Two Cultures Revised

Once upon a time, in a forest called Penn's Woods, a man directed that his money be used to erect buildings "for the comfort and advanced education and care of young women, or girls of the higher classes of society." In the course of time, a woman assembled in that space a rather remarkable castle where other women could distinguish themselves academically; it came to be known, in certain circles, as the "the scholarly sister." In the course of time, two of the tutors in that castle began to talk with one another, across and through the heavy tapestries that divided the compartments of the building one from the other, and to draw others into their discussion. This is the story of the revision of the house that arose in such conversations.

The Evolution of a Story of Intellectual Traffic:
Re-writing The Two Cultures

Anne Dalke

December 11, 2005 Draft

The year 2005 is the centenary of the birth--and the 25th anniversary of the death--of C.P. Snow, British physicist, novelist, and longtime denizen of the "corridors of power"....It is also 45 years since the U.S. publication of his best-known work...that warrants revisiting today: The Two Cultures....if anything, academic cultures are less mutually interpenetrating now than in Snow's day....It seems that higher education--like politics--is more polarized than ever....Many...linkages remain unconsummated....Most of us would settle for...increased old-fashioned intellectual traffic between humanists and scientists, as Snow called for....As we acknowledge his hundredth birthday, maybe someone will find a way to link his two cultures, or at least make a few high-traffic bridges. (David Barash, "C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Culture Divide," The Chronicle Review. November 25, 2005).

For the past five years, we have been delightfully at play and hard at work in constructing a well-traveled bridge between the humanities and science departments at Bryn Mawr College, a bridge that has generated considerable traffic not only for each of us individually, but also for our colleagues and students in a range of interdisciplinary courses, working groups and web forums. This is our account of that collaboration, some of its payoffs, and some indications for directions of future possible explorations.

This story is a radical account of redefined intellectual community, reaching beyond its conventional academic "tribes." Our experiences, reflections on our teaching, and theories about transforming contemporary liberal arts education involve the exchange of disciplinary perspectives within and beyond the classroom. Our attempts to genuinely open conversation to all comers occur primarily through two interventions: hosting venues for in-person discussion that engage students and faculty with both humanities and science, and making effective use of the world wide web to engage an even broader base of the human community, as we acknowledge a range of significant links between our efforts at education and larger social and political realities and forces.

Our collaborations have, accordingly, addressed a wide spectrum of projects, ranging from a first-year writing seminar to a web forum (based at the College but with an international reach) about the place of the United States in the world community. In between these poles of local and global are venues as varied as jointly-taught courses; on-campus conversations among faculty, staff and students; outreach initiatives to public school teachers; and multiple web projects. Taken together, these various explorations constitute a rich testimony to the value of inter-disciplinary and extra-academic work in a wide range of locations, for an even wider range of purposes.

A paradigmatic venture in this regard, which we accordingly foreground here, is a course on "The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories." The class counts for major credit in both the departments of English and biology, and explores the reciprocal uses that evolution and literature might have for each other. The course examines the way in which evolution functions as a story that scientists laboriously and continuously re-write out of the data they gather. It also explores the ways in which new literary stories evolve out of old ones, as writers have new experiences, make new observations, and imagine new possibilities for the human condition. The parallels between evolution and literature may be at least as significant as any evolutionary continuity between genetics and literature. In developing this course, we have both come to understand culture and literature as levels of biological organization, and "variability as fundamental for living systems at all levels of organization" (Grobstein 1994). More importantly, we have come to see that cultural diversity and variability can serve the same function as biological diversity and variability: promoting the exploration of new forms.

We begin this course with an exploration of the basis for the "story" of evolution as developed by biologists, move on to a consideration of the relevance of the concept of evolution for making sense of other bodies of information and observations, and then turn to a consideration of one literary story growing out of another. We ask repeatedly: Where do stories (scientific and literary) come from? Why do new ones emerge? What causes them to change? Why do (must?) some of them disappear? We consider the parallels between diversity of stories and diversity of living organisms, and think about what new insights into evolution and literature emerge from such considerations.

What emerges in Biology/English 223 is the realization that both science and literary study, as fundamentally social activities, are highly dependent for their success on human diversity. Both fields are the product and property of all human beings; neither need--nor should--be what they have increasingly become in the academy over the past few decades: specialized and isolated activities of a few. We also realize, over the course of repeating this course several times, that both science and literary study are about change of a particular kind: both result from making observations, cataloguing them in a way that makes them publicly available, creating a range of both individual and collective stories about those observations, and then using those stories to motivate the collection of more observations--which will, in turn, alter the stories (cf. Grobstein 2005).

