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

Mental Categorization

Heather Davis


Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, explained cognitive development in a way that may be useful in understanding the story of our story of evolution. He explained that in order to understand and function in our world, we organize thoughts and behaviors into systems, and are in a continual process of adapting our mental systems to better make sense of our surroundings. He calls these systems schemes and defines them as the basic building blocks of thinking, or tools for being able to mentally represent objects and events. They can be very simple like a scheme for throwing a ball, and get more complex like a scheme for playing baseball. Throughout development, new schemes arise and they become more organized to better make sense of the environment.

Schemes become more complex and better organized through adaptation, which Piaget explains is a mixture of two different processes: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when one makes sense of something in the environment by fitting it into an already established scheme. This may or may not work. For example, most things of similar body shape that swim in the water can be understood and fit into a fish scheme. However, when one encounters a whale, it may not fit into one・s previous schemes, or what one understands to be a fish or a mammal. In that case, one has to accommodate, or change their schemes in order to make sense of new information. These processes most often don・t occur in isolation, but are done together constantly to make sense of the world. In some situations, when the information we are getting from the environment is too complex, the information is left out entirely. As our understanding of the world expands, Piaget explains, it also divides into categories.

Expansion and fragmentation also seems to be a universal natural biological principal. Liquids and gases spread out to the boundaries of their containers, animals disperse on land, and humans have managed to explore even the uninhabitable territory of space. Animals often divide themselves into herds or flocks, while humans divide themselves into cultures, societies, and families.

Expansion and division seem to be inherent and interconnected in other realms as well. The human constructs of religion and literature expand through time as they build on past stories. The more the wealth of knowledge, beliefs, and history expands, the more categories we define to separate them.

Biological evolution is characterized by a similar branching. Through what is explained as evolution, the possibilities for life・s characteristics continuously expand with each new generation. It is through this expansion of possible characteristics that what we think of as categories or kinds of life exist. When a population is reproductively separated for a long enough period of time, gradual changes in each population bring about a division or a branching of the species. The explanation for the evolutionary process seems very similar to Piaget・s concept of adaptation: As possibilities for life and for understanding expand, they are divided into categories. However, a greater exploration of these categories illuminates the fact that they are largely misleading and useless.

While evolution explains the emergence of what we define as species, it rejects the very definition we understand them by. While a population can over time branch into very different species, two very different species can become incredibly similar if exposed to similar environments. If environment has this power, a species・ characteristics seem arbitrary and useless in understanding relationships between populations. Rather than being defined by essential characteristics, species then are defined by their reproductive isolation from each other. However, the usefulness of this explanation is questionable. Dennett gives a perfect example in his book :Darwin・s Dangerous Idea:;
As we look at the herring gull, moving westwards from Great Britain to North America, we see gulls that are recognizably herring gulls, although they are a little different from the British form. We can follow them, as their appearance gradually changes, as far as Siberia. At about this point in the continuum, the gull looks more like the form that in Great Britain is called the lesser black-backed gull. From Siberia, across Russia, to northern Europe, the gull gradually changes to look more and more like the British lesser black-backed gull. Finally, in Europe, the ring is complete; the two geographically extreme forms meet, to form two perfectly good species: the herring and lesser black-backed gull can be both distinguished by their appearance and do not naturally interbreed. [p45]

As a similarly frustrating example in our understanding of species, :Wolves and coyotes and dogs are considered to be different species, and yet interbreeding does occurKand their offspring are not in general sterile; [p45]. It seems that neither characteristics nor reproductive isolation can completely account for the way we understand the categories of species. Evolution is a story told in response to and to contest people・s tendency toward essentialist thinking (or the way of understanding species by some defining characteristics). Although it refutes the stasis of a species and of its characteristics, the story of evolution still seems to be stuck in essentialist thinking by trying to explain what we perceive as categories.

The categories we define in life are not as simple or useful as we understand them to be. Fluidity in religion could be useful to many people while strict division causes animosity and conflict. Our idea of families and societies has a similarly limited application. Societies and cultures are constantly in contact and have no clear boundaries. Also, there are extended families, step-families, and single families. The nuclear family is largely a western concept, not being a majority in other parts of the world or the West. The division of literature is also not completely clear. To site another example from Dennett, if a horror book is defined as fictional, which category does someone・s own story of horror fit into? Vladimir Nabokov writes what Mary McCarthy calls a :half-poem, half-prose,; which defies our preconceived notion of categories. Could the fact that we see so few texts transcend these categories be a symptom of our definition of the categories in the first place?

Piaget・s explanation may explain our tendency toward categorization. Perhaps categories have little to do with reality, but are just projections of our internal reality. We place our own characteristics on the world around us to make sense of it. If our minds can make sense of things only by placing them into categories, perhaps we leave out evidence that does not fit and would offer a different or complementary explanation for life or any other observation.

Furthermore, the story of evolution may itself be just another division, attempting to explain itself in contrast and independent of other explanations for life. Can there be no middle ground, no compromise, no win-win situation? Does the truth have to be in one story or another? Perhaps it is our tendency toward categorization which defines one story in opposition to another. This may not be the way the world is, but how we have to make sense of our world. Piaget・s story, like many others, may merely reflect this tendency toward having to explain things in categories. It may not be the way we think, but the way we explain, understand, and tell the story about what we think.


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