Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
January, 2004

The Story of Evolution
Part 1

Text: Ernst Mayer, What Evolution Is, Basic Books 2001
Chapters 1-4

Chapter 1

Evolution: Truth or story?

Mayr (page 5)

"More or less similar creation stories are found in the folklore of peoples all over the world. The filled a gap in man's desire to answer the profound questions about this world that we humans have asked ever since there has been human culture. We still treasure these stories as part of our cultural heritage, but we turn to science when we want to learn the real truth about the history of the world."

Grobstein (; see also "I Believe ..." Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics, A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century

My daughter Rachel asked me last night whether I "believed" in the story of evolution. And, pretty much without thinking, I said "no". And Rachel thought that needed some explanation/justification. Which surprised me. So, here's the story, for her and you.

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.

And I don't tell stories in order to get other people to believe in them. I tell the stories I tell because I find those stories useful and so offer them to others for whatever use they might be to them

I have many disjointed thoughts. First of all, I'm having a hard time with the idea of science as a useful story rather than a search for "truth." When I was reading Mayr, it made me think of this one time when I was talking to a man who was sitting next to me on an airplane. He was studying to be a pastor, and mentioned that he didn't believe in evolution. I wanted to convince him that evolution was a fact, although I didn't really say that to him, and I ended up explaining it really badly. It was really frustrating. So, when I was reading Mayr, I was just thinking of all the proof and explanations I need to remember in case I ever come into that situation again. When Grobstein said in class that he tells people stories that he finds useful so that they may find it useful, I thought of this man again. I didn't approach telling him my story (although its not really MY story, maybe the one I find useful?) in a way that was reflective of what he was looking for to be useful. Although, could he have been open to gain anything from my "story"?(I'm still having a hard time thinking of evolution as story) For that matter, was I open to gain anything from his story? I guess we approached the stories as mutually exclusive, so we couldn't gain anything from each other ... Heather Davis

I was thinking about Prof. Grobstien's quote about not believing stories. I think the ideas expressed are quite beautiful and believe everything that he said (the WHAT of what he was saying)... for example I too think that one should "listen to stories, learn from them and use them when they are useful." But something about the idea of not believing stories was tremendously unsettling for me and I was just trying to understand why it made me feel that way. I think it really is just a semantic(?) thing... a question of words and meaning I don't know if I'm using the right adjective... Here is how I would revise the quote to reflect my beliefs (using Prof. Grobsteins language with a few additons and subtractions) but still saying something similar. "I believe in stories, wherever they are from. I listen to them, learn from them, and make use of them when I find them useful. To "believe" a story is, for me, to continue the process of "getting it less wrong". Obtaing a full and deep knowledge of the story and it's significance involves entering the world of the story without reservation- trying as best as one can to understand the story as if one had written the story herself. This is believing a story. Only when one fully believes a story can one propell oneself forward beyond that story and onto new stories, perhaps in conjunction with scientific observation. However, the creation of a new story does not preclude belief in the old story. Every story deserves to be belived in ... Elizabeth Catanese
Some other voices

If science doesn't/can't deal in "Truth", then evolution must be a story. Questions then become
  • where does the story of evolution come from
  • how useful is the story of evolution?

The Story of Evolution in Relation to Other Stories

Stasis versus change ("evolutionism" p 5)
Plato/Aristotle vs Atomists
church versus science? science versus science?
economics (Adam Smith (1723-1790))
politics (Thomas Malthus (1766-1834))
geology (Charles Lyell (1797-1875), gradualism vs catastrophism)
stable order vs "The only lasting truth is Change" (Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler)

The nature of change cyclic, irregular, "random"

"Evolution, one said, consists of a change from the simple to the complex and from the lower to the higher ... a directional change, a change toward ever greater perfection, it was said at the time ... " (p 8)

IS evolution "directional"? In what sense?
To return to ...

"It is sometimes claimed that evolution, by producing order, is in conflict with the "law of entropy" of physics, according to which evolutionary change should produce an increase of disorder. Actually, there is no conflict, because the law of entropy is valid only for closed systems, whereas the evolution of a species of organisms takes place in an open system in which organisms can reduce entropy at the expense of the environment and the sun supplies a continuing source of energy" (p 8)

Directionless change ("expansion", consistent with "law of entropy") can yield directed change; the two are not only not in conflict but may be mutually dependent.


Mayr finishes that paragraph with:"and the sun supplies a continuing input of energy."

