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?)

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)
    • clumping
    • directionality?
  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?

To be continued ...