certain way, that a message/moral is being imposed on me. While reading Middlesex, I felt like I was allowed to draw my own conclusions and interpretations. Herculine Barbin seemed more plot driven while Middlesex seemed more idea driven. Is that the difference between catastrophic and uniformitarian? Action v. thought, moral v. interpretation… ?

    Name: Ariel Sing
    Date: 2005-03-27 16:58:10
    Link to this Comment: 14061

    I have been thinking a lot about the reactions to Middlesex from my fellow students, so I thought that it would be interesting to find some reveiws of it. One of the more interesting ones that I found was from BBC, It is a partial transcript from a panel that discussed the book. Interestingly many of the topics that we covered n our wednesday group are talked about by the reviewers. There were two points that I thought especially related. One was that one reviewer did not like the first half of the book as much as the second, which was different from our class, in general, people our group found the ending rushed. Two, one reviewer notes, “ My personal problem is that I'm really tired of these 530-page novels. I don't understand why people are writing books these big. It takes us to page 230 to get to the story, there is huge scaffolding on [which] it seems that this generation of novelists - and this is a '90s novel - are writing 19th century realist books.” I thought that this was another application of the sky-hook versus crane theory. The idea that cranes are often used excessively in literature, to hold a book together, whereas maybe a sky hook creates a better, more cohesive story.

    Name: Lauren Z
    Date: 2005-03-27 17:00:12
    Link to this Comment: 14062

    I was intrigued by Foucault's observation that Western society believes in such a thing as a "true" gender, that a person cannot be considered a member of both genders. According to Foucalt, "sex harbors what is most true in ourselves." I believe that this idea does manifest itself in society, as well in Middlesex. Dr. Luce, after all, insisted that Callie have surgery in order that she clearly belong as a member of the female sex. What I wonder now is if the character of Cal also believed in such a thing as a "true" gender. In the note he wrote to his parents after reading Dr. Luce's report, Cal wrote "I am a boy!." He too did not believe that he could be both male and female, and went on to adopt what society understands as a "masculine" physique. I also remember that a couple people in class felt that Cal's narration felt masculine. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I will say that Herculine Barbin's narration feels considerably more feminine. But perhaps this is because, as the back of the books suggests, she is imitating the "torrid style of hte romantic novels of her day."

    A Question
    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-03-27 17:10:43
    Link to this Comment: 14063

    If Dr. Paul Grobstein (B.A. Biology 1969 / M.A. & Ph.D. (Neurobiology???) 1973) believes that "both sex and gender are social constructs"...Does he also believe that that evolution of sexuality and sexual preference also arose from social norms?

    In other words, are Callie's feelings for the Obscure Object and Herculine Barbin's feelings for Sarah not directly influenced by their secret "male-ness" ?

    The reading
    Name: Liz Patere
    Date: 2005-03-27 17:45:42
    Link to this Comment: 14064

    I felt a lot more emotionally flat in comparison to Middlesex. I'm a pretty unemotional person as it is but this book makes me care about the character mildly less. I almost feel as though I can see the stepping off point from Herculean to Middlesex. The similarities in the plot have been stated on here numerous times and therefore I will not reitertate them. I feel like the goal of the narrator Cal was to create more dimension to this concept of pseudohermaproditism. I wondered about author's being influenced by society by both having made their main characters show an attraction to women. Were they trying to show that these characters were secretly male all along or was Cal merely a write with the simple goal of using the same framework but developing it in a way that the author prefered? It could potentially be coincidence. I don't know.

    Name: Rebekah Ba
    Date: 2005-03-27 18:54:03
    Link to this Comment: 14067

    As I read Herculine Barbin I keep remembering the discussion Paul's small group session had last week about the voice of the narrator in Middlesex. While Cal narrates with a detached, unemotional, reporting style, Heculine (Camille? Alexina? What on earth should we call her? This is worse than a Russian novel...) write in an awkward, overly-excited, overwrought, and overpunctuated (the !!!s are making me crazy) prose. What effect do these different styles have on the story and our experience of it? For me, I've found myself bored with the way I'm constantly battered over the head by emotional overload by Barbin, who seems intent on informing us of how we should feel about and react to her predicaments. While she seems to hav a keen mind for descronstructing complex psychological experiences, she never takes a step back from her immediate, emotional reactions to events. Whereas Middlesex is an expansive, multi-faceted, multi-layered novel that weaves one story from many different perspectives, the scope of Barbin seems annoying limited in comparison. I almost always feel that attempting to view something from multiple viewpoints will yield a better understanding than viewing it from just perspective. That's why I'm taking this course and why, although still an "unreliable" narrator, I greatly prefer Cal's ways of storytelling.

    Eugenides' Criticism
    Name: Michael He
    Date: 2005-03-27 23:59:33
    Link to this Comment: 14072

    Reading this book strongly calls to mind a comment Eugenides made in an interview about Middlesex and its influence from Herculine Barbin: I think this is the one which was showed in class, which is different from the New Yorker interview above, though his sentiments change a bit. "It's definitely completely interesting from that point of view [as a historical document]. But as an expression of what it is like to be a hermaphrodite, from the inside, Herculine Barbin's memoir is quite disappointing. She just tends to go into this moaning, talking about how misfortunate she is and… it's sad. You can go and read it, but she didn't have enough self-awareness to be able to understand what was going on. In a way she was pre-psychological in her knowledge of her self. And when I read that book I didn't get any information about someone with such a condition." This comes across to me as a much harsher criticism than Eugenides expressed in the New Yorker article, where his criticism was that she "couldn't write", or had trouble conveying to the reader her internal experience. His quote here suggests that she was a bad writer because she didn't have, or wasn't cognitiviely aware of, her own internal experiences and thus couldn't translate them to the reader. In reading Herculine Barbin I tend to agree with this harsher criticism of the book, in that the problem doesn't seem so much in what is an undoubtably awful writing style, but more in the way a real person, as seen through fragments of their own memoirs, becomes for the reader reduced to a caricature of melo-dramatic crisis. I find it rather interesting and disturbing for our conceptions of truth that for me at least a fiction can be far more expressive and "true" about a person's experiences and internal states than an actual historical document written by one person in an attempt to describe these states could be. Do we only care about "realism" when it is communicated to an extent which we can recognize as real?

    Sorry so late!
    Name: Brittany
    Date: 2005-03-28 00:30:01
    Link to this Comment: 14074

    To respond to some points Rebekah and Michael brought up...

    First: voice. The "gender" of the narrator was something I had a great deal of trouble with in "Middlesex." I felt that Cal was male, from beginning to end (maybe because he was writing retrospectively?). I took this either as a failing on Eugenides's part to convey a "switch in voices" (some of us Paul's section expressed disappointment that this "switch" wasn't more apparent) or, alternately, a strong statement about the continuity of character regardless of gender. However, with Barbin, it was just the opposite. I felt that she was female, beginning to end, even after she'd been reclassified as male. She just sounds more authentically female than Eugenides---in the way that society has predisposed me to think of "the female voice," I mean. Which brings up a question: am I really finding anything "male" or "female" at all in these voices, or is something going on with my foreknowledge of the actual gender of the author? Eugenides himself is male; I read his book as male. Barbin, on the other hand, spent most of her life believing she was female; I read her book as female. Maybe the authors themselves (or me, the audience) and not the characters are the actual forces being acted upon by the "gendering/boxing" of society. The texts could very well be totally genderless, and I'm unconsciously applying my own standards to them.

    Second point: thinking over the criticism Michael mentioned (Eugenides of Babin's writing), it seems bizarre, incongruous even. Of course "Babin" isn't going to be self-aware or self-referential: it was written at a time when hermaphrodism was very hush-hush. There was very little literary/historical background for the author to draw on, and absolutely no preexisting texts to help her (her! I did that automatically!) "recognize" herself and her condition. I don't see why Eugenides went into Babin's memoirs expecting a novel. They're barely a narrative---they're only a "story" in the sense that they're sequential. Otherwise they're just impressions, a static, play-by-play recording of Babin's feelings at different stages in her life. And in that, they're vastly "truer" to life than is "Middlesex." Life, at least normally, isn't lived self-referentially. You go through the day thinking and responding, and it takes a lot of self-discipline to objectively psychoanalyze your own reactions. And you certainly don't place everything you do in a greater historical/familial context. That's what fiction is for; that's what authors are for. They draw the connections, fill in the gaps, between the shallow reflective actions of our everyday lives.

    After Class
    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-03-28 14:47:17
    Link to this Comment: 14087

    Today's class was interesting. It made me realize how bad / blind I am to identifying classfiable characteristics and organizing them. I tend to think of categories in the same way that I think of electron clouds. You know that they are there but the whole system is so fuzzy that you can't quite designate an end point to each orbit.

    Name: Eleanor Ca
    Date: 2005-03-28 15:12:46
    Link to this Comment: 14089

    Today's class was very interesting. Generally I tend to resist putting myself in categories, probably because my life seems so much more important than any one category I might be able to create on the spot. Reading these books, however, I've thought a lot about how my being female affects and is important to me. When I think about what kind of man I'd be if I were told that I was a man, I cannot think anything but that I'd be a man who sees himself as really female.
    Generally, the emotional tone of Herculine Barbin does not bother me, though I admit I'd have expected it would. Sometimes I don't know why she is feeling the way she is but I think it's sometimes important just to know that she had whatever feelings- I'm okay with that.

    included (or was it not included?)
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-03-28 20:19:44
    Link to this Comment: 14109

    Thanks for all your contributions to today's interesting class. What a pleasure it gives me, to be learning along with you guys!

    You'll find a photo of the "categoryboard" we constructed together in today's class notes. I noticed that we constructed categories both

    • "platonically": from the "top-down" (with the catagories, into which we then put ourselves. But how many categories can each of us occupy simultaneously? If we were building a "science museum," how many rooms would feature you?) and
    • "aristotleally": from the bottom-up (with reports of what we observe about ourselves and ourselves, which we then sort into categories. But what is the causal relationship among the categories? And how much are the categories "inside" determined by those "outside"?)
    You 'll also find links in the class notes that will enable you both to look @ a description of the Minotaur figurine and to listen to Foucault's laughter over the typology of Borges' "certain Chinese encylopedia": 1. belonging to the Emperor 2. embalmed 3. tame 4. sucking pigs 5. sirens 6. fabulous 7. stray dogs 8. included in the present classification (interesting that Paul remembered this as NOT included...) 9. frenzied 10. innumerable 11. drawn with a very fine camelhair brush 12. et cetera 13. having just broken the water pitcher 14. that from a long way off look like flies.

    Come back on Wednesday for further consideration of what all this has to do with Herculine Barbin....

    Name: Haley Brug
    Date: 2005-03-28 20:33:05
    Link to this Comment: 14110

    As this is my first post on Herculine Barbin, I just want to begin by saying that I enjoyed what I have read up to this point. The writing style threw me off at first, but much like reading Shakespeare (or something with a similar "foreign" word choice or arrangement) it grew much easier to read as I went along. I really liked having the chance to read this book and compare it to Middlesex. It is the "real" version of Cal/Callie's story, but besides the obvious Obscure Object-Sara connection, I found that I wasn't thinking too much about Middlesex (or seeing any specific part of it) in Herculine Barbin.

    I keep thinking about class today and the notion that we can never escape categorization, or our "need" to categorize things. I have read quite a bit about what could be a "biological" need for organizing and categorizing things. Some say it might be essential for our survival, so that when we encounter something new or strange, it will not completely jar us. I think this is an interesting idea. We categorize so much in our daily lives, just trying to understand new things. Is the idea of someone who is not one thing or the other so shocking to us because we are frustrated by our inability to categorize him/her? I wonder how this biological need to categorize things fits in to what we've been discussing.

    Name: natalie
    Date: 2005-03-29 02:38:10
    Link to this Comment: 14130

    this is in response to comment fourteen o seven four.

    I disagree with the point that we do not live life self-referentially. All that we “have” ( own) is our “self” and everything refers back to this entity ( I personally call Natalie.) And what each individual calls themselves. Whether we are conscious or aware of it or not, this “story teller” mechanism within each of us is at the root of all juxtapositions of the self to others, the self to the environment and all other existential relationships. And anyway, what is a normal life? One that is lived without any substantial experiences? in ignorance or transient bliss? And second of all, the idea of “objectively psychoanalyzing” oneself or one’s “observed” (re)actions is quite a paradox. In fact, as far as I can tell, impossible on many levels. There is nothing much more un-objective than reflecting upon your own actions. We automatically justify, imagine, create, and subjugate emotions, sensations, revelations or any other possible convoluted conceptions of the neo-cortex. And I would like to hope for one second that the reason why we are here at Bryn Mawr is so that we may be acutely aware of the shallow reflective actions of our everyday lives. So that perhaps the shallow, naïve, or non-purposeful actions we once occupied, (If we ever had the capacity to do such things) could dissipate under the power of our own minds and our intellectual desire to become “everyday” authors.

    Some thoughts
    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-03-29 15:47:12
    Link to this Comment: 14140

    I find that there are many interesting things in Herculine Barbin that correlate with Middlesex. It is obvious that Eugenides has borrowed heavily from the ideas in this book, from the relationship with Sara to the Camilles doctor to the attraction felt towards girls. They both suggest that perhaps the attraction to girls was a sign and one that is biological. Sexual preference is not shown as being a social construct and choice but rather a predisposition of their gender.While they are significantly and drastically different the similarities are apparent in a subtle way.

    The differences however are interesting. Camille is more emotional and receptive to bond making. Cal on the other hand seemed more emotionally unavailable and we can clearly see now that Eugenides intended that lack of emotion. Camille in the intensity of her emotion takes the limelight away from her condition. This is not necessarily a bad thing but nevertheless Eugenides intended for us to understand the "other" factors and information rather than use emotional cover to take away from the condition of Pseudo-Hermaphroditism.

    On a completely different note, I took the sex ID test and was surprised to see that Im in the male-femal continuum. My brain is slightly more female than male but Im not an entirely female brain. I thought that was interesting as Professor Grobstein had mentioned, the slipperyness of gender is represented here. The test however in some ways can also be seen as conforming to some notions of male and female that are stereotypical in a broad context. I dont necessarily know whether that is problematic or not but I do feel that there is something there to discover.

    Barbin's anti-confessional story
    Name: Annie Sull
    Date: 2005-03-29 22:37:08
    Link to this Comment: 14150

    I am not quite sure what I think of Herculine Barbin. It is certainly not as engaging, rich, and "story-like" as Middlesex.. but its very interesting. I am not really bothered by the dramatic, effusive, depressed tone of the novel, and I am not sure I would necessary classify it as female. I think (as someone may have said in class) that Barbin's voice plays on negative female stereotypes (whiny, emotional, etc), but those aren't necessarily qualities that run through the majority of female narratives. The book, after all, is after all about her emotional torment. And Barbin does achieve my sympathy...

    I think one of the more disturbing things about the book is the kind of silence that pervades it. Foucault tells about the kind of oppressive notions of sexuality and systems of categorization that characterize the nineteenth century. But what I find more interesting is Herculine's own sense of silence and shame that comes through in her writing. For however effusive she may seem--and for however 'confessional' the book appear--she maintains a strange reticence before the reader. We don't really get the sense that she wants to be recording these painful memories--or villifying herself, for that matter--, but Herculine insists on her duty to share her story ("No matter how strict may be the sentence to which the future shall condemn me, I intend to continue my difficult task" -pg 36) The memoir is written in a very direct, factual way (depite the emotion!); I think someone said on the forum that it was "step-by-step," which seems accurate to me. Yet although her writing seems like a confession, she often stops herself and says something like "I cannot say....' or "I shall not say what that night was for me" (36). The unwillingness or inability to "say" was troubling. This was very different that what we find in Middlesex. The omniscient perspective and the enormous amount of knowledge that Callie relays (historical, personal, geographical, etc) makes Barbin's narration seem quite stark and confined. Furthermore, in Middlesex, the narrator seemed to be looking back (often in a detached way, especially at the end) from a kind of healed persepective.... there was a sense of ease in reading Middlesex because of this. In reading Herculine Barbin, conversely, I felt very troubled and kind of agitated by the whole narrative (It begins, after all, with a declaration of her pending suicide!!).
    Anyhow... I am glad for the opportunity to compare the stories of Barbin and Callie, which I am finding to be vastly different despite their unique similarity.

    reaction to Herculine Barbin
    Name: alexandra
    Date: 2005-03-30 09:53:52
    Link to this Comment: 14158

    I think the memoirs of Herculine are certainly an interesting read because, being non-fiction they have historical significance. However, like Eugenides I confess myself to be slightly disappointed with the narrative. Herculine is too emotional, too preoccupied with her inner misery and does not, in my opinion due justice to the extraordinary circumstance she/he finds herself in. Despite the fact that Eugenides rarely describes Callie’s inner state, I personally as a reader, sympathized with Callie much more than with Herculine. Sometimes in writing it is not necessary to state the emotional state in order to convey a sense of it to the reader.
    I suppose I must bear in mind however, that Herculine was raised in religious houses, that the books she probably read were few and written in much the same style. It is not to be wondered at that a sheltered girl living on the charity of others should have a very sophisticated style or a true command of her feelings in this case. I believe that is what happens in the narrative; she simple lets her feelings overwhelm her at times.

    Herculine Barbin
    Name: Austin
    Date: 2005-03-30 16:23:24
    Link to this Comment: 14165

    This book so far is very interesting, but not in the way that Middlesex was. I could just immerse myself in Middlesex, enjoying every detail and image, but this book doesn't seem to allow for such things. The narrative format of the book and the fact that it is simply a published journal, makes the Herculine Barbin have a very different feel. Also, her emotion, that somehow manages to not release as much feeling as one may have thought, makes it hard to understand where she is coming from. I have not quite finished the book yet, but am looking forward to its culmination so that I can reflect back on all of its parts and compare much more effectively with Middlesex.

    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-03-30 18:17:56
    Link to this Comment: 14169

    As promised, to my section: here's easy access to Sex I.D. from the BBC.

    While I'm here--I'm noting an interesting contrast, above, between Annie's description of the "disturbing silence that pervades" Herculine Barbin, and Alexandra's claim that it's "not necessary to state the emotional state in order to convey a sense of it" the former (desire to reveal all/know all) a "feminine" perspective, the latter (recognition of all silence can "say") "masculine"?

    We spent a lot of time upstairs, this afternoon, articulating such stereotypes, meditating on the degree to which they are grounded in observations....and on the usefulness, more generally, of categorization (during this "week of diversity," for instance: does it help in building a community of scholars, if we recognize, articulate, and take responsibility for the socially-ascribed? physical? categories we each occupy?).

    We also spent some time on HB's tendency to dramatize/overdramatize/melodramatize her sufferings--and acknowledged how akin that "style" was to the multiple games of "misery poker/mawrtyr poker (or, more femininely, "misery commiseration/misery-company keeping") which so many Mawrtyrs (and professors here) play.

    Trying to dig, finally, @ what HB "wanted" (and whether giving per a category to "fit" helped to achieve that), it was suggested "he just wanted what he was to be okay." Question we ended with was, how's that work as a description of education? Is the process, in which we are all engaged here, about affirming who each of us is, as we are, or is it about changing that, about brain surgery? To be transformed, do we need to "rely on places we haven't been, to go to places culturally different from our own"? Can't "experience be a conversation stopper," a way of marking those places one is not willing to go exploring??

    Finish Herculine Barbin, please, and post your further reactions to the book's multiple parts and/or our multiple conversations about it and related topics--here by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

    Audience and Retrospection
    Name: Annie Sull
    Date: 2005-03-30 20:34:57
    Link to this Comment: 14171

    I am still thinking about how we would characterize Barbin's story--as a memoir or as a diary.... and connected to that, I am still wondering WHY she writes her story.. To me, Barbin's narrative reads as a long suicide note. The first sentence of her story declares her pending death (by suicide), and the rest searches for some explanation, "story," or account of her life and misery... essentially, WHY suicide is necessary for Barbin NOW. Whether we call it a diary or a memoir, it is evident that Barbin percieves some kind of audience (whether immediate or abstract). Her voice is filled with shame and hesitation, and it is clear that she yearns for some kind of sympathy or exculpation. Barbin predicts the judgement of an outside reader/ audience and wants to explain herself (I think it is so interesting that as the narrative draws to a close, Barbin insists on her innocent and virginal nature-- as Britany pointed out in class-see page 99-100). Anyway, I think the point is that it is very difficult to write--especially something of a 'confessional' nature--without imagining (however detachedly) some kind of audience, reader or judge.

    I think the question of WHY Barbin writes her story must ultimately come back to what Paul called "a story of the present." In a sense, Barbin is writing this story on her deathbed (her suicide seems inevitable from the very beginning). . . Barbin must therefore impute her 'current' misery onto the past. It is true that her childhood seems remarkably painless and comfortable, but nevertheless, Barbin explicitly (and quite irritatingly, as most of us agreed in class today) reminds us of her misery. Barbin's constant foreshadowing--and her "promise" of future calamity--are certainly retrospective acts. This is why I think her story reads as a suicide note... it seems like a desperate attempt to account for her *present* misery, and in order to do so, the past must be distorted. I was also very intrigued by Barbin's continual deferral of the great catastrophe that she alludes to from the beginning... For me, this was the most interesting and complicated part of her narration. It perhaps tells us less about hermaphroditism and perhaps more about retrospective writing (and "pure" memory) . . . For some reason I didn't find this disruptive or aggravating... I think I somehow expected it from the beginning. Within the first page, Barbin announces her narrative as retrospective, and because it unfolds as a 'murder-mystery'-like story, we know that the end is far more important--or at least influential-- than the process.

