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

We are the Storytellers

Mary Ferrell

A non-fiction story is a linguistic production that represents the author's mental representation of the world as she sees it. When a story is told, it is 'placed in the world' and becomes a public representation, allowing a listener to perceive it, reason about it, and tell it again if desired. The listener makes decisions about the value of the story, and what is re-told depends on this value (Durham, 1991: 194) (3). These values, commonly referred to as perspectives, are transmitted in all stories, original and retold. What is individually valued and put into a story is influenced by historical conditions and social relations, and in turn, influences future conditions and social relations.

In addition to personal and societal values inherent in storytelling, humans have certain cognitive predispositions that factor in to choices of what is told or repeated in a story. Just to mention one kind, we all use heuristics. These are problem-solving forms of reasoning that helps us to inferring the validity (or value) of statements when we are short on time. Heuristics are not always accurate. They are reasoning based on ideas like, the way things worked in the past, what is thought to be typical, analogical thinking, and poor correlations (4). I am saying people do not always think logically. Human communication is inherently inferential, because of the above stated reasons. There is interference with the exact replication and meaning of stories, hence the gradual change of stories over time. This differential transmission of ideas, values, and beliefs as expressed through story evolution is an important factor in how culture evolves (3).

This process of story evolution sounds analogous to biological evolution. Both are processes of gradual variation due to selection and differential reproductive success over time? Could I be too quickly using the human cognitive predisposition of heuristics? Probably, because I did make an analogy without thinking it through carefully.

And why did I throw this idea into an already complicated paper? For one, I used it as an example of analogical heuristics at work. For another reason, it seems to me to be an example of telling a story based on valued historical conditions. Historically, evolution is huge. It has permeated our culture everywhere. Today, clothes detergent evolves, as do cars, and love. The model of evolution is becoming so ingrained in our society that we use it to symbolize all kinds of change, regardless if there is mutation or reproductive success involved. And I am no different. I always keep the story of evolution close by.

Why do we tell and repeat certain non-fiction stories? I think we tell certain stories for many reasons, but ultimately to seek answers and comfort in those answers. Universally, we all want to understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives. I believe we are all in search of truth, for some ultimate authority. I also think a large motivation for creating non-fiction stories is to have knowledge that can be useful for adapting to our world. Science has been a very intoxicating non-fiction story because it offers us some satisfaction for both of these desires. Regarding our search for the "truth", I wonder if it is attainable. Much current philosophy stresses the subjectivity involved in the supposedly objective scientific method. Thomas Kuhn 's "Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions" (1962) raises the question of the rationality of science. In his popular theory, paradigms (scientific worldviews) shift and when they do, they negate scientific facts once held so dear. Kuhn states that even so, science is effective, but he does not know that it definitely progresses towards the truth. Nevertheless, science is a useful story. As Richard Dawkins pronounces, science does get results. "Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when (1).

The scientific story of evolution does just that, it jumps through all the hoops to perform "truth" for people. The world was ready to begin hearing the story of evolution because it made sense of what was observable in the world around them. Likewise, it made sense of the new information sprouting up in the 1800s. During Britain canal development, dramatic differences in the fossil records were found in the differing layers of rock strata. Cuvier studied these and found systematic development over time. Dinosaurs captured the imagination of the people when they were identified in the 1820s. Lyell's theory of gradual geological change, Malthius' Essay on Populations, and previous evolution theories all were road smoothers for Darwin's ideas (2).

In addition, society was in the right frame of mind to accept scientific knowledge of science. The intellectual and scientific revolution of the 17th century, had by 1859, begun to work its way into the hearts and minds of all classes of Western society. The concept of religious authority as the ultimate authority had been greatly weakened ever since Protestantism challenged Christianity in the 1500s. Literacy had greatly improved due to the printing press. The scientific discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, etc. and the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution of 1780 - 1830, such as the steam engine and the railroad systems, began to give science a high regard. The first printing of "Origin of Species" sold out on the first day it was released for sale in 1859.

Although, not everyone believed in the evolution story right away and some still disregard it today, it is a story that has achieved a high consensus. It has been overwhelmingly supported by evidence, starting with Darwin's hefty substantiation and continued mounting evidence for 144 years ever since. Biological diversity and morphologic relationships, the fossils records, theories of geologic history, Mendalian genetics, artificial selection, molecular biology, archaeological finds, and embryology all sustain Darwinian evolution as described in "Origin of Species", based on random change and natural selection (2).

Evolution is a highly successful representation story in today's society. As well, the whole story of science is a highly successful representation story. Science is not only a dependable story supported by replicated observation, but also some of its theories have developed useful technologies. It is hard to negate the truth in successfully applied knowledge. However, what about theoretical science that is not replicable like the theory of evolution? Evolution is based on a ton of circumstantial evidence. Maybe we should hold the door open before deciding it is the truth. Maybe, because most of the evidence fits Darwin's big picture that he represented, it seems true. Suppose there is a different, bigger yet picture (a new paradigm) that the evidence would fit in better?
It could be -- that we tell and re-tell the evolution story because it is a really good true story. On the other hand, it could be -- that it seems to be true. I have heard it said, that in every story, there is the story that is told and then there is the story that we want to hear. I wonder why humanity's subjective ideals, values and beliefs support the science stories that reverberate so much today. We humans want the truth badly. And we need an ultimate authority. However, is it true knowledge? Watch out for your heuristics and your value judgments!

Literature Cited

(1) Dawkins, Richard. A Devil's Chaplain. New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 2003.
(2) Mayr, Ernest. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic. 2001
(3) MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Eds. Wilson, Robert, Keil, Frank. Massachusetts: MIT press. 1999.
(4) Parkin, Alan. Essential Cognitive Psychology. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press. 2001.

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