Our principal discovery is the two-directional nature of this enterprise. Evolution proves to be an immensely generative frame for talking about the emergence of new literary stories, but equally important is the usefulness of storytelling as a way of talking about how science is done. We want to highlight here the reciprocal quality of these insights: what evolution contributes to literary study and what literary study contributes to science. In doing so, we are responding both to Snow's challenge and to another, related one laid down by Northrop Frye nearly a half-century ago: that literary criticism "is badly in need of an organizing principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole" (Barash and Barash 2002).

Barash and Barash describe the Anatomy of Criticism as Northrop Frye's attempt to

develop such an organizing principle, but it turned out to be too metaphysical and idiosyncratic to unite literary criticism in anything like the way evolution has unified biology. Such an organizing principle already exists, however, needing only to be recognized and developed. Ironically, it is the same one that Frye gestured toward so longingly: evolution.

In the New York Times Magazine, D.T. Max recently reported on a group of scholars, known as the "literary Darwinists," who are likewise seeking a single organizing principle for literary studies. They see evolution as promising "universal explanations" by the use of a single "explanatory tool," and "providing literary criticism with the 'foundational principles' for analysis it lacks." Our perspective is that the shared study of evolution and literature may encourage explorers in both areas to focus less on "foundational principles" and "universal explanations," and more on underlying processes of diversity generation and selection. The resulting fertility and richness fuels the unpredictable and productive evolution of both biological and literary forms.

We've discovered, in other words, that evolution can indeed function quite usefully as an organizing principle for talking about the emergence of new literary stories, and why they take the forms they do. But equally significant is the "traffic in the other direction," which neither Frye, Barash and Barash nor the literary Darwinists explore: the way in which storytelling can function as the organizing principle for describing the ever-emerging new insights of science. It is there that our class both begins and ends.

In moving from biological evolution to literature and back again, we sound several keynotes:

In other words, by the end of each semester, the class finds it very useful indeed to think of evolution as a story constructed by biologists to make sense of their observations--and likewise useful to think of literary stories as evolving out of one another, functioning (in the terms provided by one of our texts, Naslund's novel Ahab's Wife), as "houses, dear readers....platforms to lift you up.... Let what might seem like roof for your head become floor for your feet" (662).

We arrived, first time 'round, at this "aerial" view through a deliberate consideration of five texts: Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is; Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life; Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction; Herman Melville's Moby-Dick or, The Whale, and Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel. The ground was laid for these readings by a consideration of evolution of the story of the universe. The second year we offered the course, we substituted for the literary texts Michel Foucault's Herculine Barbin, Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. In the third iteration, forthcoming, we will be looking together at E.M. Forster's Howard's End, Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just, and Zadie Smith's On Beauty. In each of these cases....

Works Cited

Barash, David. "C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide." The Chronicle Review. November 25, 2005.

-----. "Evolution's Odd Couple: Biology and Culture." The Chronicle of Higher Education. December 21, 2001.

----- and Nanelle Barash. "Evolution and Literary Criticism." The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 18, 2002.

Brody, Jessica, Joanne Bunch, Leslie McTavish, Sarah Placke, Amanda Root and Virginia Tseng. "Da Bes Fairy Tale Ever." College Seminar. Bryn Mawr College. December 2005.


Dalke, Anne and Paul Grobstein. Biology/English 223: The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories: Exploring the Significance of Diversity. Bryn Mawr College. Spring 2004. Spring 2005.

Dalke, Anne and Paul Grobstein. "Storytelling in (at Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Beyond." (2005)

-----, Paul Grobstein and Elizabeth McCormack. "Theorizing Interdisciplinarity: The Evolution of New Academic and Intellectual Communities." (2005)

Grobstein, Paul. "The Fable of the House." One Man's Story of Learning through Diversity. October 2003.

-----. Variability in Brain Function and Behavior. The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Volume 4. Ed. V.S. Ramachandran. Academic Press, 1994. 447-458.

-----. Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising. Journal of Research Practice 1, 1 (2005).

Lardas, John. "Specters of Moby-Dick: A Particular History of Cultural Metaphysics in America." Manuscript in Progress.

Max, D.T. "The Literary Darwinists." The New York Times Magazine. November 6, 2005.

Miall, David. "An Evolutionary Approach to Literary Reading: Theory and Predictions." 1998.

Pumroy, Eric. "Bryn Mawr College." Essay Forthcoming in projected book on Quaker College and Universites. Ed. Charles Cherry, Caroline Cherry and John Oliver.

Wertheim, Margaret. "Niles Eldredge: Bursts of Cornets and Evolution" New York Times (March 9, 2004).