    The Diary-like writing
    Name: Maureen En
    Date: 2005-04-01 14:20:11
    Link to this Comment: 14203

    We talked alot in Professor Grobstein's section about the writing style and the contrast between whether the writing was meant more like a diary or more like a memoir. Whether the book was meant to be read by the public or not, I think it is benificial to the reader if the book is read like a diary. I instinctively read it this way because of the informal writing style. But I think that the emotion, because it is so excessive, is better understood if read like a personal diary entry.

    Also, I'm interested in the religious aspect of Herculine's life. I haven't finished the book, I plan to this weekend. So far, what is striking is that Heculine, for the most part, feels comforted by her religion (or I at least it came off that way to me). Something also I liked was the internal emotion and conflict seen in Herculine which was not very present in Middlesex. I think personal conflict is very interested and especially in a first-person narrative, needs to be personal and emotional. At least in my opinion.

    Name: Haley Brug
    Date: 2005-04-02 22:11:39
    Link to this Comment: 14220

    I went ahead and read The Dossier and "A Scandal at the Convent" due to overwhelming curiosity. I thought it both completed and enhanced how I felt about "My Memoirs" and my reaction to it. If anything, it made me appreciate the first part of the book a bit more. Being able to read the actual medical reports and then read a story from a different point of view was refreshing. I was able to take a step back from the overwrought emotion of Alexina's voice and understand what happened to her through the eyes of an "outsider" (or someone who wasn't actually a part of what happened, especially at the convent). I enjoyed the story just as much as I enjoyed reading the first part of the book.

    I was convinced from the earliest parts of "My Memoirs" that the manuscript had been written with the intention of it's possessing some type of an audience in the future. I am not sure as to how public or how widely known the author wanted it to be, but I think I was highly aware of the fact that it was written so that it could be read. The fact that the name Camille might have been added in as a replacement for HB's true name of Alexina hardly occurred to me as evidence during my first read-through. I instead concentrated on HB's seemingly direct way of writing (the pleas not to judge him too harshly, etc.)

    I found Herculine Barbin to be very poignant. For me it is still amazing to think about it as a real text and not just a piece of fiction. Nevertheless, I really liked it and I am enjoying the discussions it has sparked.

    Name: Brittany
    Date: 2005-04-03 00:38:11
    Link to this Comment: 14226

    We had a long discussion this past Wednesday on what type of narrative Herculine meant her book to be; who her audience was and *why* she was writing the book. So here are my two cents...

    I agree with Annie in that the book reads very much like a suicide note. However, I would also still classify it as a "memoir"---something that Herculine intended to be read by the public. I can't believe that all of the moments in which she breaks the fourth wall are literary conventions she picked up from her reading (though I do think that her reading/education heavily influenced her penchant for melodrama). She's not a great writer, but in the first half of the book, she makes what seems a logical attempt to explain her life in light of her unique physical situation. Paul said on Wednesday that Herculine's apparent childhood "misery" could be a projection of her current misery onto her past. I think I agree... the actual facts of Herculine's life were pretty benign until her "true sex" (har har) was discovered.

    What makes me support this hypothesis even more is something else we discussed at length on Wednesday: the inconsistancy of Herculine's writing style. As Herculine's narrative progresses and she gets closer and closer to the present (in which, we assume, she really *is* miserable), the narrative gets less cohesive. It's as if the closer she gets to the moment of crisis, the less able she is to articulate what has switched from retrograde-misery to true misery.

    Then again, I have an even bigger question on the memoir/diary conflict: Why must we assume it's one or the other? Herculine's writing style changes drastically in the last half of the book. Why should we assume that her purpose for writing it stayed constant? Or, at least, her *conscious knowledge* of her purpose? The last third of book seems to "fall apart" into a lot of whiny, less-than-coherent philosophizing. It reads less like a memoir and more like a real suicide note. I think that might be exactly what happened. As Herculine reviewed her life (and found it to be progressively more and more miserable), her depression overwhelmed her narrative cohesiveness. Her book unraveled from a concise description of her life's events into a sort of "woe is me" treatise, and in doing so actually jumped categories from "memoir" to "suicide note." (The difference being that in the first category Herculine wrote with a specific audience "in mind"---that is, she wrote *for* an audience, like a real author, taking into account her readers' ability to comprehend her story; in the second, she wrote *to* an audience---more like an angry spew of words directed "at the world/my oppresors at large," than an actual attempt at communication).

    Herculine Barbin
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-04-03 08:13:59
    Link to this Comment: 14228

    I am currently rereading "Middlesex" for my third paper and I thought that it was interesting that Cal refers to Alexina Barbin early in the book. I didn't really pay much attention to that reference the first time that I had read that book. Instead, I merely dismissed it as a reference for something that was incomprehensible to me.

    brain sex?
    Name: Becky Hahn
    Date: 2005-04-03 10:15:02
    Link to this Comment: 14230

    I took the BBC test and the results said that my brain in neither predominently male nor female--it's right in the middle. However, I did score more "female" in the tests that asked you to judge emotion from eyes, and name words within a category. I've always wondered if my interests and strengths are due to (or at least linked to) my femaleness, or if I would have the same interests and stengths had I been male.

    I guess that the cases of Callie and HB show that sex doesn't really determine personality, since they both undergo a gender change of sorts without going through a complete psychological transformation. Their writing styles remain more or less the same (although both are writing from after the change, so we don't really get the "real" writing style from before). However, Callie and HB don't make the best examples for answering this question (that is, is personality dependant or related to sex?) since they both had one upbringing--female. I think that "nurture" has much to do with identity, so in order to see if there really is a difference, a person would have to have two complete, distict lives--one female, one male. I suppose there would have to be rebirth involved...

    Herculine Barbin
    Name: LT
    Date: 2005-04-03 12:34:45
    Link to this Comment: 14232

    After Wednesday's conversation about why Herculine wrote her story, I've been thinking about the book as idealizing her life. I agree that, judging by the events rather than her interpretations of them, her early life wasn't bad at all. A lot of people, looking back on their childhoods, like to say that those were the best times of their lives, idealizing what they don't remember clearly. Herculine seems to be doing the opposite, recreating her life as tragic. It looks like the same impulse, but expressed in different ways.

    Name: Ariel Sing
    Date: 2005-04-03 14:22:20
    Link to this Comment: 14235

    I had a few more thoughts on Herculine Barbin after our discussion in Wednesday: one of the ideas that we mulled over was the concept of beauty. This is one of the threads, especially in Middlesex, and to a large extent in Herculine Barbin, that I found interesting. Both Cal and Herculine are often described as physically awkward, gangly, and even ugly. This was one of the reasons that people so readily believed that they were men. I thought this was an interesting distinction given that there are many, many astoundingly beautiful people who are androgynous in the world. Also there are numerous men who would/do make beautiful women. I thought it was curious that Eugenides chose to make Cal ungainly, and I think it would interesting to explore an alternate plot line, wherein Cal retained her striking looks from her early childhood. I wonder how different her/his life would have been.

    I thought that we were supposed to have begun/finished Orlando for this week, and I have greatly enjoyed reading it so I just wanted to make a few comments about it. After reading Orlando and Herculine Barbin I can really see where Eugenides got his inspiration for writing Middlesex. It is clear that he used extensive components of each as his Muse for Middlesex. From Herculine Barbin he took basic plot (a hermaphroditic child when born is thought to be “female”, yet is later discovered to be “male”), among many other bits and pieces. From Orlando Eugenides clearly reinterpreted the idea of the story being told as if “from above”. Where the story teller is almost omniscient and yet still tied to the character (although in Orlando the story teller is not Orlando her/himself). I will refrain from mentioning any other comments, in case I am wrong about the assignment.

    Binary Systems
    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-04-03 14:30:59
    Link to this Comment: 14236

    I'm interested that much of our conversation this semester has unconsciously centered around the theme of binaries (sp?). Especially after reading Middlesex and Herculine I am struck by the representation of categories and especially 2 categories. The whole dilemma, drama arises because none of characters in the stories fit into these two categories.

    Male / Female
    Uniformitarian / Catastrophic
    Continuous / Discontinuous

    What is the evolution of two categories? What about our story-telling brain prefers two categories rather than a set of infinite possibilities?

    Also thinking about the rules of story-telling...
    If the motivation behind creating stories is that the story-teller him/herself reaches some kind of equilibrium, stablility, and this makes our stories an adaptation... Then are categories, taxonomies simply rules and limitations that we impose on our stories because it provides us with more stability ? And how exactly does it provide us with more stability?

    I'm going around in circles. Can't quite link together all the things that I have been thinking about. But I do strongly feel that both Middlesex and Herculine suggest some kind of "innateness" about the character's feelings towards him/herself and other people. This intrigues me because it's saying that the categories are inherently there, and not necessarily created by external social determinants.

    A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-04-03 15:03:24
    Link to this Comment: 14237

    I have been thinking a lot about Herculine Barbin and Middlesex and, after reading the Dossier I think I can identify one more of the reasons I find it less satisfying than Middlesex. The Dossier put names to text, real places were identified. I like having real ‘name’ for places. We have been talking a lot about taxonomies and names are a fundamental part of categorization. (to paraphrase Foucault, as soon as we put something down in words, name it, it can be manipulated) I think that Middlesex uses names really well, specifically place names. In our section, Tonda spoke about reading the book from the perspective of a native of Detroit. She said that the book was really accurate, that that book illustrated a layout of the city that could be confirmed by her memories. By anchoring the book in a real place and manipulating small details and creating characters (also based off of real people, Middlesex was based off of Herculine Barbin) it seems more realistic, more believable. Herculine Barbin, on the other hand, seems less believable, even though it is a memoir. I understand that leaving places nameless or denoting them with an X or such was a stylistic choice from earlier times (I know it si done in Jane Eyre… I think Austen does it as well) but, for me, it made the book more real to have entire names, especially ones that were familiar. Denoting the names of places with letters halted the flow of the story…

    style against substance
    Name: Michael He
    Date: 2005-04-03 16:27:55
    Link to this Comment: 14241

    I found this discussion about binaries and the apparent "innateness" of cateogories, superficially of gender but more fundamentally of story-telling styles, to be really interesting given the differences between Callie and HB in their respective books. It seemed that though the character of Callie changed from female to male (albeit always being told in retrospect by the 40 year old Cal), the most essential, unchanging component of s/his personality was a certain analytic stoicism which lent itself to the book's strange brand of comedy. It was this stoicism of voice, I think, that led many people to identify Cal's narration as always "male", rather than the more stereotypically affected "female" voice we see so predominantly in HB. But really, this voice was decidedly un-gendered, since it remained constant throughout her transformation, almost stubbornly so, as the details of Cal's life (her father's death, Desdemona's decay, her freak show performances, etc.) lent themselves more to a tragic voice than an ironic, satiric one. Conversely, the details in HB's life seemed to lend themselves much more to a comic one, than the over-affected exclamation and ellipses bloated melodramatic style the voice conveyed. general themes of sexual confusion and repression at a woman's convent, the narrator's amusing tendency to repeatedly make un-necessary references to the nun's breasts ("I pressed my head against her breast...which was covered only by a nightgown" on page 32) while narrating the story (presumedly) in retrospect as a man, the bizzare way in which the draconian sexual mores of the Catholic church modestly conclude that her parents had a choice to make her one gender and now HB as an adult has the choice to become another, as if it was an everyday thing. All of these details sound like excerpts from some vulgar comedy. Yet, the voice endeavors to wrest the narrative into a tragedy with all its might, that it becomes oddly tragi-comic, for me anyway, in that it eventually becomes clear that this woman has a naturally depressive temperament and is trying to construct a narrative which, in her mind perhaps, justifies the pain of her life. While initially this made me think it was a hoax, upon further thought I have to admit that, given the repeated tendency in literature of story-telling styles to be constructed in opposition to the events at hand, that it could be a real document after all.

    "A Scandal at the Convent"
    Name: Lauren Z
    Date: 2005-04-03 16:32:40
    Link to this Comment: 14242

    My favorite part of this week's reading is the short story at the end of book. I especially liked the themes of morality and religion. These were certainly present in Herculine Barbin's memoirs, but I don't think they were utilizied as much in Middlesex. In the short story, Herculine is called a devil by the other students because of her "masculine" appearance, and relationship with Henriette. Later, the situation becomes more confusing. Herculine claims that her relationship with Henriette is beautiful and pure. The Abbe is troubled by this, and then finds he has a hard time separating what he considers divine, and what he considers sinful. This reminds me of a comment that Cal makes in Middlesex when he is commenting on his grandparent's incestuous romance. "But I can't explain it, any more than Desdeomona or Lefty could have, any more than each one of us, falling in love, can separate the hormonal from what feels divine" (37). Both Middlesex and Herculine Barbin's memoirs force us to question what seem like clearly dichotomous categories: male and female, the divine and sinful.

    Sex I.D.'s, BBC and otherwise
    Name: Tonda Shim
    Date: 2005-04-03 16:48:01
    Link to this Comment: 14244

    I've come to the forum a total of three times now to comment, and each of the first two times read another comment that sparked a further researching and/or thought (although last time it was more of a "Oh yeah - I've been meaning to take the BBC test for two weeks now!" kind of thing). Which brings me to the point that I finally took the BBC sex id test, and it turned out just as I'd hoped - I have an androgenous brain. My personal brain score was a zero - right smack dab in the middle between male and female. I also, like Becky scored more femininely in the more typically feminine areas (emotions and empathy), and more typically male in the, what I would label as mathmatical and spacial, areas (the angles, rotating figures, etc.)

    That being said, with the "typical" feminine and masculine results of this sex id test, I wonder if some of this isn't dependent on the way we are brought up. I was able to score highly on the typically masculine areas, which as I said I consider to be mathematical, and a result of my previous mathematical study (before Bryn Mawr...) My dad was also big into math and science and technology and always tried to spark an interest in me as well, and so I did take AP Calculus and Honors Physics in high school (and to be honest, I almost miss math classes now...shh!), and I kind of think that that is why I was able to score so highly in those areas. So I wonder if the Harvard President's recent statements were true to him because of something like this ID test, which states that men typically score higher in those areas - but the results of this test is in turn because girls and women are STILL infinitely less likely to take such classes throughout their lives - because we are almost brought up to think of them as "boy stuff." (It reminds me of when I was little and we'd go to the toy store, and there were aisles that were most definitely "boy aisles" to me, because they sold GI Joes and Monster Trucks and large, scary looking action figures.) Perhaps if more girls were pushed into such fields along with the boys, the sex id test would yeild different results?

    Name: Eleanor Ca
    Date: 2005-04-03 16:57:07
    Link to this Comment: 14245

    In response to comment 14232
    I agree that Herculine is recreating her life in an idealizing manner, making it look tragic from the beginning. Perhaps this stems from a feeling of having lost what she enjoyed when she was young- if we look at her life before discovery as a man as happy, surely we can imagine her feeling she has lost her place in the world and a contentment she might prefer not to have to miss. While her life as a man doesn't appear to have been horrible, it did not include the success of her life as a schoolmistress or the affection she seemed to have valued so much. The memoir certainly incited my sympathy- I might have liked to have understood more of what was going on (perhaps instead of reading exclamations of woe), but I did feel for the narrator and enjoy my reading of her story.

    more Herculine Barbin
    Name: Austin
    Date: 2005-04-03 16:57:27
    Link to this Comment: 14246

    We discussed in Wednesday's class a little bit about whether Herculine Barbin sounds like the writing of a male or a female and whether such a thing can exist. When I read this book, I can't help but feel like I am listening to the voice and writing style of a female. Even though I have known that the narrator becomes male in the end, I still get an overwhelming feeling that the narration if feminine. It makes sense that Camille would write femininely as she has lived happily as a female for a large part of her life, but if there are such things as male and female brains and gender IDs, it wouldn't matter how she was raised or where she felt her gender should lie...would it? When we are taught how to write by family or teachers, girls and boys do not get different instructions. For example girls are not told to be more emotional and boys aren't told to be matter-of-fact in their writing. We all write in a style that fits us... but does that have have a partial reliance on gender or is it strictly personality or through the books that we've read - and do personality traits and liked books have a relation to gender as well?

    I haven't taken the Gender ID test yet, but I plan to as this is very interesting to me. The idea that there are different gendered brains makes sense to me, but the narration of Herculine Barbin doesn't seem to quite follow that idea in my opinion.

    Name: Laine Edwa
    Date: 2005-04-03 17:26:36
    Link to this Comment: 14247

    Something that I have noticed in class, and specifically in Professor Dalke's discussion section, is that we are often asked "Is this useful?" The more I think about that question the more it frustrates me because I don't see what is "useful" about asking that question because in my mind it inherently becomes a "yes" or "no" question.

    As I've been reading Herculine I've been trying to ask myself the same question but in different ways. I started out with "Where is this useful?" and I think it has been most useful in the context of this class and looking at Middlesex as an extension of Herculine. Outside of our evolution community I'm not sure that I could find a place where Herculine was readily useful in the same ways.

    I also asked myself "How is this useful?" and that was the form of the question that I found to be most helpful to me in thinking about the book. Herculine provided a very direct contrast to Middlesex and for me this helped to highlight certain issues. The piety and modesty that played such a big role in Herculine was present in Middlesex, but not to the same extent. It was interesting to see how those two elements affected the outcome of the two main characters.

    Overall I think that "Is this useful" can be a thought provoking question, especially in the terms of the types of books we are now reading. Providing a context, however, in which the question can be grounded would allow me to think more specifically about what in these texts is useful to me and where.

    I am "male"
    Name: Britt Frem
    Date: 2005-04-03 17:44:02
    Link to this Comment: 14249

    I, too, just took the BBC Sex I.D. test and it claimed that my brain is 50% male. Now, more than ever, I feel that this whole idea of "male narrations" and "female narrations" (or male/female brains) means very little.

    I say that because I think we are using this one category (the gender category) to lump together very different ideas. The BBC test (and our own conversations?) defined people male or female depending on their spatial, verbal, empathizing, and systemizing skills. According to the BBC test I am a spatial empathiser--something both male and female. Why, does our society insist that we lump together such unrelated categories so that we can create an "orderly" world? ( that surveys can merely ask if we are male or female...)

    I believe we talked in Ann's group about how humans simply like order, that it makes us feel more in control. (Certainly, Foucault's idea relates to this in that we can mold things once we name/categorize them.) At the same time, few people like to name categories to put themselves into. (Or, at least, there are some categories--like whiteness--that people many refrain from putting themelves into.) I wonder if humans like categories because it helps them to order other people, but at the same time humans dislike them because it allows them to be ordered around...

    HB: A depressed soul?
    Name: Kate Shine
    Date: 2005-04-03 21:48:25
    Link to this Comment: 14257

    I've been thinking about Paul's suggestion that Barbin's problems may have been caused by the fact that she had the chemical imbalance characterstic of depression rather than the fact the she was a psuedo-hermaphrodite. It is a compelling idea but I have reservations in accepting it.

    I'm reminded of Anne's paraphrase earlier in the forum from Cherrie Moraga, who asserts"that therapy is the privitized gringo consciousness that our illness is individual, as is our cure."

    Perhaps Barbin was depressed (well to me she/he obviously was) but can we really say that the imbalance caused some kind of skewed perception on her part? Perhaps his/her unique (genetic) personality combined with her his/her unique cultural circumstances led to this chemical imbalance. Does this make her laments any less valid? I don't think so. I also think it doesn't excuse society for her depressed state anymore than it excuses the significance of her personal struggle and ultimate suicide.

    Name: maria
    Date: 2005-04-03 22:06:56
    Link to this Comment: 14259

    There was discussion in Paul’s discussion group last week about how to characterize this Herculine Barbin. Some members of our group were of the opinion that it was a hoax, some thought that it had been written as a personal diary and some considered it to be a memoir, written very much with an outside reader in mind. I personally am of the opinion that it is a memoir, intended for an outside audience. Not only does the narrator refer several times to the reader, but it also seems that the narrative is striving to present the figure of Barbin in a sympathetic light….Barbin is having his say as to how he should be remembered.
    It was suggested by Paul that this was written in some ways like a mystery story. That there are allusions to some catastrophic event throughout the text. One is waiting to see what this event was and why it was so bad that in the aftermath of it Barbin is unable to look back on his childhood without imbuing those memories with his current despair. It was pointed out in class that in many ways Barbin’s childhood had been quite satisfactory. He had been cared for, given a home, given friends…and yet, I think that fails to account for the emotional toll that being a ‘charity case’ can have on a child’s psyche. As someone who has attended private schools all of her life, I was always amazed at how keenly my peers who were on scholarship or financial aid felt the difference between their place in the school and mine. Barbin does seem to be an emotional person who is overly concerned with his relationships from very early in hi life, but in all fairness, his physical and education security depended on him remaining in the good graces of the authority figures. Children are often quite good at sensing when their situations are not secure and the financial and social disparity between Barbin and his classmates clearly made an impression on him. Perhaps the over-the-top writing style, the need to be seen as sympathetic, the almost pathological need for affection and love has less to do with his sexuality and more to do with his personality and personal history.

    the evolution of memories
    Name: Maja Hadzi
    Date: 2005-04-04 05:30:30
    Link to this Comment: 14269

    I have been thinking about Barbin’s reflection of her childhood events, and I am fascinated by the idea that we were talking about in Grobstein’s section. A child has a very limited view of the world compared to an adult in the same environment. Therefore, the way a child perceives an experience, either traumatic or non, is certainly different than the angle an adult would take on it. Furthermore, if an individual goes back through their memories and attempts to re-analyze their past experiences, an evolutionary change is bound to take place. An evolution of those existing memories, that is. Later in life, one is equipped with a more peripheral vision. They know the events that took place after their experience and they are detached from the immediacy of the experience at hand. Weather it be intentional or not, this allows for a much more analytical view and opinion on the matter. Once an event from the past has been re-analyzed, it can no longer be recalled exactly as it was experienced. The experience becomes tainted with the idea of what one should have felt like or thought of instead of the memories of what one actually went through and thought of. And slowly but surely, the memory evolves and is replaced by our new idea of how things should have been handled instead of how they were actually experienced.

