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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Evolution: A Story With Purpose

Maureen England

Maureen England
Professor Grobstein
Biology 223
09 February, 2005
Evolution: A Story with Purpose

Evolution, while usually considered a branch of the scientific community, is also a very philosophical concept. Evolutionists, while aiming to find answers, still leave open such questions as "Why are we here?" and "What is Life?" In essence, does life have purpose, or more particularly, does evolution have purpose? Here, considering the idea of purpose being not an absolute ending but a relative ending, not a finale but a reason or meaning, then evolution does have purpose. Similar to the proof style many philosophers have used in the past to explain abstract concepts, one can say: firstly, that a story is something which has purpose; secondly, that evolution is a story. Therefore, Evolution has purpose.

An idea not satisfying to some people is the idea that stories have purposes. Purposes are defined here as, "the action or fact of intending or meaning to do something; intention, resolution, determination" ("Purpose," def. 2a)(6) . The author John Irving said of stories, "You don't initiate a story until you know how you're going to end it. You don't start a dinner party conversation–"A funny thing happened to me on the way to La Guardia"– and not know what happened in La Guardia" (Brodie 72)(1) . However, here John Irving has made the example of a concrete absolute ending; his story ends at La Guardia, where a specific event happens which concludes the action of the story. A story can have a reason for a continual state of being, or a symbolic end to a state of being. For example, in ancient stories such as "Why the Leopard has spots," people aimed to explain the reason behind a physical characteristic of leopards through telling a story. On a larger scale, different religions have arisen throughout time, trying to answer life questions, or to give life or even death, purpose. For instance, the religion of Buddhism, has given meaning to both life and death. A Buddhist believes in reincarnation to eventually reach a state of sublime being, or Nirvana. Here, the purpose of the story of life and death is to achieve ultimate happiness. But not only in the telling of stories, is there purpose, but also in the writing of stories. There are many structure formulas hypothesized about stories; for example, the "journey" structure which is so highly regarded that it is taught in school to English students. In the "Journey" structure, a hero is jolted out of his normal existence to go on a journey, whether physical or mental. Along the way, the hero meets with adversaries and companions, one of which generally has some mentor-like qualities. At some point along the way, the hero almost turns back from the journey but ultimately continues on. After a climax, a leap of faith, the hero achieves resolution or some "truth." There are other similar forms of structure, including the less narrative formula of beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement. The denouement is, "the final unraveling of the complications of a plot in a drama, novel, etc.; the catastrophe; the final solution or issue of a complication, difficulty, or mystery" ("Denouement," def. 1)(2) . After such speculative definitions of stories, let us end with a printed definition, "purport, meaning conveyed" where "purport" is, "that which is intended to be done or affected by something; meaning, object, purpose, design, intention" ("Story," def. 4c (7) "Purport," def. 2 (5) ). Therefore, in the telling and the writing of stories, there is some meaning, a type of answer.

Perhaps not as controversial or concrete is the idea that Evolution is a story. Besides the definition of Evolution as it pertains to the scientific theory developed largely by Charles Darwin, evolution also means, "the process of evolving, developing, or working out in detail, what is implicitly or potentially contained in an idea or principle; the development of a design, argument, etc" ("Evolution," def. 5a)(3) . Cannot a "design" or "argument" be considered similar to stories? One would not start an argument without knowing what one meant to say. Similarly, one would not design without aiming towards some final creation. Writer Russell Friedman said, "The task of the nonfiction writer is to find the story–the narrative line–that exists in nearly every subject, be it the life of a person or the life of a cell," (Brodie 61)(1) . Let us take then, the book What Evolution Is, by Ernst Mayr as the narrative of Evolution. Mayr not only narrates the story of what Evolution is, but also the story of how the theory of Evolution developed. A subsection in the very first chapter states, "The Rise of Evolutionism" before explaining the history behind the theory (Mayr 5) (4) . The following chapter is titled, "What is the Evidence for Evolution on Earth" and explains the evidence and reasoning behind the belief in the theory of Evolution (Mayr 12) (4) . At the end of the chapter, Mayr says, "As the famous geneticist T.Dobzhansky has said so rightly, "Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution." Indeed, there is no other natural explanation than evolution for the facts presented in this chapter" (Mayr 39) (4) . The rise of the theory of Evolution is, in itself, a conclusion to the story in which scientists were trying to explain the variation in animals, the fossil record, and other discontinuities with the theory of Creationism. Following, is Mayr's development of Evolution. But once again, Mayr begins at the beginning, as stories do, with the title "The Rise of the Living World" and the section heading "The Origin of Life" (Mayr 40) (4) . Mayr details the evolution of life from the simplest of organisms, bacteria, through the rise of more complex organisms like plants and animals. Mayr finished his tale with the development of humans. But evolution over such a large time scale and in so many individuals is perhaps hard to follow directly as a story, just as a large novel with numerous characters may be at times. Let us then look at the bacteria, for example. Living for millions of years on the earth, bacteria were suddenly threatened with extinction by human antibiotics. Through the processes of mutation and adaptation in evolution however, bacteria were able to survive. Whether one debates the consciousness and will to survive of the bacteria or not, one has to admit that such a history is narrative enough to be considered a story. The story of bacteria who, like the hero in the "journey" story, is faced with an adversary and is able to overcome it and change in order to survive. Both in the development of and the explanation of Evolution, stories arise, whether specific to the life one organism, a social argument, or life in general.

Since stories have purpose, and Evolution is a story, or many stories, it would naturally follow that Evolution has purpose. Stories have infinite possibilities of resolutions, but they none the less have resolutions in that there is some reason, or significance to their existence. While one Cinderella may choose to marry Prince Charming, another may not, but both have progressed as characters enough to have changed in life and meaning. Likewise, Evolution may not have one end, similar to all beings. Some species face extinction while others thrive. Countless different species can be adapted to the same environment and still survive. Therefore, in saying Evolution is a story and has a purpose, one must not think the purpose is equal to all beings. Indeed, humans may never know a tree's purpose. Humans may also never fully understand the purpose of Evolution as it pertains to organisms on Earth. We have all been characters in the narrative of Evolution, but our outcomes may be very different; our purposes may be very different. The important thing to remember is that there is purpose, there is a story. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser said, "Say it, say it. The universe is made of stories, not of atoms" (Brodie 58). (1)


1)Brodie, Deborah, ed. Writing Changes Everything: The 627 Best Things Anyone Ever Said About Writing. New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1997.

2)Oxford English Dictionary Online"Denouement." Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. Oxford University Press. 10 Feb. 2005. <>

3)Oxford English Dictionary Online"Evolution." Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. Oxford University Press. 10 Feb. 2005. <>

4)Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basics Books, 2001

5)Oxford English Dictionary Online"Purport." Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. Oxford University Press. 10 Feb. 2005. <>

6)Oxford English Dictionary Online"Purpose." Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. Oxford University Press. 10 Feb. 2005. <>

7)Oxford English Dictionary Online"Story." Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. Oxford University Press. 10 Feb. 2005. <>

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