Me again: Does "continuing" mean "endless"? If not, then isn't the solar system closed? Evolution would then be occuring in a CLOSED system. And entropy would then apply. So why has Mayr deliberately gone out of his way to dismiss entropy (and therefore, the 2nd law of thermodynamics) as being applicable to evolution. What am I missing? ... Ro Finn

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

"What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator? He was a superb observer, endowed with insatiable curiousity. He never took anything for granted but always asked why and how" (p 11)

Darwin was a good story teller?
  • listened well
  • looked well
  • imagined well

anagenesis = gradual change from ancestral to derived
cladogenesis = splitting, production of diversity, expansion?
two distinct processes?

Chapter 2

"Evidence for evolution ..." (p 12) (should be "observations being summarized by story of ...")

("... supported by such an overwhelming amount of evidence that it could no longer be called a theory ... had to be considered a fact, like heliocentricity ... most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties" ... for better or for worse?)

Should start with "clumpy diversity" (try it?)

First week summary
  • Evolution (science) as "story" "As many in this class have wisely said, this is so frustrating as it makes us look at our lives as not right or wrong but as another story." ... Patricia

    "I don't think I care, if I can attain truth, just living is awesome enough. But then why do I explore philsophy and the discoveries of science with a passion? Because the stories are awesome and useful" ... Mary
  • Messiness and order as fundamentally interdependent " now that I know the way in which the good and bad go together I feel as if the bad isn't in vain. As a long time student of Kabbalah I was reminded in class today of the ways in which science is undoubtedly linked to spirituality." ... Diane
  • Darwin as good story teller (listened to stories, saw things, created story)
  • Mayr as good story teller? "I'm now second-guessing Mayr thought by thought. I'm no longer assuming that his writing is credible and unbiased. Bummer" ... Ro

    "Mayr however uses the word "superior" constantly throughout his text. This word holds so much baggage- making us think of something unchallengable, always on top, golden- that i feel it is dangerous to use when talking about biology, where what is on top is always changing." ... Katherine
  • Observations giving rise to story of evolution start with "clumpy diversity" (no genetics, no fossils, no death YET)
Need to account for
  1. huge diversity
  2. non-random pattern ("There seemed to be basic conflict between the overwhelming diversity of life and the observation that certain groups of organisms often shared the same characteristics" p 22)
  3. biogeography
  4. embryology
  5. fossils
  6. "adaptiveness"

Can do #1-5 with "common descent" (p 21) and reproduction with variance

Need differential survival for #6?

"Anagenesis" from common descent and reproduction with variance?

"Cladogenesis" also from common descent and reproduction with variance (assuming multiple starting points)

Chapter 3

"The Rise of the Living World" (p 40) (should be "Further Observations Consistent With the Story of Evolution ... and Some New Sub-Stories")

("Darwin's theory of common descent postulates that every group of organisms is derived from an ancestral group. An ancestral group, in turn, may have several descendent groups ... What is most gratifying is that all findings are consistent with Darwin's theory of common descent" ... doesn't "postulate"; it "suggests", and the observations themselves help to define the current story)

New observations: Looking Backwards in Time

Second Week Summary
(Third Week Prospectus)
(Your story of) ... Paul's story of Mayr's story of Darwin's story of ... observations Extensions/implications/relations to other stories appropriate/desirable ... also need Obtaing a full and deep knowledge of the story and it's significance involves entering the world of the story without reservation- trying as best as one can to understand the story as if one had written the story herself. This is believing a story. Only when one fully believes a story can one propell oneself forward beyond that story and onto new stories ... Elizabeth Catanese Mayr: "perfection", "direction", "limited resources", "struggle for existence", "elimination

Paul: "expansion", "random change" AND ... ?

  • cooperation in exploration
  • differential reproductive success
  • importance of genetics ... randomness and isolation of germ line
  • isolation, death, extinction
  • progress ONLY in expanding record of explanation
  • growing points: lateral spread, genomic inertia

Biology: ???????

To be continued ... (in course, in biology, in me/you/us, like all evolution/story telling?)

Story Creation in Process - 3 February 2004

Issue raised by several students: "What caused transitions (prokaryotes to eukaryotes, eukaryotes to multicellular organisms)?"

PG (off cuff, but with antecedents): "time", ie no "cause" other than playful (undirected) change. Interesting story:

  • If so, dominant patterns of 5/6 of life's story not only requires no architect/conductor but also requires no concept of internal orderer (differential survivial, adaptation, "natural selection") - is simply undirected expansion.
  • Consistent with absence of adaptive significance is that prokaryotes not displaced by eukaryotes, and neither displaced by multicellular organisms. Therefore no "cause" in terms of later appearing entities having greater reproductive success than earlier appearing entities.
  • Can create model that does this? elaboration of left wall effect (Reeve)?
Also off cuff: evolution "predicts" that earliest organisms should be simplest because has to have features common to existing diversity (and next should be ...)