    Ozma of Oz and today's class
    Name: Anjali Vai
    Date: 2005-04-05 00:17:11
    Link to this Comment: 14314

    I've been mulling over the video we saw in class this afternoon... It made me start thinking about a book I read ages ago, called Ozma of Oz (the third book in the series that begins with the Wizard of Oz). In this book, the heir to the throne of Oz (a princess named Ozma) is turned into a boy when she's just a baby by Mombi, the Witch of the South. And Mombi hides this little boy and raises him as a boy for many many years. I think he has no idea who he really is until he's... 12 years old? Or so? I can't remember. At which point he's turned back into a girl- back into Ozma, and rules Oz as Princess. And now that I think of it it's funny, since the transition from boy to girl is made absolutely effortlessly. Ozma is completely happy as a boy, and afterwards completely happy as a girl. She has no identity crises, or anything like that. Her gender shifts, and everyone just accepts it.

    The reason why I thought of this was that when my mother first read this book to my brother and me, when I was maybe 7 years old, it gave me the idea that gender might completely fluid. And that idea was terrifying to me. I didn't want to suddenly magically turn into a boy. And I "knew" that this wasn't possible, that Ozma was a fictional character, but I had a very overactive imagination and it took a while to stop imagining that happening... And one thing that I found fascinating about the video today is that now I know that things like that happen. That voice of reason in the back of my head telling me to stop being silly when I was 7 years old was wrong. One of the people- the one with long wavy dark hair, sitting on the left- said he/she had seemed completely female until puberty. I can't stop thinking about that. It's just incredible. Callie was the same, I know, but that was fiction- seeing actual people talk about such experiences had much more of an impact. I mean, how would that feel? How hard would such a discovery be? Middlesex tries to describe what it might be like... But that's fiction. And Herculine Barbin describes it but laces it with so much melodrama that it's not very enlightening. Growing up, absolutely believing yourself to be one gender, and then suddenly receiving signals from your body at puberty that that is not what you are... It must be mind-blowing.

    Or else... perhaps it's more mind-blowing for friends and family than for the person itself. From the video today, it sounded more as though discovering that they were intersex was a relief. It made sense to them- far more sense than the concrete genders they had been assigned. And Callie's reaction in Middlesex was the same- it wasn't so much a remaking of identity, for her/him, as a realization of what she/he had been all along.

    the effect of "back-shadowing"
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-04-05 21:21:14
    Link to this Comment: 14335

    "The neocortex, which aspires to coherence, tries to fit new input into existing structures (hence a propensity among humans for nostalgia)" - Anne Dalke's friend.

    "He was still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice, we manage to enjoy the burdens of the past." - about Dr. Juvenal Urbino, from Love in the Time of Cholera

    Is the past inevitable?(to apply a forward looking adjective to the past, to pose a question that exists in the classroom ether of suspended belief). There's no meddling with it, only forgetting or re-writing it, or with the selective memory of preference, nostalgia or situational blindness, erasing what was never seen or perceived. How can we avoid selection, there is too much abundance and variety to remember everything.

    Looking back, Herculine Barbin found Sara's love doomed (in retrospect) but the affair sweet and idyllic, with the great preserver of salt ("after the laughter I guess comes the tears"- Wu Tang) from anguished tears keeping her happier days pickled and distant and dear. Maybe Sara was the sweetest girl in the world, maybe she was dull or skittish or a pillow queen diva, but she has been dead for too long for there to be controversy about her portrayal, and all we have of her is "shorn and frozen in the lover's inward eye"- toni morrison, silent and an Obscure Object if ever there was one.

    "what we know comes to so little,
    what we presume so much-
    the most we can do is
    ask questions and die."
    - Pablo Neruda, Moscas entran por boca cerrada.

    I mean, all I have is rising intonation and uncertainty in the released balloons that go up until they pop and drown, the heavenward and gravity bound ???? question marks that are as useless and enigmatic as anything coy, only even worse, because at least something coy pretends to know, and all I've got is out there, openly unresolved.

    Brain Sex
    Name: Jessica
    Date: 2005-04-06 11:31:12
    Link to this Comment: 14349

    I finally found a ruler and finished the BBC's Brain Sex test. My results said I was exactly halfway between the average female brain and the midpoint between the sex's. I think if I had to pick that's exactly where I'd want to be. I like my female leaning brain.

    But in answering the Sex History section of the test, where they ask questions about the first time you had intercourse, how many times, with who, whether your attracted to male or female... for many of those questions I didn't have answers that could fit into those boxes. They asked them like they were such simple questions, but I wanted a page to answer them, not just room for a number or a yes/no option.

    Me, with my "normal" female expression of sex and my feminine leaning brain, feeling limited and categorized by a binary. The interesting part of this experience for me, though, was that I didn't feel I was the only one being forced into boxes. These researchers will never be able to understand my brain this way, because they don't even know what questions to ask.

    Which makes me think... am I even asking the right questions? And something about this class I"ve been wondering for a while: why are we using the 2nd half of the semester to discuss gender? I mean, why not someother part of us, some other evolution or brain thing or whatever. What else could I ask these questions about? I have a feelinng, everything.

    Date: 2005-04-06 13:24:08
    Link to this Comment: 14352

    I agree with Jessica on the fact that the BBC questionairre on Sex ID was very boxy. As I mentioned before in a posting it seemed as though the continuum of maleness and femaleness in the Sex ID test was using definitions of male and female in a boxy manner. They didnt necessarily try and change our notions of sex but instead told us that we had elements of both. This doesnt mean however that there is space for someone in the middle. However for the sake of fluidity of sexes and how we can (within the box) be like both is made apparent and clear by the test. Yet the test prescribes to pre conceived notions of what it means to be male and female and those boxes are labels even if they allow some level of diffusion.

    On another note, I found the idea of the book being a hoax utterly fascinating. Yet, I dont think I necessarily believe that. The fact that I found myself writing like Camille after reading one too many novels of that era, suggests that we sometimes write about ourselves in ways that embellish how we feel. This doesnt meant we embellish our emotions but words often dont depict what we feel as effectively as we may want to while in a reflective state. This is probably due to the fact that memories are interpreted by our brain in ways that may not be entirely correct. Hence we dont have perfect memory and to compensate or embellish what we once felt or went through, the brain creates a story influenced by all that is around us, including the literature, writing styles and cliches. Perhaps this is where the memes pervade our writing creating an utterly different story that depicts events in the way we would like to remember it as oppossed to how it actually happened.

    After reading this book, one is left wondering what it was about. Was it a story of a hermaphrodite, a childhood, Sara, unforunate turn of events in adolescence or class struggle?

    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-06 13:24:43
    Link to this Comment: 14353

    Above was me.. submited it by mistake without writing anything else

    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-04-06 19:46:33
    Link to this Comment: 14358

    Anne asked us in class today to construct a metaphor for the learning/teaching process. What would be the classroom? Teacher? Other Students?

    Other than the fact that I mysteriously developed brainfreeze during this exercise and couldn't come up with anything real, this single image of a little girl sitting on the doorstep of her house having her hair oiled by her grandmother found itself into my head. So teachers shake things up, and hope that in the process some liquid dissolves into your scalp?!?

    Thanks to Anne and Paul for oiling my head, I guess !

    (apologies for silly posting)

    boxes, and metaphors for getting out of them....
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-06 23:12:23
    Link to this Comment: 14362

    Thought I'd fill in some background for Arshiya's not-so-silly-@-all post...we'd worked our way, upstairs this afternoon, from interrogating the "normal" to the difficulty of altering pronouns (which are "function words," rather than "content words," and so very hard to change) to reflect multiplicities of gender....were comparing Farsi and Chinese (which have no gender) with French and Spanish (which ascribe grammatical gender to things that don't have biological gender...)

    ...this went on until Jessie observed how "boxed in" she felt, as a result of this class, how increasingly aware of her inability to get outside the language available to her to describe experience...

    and I, distressed (because I thought this class was all about offering ways OUT of boxes...)

    invited an associative game, using metaphors to articulate ideas, and generate their associated networks of related ideas--to illustrate how we can come up w/ new ways of interacting...

    I actually drove back to English House tonight to take a photo of our metaphor-board, only to find it erased, alas. Here are the ones I remember:

    Self Classmates Teacher Class
    big ears mouths finger body
    wildflower insects soil/water/environment garden
    clam ocean sand pearl
    ledledleader-outerfrom educare=L. to lead out

    alack and alas: the last
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-08 18:30:13
    Link to this Comment: 14389

    Welcome to the last, alas, forum (said the teller of catastrophic stories) about the evolution of stories. We turn this week to Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography. Read as far as you can get over the weekend, and by 5 p.m. on Sunday please post an account of what this novel has got you thinking--about gender, about genre, about style, about substance, about time (where'd that come from??).

    A reminder that you'll also find on the Web Resources page for this course varieties of interpretations both of Woolf's novel and the film Sally Potter made out of it in 1992 (which represents, of course, yet another stage/style/form in the evolution of "literary" stories....)

    A. Lack.

    Confusion Galore
    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-08 21:02:46
    Link to this Comment: 14390

    Orlando seems in many ways like a typical character if his time, age and status. Initially, and especially in his relationship with Sasha, illustrates a man who is in search for excitement in the boredom of his duties. This is precisely why I feel he is intrigued and smitten by Sasha. She represents a vibrant young woman with her quick repartee, strong opinions and dangerous liaison with him that become a “scandal of the court.” (Orlando. Pg. 41) His romance with Sasha is obviously disappointing in the end as it does not work out but at the same time I think it is a defining moment as it shows what type of woman he was attracted to while he was still a man. I’m a little unsure as to how this relationship shapes him but his anger towards her leads him to denounce the female race in a negative sense that was sometimes reflective of their social position and lack of rights. Their freedom was curtailed by the control of their sexuality and how I’ve reached to such an opinion seems confusing also to me. I feel as though I’m finding it difficult to grasp this novel in a deeper sense, while it’s quite an easy read. Getting through the pages is easy but understanding its messages is proving a little difficult for me. I’m hoping the forum will help me understand things that are confusing right now.

    Underlying the story is Woolf’s disdain for the English in a period, which seems superficial and dramatic. There is a portion in which she expresses a subtle disdain for their customs, their courts and status oriented focus, which she attributes to the Elizabethan era. I’m not entirely sure how this will play out in the novel but I felt it was important to notice. However in one the reference readings that were put up, I was made aware of the fact that Woolf herself was from an aristocratic household and hence I’m left a little confused about how she is actually using the information.

    Orlando’s transformation into a woman was very sudden and confusing. In an instant we were told that he had become a woman. Up until the age of 30 he had been a man and now in his ambassador position, after a trance, he wakes up as a woman. As I tried to get past it, I found that there were some interesting claims being made by Woolf about sexuality and gender in this day and age. Orlando appears to be physically a woman when Woolf describes his appearance after he awakens from his slumber. She makes the point that his/her face remained the same, as did his memory and identity. Here I felt she was trying to emphasize that gender does not necessarily determine identity and memory. How we are, we think and conduct ourselves has more to do with identity than gender. Hence perhaps going back to Sasha, Woolf presented her as a strong person reflecting her identity as opposed to her gender. Similarly despite the vulnerability of Orlando’s position, his identity and experiences were still very much a part of her regardless of the change in gender. For example she cannot consider herself as part of the gypsies and identifies strongly with the questions of status and position even when in contact with them.

    For some reason, this book while intriguing is also confusing which is why I need to read it some more and figure out exactly how to interpret it. These are my preliminary views that I felt I needed to put down in order to sort out. Excuse me if I sound very confused. I’m still trying to figure out how to interpret this.

    Name: Brittany
    Date: 2005-04-09 00:23:55
    Link to this Comment: 14393

    Oh man, so much love for Orlando (the novel, not the character)...

    I can't quite say I fully understood this book. I can't even say I understood what was most important about it---its message, as Nada put it. In fact, I was actually pretty unenthusiastic about it up until page 253. The writing style seemed inconsistant to me; Orlando's literary values themselves seemed to change, and that bugged me. (I don't know why I expected they should stay consistent in the first place, considering she lived for such an extended period of time...)

    But anyway. So I got to page 253, and this: "the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we must leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion." And I thought, "Wow, that sounds sort of Romantic..." My curiosity aroused, I continued for a few pages until I got to page 265 and read this: "she felt that power (remember we are dealing with the most obscure manifestations of the human spirit) which had been reading over her shoulder, tell her to stop."...and I suddenly had a huge English major geek moment.

    That's when I started to love the book, because I think I finally, finally realized (on page 265---oi, took me long enough!) that Woolf's writing (not her style, exactly, but the substance of her narration; she occasionally breaks off into little literary tangents that discuss what "good" writing should be)---as well as Orlando's literary attitude---changes to reflect the literary time period Orlando is living in. After reading Orlando do the Eolian Harp thing on 256, I started to go back through the book and try to identify references to specific authors, or themes of specific time periods.

    I didn't positively identify too much, though. I'm not sure whether that's because this theory of mine is COMPLETELY off base (and I had an English geek moment for nothing), or my knowledge of English literary history is really, really pitiful (also very likely). For example, that paragraph on page 203 that ends with "(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped)." Who is that mocking? And that bit on page 136, is that supposed to be a Masque? And is that uber-long house description on page 106/7 supposed to sound Penhurst-y? (or am I just saying that because Woolf calls it a "tedious" tale and Johnson bores me to death?)

    ...oh, right, and there was that whole "changing sexes" aspect too. Um. Well, to be honest, that wasn't the aspect of the book that held the most interest for me. But I can say this: Woolf's gradual narrative transition from male to female felt the most convincing of any of the authors we've read so far.

    Name: Brittany a
    Date: 2005-04-09 00:27:29
    Link to this Comment: 14394

    I want to clarify that last... I know Orlando's physical transition from male to female was very sudden, but I got the impression that her emotional transition lasted a lot longer. And it's that emotional transition that felt believable to me.

    Name: Maureen En
    Date: 2005-04-09 12:25:26
    Link to this Comment: 14396

    So far greatly love Woolf's way of writing and telling a story. From the very beginning description of Orlando on page 14, Woolf catches me in the moment of the story.

    "Orlando stood now in the midst of the yellow body of an heraldic leopard. When he put his hand on the windowsill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue, and yellow like a butterfly's wing. Thus, those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them, might observe that though the shapely legs, the handsome body, and the well-set shoulders were all of them decorated with various tints of heraldic light, Orlando's face, as he threw the window open, was lit soley by the sun itself."

    I think that is just a beautiful introduction to the hero/heroine of the novel. It is also, I think, written in a way to let us see the masculinity of Orlando at that time, but also the beauty which may help us see the woman later. (I haven't quite finished the book yet.)

    I also love the passages on Orlando's literary/poetic endevours. From the perspective of someone who wants to be a writer, Woolf has a great way of catching the formulation of a story both in the action of the novel (with Orlando) and with Orlando's own creations.

    Name: Haley Brug
    Date: 2005-04-10 00:20:06
    Link to this Comment: 14399

    I have just finished Orlando. I really couldn’t put it down and it just begged to be read the rest of the way through (even when I tried to pace myself!)

    I was very interested in what inspired the novel. It seemed like such an odd idea to me, but a very effective one. While I was reading the novel I had no idea of it's history. It wasn't until after I had finished that I read about Virginia Woolf's relationship with Vita Sackville-West and how Sackville-West was the inspiration for Orlando. Nigel Nicolson once called the novel the “longest and most charming love letter in literature” and everything about Orlando seems to refer to Sackville-West (from her noble family background to her early relationships (Sasha) I found it fascinating to compare their lives, just to see how events in Orlando’s life mirrored those in Sackville-West’s. I found many similarities just from reading a biography.

    I agree that Orlando’s transition (physical at the very least) was rather abrupt and a little too easily accepted! At first this annoyed me. I tried to imagine waking up and simply accepting that things had changed so very drastically. After a good number of pages of Orlando as woman I was convinced that the quick change worked well within the novel. If it had been any other story, I would have scrutinized it more. The way Woolf wrote the change was smooth, even if it was unexpected. It was easier to move on with the narrative that way. I realized I hadn't dwelled on it too much past the initial shock.

    Since we have been talking about writing styles (masculine and feminine) I thought it was interesting that as a man Orlando’s writing was all but ridiculed, but as a woman her poem “The Oak Tree” was well-regarded and celebrated. What does this imply about the female voice?

    subject of literature in Orlando
    Name: Lauren Z
    Date: 2005-04-10 00:21:26
    Link to this Comment: 14400

    I've now read the first couple chapters of Orlando, and I am not exactly sure what I make of it. It reads almost like a fairy tale. I am wondering in what ways Woolf's writing style affects our interpretation of the unusual subject matter. Like Britt, I am also enjoying that the concept of literature itself is discussed within the novel. This certainly ties in nicely with our class's ongoing discussion on storytelling. My favorite scene thus far is the one in which Orlando dines with Nick Greene. Greene's comments that Shakespeare will amount to nothing are of course amusing and provocative to the reader. Anyway, I am wondering how important the subject of literature and writing is going to be in the remainder of the novel, as well as how this topic can be related to our unit on gender and hermaphroditism. I remember that Cal felt like he had an important story to share, and I suppose Orlando does as well.

    Name: Becky Hahn
    Date: 2005-04-10 10:26:03
    Link to this Comment: 14406

    I'm very puzzled by Orlando's transformation from male to female. It doesn't seem to matter much at all in terms of identity ("The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity" p. 138 (on a side note, why is Orlando suddenly plural? If the identity is the same, how is he/she now two people?)). I can't figure out what motiviated this change. Did the ladies of Purity, Chastity, and Modesty believe that female is her "true sex" since they speak of Truth? Did Orlando himself/herself have anything to do with the change, or was it just imposed on her? I guess Woolf intended for Orlando's transformation to be ambiguous, although after reading Middlesex and HB, I want to know the details!

    A feminist motive is certainly there-- Woolf is trying to show the differences in how men and women are expected to act, are treated, and the "penalties and privileges" of each stereotyped sex. I guess having Orlando live as each is an effective tool to do this, but I'm still caught up in the confusion of the transformation.

    Writing in Orlando
    Name: LT
    Date: 2005-04-10 12:45:26
    Link to this Comment: 14408

    I think it's interesting that all three of the hermaphrodites we've read about have been writers, to some degree. I think Eugenides pointed out that writers have to take on both masculine and feminine perspectives, though I couldn't find the exact quote where he referred to it. That makes me wonder - are they writers because they are physically between the two genders, or would they have been writers regardless? I'm not sure which idea I prefer. The second idea would mean that minds aren't inherently masculine or feminine, that there are different patterns of thinking as well as different physical expressions of gender. The first idea could be that their mental ability to write takes a physical manifestation. This is only a literary interpretation of course, that doesn't translate well into the real world.

    "And if literature is not Bride and Bedfellow of T
    Name: Rebekah Ba
    Date: 2005-04-10 13:32:35
    Link to this Comment: 14411

    I'm about halfway through Orlando now, and really loving it.

    I appreciated Haley's references to the parallels between Vita Sackville-West and V. Woolf's life and the novel Orlando. I have also found while reading this extraordinary book that thinking about the storyteller herself is critical to thinking about this book.
    From what I know about Woolf's life, her works' primary themes, and the period in which she wrote, it's been fascinating to see how Orlando fits into all of these. I've also been feeling like rereading A Room Of One's Own along with Orlando--it seems like in that book Woolf addresses exactly the same issue as in Orlando but in a very different, more straightforward way.

    Building off of Lauren T's question about our narrators as writers, i think that what Woolf is doing in Orlando is creating a representation of her theory of the androgynous mind necessary for the writer. Orlando is the ideal storyteller, understanding the perspectives of both male and female with a first hand view of 400 years of history. This all ties back to the theme that we've been seeing since Middlesex and Tiresius of the intersex person's superior--sometimes mystical-- powers of knowledge and perspective. The artistic potential and motivation that is with Orlando from birth is only able to find expression once she is a woman--but note that her literary success is a poem that had its origins in her masculine identity.

    I also found it really interesting how immediately comfortable Orlando is in her body, and how as a woman she seems to be immediately predisposed to certain more "feminine" qualities. Is this an indication of how much Woolf felt was determined by biology? Also, something I've been better trying to figure out is the scene of O's transformation and the significance of the three sisters and Truth. The transformation is the manifestation of truth--since it creates a creature that can finally view the world from both genders--which are undermined by the forces of Purity, Modesty, and Chastity, which then must be interpreted as the enemies of truth? I very much liked how the male Orlando never had an encounter with these three sisters, but that they were hovering over the female Orlando's bed at the moment of her birth. I'm also getting the feeling that Woolf feels the androgynous mind not only necessary for the writer, but also necessary to overcoming the oppressive social standards women are held to.

    I want to talk about time too...but don't seem to have enough of it at the moment. Maybe somebody else can start that thread. :)

    Ideas on Transition
    Name: Tonda Shim
    Date: 2005-04-10 15:53:45
    Link to this Comment: 14415

    I enjoyed the fact that Orlando started out as a man. Even though the story is very different from the previous two in terms of biology and logistics, it was good to have a little change. But I found his transformation to be rather interesting and confusing. After his disastrous affair with the Russian Princess, his deep sorrow and anger seemed to turn him off from women entirely. This made the physical transition particularly convenient. But he had been attracted to the sex opposite his socially determined one at the first, which differs from Middlesex and Herculine Barbin. While I enjoy Orlando, the lack of biological understanding frustrates me after reading Middlesex. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the story pans out.

