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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

Stories as Attitudes

Cham Sante

Curiosity seems to be innately part of the human experience. With this propensity towards curiosity comes our seemingly insatiable need to search for answers to the world's many unanswered (and conceivably unanswerable?) questions. Perhaps the most important of these questions regard the origin of the world, of life, and of us as human beings. The need to account for our own beginnings can be seen throughout history, as multiple explanations have been offered from diverse cultures, religions, philosophies and disciplines. For example, "the folklore of even the most primitive human tribes indicates that they had given some thought to questions about the origin and history of the world" (Mayr, 2001, p.1). This "urge to account for a beginning" has indeed led to many different answers and justifications throughout time, the most popular and noteworthy being the stories of creationism and evolution (Mayr, 2001). These two accounts at first appear to be entirely irreconcilable, thus sparking centuries of heated controversy and debate. The purpose of this discussion is not to attempt to resolve the age-old arguments among creationists and evolutionists, but instead to investigate the psychosocial reasons behind the power of each side's assertion that they and they alone are "right".

According to the definition of an "attitude" (i.e., "any cognitive representation that summarizes our evaluation of an object, which may be the self, other people, things, actions, events, or ideas"), the stories/explanations that we come up with to account for the world around us are nothing more than attitudes (Smith & Mackie, 2000, p. 247). Evaluating the inherent characteristics of attitudes will allow us to gain insight into new (and more useful?) ways of thinking about persuasion (i.e., "the process by which attitudes are developed, reinforced, or changed by communications"), thereby allowing us to further understand why conflicting stories, specifically the stories of creationism vs. evolution, can be perceived as tremendously threatening (Smith & Mackie, 2000, p. 248).

People form attitudes/ create stories because they are useful in mastering the social environment and in establishing important connections with others. It is a well- known fact in psychology that once an attitude is formed, it becomes very closely linked to the representation of the object to which that attitude has been ascribed (i.e., the attitude object) (Smith & Mackie, 2000). This cognitive connection helps us to negotiate our interactions with these attitude objects in two ways: through the "object appraisal or knowledge function" and/or the "instrumental or utilitarian function". The object appraisal function refers to the ways in which attitudes/stories help us to organize and simplify our experience, thus allowing us to "deal with it efficiently" (Smith & Mackie, 2000, p. 250). Taken in terms of our need to explain the beginning of time/the world/humans, the story of creationism presents the fairly simple explanation (i.e., in terms of cognitive not religious or philosophical appraisals) that a supreme supernatural being was uniquely responsible. We are here because an invisible and thus indemonstrable power has put us here, period. What a simple answer this is! In terms of evolution, the story serves to resourcefully (and effectively?) describe Creation through a simple, concrete presentation of scientific facts such as the fossil record, common decent and molecular evidence (Mayr, 2001). And what an organized and efficient answer this is!

The instrumental explanation of the usefulness and function of stories, serves to orient us "towards objects that will help maximize our rewards and reach desired goals while avoiding undesirable situations or events" (Smith & Mackie, 2000, p. 250). In this way, creationists might tell their story in order to reaffirm their belief in a God and thereby procure a desirable place in an afterlife. Similarly, evolutionists might tell their scientific story in part to intellectualize Creation in a way that will allow for rationalizing away the uncomfortable and intimidating possibility that the creationists might be "right".

There are three "building blocks" of attitudes: cognitive information, affective information and behavioral information. Each of these building blocks serves to solidify ones own attitudes about the stories we tell, as well as inhibit the possibility for the blending/reconciliation of different stories regarding the same attitude object (e.g., Creation). Take for example, the following schematic representation of the attitude/story of creationism: (Picture nontransferable)

Cognitive Information= The bible says that God created man and the universe

Affective Information= I feel comforted by my belief in God and the word of the bible

Behavioral Information= I go to church every Sunday and read the bible before I go to bed

These Three components in combination= An Attitude/Story= God created man and the universe

Herein, lies a fundamental problem regarding the reconciliation of different versions of a story: cognitive information can be shared/learned and behavioral information can be altered/adapted, but affective information is not so easily modified. For instance, evolutionary biologists can present a creationist with a quite convincing scientific story substantiated by dense "factual" information, and that creationist may even concede the plausibility and merit of such arguments. That same creationist may also become disillusioned with religious practices such as attending church or reading the bible. However, does the affective category of attitudes not somehow constitute the true foundations of many of our most important assertions? For instance, when an attitude or story is seen to be a fundamental cornerstone of our self-concept and therefore our identity (e.g., the way creationism is often crucial to our religious affiliations and thus our concept of self), it will likely take more than refuting cognitive information (e.g., the fossil record) to bring about a persuasive change in attitude.

The point is then that when we are confronted with conflicting stories/attitudes, our response must not at once be to convince or persuade others that our version is "right" and theirs is "wrong" (as if these subjective assertions are somehow static and verifiable), but instead to accept the possibility that multiple versions of stories may safely exist. In the beginning of this discussion, the human need to search for answers was mentioned. Is it not enough then that one, both or perhaps neither of these stories can serve to sufficiently satisfy a person's questioning of Creation? In other words, let there be both a story of creationism and one of evolution.

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