In any case, point is that random variation is a (the?) major driver of most (all?) of evolution (and probably itself responsible for significant aspects of the patterns it exhibits) ... differential reproductive success ("elimination of most members of each generation"), and perhaps some other things, are shapers rather than drivers.

To add to story: relation to extraterrestrial processes, extinction, differential reproductive success, other things ...

Chapter 4

"How and Why Does Evolution Take Place?" (p 73) (should be "Relation of the Style of the Story of Evolution to Other Story Telling Styles")

("in the 1940's a farreaching consensus or evolutionary synthesis was reached" (the latter more than the former) ... "enough facts were available after 1859 to have permitted the universal acceptance" (would that have been good?) ... "refuted the opposing ideologies ... introduced the new concepts" (developed and made available not only a new story but a new story telling style?)

Darwinian/evolutionary story tellingOther kinds of story telling
Population thinking and continuous largely undirected change
  • individuals vary in substantial and important ways
  • classes represent groups of individuals with common ancestry
  • classes change more or less smoothly and continously into other classes, with no sharp borders nor permanent characteristics
  • "organization" is a description of the present, depends on past, may be different in future
  • individuals are members of invariant classes
  • invariant classes (and membership of individuals in them) are defined by essences
  • variation among individuals is of minor significance or irrelevant
Population thinking and continuous largely undirected change
  • change involves "the genetic turnover of the individuals of every population from generation to generation" (p76) i.e. ....
  • what is changing is populations of differing individuals
  • two factors contribute to that change:
    • random variation
    • differential reproductive success
  • therefore change has some direction (expansion) and some shaping (differential reproductive success)
  • would not come out the same way in detail if repeated, has no end state to be achieved .... is exploration of possible forms within some set of poorly defined constraints, is playful
  • change is toward "ever greater perfection"
  • change reflects individual and personal experience (Lamarck)

"A population or species changes through the continuous production of new genetic variation and through the elimination of most members of each generation, because they are less successful either in the process of the nonrandom elimination of individuals or in the process of sexual selection (i.e., they have less reproductive success)" (p 77, Box 4.1) ... this indeed, and very important, but it IS not only a story (a good one) but a story in progress (there may be more going on)

" We have spent a lot of (valuable) time using evolution as a lauch pad from which to bounce off into explorations of our ability to experience/understand/share reality. And we have heard time and again that evolution is just a story. But I think it is important to consider what makes it a good story, a compelling story, one that has in some sense been written in fossils, in genes, in ecosystem dynamics and that humans are reading ... if you think about the fact that there is a certain level of biological simplicity at which organisms cannot evolve to be any LESS complex, than all evolution necessarily exists as movement away from this original simplicity, directional simply because any change from this point requires additional complexity." ... Reeve

And what a fine story evolution makes as well. I particularly like when Mayr (while not being very objective) tells the story that "evolution is not deterministic" on page 121. I like the case that evolution is a constant story of change without a greater direction, just chance interactions which can lead to more change. While some changes seem to occur because they express a state of being better suited to continue in the story, it is actually just random happenstance that the right combination of trait and environment should arise. I find such complex randomness just mind boggling ... Julia

"I was thinking about Mayr and the description about genetics. I was trying to think about how genetics might relate explicitly/metaphorically to stories. What are the genes of a story? Is the story a product of nature or nurture? I think that words are the genes of a story. I think that a story IS a product of nature (these words) and nurture (the culture into which the story is born and in which it is read.) Mutations are experiments in style or content, sometimes radical which are either viable enough to be transferred into the style of other stories or not. ... Story conventions change, adapt, evolve as we've said. And like the whole process of evolution- stories are heavily dependent on the way things have evolved in the past. Every past story is in some sense both still alive AND a "story fossil" Variation in stories is indeed, most often, a recombination of certain story elements. Is a story's creation closer to sexual or asexual reproduction? I would say something closer to sexual reproduction- the union of thought from many places... but there is something that also feels slightly self-generative about stories ... Elizabeth

"Last class we talked about clumpy diversity, which I think relates really well to the generation of stories. Maybe whatever it was I read about there only being a few stories really meant that there are a few clumps that plots, if simplified, could be grouped into. I guess that would still make it possible for infinite stories to abound, while sharing certain "traits" as living things do." ... Lindsay

In the humanities and the social sciences, I am conforted by the fact that my words, my explanantions, and my emotions could possibly change something or someone. But with science, even the most earnest show of emotion does nothing to stop the processes of life and nature ... Nancy

To be continued ...