    Response to Orlando
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-04-10 16:15:32
    Link to this Comment: 14416

    I have found what I have read in "Orlando" so far to be troubling. Perhaps it is the fact that, like the other two literary hermaphrodites, Orlando has little capacity to exert control over his own life. Perhaps another issue is the time period during which the book is set. As is indicated "The age was Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even. Everything was different (26-27)." For this reason, gender was depicted as radically different from how it is in "Herculine Barbin" or "Middlesex."

    Another difference is the style of writing itself because the descriptions of metaphors are of a completely different style than the ones used in "Middlesex." For example, "Middlesex" contains many metaphors that are synecdoche for a specific Classical story. My favorite example of that was the description of the task of washing all the windows as being sysyphisian. In "Orlando," by contrast, items are often described in terms of nature and the descriptions can go on for an entire page.

    Orlando- First Impressions
    Date: 2005-04-10 16:54:38
    Link to this Comment: 14420

    Orlando- First Impressions
    Date: 2005-04-10 16:55:03
    Link to this Comment: 14421

    Name: Laine Edwa
    Date: 2005-04-10 16:56:17
    Link to this Comment: 14422

    I am not quite sure what to think yet, there are parts that I really like and I fly through them, and then there are other parts that just drag for me. I found Woolf's description of the duty of a biographer to be interesting - "plod without looking to the right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth" (65) I don't believe that Woolf actually does this, however, as I find that the parts of this novel that don't interest me are her own thoughts on writing, morals, etc.

    Woolf's writing style has been a nice change though, from what we have been reading, and the way it changes within the novel are part of why it is so refreshing. Woolf's style of writing about Orlando certainly changes as time passes and Orlando shifts in his/her sex. It brought up the interesting question of how we "write" gender.

    There also seemed to be a certain amount of foreshadowing in the text. On page 64 Orlando curses the Russian Princess calling her "faithless, mutable, fickle [...] devil, adulteress, deceiver." Many of these adjectives will later be applicable to Orlando himself as he changes through gender and time.

    Another aspect of the text that has me thinking- how exactly do the illustrations function, especially those of Orlando? I'm caught between thinking that they add to the story and thinking that they hinder it in the way I myself imagine Orlando to be.

    Orlando and Love
    Name: Austin
    Date: 2005-04-10 16:56:27
    Link to this Comment: 14423

    In reading the beginning of Orlando, I noticed a common thread between this book as well as Middlesex and Herculine Barbin. In all of these books, the main character (being the hermaphrodite) has had an intense love interest. I know, of course, that most books have the common thread of a love story, but in my opinion, the love stories in these three books are different than other love stories but very similar among themselves. The love is an powerful, passionate, overwhelming obsession with the person whom they love. In each book the main character seems to be almost asphyxiated by their feelings for the other person and no other factors ever influence those feelings. Maybe this is because the books grew out of one another. Maybe this deep sexual need among hermaphrodites is brought about due to the fact that they are so inwardly confused about their sexuality. Or maybe it’s because every great book needs a great love story. Whatever the reason may be, I was intrigued by the fact that this third book had a near identical experience with love as the previous two books.

    Who is a hermaphrodite?
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-04-10 17:03:15
    Link to this Comment: 14424

    Like with Herculine Barbin, I feel that Orlando has social commentary intertwined with the story. With Orlando, however, I feel less like I am supposed to think a certain way. I think this may be because Woolfe is a more persuasive writer… but what does that mean? If I don’t realize that a piece written is a persuasive story, I am less likely to think critically about these ideas. I will absorb these themes of the story and they will influence my thoughts but there seems to be a part missing from this interaction. I think that a persuasive story that argues one particular idea is less generative. The reader doesn’t get to see the flip side of the argument, there are fewer levels and perspectives that are acknowledged and incorporated into the story.
    Orlando is a much more ambiguous person than either Herculine or Cal/lie. The transformation of Herculine and Cal/lie into members of the male sex were required a lot of effort and brought/resolved tensions in the story. For Orlando, changing into a woman was a passive thing, after a magical sleep, he awoke and had become a she. I don’t think that Woolfe addresses the issues of what it means to be a hermaphrodism in Orlando. Her book does questions the labels and categories of male and female by having Orlando be able to experience both genders. Orlando’s reflections explore the two sexes through comparing his/her experiences; however, Orlando does not explore the topic of being either male or female. Orlando’s change of gender is a plot device which allows the readers to have the story of a man and a women through one person’s perspective, “she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being, she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets the weaknesses of each.” (p 158) Still, I feel like Orlando is not a hermaphrodite. Before he became a she, there were no feelings of not fitting into the male gender. Orlando, admittedly, had many ‘feminine’ qualities (beauty, emotion, a desire to be a writer (but was that as ‘feminine’ in the past as it is now… no… in some ways, I feel like gender was more restricted in some way, but less so in other ways during the time of Orlando) but he was always a very firm he. After the magical sleep when Orlando awakes a woman, but is still him/herself. “Orlando has become a woman-there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing ever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. His memory-but in future we must, for convention’s sake, say ‘her’ for ‘his’, and ‘she’ for ‘he’- her memory then, went back through all the events of her past life without encountering any obstacle. Some slight haziness there may have been… certain things had become a little dimmed; but that was all” (p 138-9). Orlando was a man and then he was a woman. The only reason he did not fit into the category of woman after the transformation was because she remembered his life as a man. For many of the hermaphrodites (here I am thinking of the video we watched) we have discussed in class, they had never fit into sex categories, they had always felt outside of them… Orlando did fit into a category and would have remained comfortable there…

    Name: Liz Patere
    Date: 2005-04-10 17:15:40
    Link to this Comment: 14426

    I think what I enjoyed most about this book was that Orlando's rapid sex change did not change the character's inner idenitity. I feel like its what I've been saying all along, we are who we are and we are not as defined by our gender as society would have us believe. Yes there are differences but if I were to suddenly change gender overnight I almost feel as though who I am inside would remain constant. I am me, I not my gender in fact more male personality stereotypes than female ones apply to me. I like Virginia Woolfe in that she recognizes the importance of the gender-less mind in writing. An author should be neither male nor female and should only struggle to use the stereotypes of male and female in order to make a point. I almost felt that that was the most important message that I got out of this book and its the one I've been waiting for since I read Middlesex. The exterior is just a body, our mind makes us special and the mind I like to think has more freedom than the body to be whatever it wants or is thanks to the neocortex and its ability to create new stories.

    Name: Annie Sull
    Date: 2005-04-10 17:37:23
    Link to this Comment: 14427

    I don't know if I can write with coherency about Orlando right now... but I am really enjoying it so far... I am interested in the biographer's voice as it seems relevant to many of our discussions in this course about story-telling / truth / gendered voice /perspective. I just love Woolf's description of the biographer's duty: the quest for truth (as quoted by Laine) and the attention to accuracy. I read these 'serious' musings on the biographer's task as parody--as Woolf telling us to think about how we interpret 'fact' and how we characterize 'the narrator' (perhaps mistakenly reading fiction as history). The narrator laments, "It is, indeed, highly unfortunate, and much to be regretted that at this stage of Orlando's career, when he played a most important part in the public life of his country, we have least information to go upon . . . Often the paper was scorched a deep brown in the middle of the most important sentence. Just when we thought to elucidate a secret that has puzzled historians for a hundred years, there was a hole in the manuscript big enough to put your finger through" (115). The Biographer's account of Orlando's life is derived from (often imperfect) historical documents . . I found this obsession with the facticity of her account amusing... especially because her narration is so fictional (plunging into the psychology and emotions of Orlando).

    I'm sorry to quote so much from the book, but I really liked the narrator's description of her ideal reading public. She says, "For those these are not matters on which a biographer can profitably enlarge it is plain enough to those who have done a reader's part in making up from bare hints dropped here and there the whole boundary and circumference of a living person; can hear in what we only whisper a living voice; can see, often when we say nothing about it, exactly what he looked like . . . and it is for readers such as these that we write . . ." ( 70). Imagination.. a kind of filling in the blanks. . will always be the reader's task, no matter how "factual" the text. I also liked her description of writing as abridgement. . . a person conveyed through mere sketches and whispers. . . that can only become whole in the reader's mind...

    Other things I am interested in, but can't write too much on now are time (internal versus actual chronology, summary, memory), blood (Orlando's steak of commonness), and literature / writing. . . Will keep these in mind.

    woolf, laine, annie, and i
    Name: Britt Frem
    Date: 2005-04-10 18:01:25
    Link to this Comment: 14428

    I started a post around five p.m., but had to catch the blue bus... now that I'm back at a computer I see that two people have already commented on what I wanted to say.

    What strikes me most about the novel, thus far, are Virginia Woolf's frequent references to her role as a biographer. At the beginning of chapter 2 she comments that "...the first duty of a biographer... is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indeliable footprints of truth..." She goes one to say that "[Biographers] simple duty is to state the facts as they are known, and so let the reader make of them what he may."

    This made me think about Mayr's claim that he holds the "truth" about the
    history of man. (The idea that some of that "truth" comes from fossils is also intriguing since Woolf writes about "footprints of truth.") Our class did not like how Mayr insisted his ideas were truth. Will we accept Woolf's comment that she is trying to tell the truth/get the facts before us? I think Annie commented that Woolf is being satirical with her statement. I don't know what I think yet.

    I've only gotten to the part of the book when Orlando meets the poet, Mr. Greene. I noticed Orlando, upon meeting him, immediately tried to catagorize him...BUT "Orlando, for all his knowledge of mankinds was puzzled where to place him. There was something about him which belonged netiehr to servant, squire, nor noble." The description of the character's idiosyncrasies goes on... All the same, "they went to dinner." Too bad things like that don't happen more often.

    Annie and Laine

    Name: Britt Frem
    Date: 2005-04-10 18:04:23
    Link to this Comment: 14429

    ignore the two names at the bottom of my last posting. they were the two people who mentioned biographer's voice.

    woolf and gender
    Name: Maria
    Date: 2005-04-10 20:32:59
    Link to this Comment: 14431

    I was interested by Liz's comment above about "the gender-less mind in writing." My impression was that what Woolf considered necessary for the creative mind was not that it be ungendered and able to draw on whatever gender would be useful at the time. I thought that Woolf was speaking to a state that was characterized not by the absence of either gender in the mind of the author but rather the presence of both. That it is the coexistence of traits that are associated with both males and females--and the interaction between them-- in a single mind that allowd for the creation of new ideas, that sparks creativity and originality. I personally like this notion because taken to a broader level, I think it is an interesting illustration of this idea that it is in the interaction between diverse elements that one ultimately sees the most original and generative results. Hurrah for heterogeneity...

    Name: Jessica
    Date: 2005-04-10 21:06:51
    Link to this Comment: 14432

    I've had an influx of Virginia in my life this month, reading Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One's Own for another class. I read The Hours last week and watched the movie of it this afternoon. So what's most striking to me about Orlando right now is Time in the novel. (In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf tells the story of a single day in the life of a woman and those around her.)

    I didn't chart it out (though I'm sure some literary critic somewhere as) but it seems like Orlando moves through more time as a woman than as a man (century time, not age time). My thoughts are really unfocused about this right now, but this novel has me thinking about the evolution of women (though maybe that's from The Hours), the more things change the more they stay the same.

    I also like being reminded of how briefly we've been here. That's been happening plenty in this class, but I think I've been keeping evolution time and real time on seperate planes in my mind. Like there are the eons that Mayr and Dennet and Grobstein dealt with, and then there is the real time that Dalke and Barbin and (even)Eugenides live in.

    But Woolf's story of Orlando is so magical to me because why not? Its so seamless, and it makes me wonder why we don't allow different ages for everyone. There are dog years, you know? We acknowledge that some things age at different speeds. I think on some level I believe, and Orlando has me believing, that you can age a century in the course of four seasons changing, or that it will take hundreds of seasons changing for someone to get a year older.

    Rereading this posting, especially seeing how other people have written about Orlando, I realize that I don't think of this book as the story of a hermaphrodite, I think I read Orlando as a woman who went through a tomboy phase. Not even. She seemed to have an expression of gender that was read as male as a boy, and she was just a boy who grew up to be a woman. Maybe that's just as likely as anything else, as a boy growing into a man or a girl growing into a woman. In literature, at least, why not?

    First Reactions to Orlando
    Name: Kate Shine
    Date: 2005-04-10 23:28:19
    Link to this Comment: 14438

    I am very much enjoying Orlando so far, I find Woolf's storytelling style lush and enchanting. One person mentioned that the novel seems like a fairy tale, I can see this and it also seems to have elements of magical realism, i.e. in the passages concerning The Great Frost. At times the style seems very tongue-in-cheek, which Annie commented upon regarding the truth-seeking comments about the biographer. However at the same time I do feel there is some essential truth being sought or explored, and that Woolf does not take this task lightly. This truth-seeking seems very un-"plodding" however, it allows itself more freedom for fancifulness and obscure metaphor within the narrative than any of our previous books.
    I am also struck by how aware I am of the differences between Woolf, the biographer, and Orlando. These distinctions are purposefully reinforced by Woolf and seem to somehow lend a depth and credibility to the novel. This may be related to the idea of the unreliable narrator we discussed with respect to Middlesex.

    I am also struck by Woolf's fascination with extremes and opposites. She relates this to the age and the weather as much as Orlando's temperament. I think this passionate way of seeing the world may be characteristic of the adolescent state in which we first view Orlando, but the way it seems to take over the landscape is enchanting. Once again I see the Hegelian dialectic at work, thesis and antithesis coming together to create a synthesis, a great story. Maria's comments about how the writer must be able to embrace not neither sex but BOTH sexes seems somehow related.

    Woolf's style
    Name: Ghazal Zek
    Date: 2005-04-11 01:30:01
    Link to this Comment: 14442

    I've also enjoyed reading Orlando so far. This is my first experience with Virginia Woolf, and I'm really pleased with her writing style.—I agree, very "lush." I love how she's writing as a the biographer; it allows her to have a very specific purpose in her writing. I also love that she can be so involved and so removed from the story at the same time. She even comments on her own writing style p. 78 "...who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence..." I have to say, I read that sentence over and over because I was so impressed that she had the skill to pull off such a lengthy sentence. I find Woolf's writing style inspiring—she's very different from what I'm used to reading. I'm curious how much her style of writing impacts my impression of the characters. I find her writing to be almost report-like, including especially when she notes things to herself.

    Name: Maja Hadzi
    Date: 2005-04-11 03:27:39
    Link to this Comment: 14444

    First I would like to agree with what seems to be a trend in most of the opinions on style and say that I am really enjoying Woolf’s writing. The time-course of the novel, however, really gets to me. I like the idea that was brought up earlier about different perceptions of time and how they’re often so difficult for us to grasp because we’re so used to our own perceptions of time that it’s difficult to imagine it in a different spatial context. Internally, that’s one of the main issues that I’m wrestling with in this book.

    Woolf, however, does a very good job at categorizing the eras and the anarchies and breaking it down temporally. I feel like she does this in an attempt to narrate the story as neatly as possible and to organize a fundamentally chaotic existence like Orlando’s. This book is also an example of how society innately compartmentalizes everything from history to identity and gender.

    expanding the geek moment
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-11 16:42:30
    Link to this Comment: 14457

    I passed Brittany's English major geek moment by Michael Tratner, who responded,

    Brittany is absolutely right: there are certainly throughout Orlando parodies of styles of specific authors and of certain "eras"--the book is set up to create lots of English Geek Moments as people recognize the various styles and parodies. I would encourage Brittany and others to go hunting up parodies of various authors and lots of nasty comments about them as well. I looked for an article that discusses some of the stylistic parodies and came up with this one (available online through infotrac):

    Caroline Webb. "Listing to the right: authority and inheritance in 'Orlando' and 'Ulysses.' Twentieth Century Literature , Summer 1994 (40, 2): 190-205.

    This article starts by noting that Woolf in her diary said of Orlando, "Satire is to be the main note--satire & wildness.... My own lyric vein is to be satirised. Everything mocked." And then the article focuses on Woolf's preface which gives credit to a whole list of authors and so partly gives a clue to the styles Woolf is going to parody. And finally, something Brittany may find interesting: a passage from the article which examines the Masque scene which Brittany identified as a literary parody of the age in which Orlando is living at that moment:

    The masque scene, appropriate to the period, features the three allegorical sisters Purity, Chastity, and Modesty circling Orlando with their veils in the effort to conceal his/her naked and disturbing sexuality; their ritual pleas are foiled by the trumpet cry for Truth. The scene is handled with just that seriousness with which the Preface has treated its scholarly pretentions. Here the ritual dance of goddesses is presented without comment, framed only by the present-tense state direction / description of their movements. . . .

    The Sisters become distracted and wail in unison, still circling and flinging their veils up and down.

    "It has not always been so! But men want us no longer; the women detest us. We go; we go. I (Purity says this) to the hen roost. I (Chastity says this) to the still unravished heights of Surrey. I (Modesty says this) to any cosy nook where there are curtains in plenty." (136)

    The masque defeat of the sisters, itself formally characteristic of such a production, is underscored by a moment of twentieth-century humor. The virtues' goals are surprisingly banal, and Chastity's words engage in a literary play that sharply questions her claim to value. The lofty "still unravished heights," with its Keatsian overtone, is undercut by the banal "of Surrey"; this is no bride of quietness but a partner of the estate agents, involved in the urban Londoner's flight to an, idealized countryside. As with the ironies of the preface, this phrase takes force from the identity of its elements: the phrase "still unravished heights" is a Romantic description and a suburban sales pitch in the same moment, indeed is commercially successful because of its elevated metaphor. It is unsurprising then that Modesty's goal implies a self-interpretation much more superficial than the association with Purity and Chastity would suggest; the traditional hierarchy of virtue is subverted here as thoroughly, and as modestly, as is the traditional hierarchy of authority by Woolf's Preface.


    Gender and Time Ambiguity
    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-11 21:09:52
    Link to this Comment: 14474

    A random thought just occurred to me. It may seem obvious to some, but it was an epiphany for me. Isnt is possible that Orlando didnt necessarily undergo a physical transformation but rather a mental one. Perhaps, in his mental state of mind, he became a woman. While, it is entirely possible and evident in the book that he underwent a physical change but in some ways viewing it as a mental change makes his transformation more realistic and reassuring. Perhaps, Woolf was trying to illustrate the continuum of gender by rejecting its physical property. Perhaps, its similar to the Brain Sex ID test which gives the brain a gender as opposed to a person. Well that may not be entirely true but I think its something I want to play with in my head.

    Another interesting thought was trying to consider the more abstract notion of time. Time essentially as a landscape instead of a linear construction. While this is hard to grasp, I feel like Woolf is threatening us by taking us into a place where time becomes a greater or even irrelevant concept. Perhaps time is a personal construction. We control the way we feel time. I think we all do but always in a linear manner. Perhaps there is another way in which to understand it. As I read on Im going to try that and then Ill post and let everyone know how it felt:) Im sure everyone else understands it better than myself, but I think Im getting somewhere!

    Name: Jessica
    Date: 2005-04-11 22:58:38
    Link to this Comment: 14482

    I cannot believe I am actually adding this to our dialogue, but my father (who uses this joke in virtually every social situation requiring mindless chatter) will be thrilled. Though I could have told it shorter, I was raised to believe that this joke is better the longer it takes to tell. I claim no legitimacy to the biology of this pun.

    So the zoo was having a problem with the porpoises. In the wild, porpoises are always monogamous. But something was going wrong at the zoo and the porpoises were gallivanting all over the place. Kids would come one day and see porpoise Mary with porpoise John, the next day, porpoise John would be with porpoise Sue, and so on. Many disturbed children, big problem.

    The zoo calls in an expert who studies the situation and finally concludes that in the wild, porpoises occasionally eat a seagull, and somehow, in eating the seagull, it changes the brain chemistry of the porpoises, or something, and keeps them happy together.

    So the porpoise keeper is going to go into the porpoise cage to feed them these seagulls. Except this damn poorly constructed zoo, you have to walk through the lion cage to the porpoises. They feed the lions a big meal, and the lions eat it, steaks and everything and, predictably, the fall asleep. Zookeeper goes into the cage with a bucketful of seagulls, he walks over the first lion (it’s a small lion cage)… no problem. Second sleeping lion, fine. He goes to walk over the third lion, the thing jumps up, knocks him to the ground, spills the bucketful of seagulls everywhere. Why'd the lion do it? What was the zookeeper guilty of?

    He was transporting gulls over staid lions for immoral porpoises.

    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-12 00:09:07
    Link to this Comment: 14484

    Response to Jessica... hehehehehhehehe..

    Name: Jane
    Date: 2005-04-12 13:53:15
    Link to this Comment: 14517

    To jessica hehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehehe

    Where I begin to see that I am really bad with pun
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-04-13 10:35:58
    Link to this Comment: 14538

    Okay, so I see Jessica in the computer lab and she asks me if I had read her joke on the forum. I hadn't, so I went onto the forum and dutifully read through it... then I got to her joke... and I didn't understand it... and by the time I had browsed through the forum, Jessica had already left the lab.

    I don't know why I have such trouble with puns. Before Monday's class, I was under the impression that puns were, at maximum length, only one or two words long. I was okay with these short/compact/brief puns but when they get longer, I get lost. Why do I have this difficulty (especially when the BBC gender test really emphasized a strong 'female' ability in language... and the test categorized me as a female...)? Now, I am not even sure I understand the definition of the term pun... I am frustrated (not unlike my forays in the myths and humanities background of 'Middlesex') by my lack of English/Classics-ness...

    Anyway, would somebody 'translate' Jessica's joke? Or she can explain in class tomorrow. I would appreciate it. It is funny, once I realize that their is an alternate meaning, I cannot stop myself from seeing the both interpretations but before I am aware of the other possibility, I firmly believe that there is only one view... What does that say about the tendency to label?

    Anyways, I will leave you will my own contribution to your collection of groan inducing jokes...

    A brief pun (I think):

    Two men walked into a bar. You think one would have ducked.

    I hope this works...
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-04-13 11:19:00
    Link to this Comment: 14539

    While reading Woolfe, especially during Orlando's time with the 'Gypsies' (the image/appreciation of nature), I was reminded of William Blake... and, seeing how Blake is one of my favorite poets and because it is beginning to be so nice outside, I decided to post a poem. The forum could use a little spring color... I hope this works, it is my first attempt to post a picture.

    And I included my favorite poem... because (even if others don't see it) I find myself thinking back to it no matter what my stream of thought...

    Taking William Blake further, I found this cool site which (not unlike this course) linked the humanities and the sciences together. Labyrinth (Minotaur), DNA, matter, spirit, dreams, the tree of life...

    These concepts and images drew me back to a post that Anne did earlier in the semester. She wrote about Mobius Strips... in my mind, DNA has a very Mobius-like structure. What story is embedded in the structure of our DNA? A continuous story of genes and evolution, a catastrophic story of nucleic acids and mutations?

    Woolf's Genius
    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-13 22:47:46
    Link to this Comment: 14559

    The most fascinating thing about Woolf is her ability to force the reader to use their imagination. It gives the reader the freedom to think within their own context as opposed to the rigid and spoonfed style of others. Hence resistance to such a text is minimal as this class has shown. As confused as some may be, including myself, almost everyone likes the book. This book assumes nothing and allows one to explore everything.

    I like the idea that time is frozen or reconceptualized in this book. It shows that time is a relative concept and not as linear as it is often viewed. Woolf's genius lies in her ability to tease the reader, by challenging conventional patterns of thought about writing styles, time, conciousness, sexuality, gender and memories. It takes a very remarkable person to be able to write without the progression of time or the notions of gender boxes.

    Another thing, I do find her humorous. I caught myself laughing earlier.

    Name: maria
    Date: 2005-04-14 02:15:13
    Link to this Comment: 14562

    Woolf has long been one of my favorite authors, but I hadn't read Orlando before this class and had forgotten how wonderful it is to get lost for the first time in a book that you love. One of the things that I always loved about Woolf was her ability--and I don't know if this is true for anyone else--to create a space of the mind, a space that I can mentally wander through without any sense of impatience because there's just so much there to think about. Part of this is that as a person who has spent large portions of her life reading I enjoy the 'literature geek' aspect of the book, I like the amusing references that Woolf makes and her ability to be both playful and profound. I can get lost in this book in a way that I rarely do anymore in literature and I'd forgotten how good it feels. It's a bit like coming in from the cold.

    Orlando: performance, gender bending, writing
    Name: Anne Sulli
    Date: 2005-04-15 00:33:02
    Link to this Comment: 14579

    I mentioned in Wdnesday's class how remarkably pictorial this book is. Aside from playing with our sense of time, the 'photographic' quality of Woolf's writing also speaks to the book's theatricality. . . I was thinking about about the pictures and photographs embedded within the text - - and how the presence of Vita's literal image turns fiction into fact, and back again (as photographs demand 'posing') It seems like this kind of performativity, and constant role changing, invades the text.

    I absolutely loved the exchange between Orlando-turned woman- and the Archduchess, turned man (the ArchDUKE Harry!). Woolf's narration of the moment in which Orlando realizes this transformation is just wonderful. Orlando is fuming, "a plague on women. . . A more ferreting, inquisiting, busybodying set of people don't exist" (171) Orlando's gross gender stereotyping is interrupted when she turns around to find a heap of clothing on the floor; "she was alone with a man." Their comical exchange thereafter parodies the rituals of courtship .. or rather the hyper-masculine attempts to "woo' a lady. This masquerade is framed by the game of "fly loo," in which Orlando "tricks" the duke into believing she has duped him. The layers of performance are endless. This scene is echoed later in the book when the cross-dressing Orlando walks alone one evening and picks up a young woman, nell. After much ceremony (the young woman "hanging lightly yet like a suppliant on her arm" (207)), the two arrive in Nell's parlour whereupon Orlando reveals her disguise and they spend the evening (in relief) enjoying one another's company as only women can.

    These scenes of delightful performance, however, are countered by passages that lament Orlando's lack of control . . or her sense of confinement within one gender role. After the scene with the Archduke, for example, Orlando lapses into despair. . and the 'biographer' begins a discussion regarding Orlando's gender evolution. The biographer expains how 'clothes wear us;' they mold our habits and hang as ornaments that define our (gender) identity not only for the outside world, but for ourselves as well (180-181) . .

    The book is filled with similar contradictions and interruptions such . . In terms of gender, I think the suggestion is that Orlando is not constant, she evolves and devolves; she performs and then performs her own performances (if that makes any sense) . . Although it is insisted that Orlando is the "same person" before and after her gender transformation, this does not necessitate a constant self. This is perhaps not contradictory but liberating.

    Another thing I want to comment on is Woolf's lovely description of society as both 'everything and nothing.' Society depends on the proper mixture of ingredients (people) which are individually meaningless. Her descriptions of the empty chatter and ceremonial pomp of 'societal' gatherings are truly amusing. I found it interesting that Woolf offers this very astute description of 'society' after making a disclaimer regarding the 'biographer's' capabilities: "To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or historian. Only those who have little need of the truth, and no respect for it--the poets and the novelists--can be trusted to do it, and this is one of the occasions where the truth does not exist. Nothing exists" (184). The disparate tasks of delivering truth and of perceiving the world's nuances are neatly relegated to biographer/ historian and poet/novelis, respectively. I think this is a statement that Woolf wants to challenge in "Orlando.'

    There are so many things I want to talk about and so many that I don't quite understand. One thing that interests me (but will save until I have more to go on) is the intertextuality of Orlando. This book heavily satirizes and parodies canonical literature, and the historicization of literary figures. . . I think there is a tension in this. She seems to be questioning the consumption of literary history, but 'parody' is also a kind of consumption.

    Are No Stories New?
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-15 09:24:35
    Link to this Comment: 14582

    And so we arrive @ our final week's discussion of Orlando. By 5 p.m. on Sunday, post here your thoughts on finishing Woolf's book: reflections on the specifics of the novel itself (as per Annie, above, on its pictoral, performative, and parodic qualities)--or reflections on aspects of our more general task--understanding the evolution of stories--which this novel illuminates.

    As goad? prod? I offer a review from this morning's New York Times (4/15/05), entitled "The Plots Thins, or Are No Stories New?"--an account of new book which recycles, magpie-like, a number of highly familiar ideas. In The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker argues that there are

    only seven basic plots in the whole world--plots that are recycled again and again in novels, movies, plays and operas....

    1. Overcoming the Monster,
    2. Rags to Riches,
    3. The Quest,
    4. Voyage and Return,
    5. Rebirth.
    6. Comedy and
    7. Tragedy....
    [The first five] can really be placed under the larger umbrella of Comedy: ...all have happy endings, all trace a hero's journey from immaturity to self-realizaiton, and all end with the restoration of order or the promise of renewal....Only in the seventh plot type, there a deviation from this fundamental pattern. Here, the hero or "held back by some fatal flaw or weakness from reaching that state of perfect balance...doomed to fall short of the goal because in some way they are stuck in a state of incompleteness or immaturity." Despair, destruction or death is often the end result.

    Okay, so: how are we going to get out of THAT black hole? (Or are we?)
    Looking forward to your assistance....

    Name: Maureen En
    Date: 2005-04-15 10:29:26
    Link to this Comment: 14584

    There are obvious circular plot lines, but I don't think any of them is diminished from its repetition. Namely, in the end when Orlando once again speaks of the sun on the "heraldic leopard" (pages 14 and 317) and when Orlando throws herself under the oak tree, feeling it's roots beneath her (pages 19 and 324). But these are just repetition of action. There are also reacurring themes in the book, such as rebirth, passion, wit, and levity but each seems to be not only changed somewhat in how Orlando has changed (her ideas of wit before and after spending time with poets and oraters for example) but also in how the world around her has changed. This, in fact, is life. While there are reacurring themes in life, each is made unique by the person they act upon and the times they act in.

    Also, in class on Wednesday, we spoke a little bit about the layers of the book. I said something about the character of Orlando being interesting because, although the book is the "biography" of one person, Orlando is nevertheless, many characters. He/She goes through various different personas. While I was finishing the book, I found a section which supports this. In chapter six, as the story is coming to a close, Woolf writes, on page 309 about the "selves" of Orlando. She says, "For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts forsix or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand." It then continues with more detailed descriptions of the "selves" we have seen in Orlando throughout the book.

    I also really like from 308 on, I think those pages are a great way to end the book (which I may say more about next week since I don't want to ruin the end for anyone not finished).

    Where metaphor, metonymy and metaphysics meet
    Name: Eileen Tal
    Date: 2005-04-15 15:01:19
    Link to this Comment: 14593

    "the most successful practitioners of the art of life ... somehow contrive to synchronize the 60 or 70 different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past" - p. 305.

    - the notion of no verb tenses but human tenses: I today, I one month ago, I tomorrow. The idea that it is not the action that has taken on different meaning but the actor. "the museum would be the same, but you'd be different somehow. like your line partner would be absent, or you'd overheard your parents fighting or you'd seen a gasoline rainbow in the street, but you'd be different somehow"- Holden Caulfield.

    The most compelling part of Orlando- and by compelling I mean for the first time I was not able to put the book aside, as I had frequently before- was Orlando's "unstuck in time"(to use the idea from Slaughterhouse Five) last pages, through London, stores, Thames, the country, his old manor, her husband landing with the stillness at midnight. It took that long for the book to fully lose itself and become the insanity it had been hinting at.

    I wasn't sure about its "internal fairy tale logic" (Jessica), taken for granted like the "and he begat Josephat, and gave up the ghost when he reached 900 years" longevity of the Bible, or the magic-realism of the old matriarch in 100 Years of Solitude. Since others reappeared- the poet Greene, and I think Sasha, but I wasn't sure if she was just a vision/ memory (and I know, the point was the location of relativity in perception, that comprehension is an illusion to reconcile oneself to the terror of the present, its scentlessness and silence, its brevity and potential, but then that's a presumptuous start to a sentence, to write "the point" as though I was not just grabbing at the air to pin the tail on anything, or that points exist) - I resigned myself to the book's existence outside of "real time", or that Orlando's long life would be explained, however fantastically, through some quality in him/her.

    Is it about gender, time, the mysteries of perception and reality as seated in the back of the mind? Yes and it's also about English literature and society, and about love. And poetry. What do I have to say about it? It felt long because of Orlando's long life, like multigenerational stories, and it felt like a staire on British society, esp. literary society, it reminded me of the one brother inthe Sound and the Fury who was obsessed with time. I'm not even sure if I liked it that much, because maybe I only allow myself to really feel for things I think I understand. I don't know what's going to happen to Shel and Orlando, if she loves her children, why she won't die. While I appreciated many lines and descriptions, really felt them, I didn't feel in on the book's logic.

    Actually adressing metaphor and metonymy
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-04-15 15:35:39
    Link to this Comment: 14595

    "Nothing is any longer one thing" - Orlando to herself, p. 305.

    "Everything was partly something else, and each gained an odd moving power from this union of itself and something not itself so that with this mixture of truth and falsehood her mind became like a forest in which things moved; light and shadows changed, and one thing became another" -p. 323.

    Sasha was a fox in the snow, an emerald, a pineapple, something beyond words, nothing in English. "when communication is established there is nothing left to say" - p.14, about Orlando's silence when she feels the union of her infinite selves settle into a cohesive true Orlando, the one whom she was seeking, calling her own name.

    I guess the ultimate love story was between the world and the mind, the love of a person trying so hard to find mening, to disassemble the pre-fab meanings given them, to hear voices in nature, to make sense and not avoid the landmines of memory and revelation that come unwelcomely:

    "Was not poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice? ... What could have been more secret, she thought, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning song of the woods...?"- p. 325.

    The end is not an end, it is a still life of Orlando and her lover ("life, a lover") embracing at night, the time when reality shapeshifts freely ("en la noche sin luz, fuimos igual"- Neruda), with the date and year announced. The power of memory and metaphor to distort relaity, or truthfully, reveal reality as the thinly spread agreement it is, it smalleability and openness to constant, personal revision which is simultaneous and therefore varied beyond one person's comprehension. Life life life the bird answered Orlando's question.

    Moments of comprehension, or of love, or complete communication, are followed in silence (in Orlando''s life). "for it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reaons we leave a great blank space here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion"- p 253, after the meeting and love of Shel and Orlando.

    Name: Jessica
    Date: 2005-04-16 17:10:56
    Link to this Comment: 14615

    So there are only seven stories, so new? It doesn't alter our need to tell & read them or even, for me, the way we tell them & read them. To look at my life on the macro level Booker does, very few days are any different from the others; realizing that, I take just as much joy in living each day, because while the plots may be the same, I am different.

    I am different every day of the week and each moment of the day, I am many people at once, as Virginia Woolf allows me to be. Most of me has had trouble wrapping my mind around this class, which will not stay stagnent in my mind, even some days when I want it to.

    Woolf saves me.

    "Though Heaven has mercifully decreed that the secrets of all hearts are hidden so that we are lured on for ever to suspect something, perhaps, that does not exist;
    ... (there I am, trying to figure out whatever, anything, everything, this class)

    ...still through our cigarette smoke, we see blaze up and salute the splendid fulfilment of natural desires for a hat, for a boat, for a rat in a ditch;
    .... (I'm walking out of class, crossing Merion Green)...

    Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Sundays, and singing in a dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging of links and chains, binding the Empire together."

    Booker's right about the plots, but so much of what I'm taking from this class is the uselessness of most classification (Mayr would be horrified). I will continue, of course, with the alluring secrets of the heart. Thanks to Woolf for her extremely useful way of helping me go outside.

    orlando and gender
    Name: alexandra
    Date: 2005-04-16 17:13:31
    Link to this Comment: 14616

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the male and female in the books we have read, specifically in Orlando. It occurred to me that from the three accounts of trans-sexuality, Orlando is the only who has ever experienced life as both a man and a women. Both Callie and Herculine Barbin are convinced that they were actually always boys, and that really it was just a mistake present at their birth that assigned to them the wrong gender. In a sense therefore, there is not any middle ground, a Middlesex to be precise. Orlando is the only one of the three who has the advantage to have been both an actual man and an actual woman. However, even in Orlando, although she can perceive the thoughts and feeling of the other sex, after having been both male and female, at one time, Orlando is one or the other…never both. Here again we have a distinct divide between the male and the female. Even when we were watching the hermaphrodite video in class, my mind was subconsciously classifying each person into one group. Perhaps even now our imagination has not yet reached the point where we can imagine someone of a “middlesex”.

    Upon Finishing the Book
    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-17 00:10:45
    Link to this Comment: 14624

    Like Annie, I agree that the book is very pictorial. From descriptions of the time with the gypsies to Orlando’s return to the London to her social gatherings, Woolf is almost painfully descriptive. Not only is she descriptive, but also writes as though she is flowing in and out of consciousness often suspending time after which she ends the moment abruptly. For example, when Orlando falls in love with Sasha he is mesmerized by his thoughts after which his bubble is literally burst when Sasha asks him to pass the salt. I think that is exactly where Woolf’s humor lies. Her ability to give more importance to Orlando’s mind as opposed to what is happening outside of his mind is what makes this book unique. This book is, if I may say so, a journey through the mind of Orlando but at the same time it does not lack the vivid descriptions of other characters.

    Underlying this story is a critique of society and all its benefits and shortcomings are illustrated throughout the book. Even Orlando is seen as an individual who is typical of his position in the way he conducts his social life. Woolf, critiques this often subtlety illuminating the frailty and superficiality of these relationships. At the same time, we can see the character mesmerized by social events. Hence this is an interesting insight into how individuals behave in certain status associated social events behave especially in England in that time period.

    Woolf’s intention in writing this book is both obvious yet perplexing. While it is clear that she is writing with a certain intention, it isn’t entirely clear to me what this intention is. Perhaps, her intention is to mock the writing style that publishers in those days insisted upon. Perhaps she is trying to step outside the gender boxes prescribed by society. Or maybe she is mocking society and all its frivolity. I think it’s a combination of all the above categories. I would however add the way in which she plays with the concept of time, paying close attention and page space to descriptions of a single moment while dedicating little space and attention to what we would consider important events. This is perhaps her genius. Her ability to leave the important events such as Orlando’s transformation, marriage and birth of her son to our imagination. She doesn’t spoon-feed her reader but instead allows them to use their own imaginative faculties to try and comprehend what happens. Her entrance into trancelike descriptions is also an interesting writing style that again ventures into the mental aspect of Orlando as opposed to his physical world. Woolf is writing in many ways the story of Orlando’s brain rather than his external life. Orlando’s internal being and self (or part of self) is what she chooses to capture as opposed to a timeline of her life’s events. Perhaps it is the inner self that is misunderstood because in many ways it is the most difficult to understand for other people.

    Overall an interesting book with many layers. It is not for the lazy reader. There is something inherent about this book. What it is, is perhaps our different selves and our acknowledgement of them that is most interesting to us as readers.

    Spiraling towards the present?
    Name: Brittany
    Date: 2005-04-17 12:03:27
    Link to this Comment: 14625

    Not really sure how I want to phrase this... I've been rereading the last few chunks of Orlando and now, more than ever, I feel that Woolf wrote the book extremely intentionally---dream visions and all. I think it might be only her immense talent as a writer that makes it *seem* like the last half of the novel spirals off into a hallucinogenic stream-of-conscious. It's done so well she *must* have written that way purposefully.

    Also, the whole conversation about time we were having on Wednesday... (or was it Monday?) How every person has multiple "clocks" ticking away inside them at once, and each "clock" is in a sense a different self? It just struck me that book ends on a single, identifiable moment in time: the last strike of midnight on a specific day. Reading the last pages through, it felt to me (I don't know why), that everything up to that point was an accelerating temporal spiral. The dreamy, yet pressing, incoherence of the last few pages seemed somehow like all of Orlando's different "clocks" racing to try and synchronize, to balance themselves. Like on page 322 she says, "I can begin to live again... the little boat is climbing through the white arch of a thousand deaths." And later, on page 323: "everything was partly something else, and each gained an odd moving power from this union of itself and something not itself so with this mixture of truth and falsehood her mind became like a forest in which things moved... it must be about half past four... she forgot the time." And the climax--well, the *end*--of the book comes with "the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight." It's as if, for one second, all of Orlando's internal "clocks" synchronized, and for just an instant, her multiple selves meshed completely into one.

    I remember in discussion on either Mon or Wed how we talked about time as both multiple streams (Orlando's different internal "clocks") and time as a pool (or a landscape, with past/present/future happening simultaneously). Forgive me for the dopey analogy (I can't seem to find a better way to articulate this; curse lazy Sunday mornings), but the last half of the book felt like a convergence of many tributaries, the speed of the water accelerating and the stream growing as each branch joined up to the river, and then the final toll of midnight at the book's end was an enormous waterfall into the "pool" of eternal present. (But I don't know if that "moment" was intended to last; had Woolf chosen to write past this point, I think the pool would have branched into streams again, because one of her themes in this book is that we *can't* be a single person all the time, even most of the time---in fact, heck, maybe it takes a good 300 years to sort out our different internal clocks/selves to such a degree that we can even experience a single moment of "abolute present." Of living in the pool, as it were.)

    Name: Becky Hahn
    Date: 2005-04-17 12:09:54
    Link to this Comment: 14626

    I'm trying to figure out how and why time functions as it does in Orlando, but I'm also wondering if there even is any logic or greater meaning to find. I vacillate between feeling that there is something deeper to understand, or that it's random (unconscious associations) and intentionally so. I like how the sky changes in each new era (for example during King Edward's reign it becomes metallic (p. 296)) but I don't really understand why the sky is changing. There are certainly cyclical elements-- Orlando returns to her old house, to the oak tree, but something is changed about everything that is revisited. It is impossible to catch the same moment that she experienced in the past. The definite existance of a unrepeatable past prevents this story from existing in the block-universe concept of time (that is, if I really understand the concept). So what is the conception? Most people in her world live "normal" life-spans, although Nick Greene and Sasha show up hundreds of years later within her extended life, so the timescape is not entirely in Orlando's head (or is it? did she just imagine them returning? or does that not have to do with anything?)

    Maybe I'm being too logical and trying to find explanations where there aren't and shouldn't be any. Maybe I should just allow it to exist as the world of the unconscious mind. But time is definitly cental in this story, and I'd like to understand it. Time allows Orlando to go through many, many changes. I like the idea of a multitude of selves (2052?) that can change from moment to moment. She can play with different genders and images, returning to some but always with something different. By escaping the barriers of conventioal time, she escapes other societal barriers as well.

    Finishing Orlando
    Name: Austin
    Date: 2005-04-17 13:03:05
    Link to this Comment: 14628

    Upon completing this book, I found myself a little confused. In spite of that,I enjoyed Orlando overall. The importance of time in this book, and how she travelled through centuries as the same inner person, was a little confusing to me. I understand the book was fantastical and enjoyed that Orlando travelled through time, I am just unsure what Woolf's purpose of doing this was. A part of the book I enjoyed was how Woolf discussed with herself in certain points of the book. She'd have a little dialogue with herself and would even poke fun at herself or the story. I found this to be a very different style than many other books, yet endearing to Woolf. Towards the end of the book, I found the idea of the many inner personalities to be interesting too. There were many parts of this book that were not as straightforward as I may have wished them to be, but overall it was an interesting read that I must confess I did catch myself laughing at in a few different places.

    Name: Ghazal Zek
    Date: 2005-04-17 13:50:57
    Link to this Comment: 14630

    This posting is in response to the discussion we were having regarding the 'block universe' and the structure of time. I found this really interesting website about Einstein's (and some other physicists') views on the existence of time(check it out here). Einstein basically says that time doesn't exist--that there is no division between past and future (ie. there is no now.) This sounds to me a lot like the block universe theory. It's strange to think that everything is already laid out; I'm not sure I buy it. I'm just confused how destiny fits in to everything. If everything already exists somewhere, then maybe there is no destiny because there's no final point to reach. Are these theories suggesting that everything is already predetermined? Another idea to think about is that these theories suggest that every "moment" exists forever. (I think I like that)
    Okay, sorry about the randomness of this posting!

    Name: Jennifer
    Date: 2005-04-17 13:57:42
    Link to this Comment: 14631

    I was looking at the basic plots that Anne posted and thinking about how they are used in telling stories. Do the basic plots limit the way we could look at stories? Many stories seem to be a combination of elements from multiple plots. I don’t know. Placing a larger thing into single categories seems problematic.

    One of the things that I found interesting with Orlando is that she/he remained the same person, and yet wherever I stopped and started again always felt like a separate person in a separate story. I guess it was because I interrupted the flow of the story by inserting breaks. However, I did always see how Orlando was the same person.

    Name: Liz Patere
    Date: 2005-04-17 13:58:50
    Link to this Comment: 14632

    I was talking in class about the paper that I'm writing which is potentially getting done today. Anyway, I was wondering about the concept of the genderless mind that Woolfe seems to aim for and whether this means that we create some new intermediate that loses the special nature of male and female or where it reshuffles the deck of charactristics into a blend so that a person is a person, defined by both genders at once. I like the latter concept because it feels less forced. We should not remove who we are from the pages to create somethign that doesn't sound conventional. A good genderless writer to me is someone who is born mixing the mind of gender characteristics. It seemed clear to me that gender of the mind hadd little if anything to do with the physcial body. Woofle for instance, seems to not have a definable or even guessable gender whereas as Herculean seemed extremely conventionally "feminine" and Cal seemed more conventionally "masculine" despite descriptions of family. However, Herculean had no male/female gender as the author at all so he/she should have been the genderless one. So then I thought the mind must be the result of nurture, nature and perhaps a little bit of free will thrown in and that that had the potential to generate minds that different. Then I began to think perhaps genderless means outside of the box and different from conventional societal norms. Perhaps this gives a perch from which to view the world, where one can observe without feeling overly involved and can create realistic characters that mimic, not oneself , but others in society.

    Time and Biography in Orlando
    Name: LT
    Date: 2005-04-17 15:06:40
    Link to this Comment: 14635

    The way Woolf plays with time in Orlando made it very difficult for me to read. I think, looking back, I may have been trying to apply logic that wasn't there. It isn't so much that time doesn't pass at the same rate as it is that Orlando doesn't always move with time. Sometimes the ideas of the time period affect Orlando, but sometimes she separates herself from them and exists in a bubble of timelessness. I'm sure there's some point to the way time works in the novel, but I can't really grasp it.

    One aspect that I thought was particularly interesting was that, even though time isn't constant, the story is told through a biographer. Even though it's fictional, I'd expect a biography to be more consistent in its movement through time. Instead, the biographer's voice draws attention to the odd nature of time by describing Orlando's passage through it.

    Only seven plots
    Name: Laine Edwa
    Date: 2005-04-17 15:13:45
    Link to this Comment: 14636

    Regardless of whether or not there really are only seven plots that keep repeating themselves, is that all we really look for in a story, the plot? I feel like there are so many other elements that go into a good story and certainly plot may be the basis for those, but it is definitely not what "makes" a story.

    As Jessica said, "while the plots may be the same, I am different" and the same can be said for stories of all kinds. Aren't the plots of "Middlesex", "Heculine" and "Orlando" all essentially the same thing? The three stories, however, are extremely different in style, time period, symbolism, and characters even.

    Although it having only seven repeating plots may seem like a misfortune, I think there can be many positives to it. It leads to a greater comparison between different works, it establishes a sense of familarity for a reader, it can even increase the ability of a reader to track the evolution of stories by looking at their "plot lineage". Overall, I agree with Maureen that the repetition of a plot does not diminish it's meaning or value, but instead provides more freedome and a greater license to examine a work beyond simply it's plot line.

    Name: Michael He
    Date: 2005-04-17 15:37:48
    Link to this Comment: 14637

    In response to the idea of block time versus standard time, I think that Woolf struggled with two kinds of time in her novels. The first is the objective, historical, masculine, linear sense of time that we think of as a "timeline", where events progress with a clear transience and shifting nature. The second is the subjective, internal, feminine, circular kind of time that exists in the psyche, and is always solid and unchanging, that I think we identify as "block time". In Orlando especially I felt there was a large conflict between these two gendered notions of time, like with Orlando's subjective experience staying rather constant even when historical time has transformed her into a different gender and radically altered the landscape of her life. Though ultimately by the novel's close, I felt that Woolf had Orlando achieve a synthesis of these two ideas of time, which is in keeping with her idea of the ideal writer possessing an "androgynous mind" that combines both the masculine and feminine principles. Like in the last few pages, Orlando was able to have all those different images in her head from different times (i.e "Shakespeare...a girl in Russian trousers..." on 327) but still retain a sense of progressive historical time by always being reminded of the chiming church clock.

    Name: Haley Brug
    Date: 2005-04-17 15:53:53
    Link to this Comment: 14639

    I very much enjoyed Orlando. I loved the character him/herself and the beautiful imagery Woolf created. I admit that during my initial read I did not always pick up on some of the satire, but now, in my new understanding of it, I find it brilliant. I was circling passages and underlining things far more than I expected I would be. I was really struck by the beauty of some.

    As for the story issue, I have often thought about the recycling of stories and have come to the conclusion that yes, some stories may be fixed and set. But this does not box out creativity and individuality. These stories will always be around, and some small part of them will be passed on to the next "generation" of stories. I'm not sure if I agree with the statement that only seven basic plots exist. People reinvent stories all the time. We mix genres and categories constantly too. Nothing is really ever exactly the same as what came before. Does turning an old plot upside down make it something new, or is it still considered a reworking of something old?

    I prefer the term reinvention of stories to recycling of stories, because I think each author or creator always adds something new to a story, something different and something truly unique. So how can the plots stay the "same"? Different people add different things. I think the seven plots statement is too close to the idea of categorization for me, as it was for others. Why must we categorize everything? Why must stories or plotlines also be forced into a category?

    Another pun
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-04-17 16:20:26
    Link to this Comment: 14640

    I found this one on the internet at

    Adam was hanging around the garden of Eden feeling very lonely.

    So, God asked him, "What's wrong with you?"

    Adam said he didn't have anyone to talk to.

    God said that He was going to make Adam a companion and that it would
    be a woman.

    He said, "This pretty lady will gather food for you, she will cook for
    you, and when you discover clothing, she will wash it for you."

    "She will always agree with every decision you make and she will not
    nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you've
    had a disagreement. She will praise you!"

    "She will bear your children, and never ask you to get up in the middle
    of the night to take care of them."

    "She will NEVER have a headache and will freely give you love and
    passion whenever you need it."

    Adam asked God, "What will a woman like this cost?"

    God replied, "An arm and a leg."

    Then Adam asked, "What can I get for a rib?"

    Of course the rest is history......................

    Name: Eleanor Ca
    Date: 2005-04-17 16:22:09
    Link to this Comment: 14641

    I very much enjoyed Orlando. I was struck by the manner in which Orlando moved from male to female and believed it to be natural and real in a way that I did not believe Cal's transition from female to male or that or Herculine Barbin. I must imagine that this is simply due to the way that Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of Orlando's becoming a woman. It may, however, even be in part because of the different uses of time in Orlando, which can make Orlando's time as a man smaller and that time as a woman all that there is, or make the transition only a second in which a few things about Orlando changed... I guess I'm not sure why it worked for me, or why I eventually forgave the different uses of time which initially bothered me as I became impatient with particular moments stretching for pages and with many years going by without much concern for anything that may have occurred in them.
    This is the first I have read of Woolf's work, I shall have to seek out more.

    Second Orlando response
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-04-17 16:32:42
    Link to this Comment: 14642

    I can't say that I ever enjoyed this book much. It is true that there are lovely discriptions that extend over multiple pages, but I found myself wanting more to occur in terms of plot and less in terms of description. As I read, I found myself thinking--repeatedly--"Okay, I've got my mental picture. You can stop conveying information that I've grown tired of reading."

    The suicide bothered me as well because it indicates Orlando's inability to accept herself. It seems an unfortunate method of conflict resolution.

    Drowning in the stream of consciousness
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-04-17 16:54:59
    Link to this Comment: 14643

    As Orlando’s story progressed, I got more and more lost. I couldn’t follow what was happening. Everything seemed so abrupt yet there were hints and foreshadowing about the events. Middlesex had the same foreboding thought we called it backshadowing because, from the time frame of the narrator, the events had already happened. Even with its allusions and descriptions, Middlesex, had a clearer plot, a more definite, if temporally displaced, series of events. I could follow Middlesex, I knew where I was and when I was. Orlando was so metaphoric and metonymic that I would get lost in the words or held back by them. It was hard for me to focus on what was going on in the book, the words would just wash over me and lose their meaning as more words came. As the book temporally caught up to the narrator, it became even more confusing. It was a jumble of metaphors metonymically connected and I could not untangle them. I would understand the meanings (or at least my interpretations of them) underlying some of the metaphors but I at the same time I had no idea what was going on in the action (or lack there of) of the book. Orlando was disorientating to read. It made me dizzy and confused.

    Anne wrote about Christopher Brooker’s idea that there are only seven basic story plot. I think it was a cop out to say that the last two plots are comedy and tragedy which I consider genres rather than plot. Still, I was wondering how love fit into these seven stories. For me, the most satisfying part of Orlando was her(his) relationship with Shel. When Orlando met Shel, the book seemed to lose all comprehensibility. I couldn’t follow what was happening anymore. The only parts that really made sense to me were the parts when Orlando talks about Shel. Those passages were so beautiful yet at the same time they were terrible. Like the triumph of the sinking toy boat which puts Orlando into ‘ecstasy’. In our section group, somebody (I think it was Eileen) talked about how Orlando and Shel’s love seemed to transcend words. They made up their own language that was one of true communication, a ‘cypher language which they had invented between them so that a whole spiritual stat of the utmost complexity might be conveyed in a word or two…’ (p 282). Nothing was hidden from each other yet. at the same time, their language is incomprehensible (Rattigan Glumphoboo). It is like a language of emotion… I was lost and drowning in Orlando's/Woolfe's stream of consciousness...

    Feminism and Virginia Woolf
    Name: Lauren Z
    Date: 2005-04-17 17:01:31
    Link to this Comment: 14645

    I will say, that for the most part, Orlando has been an enjoyable read. I will admitt that the plot, and some of the descriptions were bewildering, but they did spark some interesting discussion, no denying that. I just wanted to comment on a discussion that we had in Anne's section yesterday on the distinction between first and second wave feminism. This isn't a subject I know much about, so the discussion was enlightening for me. I think I remembered Anne grouping Woolf with the second wave of feminism. Some passages in Orlando, however, make me think of the so called "third wave" of feminism that we're currently in, wherein there is no "real" difference between the sexes at all. I also consider this the direction in which Paul has taken our class. From an Orlando passage on page 189: "Differnt though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above." Woolf goes on to describe how in regard to her tender heart and other aspects, Orlando's behavior was distinctly feminine, while in others such as the short amount of time she needed to get dressed and her love of agriculture, her behavior might be considered masculine. These passages seem to suggest to me that sex doesn't exist at all in Woolf's world. Though, there do seem to be a lot of conflicting signals within the novel.

    P.S: Sorry to keep focusing on gender.

    Nihim novum sub sole
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-04-17 17:03:57
    Link to this Comment: 14647

    I t has been years sinec I trandslated Latin, and maybe I should have at least looked it up online, but I remember being really taken with the Latin saying "nihil novum sub sole" there is nothing new under the sun.
    I felt it fit nicely with the idea that space goes ever onand on in the oscillating universe, which collapses in on itself and begins again, in the eye blinks of Vishnu/ Brahma/ Kali (I also forget the exact names for this concept as well), but the idea of mutation and growth and let's get down to it, continuity, a hugely borrowed but at least comprehensible idea of cycles, circles, none of the terror of infinity (although the cyclw is supposed to be infinite).

    I put this out here in respponse to Anne Dalke's "are there no new stories?" goad. I mean, it's said that each of us represents a new possibility, but if we can only express what is in us, and we are not essential beings of the 18th century, and not complete products of our upbringing in a Freudian view, but fence sitters once more, little amalgams of genetic programming, choiecs we make, societal input from the people and worlds that raised us. If we are individuals who will never be free of the history that built our environment, it follows that we will have an atavistic draw toward an imagined cultural memory, to the scabs picked open again and again throughout the ages, whether theyare memes or just questions that occur to every sentient being.

    Dwelling on similar themes, returning to ideas of the possibility of rebirth, of destiny, of tragedy (born of the conflict of desires and destiny), seems so natural since we all have inherited this world with the questions already posed, with pre-fabricated problems, and with the continuation of the way things are into the indescribable present.

    Time in Orlando
    Name: Rebekah Ba
    Date: 2005-04-17 17:17:42
    Link to this Comment: 14649

    This is going to be a very disconnected and possibly confusing posting. But then again, it's about a book which could easily be called disconnected and confusing, so I hope you'll understand.

    I'm also really interested by the topic of time at the end of Orlando. I think Brittany's image of tributaries--the different "clocks" all simultaneously operating inside Orlando--converging and unifying at the end of the book is really interesting. I got a similar impression of unity of time and self, although I think the unity comes from a change in Orlando's own perspective.
    Throughout the novel, both Orlando's indentity and the passing of time have seemed highly subjective and unreliable, with gender changing instantaneously and whole eras passing in a few pages. My impression of what happens to Orlando at the end of the book is an embrace of the subjectivity of all her internal "clocks", all of her selves, all her memories and all the eras she's lived through. Throughout the book there are many references to imagination v. fact--"rainbow v. granite"(p 78)--subjective v. objective. Orlando has been trying to define herself in terms of what she perceives to be the factual, the objective, world outside of her; her ongoing concern with society, her attempts to fit in with the mores and styles of the eras she lives through. She seems always to be trying to reconcile herself with this idea of the "present." For me, the end of the book represents Orlando's realization of the interconnectedness of everything: she stops trying to draw lines between the real and the imagined, between the present, past and future--even the narration of the story, formerly told by the mock-biographer figure, morphs into Orlando's own stream of consciousness, the division between them (the storyteller and the story) erased.

    Psychopathis Sexualis
    Name: Arshiya Ur
    Date: 2005-04-17 18:58:14
    Link to this Comment: 14652

    This weekend I read parts of a book called "Sexual Metamorphosis - An Anthology of Transexual Memoirs" edited by Jonathan Ames. The first chapter is a case history of Richard von Krafft-Ebong's famous 19th century study of human sexuality, Psychopathia Sexualis. This case study is an autobiography - a letter written to Krafft-Ebing by a Hungarian doctor who believed that he had changed overnight into a woman. In his letter the doctor lists the principal changes the he observes in himself and they include 1) feeling of having a woman's genitals 2) the periodicity of a monthly molimina 3) the passive female feeling during coitus 4) after that a feeling of impregnation and so on. On one occasion, the doctor is talking about alcohol and says "The indisposition after intoxication that a man who feels like a woman is much worse than any student could get up. It seems to me almost as if one's feelings like a woman were entirely controlled by the vegetative system." I found this fascinating, especially linked to the neocortex-frog brain model.

    Can we uncover this idea further ?

    time, dichotomy, language
    Name: Kate Shine
    Date: 2005-04-17 22:29:59
    Link to this Comment: 14659

    The idea of "block" time versus "standard" time in Orlando as Anne presented it and Michael discussed it in relation to category intrigues me and makes me want to further expand the dichotomous category chart I wrote on the board on Wednesday. Michael groups "block" time with "subjective, internal, feminine, circular" categories and "standard" time with "objective, historical, masculine, linear" categories.

    For those who weren't there, I was trying to explain everything I wanted to touch on in my paper and decided that everything relevant I've been thinking about lately fit into a dichotomous chart that looked something like this (but was actually a chart, haha):

    feminine |masculine

    non-categorization |category

    eastern |western

    circular |linear

    other |self

    After reflecting more on Orlando and in general, and in light of our recent discussions, I feel "block" and "standard" time belong on the chart as well, along with an enormous number of other categories.

    Here is a tentative revised version, although some of the placements and implications are unsure and uncomfortable for as I'm sure they are for many of you:

    feminine | masculine

    non-categorization |category

    eastern |western

    circular |linear

    other |self

    block time |standard time

    passion |reason

    relational |self-referential

    interdependent |independent

    liberal |conservative

    I've been questioning what it means that I feel like I can make a chart like this. In my last paper I suggested that our brains require us to categorize things in a Hegelian way, first coining a term to define what IS (thesis) and then creating the antithetical opposite term from everything that it is NOT. I believe these categories are essentially imperfect reflections of true experience, but the best we can do is to question the categories, trying to gain a hermaphroditic perspective, and refine them further.

    But what is truly interesting to me is that I've noticed that whichever categories are the "antitheses," or afterthoughts of the first, tend to be less well-defined and more free and/or ambiguous. They also seem to be associated with qualities of mystery, magic, danger, and/or immorality.
    In the chart I constructed, which reflects some of my own cultural experiences (not that I necessarily condone them), all of the antitheses are on the left. I found myself struggling to find terms with more positive connotations for the left side (i.e. interdependent instead of dependent).

    There are things others might add (i.e. subjective on the left and objective on the right) that I don't agree with because they seem not only derogatory to the left side but contradictory to other categories I've already placed (in this case relational vs. self).

    I think (but would like to investigate more to be sure) that in other cultures the very opposite placements may ring true for some of these binaries, and that many of them may not exist at all.

    Are the antitheses best grouped under the general term female and the theses under male? I wonder whether gender is the truly all-encompassing dichotomy and why. I also wonder if there are cultures where the male is instead the antithesis, and I suspect that there are. The Aztec creation story, among others, has all male humans emerging from the prototype of a female (as opposed to Eve being made out of Adam's rib).

    And finally I wonder whether I have become too obsessed with the Hegelian dialectic and in fact there are cultures and people who find some other way to make sense of their experience than by using these types of rigid dichotomies. Right now I'm thinking that one way to do this is to have the kind of experience reflected in love scenes in HB and Orlando.

    It is when Barbin is walking with Sara, about to leave her, that she most defiantly challenges category:

    "Doesn’t the truth sometimes go beyond all imaginary conceptions, however exaggerated they may be?” (87)

    A similar passage in Orlando (first quoted by Eileen in the forum) occurs after the meeting of Shel and Orlando:

    "For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank space here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion." (253)

    Both of these quotes describe the experience of lovers who feel that the poignancy and truth of the moment is somehow beyond language and category.

    Orlando vs. narrative
    Name: Tonda Shim
    Date: 2005-04-17 23:20:25
    Link to this Comment: 14660

    Woolf's Orlando is a very flowery, image dependent narrative which, though beautifully written, can sometimes seem to drag on for those of us with not quite so long an attention span. I especially had a hard time with her very long sentences and never-ending paragraphs in that there never seemed to be a good place to take a break. It might be nicer if I hato d a couple days to just sit and read it, but I have things to do and places be as everyone else here does as well, and so I end up having to stop at the end of a paragraph which may or may not have been the best place to stop, and then picking it up again later only to be completely lost.

    As far as the story goes, Orlando's character seems to follow the narrative, which seems to be an effective style. S/He will go into hiding for weeks on end, or have some extended thought that lasts the length of four written pages, only to suddenly realize she's changed her mind and ramble on for another four. Don't mistake me - I really enjoy Orlando - Woolf's assembly of words and emotions is unlike anything else; I just have a difficult time paying attention sometimes...

    P.S. Sorry for the tardiness of this post... I lost track of time and for some reason thought today was Saturday... until now :-/

    tick tock... tick tock...
    Name: Maja Hadzi
    Date: 2005-04-18 02:49:54
    Link to this Comment: 14664

    One of Virginia Woolf’s points in the book seems to be that there is more than one person in each body, that each individual has, at least potentially, many selves. I find this point very interesting. Perhaps it could explain the fluidity of human nature and our compatibility to a whole spectrum of different societies.

    Virginia Woolf has created a character that is liberated from the restraints of time and sex. More than the fluidity of Orlando’s sex, this non-conventional issue of time boggled my mind. In the conventional concept, time is divided into the ‘past’, the ‘present’, and the ‘future.’ With this widely accepted model, time has a distinct present moment and is ‘moving’ forward into the future. Block time, on the other hand considers all points in time to be equally valid frames of reference. ‘Past’ and ‘future’ are considered directions instead of states of being. Is it true that in reality there is no passage of time? Does the tick of a clock mean anything beyond being a consistent measure between events? If block time is indeed the more appropriate theory of time, then how would we explain the idea of free will. If future events are on the same plane as paste events that would make them as immutably fixed and impossible to change, thus eliminating the possibility for free will.

    Date: 2005-04-18 17:13:48
    Link to this Comment: 14690

    Ooops!...My Orlando post
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-04-18 17:27:16
    Link to this Comment: 14691

    In class today, I realized that in my posting yesterday, I realized that part of the time I was writing about HB instead. Such is life at the end of the semester.

    Orlando and other things
    Name: Anjali Vai
    Date: 2005-04-18 21:46:17
    Link to this Comment: 14706

    One thing in class today which made Orlando much less perplexing to me was the idea that Virginia Woolf was unconsciously writing Orlando as herself- beginning with a tomboyish childhood and then turning into a woman at puberty. Orlando as a man, in the beginning, does seem somewhat childlike- idealistic and naive, passionate and easily hurt and easily delighted. And then as a woman she matures and becomes more realistic and disillusioned. The book also completely perplexed me until I realized from class last week that I could stop looking for a point. It helped a great deal to think of it as just a jumble of stream of consciousness associations.

    I also wanted to mention a somewhat random thing which just happened to me walking on the path between Pem West and Thomas, which doesn't have to do with Orlando but it has to do with things we were talking about earlier in the semester so I'll mention it anyway. I was staring up at the cherry blossoms, and suddenly the branches looked for all the world as though they had no support from that angle- as though they were dangling freely from the sky. And the first thing I thought was, "Ha. A skyhook." And the more I thought about it, the more the comparison fit: those branches filled with cherry blossoms looked completely unreal outlined against the night sky. I could imagine some invisible being up there holding them up, until I looked down a bit- and shifted my perspective to see the entire tree... So the wider our perspective is, the more knowledge we have, the more cranes we see- and yet cranes taken by themselves look like skyhooks. And something as real and solid and bleak as those cherry trees were a few months ago have now produced these unreally beautiful cherry blossoms- a phenomenon which I could easily believe were produced by a miracle and attribute to skyhooks if my perspective were not wide enough to know better...

    Name: Ariel Sing
    Date: 2005-04-18 22:10:11
    Link to this Comment: 14707

    I was fascinated by the way that the movie Orlando portrayed, or interpreted the book. Even though the actress who played Orlando was nothing like I imagine the character to look, she was still compelling, and somehow I managed to mesh the two pictures, one mental and one visual, into a new Orlando. I think that this happens often when one person views a picture of a scene that they already have a mental image for. I was wondering if this amalgamation is perhaps a trait unique to the human brain (going back to the storyteller idea). I realize that there is no way to test this, but it would be very interesting if one of the features that defined the human brain was its ability to take two images, one mental and one physical, and create a new whole in their head, is this not just creating a new story? Also if we create these amalgams every time we look at the world around us, do we ever view an image to which we cannot create a relationship for ourselves? So are our associations the cranes which we use to build what we often think of as true unprecedented creative ideas, or skyhooks?

    Our class under the tree...
    Name: Carolyn
    Date: 2005-04-20 15:57:37
    Link to this Comment: 14749

    In our section today, we talked about stories without meanings…
    I am still frustrated by the lack of meaning that I found in Orlando (whether intentional or not) and today’s discussion really helped me to pin point the cause of my struggles with the novel.

    In our section we also talked about nirvana and about Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”. All of this (metonymically) linked together in my head (and I should also mention the influence of the sunshine through the trees) and made me think of a song. When a class mate called attention to the verb tenses in “Jabberwocky” I was reminded of the Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning”. I have been walking around listening to it while I am reveling in the sunshine and warmth… The descriptive quality of “Chelsea Morning” and “Jabberwocky” and the feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment that I get when hearing them are at odds with my dislike of “Orlando”. We also talked about time in our section, the time frame of the book as well as the time frame of its readers. Why am I more willing to indulge in description for descriptions sake, to let the words run over and through me, to dip my toes into another’s stream of consciousness, when it is only for a brief amount of time? I guess, in a way, I feel cheated by “Orlando” because I invested my time into a book and I didn’t get a meaning out of it… I have had to construct my own without guidance (as point out in our section, thus isn’t necessary for some… for me it is though… and I was upset that Woolfe didn’t help guide me…). By the same token I wasn’t trustful enough of Woolfe. I stress meaning too much, I didn’t let go and ride through her descriptions. I did learn something from the book. I am very rigid about interpreting things and giving them meaning. I wish, however, that I could have learned something more specific something external and general rather than internal and specific. I wish I could have connected more to the book… there is so much in it that eluded me.

    Oh well, I can assuage my frustrations with the lyrics to “Chelsea Morning”… it really is a great song… especially when you are walking through the sunshine…

    “Chelsea Morning” Lyrics from

    Woke up, it was a chelsea morning, and the first thing that I heard
    Was a song outside my window, and the traffic wrote the words
    It came a-reeling up like christmas bells, and rapping up like pipes and drums

    Oh, won’t you stay
    We’ll put on the day
    And we’ll wear it ’till the night comes

    Woke up, it was a chelsea morning, and the first thing that I saw
    Was the sun through yellow curtains, and a rainbow on the wall
    Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you, crimson crystal beads to beckon

    Oh, won’t you stay
    We’ll put on the day
    There’s a sun show every second

    Now the curtain opens on a portrait of today
    And the streets are paved with passersby
    And pigeons fly
    And papers lie
    Waiting to blow away

    Woke up, it was a chelsea morning, and the first thing that I knew
    There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too
    And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses
    Oh, won’t you stay
    We’ll put on the day
    And we’ll talk in present tenses

    When the curtain closes and the rainbow runs away
    I will bring you incense owls by night
    By candlelight
    By jewel-light
    If only you will stay
    Pretty baby, won’t you
    Wake up, it’s a chelsea morning

    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-21 17:42:05
    Link to this Comment: 14769

    I'm particularly interested in Carolyn's desire to "kill Virginia Woolf" because I am, like her (Carolyn, not Woolf) an incessant maker-of-meaning. As I told my students, my friends are often telling me that I should stop searching for significance/trying to construct meaning WHERE THERE IS NONE. So it seems particularly noteworthy to me that our shared exploration of "the evolution of stories" is ending w/ a story which explicitly--@ least on some levels (granting here some space for a parodic function)--refuses to "make meaning" in a way that would satisfy either Carolyn or me. This puts me in mind of a comment Mike Tratner made, when I was looking for suggestions for some "beautiful texts" for the other course earlier this semester:

    I have always regarded The Waves by Virginia Woolf as the most beautiful text....the book seems to favor the sheer beauty of words over any imagined scenes those words are describing; the book is sensual as opposed to intellectual--and for that very reason, is the most obscure, hardest to read, and hence regarded as the most intellectual of Woolf's texts. At the same time... The Waves is about the dangers of beauty, both as a gendered concept that particularly restricts women to being sensual as opposed to intellectual...and as a general quality that soothes and assuages rather than disrupts and presses for something more--beauty is a form of consumption rather than a form of production.

    Offered this text, my co-teacher replied,
    so, i started reading waves. huh? but it has had the weird effect of leaving in my head this rhythm of waves coming in. the words actually do that!'s kinda cool, but mind-boggling if you're trying to extract the meaning from the text. ????

    So, what do you think? is this where we "end"? With words that make no meaning...?

    There's a Working Group on Language meeting tomorrow (Friday) morning, April 22nd, at 9:30 am. in room 264 of the Park Science Building. We'll be talking (among other things) about the degree to which language originally was/currently is a representational structure, meant to communicate information among us, and/or whether it began? still can be? doing something else.

    Join us if you can, for another discussion interminable.

    Your Turn!
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-21 21:18:59
    Link to this Comment: 14773

    Schedule for Your Turn @ Teaching "Evolving Stories"

    Monday, April 25

    Wed, April 27

    Name: Iva Yonova
    Date: 2005-04-23 20:48:05
    Link to this Comment: 14795

    reading orlando was the hardest and most tidious thing i ever had to do... i find myself totally spacing out and reading without actually comprehending the things i read.... and in this aspect i totally agree with Lauren that virginia wolf has been extremely "stingy" with verbs... i remember reading/trying to read (unsuccessfully) a room of ones own and i found it impossible to get any meaning out of the text.... so all i know about virginia wolf and her work is what my profs. have been telling me... now its easier in class because there seem to be quite a few people who actually understand what's going on in the book and there is actually a discussion in class while when i was reading a room of ones own it was primarily the prof. lecturing...
    i was also talking about it with a friend of mine who is an english major and she said that she feels really guilty being an english major and not knowing virginia wolf because every time she started reading her she fell asleep....
    yet when somebody actually explains me her ideas i totally admire her as a writer and a thinker..

    Orlando and the Film
    Name: Maureen En
    Date: 2005-04-24 19:30:19
    Link to this Comment: 14801

    Since watching that clip of the film in class, I've been really glad that I didn't watch the film before reading the book (as often I'd been interested in seeing it). Loving the end of the book the way I do, the film representation fell extremely flat for me. For such a pictoral book, it is surprising how different an interpretation of the book the film is, or at least the end. I love the lines, "as if her mind had become fluid that flowed round things and enclosed them completely." (page 314)and "proved that when the shirvelled skin of the ordinary is stuffed out with meaning it satisfies the senses amazingly" (page 315) and "the great wings of silence beat up and down the empty house" (page 319). Also, the beautiful imagry of the striking clock as Orlando walks through her house and remembers her past and her life.

    One question, was I the only one that got the impression that Orlando dies in the end? It's just that that whole last section seemed like a goodbye. I could almost imagine the ghostly like prescence of so many memories, so much time in the halls of the house as Orlando walks through it one last time. It just seemed fitting too, that Orlando die in the end. But dying not so much as an end, but as a new beginning, carrying on the theme of rebirth in the novel.

    related matters ....
    Name: Paul Grobstein
    Date: 2005-04-24 19:52:34
    Link to this Comment: 14802

    Have a look at "Fundamentalism and Relativism" for a discussion, with public on-line forum, of matters in outside world informed by our course. You're welcome to join in there, AND/or here, of course.

    Name: Iva Yonova
    Date: 2005-04-25 00:34:58
    Link to this Comment: 14831

    last night I was doing some research on 5 alfa reductase deficiency and i found something interesting: there are actually two 5 alfa reductase deficiencies: one of them is mutation on the 5th chromosome - 5 alfa reductase deficiency type 1 and one on the 2nd - 5 alfa reductase deficiency type two. the one that actually results in the 5 alfa reductase deficiency syndrome is the type 2 which is the mutation on the 2nd chromosome. the type one is very mild and usually phenotypicly unexpressed but the type 2 is the one that causes ambiguous genitalia. it was very difficult to go through the article so i am not absolutely positive that i understood correctly but feel free to check it on emedicine at

    ps sorry but it wouldnt let me post as html

    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-25 12:00:46
    Link to this Comment: 14844

    This is the last forum for Evolit, Spring 2005. Use it, please, to record your final-for-the-moment reflections on what you've learned about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories during our fourteen weeks of exploration together. What ideas have occurred to you that might otherwise not have occurred to you? What questions have you to explore in the future, which you might not otherwise have had?

    ...this post is *not* one huge paean to Virgina Wo
    Name: Brittany
    Date: 2005-04-25 18:22:45
    Link to this Comment: 14855

    Oddly enough, this class reaffirmed for me my correctness in choosing English as a major. As I went back through my forum postings, I was shocked to find that *almost everything* I posted was about some aspect of that week's author's writing style.

    Not that I don't find questions of evolution/biology interesting. I do. But this class has made me realize that what really fascinates me is the type of evolution in which biology becomes consciousness becomes language---and language, in turn, becomes meaning. I'd say the class got most interesting for me while we were discussing Dennet (cultural "memes," whether or not our ideas are really "ours") and Orlando (how psychological time intersected, affected, and maybe transcended "actual" time, and how you might express that multiplicity of consciousness in writing). The relationship between language and meaning was, for me, a huge part of what made this course enjoyable. And not just language and meaning: stories and meaning. The two (three?) are inextricable, I think.

    And this just brings everything round full-circle, way back to January and our discussion of universalism/catastrophism. Evolution itself is a story, and, like all stories, it changes depending on who's telling it. Even if Dennet and Mayr agreed on the biology, their "theories" came across as vastly different because of the way they used (and evaluated the importance of) meaning/language. For example, it boggles my mind that Mayr could make such a big deal of humans' ability to use words, then write a book that refuses to celebrate that ability (by being dry and didactic).

    In sort of the same way, Orlando (the book) initially confused me because it utilized a variety of different "writing styles," which evolved as the book progressed (and sometimes devolved): dreamy, factual, satiric, romantic, etc. Her narrative's sense of time never stayed consistent; unlike Dennet and Mayr, you could never be sure exactly where you stood. But, like Dennett and Mayr, Woolf's writing style was a crucial aspect of her meaning (or at least, her readers incorporated it into her meaning to such a degree that it appeared inextricable---Mayr didn't get this concept, I believe). And the great thing about Orlando is that the book's meaning *changed,* in some sense, with every shift in writing style---heck, "Orlando" herself changed along with every shift in writing style (personality wise and gender-identity wise). Which says something about how the way we express ourselves influences who we "really are." (The self as eternal performance, a la Judith Butler? We're all a hundred thousand *masks* at once, maybe; a million faces to go along with those million internal clocks? What would Cal say to that: Cal who underwent an enormous physical/psychological transformation and whose writing style hardly shifted at all? Is that a mistake on Eugenides's part? Or does Woolf just like masquerades? Does Woolf's female gender have anything to do with it---is she "masquerading" as many different Orlandos to cover up some internal "emptiness of self"? What class is this post for again? ;) )

    Random side comment: re-thinking Orlando, and how stylistically varied it can be, makes me think of what a great cap-off it's been for the course. Imagine slicing up all of our other books (Mayr, Dennet, Eugenides, Barbin) and splicing them together. Voila, Woolf: who can be as self-righteous as Mayr, as philosophical as Dennet, as ironic as Eugenides, and as emotional as Barbin, all in the space of four pages. *And* satirizes multiple other writers at *the same time.* So. Cool. I have to go re-read this now.

    Anyway, to sum all this mess up: I enjoyed this class. Evolution is fun, but, to me, the evolution *of stories* is absolutely fascinating. So to the group who did the "evolution" of the word "monster" today: I loved it (and the togas). Rock on.

    Final Thoughts
    Date: 2005-04-26 16:54:14
    Link to this Comment: 14878

    I have to say I got more from this class than I thought I would. It was extremely interesting and thought provoking beyond the class room. Its very rare that one learns something about life which expands and changes the way you see. I really do feel as though I have come out of a box into another box but a bigger box. I have a long way to go but I know Im on my way and it came out this interaction and this ability to use two different things to see everything else. I sincerely believe that other courses should do this because it makes our vision so much broader. Being a Political Science major, I have come to realize that its not possible to just stick to politics, or economics, or ninteenth century literature, or biology or psychology or history. If it were that simple and boxy, we'd have perhaps all the answers. After realizing in some way that everything is connected it all depends on the lens from which you see your world and how you see it and most importantly question it. Do we really see things differently, for better or worse and what have we learnt. I see myself asking all these questions because I know the liberty and freedom with which I have in this school and class is coming to an end. I dont know if the world is ready to be questioned. I already feel its burden and its retort, but I feel prepared because Ive asked the right questions and will continue to do so if only to maintain my sanity and tolerance.

    I loved the readings in the course. They were very happenning!! I do however feel some more variety would only add to this very great class. I think I have senior emotions so I may sound sappy but the end is both welcoming and scary. I would hope to see more issues besides gender and see how that makes one see themselves.

    For now I think thats all I have to say .. there may be a final thoughts part II!!

    Final Thoughts
    Name: Nada Ali
    Date: 2005-04-26 16:54:33
    Link to this Comment: 14879

    I have to say I got more from this class than I thought I would. It was extremely interesting and thought provoking beyond the class room. Its very rare that one learns something about life which expands and changes the way you see. I really do feel as though I have come out of a box into another box but a bigger box. I have a long way to go but I know Im on my way and it came out this interaction and this ability to use two different things to see everything else. I sincerely believe that other courses should do this because it makes our vision so much broader. Being a Political Science major, I have come to realize that its not possible to just stick to politics, or economics, or ninteenth century literature, or biology or psychology or history. If it were that simple and boxy, we'd have perhaps all the answers. After realizing in some way that everything is connected it all depends on the lens from which you see your world and how you see it and most importantly question it. Do we really see things differently, for better or worse and what have we learnt. I see myself asking all these questions because I know the liberty and freedom with which I have in this school and class is coming to an end. I dont know if the world is ready to be questioned. I already feel its burden and its retort, but I feel prepared because Ive asked the right questions and will continue to do so if only to maintain my sanity and tolerance.

    I loved the readings in the course. They were very happenning!! I do however feel some more variety would only add to this very great class. I think I have senior emotions so I may sound sappy but the end is both welcoming and scary. I would hope to see more issues besides gender and see how that makes one see themselves.

    For now I think thats all I have to say .. there may be a final thoughts part II!!

    Name: Michael He
    Date: 2005-04-27 03:04:20
    Link to this Comment: 14886

    With Brittany bringing up the concept of her being an English major, most of my thoughts now center around how much I liked the open-ended multi-disciplinary approach of this class, and whether or not that exists in other disciplines, namely my declared one of English. Where it affirmed for her, it questioned for me, but in a good way I suppose. It was very unique and refreshing to be able to just study ideas instead of being straight-jacketed in a specific discipline's bias and preferred writing style (Though that showed up a little here as well :)) and to be able to cross-reference both the behavior of wolf pups and philosophy in an essay. I also wonder if courses like this don't have a certain level of dangerous insurgency, in that they make it clear that courses can be taught with multiple professors in unconventional formats that force both teachers to stretch the limits of their own field's understanding and to confront ideas themselves, stripped of most discipline-centric pretension. Its probably a scary thought to teachers, and an expensive one; there used to be a major at Ivies and top schools called Intellectual History, which from what I've found was very similiar to this course in its philosophy. My major advisor majored in that at Harvard, and he said they cut it rather quickly after he left since it was very expensive, involving more different faculty members, it shook up people's ossified lesson plans, and it shook up the very firm foothold many pre-tenured academics like to hold upon their field of specialization. I guesss at the end it wasn't only what we studied in this course but really how we studied it and all the unique ways in which learning was encouraged that will really stick with me, and I hope to be able to take a part, albeit sometimes a small one, of this course's philosophy into other fields because I think there are pockets of resistance like this across college campuses that are encouraging a resurgence of a sort of "intellectual history" type program that our colleges, and moreso our modern specialized economy and philosophy, really needs. If anyone knows of any similiar/other courses in the same vein, give me a heads up. The only thing I would change about it would be to nix Herculean Barbin, which didn't really contribute anything other than an a primary source on how annoying and pretentious some woe is me "discovered" novels that serve more as literary documents than works of literature can be, and replace it with something more science-ey, or maybe even some science fiction, which would be a great bridge between the classes two realms of, er, science and fiction.

    Final thoughts
    Name: Annie Sull
    Date: 2005-04-27 12:54:51
    Link to this Comment: 14892

    At the start of this course, I said to myself, "this is going to be either an amazing course or a disasterous one." The project of combining scientific and literary philosophies, and of opening up our concept of evolution seemed a difficult one. I was also a bit concerned about team-taught courses and the potential schism (between 'biologists' and 'literary critics,' between two professors coming from seemingly polar disciplines, and between the two 'small' discussion groups) that would invade the classroom. I probably carried some of this skepticism into the beginning classes, but it quickly dissipated. I can honestly say that this has been an extremely fruitful, stimulating, and challenging course. I loved sitting in a classroom (not to mention participating in conversations online) with students of all different ages, talents, and academic 'specialties.' I really feel that I learned a lot from all of you, so thank you to everyone for your insightful comments both online and in the classroom, and thank you for teaching me and challenging my own thinking.

    Something that I will definitely take away from this course is a broader (and I think better) understanding of science as a philosophy and discipline. Thinking about science as a social and collective project, as an evolving philosophy (rather than as a set of 'true' doctrines) has helped to relieve my (negative) stereotypes of science as didactic and imperialistic. This class has helped me re-define science as something much more like literature, and I think evolution is the link. Dennett's description of evolution as "a universal acid" is such a wonderful way to imagine how science becomes an active part of literature. Our understanding of evolution is fundamental to how we comprehend everything else: it affects the way we apprehend time, our own place in the world and relationship to all other beings; it changes the way we think about categories and lineages; it influences the way that we read the past and how we look at processes rather than products. Evolution releases everything we once thought stable because its most fundamental property (at least to me) is fluidity, change--there is no possibility of stasis. Evolution helps us resist 'boxiness' and asks us to challenge our own (however internalized) systems of differentiation.

    I thought the literature for this course fit together nicely (even Barbin, especially because she is part of the lineage to which Cal belongs). By far, however, I think the most challenging and stimulating assigned text was Orlando. To me, this book is the quintessential example of literary evolution. Within a single body/character (although one exhibiting multiple selves), Virginia Woolf displays an evolutionary process in which even the 'extinct' aspects of the self are preserved (and still evolving in memory). It is above all a story of change--of processes and lineages that produce--and lurk beneath--the visable 'product.' I am so happy that I read Orlando for this course because it allowed me to appoach the text already challenging things like 'categories' and linear time, and thinking about things like 'timescapes,' genre-crossing, and malleable, performative identity/gender.

    I agree with Michael that it is not so much what we discussed / read, but the WAY in which we did so. We will not leave this class with a set of data, or facts, or with a "kernel of truth"; rather, we will leave with a new way of reading / thinking . . . which I think is far more valuable and more transferrable to our studies / lives beyond this course. Again, I really want to thank Anne and Paul, and all of my classmates, for your intelligent and generative contributions to this story.

    more thoughts...
    Name: Becky Hahn
    Date: 2005-04-27 21:04:10
    Link to this Comment: 14910

    I'll admit that I took this course for the division II credit (and was very pleased to find out that it counted for CSEM 2 as well so I didn't have to take another one of those) so my expectations were limited. I just wanted a science course for non-science people. But I'm so happy that I took this course--it greatly exceeded my expectations. I was sad and reluctant to leave the last class today.

    I love my chosen majors (archaeology and French) but the classes can get repeatative in terms of teaching style. The teaching in this course was so refreshing, and it made me see that I can learn not only facts and concepts, but also how to think in a new way. I enjoyed the openness of learning from each other through discussions and forums. I didn't feel like I was being fed a set of information to retain until the exam and subsequently forget. Not that the content of the course wasn't important-- without thought provoking (dangerous!) material, we wouldn't have had the basis for the learning and exploration that took place. However, I do feel that what I got the most out of was not the specific texts, not even the general idea of the evolution of stories, but the group learning, the push to beyond what is easy and comfortable to grasp and talk about. That said, I'm slightly disappointed that I didn't learn more science, since I probably will not talk any more science courses. However, I think that what I have learned will be more "useful" to me than the most in depth science course ever could be.

    Final Post ( *tear*)
    Name: Austin
    Date: 2005-04-27 23:08:59
    Link to this Comment: 14919

    I really loved this class and, like many said before me, it definitely exceeded my expectations. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this course, but I knew it sounded amazingly different and exciting and included two of my favorite subjects: evolution and writing.

    This class actually made me question whether I wanted to be an English major, I was thinking about it as an option, but as I sat in discussions I realized my mind was continually taking a more science-y position. I wanted to clarify and share my ideas on the facts of natural selection and the scientific way in which the world works in my opinion, not discuss the styles Woolf and Barbin used to make their characters come to life. It made me rethink an English major, which has now been put on the back burner of major possibilities. I will admit that as I sat writing the final paper, my love of writing reemerged. But nonetheless, I am glad this class provided me the opportunity to question my passions.

    I enjoyed very much the readings in this course, most especially Middlesex. The lectures were also continuously interesting and new. I love that it was a team-taught and multi-disciplinary course that brought in such different elements into one place and mixed them all together to create a new and different way of teaching and learning.

    However, my favorite part of the class, the part that was most beneficial and exciting to me, was the small discussion groups. Being able to speak freely and listen intently to tons of brilliant ideas and thoughts was an amazing experience. The discussions were continually thought provoking and I almost always found myself discussing them over again in my head at a later time in the day and week. The things we talked about were truly enlightening.

    Overall, I loved this class and it was by far my favorite this semester and quite possibly of my year here at Bryn Mawr. The professors were interesting, knowledgeable, and idea provoking and the students were possibly even more so. I feel privileged to have been able to take part in such a different and enlightening course. Thank you to Paul and Anne and all of my classmates…I wish all of you the best of luck!

    Name: Iva Yonova
    Date: 2005-04-28 00:21:51
    Link to this Comment: 14923

    i join everybody so far in that the class definitely exceeded my expectations by far... i was coming right from another scem which unfortunately was disastrous so i approached with a little negativism. yet i was proved extremely wrong.... i loved the class!

    not only was it interesting but also very educational... i mean that when i came in the class i was extremely narrow minded and saw things in a very one-sided way... the "story" aspect of our world had hardly occurred to me before.... i mean i never really thought about it seriously.... neither the part about humans being pattern creating creatures.... before i just saw the world as a huge system that science helped us understand bit by bit... now i can allow myself to be a little more critical.... i also loved the "science" part of the course: not only did it provide interesting bio info but also combined with the literary it gave another perspective of gender issues...

    and a word about the readings: i struggle with readings for humanitarian classes and with the exception of virginia wolf i enjoyed the readings greatly ... especially middlesex!

    anyway what i meant to say is that i got way more than i thought i could get from an english class

    more (and still-evolving) stories
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-04-28 08:56:21
    Link to this Comment: 14928

    Check out both "Meme": A Film by Haley Bruggemann and Eleanor Carey and a (as-yet-unedited/storied) Photo Gallery: A Genuinely Evolutionary Experience--both now available from the course home page.

    Meme Invasion!!!
    Name: Tonda Shim
    Date: 2005-04-28 22:44:26
    Link to this Comment: 14941

    I along with everyone else had a much more positive experience than I was expecting. I came in with a rather strong distaste for science in general and slightly upset with the English department for offering all of their courses during my Japanese class at Haverford, and so was somewhat reluctant to take the course, as it was crosslisted with C-Sem AND bio, and I had already fulfilled both those requirements. But I was very pleasantly surprised, and found myself constantly bombarded by new and exciting memes :O and thus challenging my previous ideas.

    I had a lot of fun in lectures, and the small group discussions I felt were amazing. I don't usually talk in class unless forced to, but a couple times this semester I actually put out my own ideas at will... I felt really comfortable talking in that setting and thought that absolutely everybody had the most amazing ideas and contributions every week. And I even found the reading surprisingly enjoyable - I loooved Middlesex. I'm really glad that I ended up taking this class, and I hope I can keep challenging my ideas in the same way my ideas have been challenged all this semester.

    Final thoughts...
    Name: Kelsey Smi
    Date: 2005-04-29 10:07:06
    Link to this Comment: 14953

    I'll admit that I took this class to fulfill my division II requirement in a way that would also allow me to add another course to the list of ones that I've taken for my English major. When I signed up for the course, I wasn't too excited about it because evolution has never been something that I've been willing to accept fully. With every biology class that I had in middle and high school, I've felt like my teachers were trying to get me to see the truth about evolution. Therefore, this past semester was a pleasant surprise because though many ideas were shared and discussed, it was never in the spirit of "right" and "wrong." The result was that "Evolution of Stories" was a considerably more pleasurable experience for me than previous science classes. It was also an opportunity to read literature that I had not previously read. I view it as irrelevant that I did not manage to enjoy "Herculine Barbin" or "Orlando" because it can be assumed that not everyone will enjoy every book. However, I especially liked "Middlesex" and I look forward to writing my final paper on that book.

    Final Post
    Name: LT
    Date: 2005-04-30 18:33:53
    Link to this Comment: 15003

    Like some other people, my main reason for choosing this course was to fill a requirement, Division II in my case. Despite that, I started out with high hopes for this class, and they were definitely fulfilled. I really enjoyed looking at ways that subjects that are apparently different can be connected. One of the reasons that I've rarely liked science classes up to this point is that the concepts have seemed separate from the world. This class got me thinking about how those "separate" concepts aren't really removed from the world at all. I think Middlesex was my favorite part of the course, if only because that was when I realized that the ideas on evolution we'd been discussing really were going to apply to the literature we studied. Breaking free of the boxes has been a challege to my thinking, but it's been very interesting and enjoyable.

    final comments
    Name: alexandra
    Date: 2005-05-06 21:07:25
    Link to this Comment: 15069

    I took the class to fulfill my c-sem requirement and because I had heard good things about it from people who had taken it last year. I really was not disappointed, although possibly just a little surprised. The course was unlike anything I have ever taken. It definitely challenged my viewpoints on many different issues.
    I was able to look at evolution in a way I never had before, even after many science classes. I enjoyed thinking about chance and its role in evolution. I also particularly loved the idea of conscience and storytelling abilities emerging with the neo-cortex. It was a brand new concept for me, and one that I really found fascinating. Likewise, I found the fiction novels that we read to be very interesting. It made me question my own perception of gender and writing style. For me, the course certainly accomplished the goal of its title, namely to link together the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. I never really considered the two concepts in conjunction with each other, but the course and our discussions really made me see things differently. I also found that my own writing style evolves all the time. So in conclusion I would really like to thank you all for such a great and unusual experience!

    Name: Eleanor Ca
    Date: 2005-05-07 14:38:57
    Link to this Comment: 15074

    I took this class to fulfill my science requirement (having already taken geology as a lab science). This class, while providing an opportunity to read and discuss literature (something I have in the past enjoyed more than I ever had science), introduced me to new ways of thinking about science which I think was very valuable. I've also thought more about the way that I tell stories and have gained an understanding of evolution that I certainly did not have before. I enjoyed many of the readings that we did and feel that the online component of the course made me think through the ideas of the course and my thoughts on the readings in a way that I might not have otherwise. It's been a good semester.

    Name: Jennifer
    Date: 2005-05-08 15:12:52
    Link to this Comment: 15080

    I entered the class not knowing exactly what to expect. I was looking for a class that would allow me to expand out from all of my science course, while still keeping the familiar background of science that I love. I did find that in this course.

    I think what stuck with me most is the ability to look at all of my science work in a different perspective. When we learn the mechanisms for something we will learn the experiments that lead to a particular discovery, but it wasn't quite the same as the ability to look at science as a story that I got from this class.

    Looking Back
    Name: Kate Shine
    Date: 2005-05-09 17:09:17
    Link to this Comment: 15093

    I took this course for a number of reasons. I needed a CSEM II credit, it would count towards my Biology major, I love English and novels, and I wanted a discussion course (and knew from experience that with Prof. Grobstein I would not be disappointed). This class lived up to all of those expectations and went beyond them. I always looked forward to the discussions and found myself constantly questioning my assumptions about category and language. I also enjoyed exploring the broader question of the how biological evolution relates to literature and vice versa. Paul and Anne's lectures were always thought-provoking and each brought a unique perpective to the themes we discussed. Finally, although some of the readings (like Mayr and Barbin) were hard for me to get through, I felt that Orlando more than made up for these. I agree with Annie that this course was the PERFECT setting to read that novel, because I feel I got much more out of it than I would have anywhere else. Woolf dealt with category, metonymy, the mind, evolution, time, love, and everthing else I had been questioning in such a beautiful and perceptive way. She is now definitely one of my favorite authors.

    I know this is a bit late but......
    Name: Maureen En
    Date: 2005-05-11 22:00:43
    Link to this Comment: 15124

    So I decided to write a story for the final paper, and I've been thinking, for the past week, about what to write about. Trying to think up things I could write a story about involving Evolution (etc.), I realized that I could almost write a story about anything and justify it. There is biological evolution, granted; there is cultural evolution; there is familial evolution; there is personal evolution, and the list continues. The thing is, in a story, there is always evolution, because that is what makes a story a story. A character grows and learns to find her identity, a war breaks out and country leaders must adapt to the changing political situation, etc. Evolution, in any sense, more broadly identified as change and growth is what makes a story interesting.....I wonder where my story will end up.....

    Name: Ghazal Zek
    Date: 2005-05-12 17:46:15
    Link to this Comment: 15135

    I think this course had a pretty big impact on the way I think about... well, a lot of things. As a bio major, I was really out of my comfort zone for much of the course (basically after Mayr). I've taken two c-sems and only one other english course, over the course of three years at Bryn Mawr, so I'm primarily used to the lecture-style of class, where class participation is only in the form of "i don't understand that equation" or "can you explain this concept?" It was nice that so much of the discussion and the direction of the class was driven by the students. I kept thinking that this course must be so interesting for Anne and Paul because every year is so different. I don't think that the same can be said for lecture-only classes, like calculus, for example. It really felt like everyone played a role in the class--there were the humanities majors, the science majors, classics experts, the talkers, the listeners. While any given class can be divided like this, our class seemed magnified in that respect because so much weight was placed on the students.

    On the subject of my comfort level, I'm glad that I wasn't comfortable the entire time we were in class. I don't mean that class was painful in any way, but I feel that I was asked to examine things that I otherwise wouldn't have. I think that Middlesex really helped show me how "useful" fiction can be. I like novels as much as the next person, but ever since college, my main focus has been on non-fiction. Finally by my third paper, I began experimenting with creative writing, myself, and I found it to be a great experience.

    I feel like if we compare the class as a whole from the first day to the last, we can trace our own evolution. It would be interesting to see what direction the course would take if we all repeated it next year. I feel more open-minded, now, than I did on the first day of class, and I want to continue down this path to see where it will take me.

    Final thoughts
    Name: Anjali Vai
    Date: 2005-05-12 23:47:05
    Link to this Comment: 15144

    I'm sorry this is so late- I don't know if it'll be seen at this point. But looking at everyone else's comments, I have to say this class really exceeded my expectations as well- and in the best way, since I didn't know until 3 days into the semester that I would even be taking it. I started out this semester in a very hectic and disorganized manner, since 1) I'd decided over break to become a Bio major instead of a Psych major, so I had to change all my classes since I'd only registered for Psych classes, and 2) I was bumped off my flight from India and didn't arrive at Bryn Mawr until after the first day of classes. So I was completely panicked and had to frantically search through the course guide for a third Bio class to take this semester and this was it. I had no idea what to expect and I absolutely loved it. And I love the fact it was such a matter of chance that I decided to take this class, and that it turned out to be by far my favourite class this semester.

    One thing that I especially liked was the small group discussions. It was wonderful coming from a Math class and then two science classes in a row in the morning and then getting to sit through such interesting, animated discussions which had such a different focus and approach from everything else I was taking. I love Biology, but it was still a wonderful breath of fresh air to have a class which was not completely about science. It was also especially nice that there were so many different types of majors in the class- and so many really interesting people with interesting things to say. One thing that the class made me realize was how narrow my knowledge base seems to've become. I know a lot about science and so little about classics or literature, even though I love literature and I love to write, and I really appreciated everything I got to learn and discuss. And there are so many ideas and thoughts that this course has left still stewing in my head.

    And I loved getting to read Middlesex over Spring Break, comfortable in the knowledge that I was doing homework and could sit and read for as long as I liked... That feeling was beautiful. I didn't want that book to end.

    Plus the fact that I was able to write a story as a final paper... Again. Writing stories for me is just pure bliss. And generally when I write I have to feel guilty the entire time because it's stealing time from "real" work. My only problem was that the paper had to end too soon.

    Anyway. Thankyou, Paul and Anne, for a wonderful and fun class. :)

    Image #7 in the EvoLit Final Project
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-05-13 12:16:04
    Link to this Comment: 15164

    In image #7 in the pictures accompanying the other versions of the story, the woman (in the figures modeled after classical Hindu art) 's left hand is significant- the gesture is "beckoning to bestow", or so said my sources.
    I mention this because I hate drawing hands but I thought it was important to the effect of the picture.

    Looking Back- Premature Nostalgia
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-05-13 12:30:02
    Link to this Comment: 15166

    Still completing my requirements for this course, I shouldn't even be writing this now, but I will- "what's so funny about peace, love, and [interdisciplinary studies]?" - Elvis Costello. Biology and English were sometimes hard to hard to reconcile, in their distinctive form and conent, aswell as the expectations we all bring to how study of particular topics should be. They often found their middle ground in the thinner oxygen above human-sized things, in the mental space of philosophy and metaphysics, a place where time is more open to interpretation and life is seen with an inward eye from the distance of mind travel.

    This was what I loved about an experiemental education program I was in in eigth grade, what some mistake for shapelessness, but is actually the burden of freedom, of being told to make something new, given the admittedly disparate topics addressed, analyzed, discussed between teachers and students. Not to say Paul and Anne didn't give guidance and shape, because they did, but the feeling that each semester the class is reborn under the influence of every member of the discussion gave the unique pleasure that only influence can. It's funny to think that such a genuinely democratic classroom, continually reconstituting itself, is what some make fun of as a relic of overly student-conscious educational theory. Open and interdisciplinary classes like this one are more interactive, require more of all involved. Maybe it is only possible in college, but at least we have it here. The ruling atmosphere of revision and flexibility was refreshing, a breather from the usual. I hope next year's class has as good a time as we did.

    Looking Back- Premature Nostalgia
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-05-13 12:31:01
    Link to this Comment: 15167

    Still completing my requirements for this course, I shouldn't even be writing this now, but I will- "what's so funny about peace, love, and [interdisciplinary studies]?" - Elvis Costello. Biology and English were sometimes hard to hard to reconcile, in their distinctive form and conent, aswell as the expectations we all bring to how study of particular topics should be. They often found their middle ground in the thinner oxygen above human-sized things, in the mental space of philosophy and metaphysics, a place where time is more open to interpretation and life is seen with an inward eye from the distance of mind travel.

    This was what I loved about an experiemental education program I was in in eigth grade, what some mistake for shapelessness, but is actually the burden of freedom, of being told to make something new, given the admittedly disparate topics addressed, analyzed, discussed between teachers and students. Not to say Paul and Anne didn't give guidance and shape, because they did, but the feeling that each semester the class is reborn under the influence of every member of the discussion gave the unique pleasure that only influence can. It's funny to think that such a genuinely democratic classroom, continually reconstituting itself, is what some make fun of as a relic of overly student-conscious educational theory. Open and interdisciplinary classes like this one are more interactive, require more of all involved. Maybe it is only possible in college, but at least we have it here. The ruling atmosphere of revision and flexibility was refreshing, a breather from the usual. I hope next year's class has as good a time as we did.

    Looking Back- Premature Nostalgia
    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-05-13 12:31:26
    Link to this Comment: 15168

    Still completing my requirements for this course, I shouldn't even be writing this now, but I will- "what's so funny about peace, love, and [interdisciplinary studies]?" - Elvis Costello. Biology and English were sometimes hard to hard to reconcile, in their distinctive form and conent, aswell as the expectations we all bring to how study of particular topics should be. They often found their middle ground in the thinner oxygen above human-sized things, in the mental space of philosophy and metaphysics, a place where time is more open to interpretation and life is seen with an inward eye from the distance of mind travel.

    This was what I loved about an experiemental education program I was in in eigth grade, what some mistake for shapelessness, but is actually the burden of freedom, of being told to make something new, given the admittedly disparate topics addressed, analyzed, discussed between teachers and students. Not to say Paul and Anne didn't give guidance and shape, because they did, but the feeling that each semester the class is reborn under the influence of every member of the discussion gave the unique pleasure that only influence can. It's funny to think that such a genuinely democratic classroom, continually reconstituting itself, is what some make fun of as a relic of overly student-conscious educational theory. Open and interdisciplinary classes like this one are more interactive, require more of all involved. Maybe it is only possible in college, but at least we have it here. The ruling atmosphere of revision and flexibility was refreshing, a breather from the usual. I hope next year's class has as good a time as we did.

    Name: Eileen
    Date: 2005-05-13 12:32:43
    Link to this Comment: 15169

    i didn't meant o post so many times. i'm computer illiterate. sorry.

    refusing the wrap-up
    Name: Anne Dalke
    Date: 2005-05-14 09:14:01
    Link to this Comment: 15182

    As I settle in, this week, to enjoy your final papers and portfolios, I find myself sorry that our conversation won't be continuing in person--but glad this forum's still here for "refusing" a "wrap-up," for extending (if far more sporatically than during the past semester!) our discussions. So...

    I was thinking of you guys this morning, as I was reading The New York Times Book Review of Jane Alison's newest novel (Alison's coming to read @ BMC this fall, so stay tuned). It's called Natives and Exotics, and begins w/ a meditation on the categories "native versus non-native species," also called, more contemptuously, "exotics," "invasives," and "aliens":

    Nomenclature aside, the debate is really about boundaries and scale--is the earth a single place or is it any number of discrete places?--and about belonging...."People wandered and wandered, and what did it mean, where on earth did they ever belong?....if people weren't plants and didn't grow from the ground, how could they ever belong anywhere? What was home?"

    One of you said to me, in conference this week, that storytelling was now everywhere--the meme had infected her brain, she couldn't get away from the idea. So, too, for me, this meme of evolution: I find traces--of continuity and catastrophe, of connections and discontinuities, of home and dislocation, of locations and transitions--everywhere. As above. And as you make your transitions from this home to...

    the next (temporary) one. Enjoy the summer!

    A thank you note
    Name: Britt Frem
    Date: 2005-05-17 11:25:56
    Link to this Comment: 15203

    Dear Class,

    Thank you for making my second semester here amusing, provacative and mind-opening. Expoloring gender, brains, catagories and science from a different view became quite a trip for me! (Is this also a pun?...)

    Throughout the semester, everywhere I turned I was faced with the themes of our class. I'd open the newspaper and be faced with headlines like "THE DNA OF THE NEW HONDA" or "DANCERS AS STORY-TELLERS". In my Cultural Anthropology class, the last book we read was "Number Our Days" in which the author described humans as "Homo narrans" rather than "Homo sapiens." Basically, she thought that "narran" (i.e. narration) was more appropriate because, from her work, she learned that people tell stories to make sense of their lives.

    I took this class because I thought story-telling was a skill I'd like to have and I wanted to study evolution in a college classroom setting. The course made me rethink my notion of science as truth. I had been very stubborn most my life and thought that science was the only gateway towards discovery of a sensical world. I had considered science a field inherently different from humanities and social "sciences", but Paul's lecture about science as a "social activity" based on "subjective observations" revolutionized my thinking.

    Suprisingly, my admirance for good story-tellers wavered, as well. One day, someone reminded us that words are what people use when people don't know what the other person(s) is thinking. (Likewise, when people are "one with the world", words aren't necessary.) I used to consider a situation boring if there was a lack of verbal communication. At the same time, I knew that it was equally boring for me to make small talk... And now I feel that all along I've drastically underestimated the power of silence and that of kinesics. Probably, some of my best conversations were wordless... and I have less of an aspiration to always have something clever or funny to say; that is, my aspiration to (always) be a "good verbal story-teller" has dwindled...

    That said, I think it is downrightimportant to ask the right questions. At commencement on Saturday, Anne Garrels said: "I ask you to ask better questions." I'm not sure if she was referring to the war or to everything, but I'd prefer to interpret it as though she meant the latter.

    Nadi said she didn't "know if the world is ready to be questioned", but she says that she'll try to ask the right questions, anyway, "if only to maintain [her] sanity and tolerance." I liked that, and I hope that we will all continue to do that even though our Monday and Wednesday timeblocks have come to an end.

    Keep in touch,

    P.S. One last pun which you may find amusing: (I didn't share it before because I'm prudish and thought it inappropriate for class.)
    "What's better than roses on your piano?"
    "Tulips on your organ."
    Har har.

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