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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Do all of our Readings from the Course present the same, Consistent View of Science?

Eleanor Carey

This course presented scientific material as stories and presented ways of thinking about literature and ideas in the terms of a scientific idea, evolution. That the course was offered in the English and Biology departments and is largely "interdisciplinary" meant that people with little experience in science as well as people majoring in science were together in the classroom addressing these ideas and stories together. Some were there trying to understand what science is while making connections with literature and life, while others tried to connect what was already a fairly well developed notion of science with the new ideas presented in the course.

This was a science and literature course, and all the works read in the course addressed science in some way whether by explaining scientific theory as in What Evolution Is, relating science to other parts of life and to philosophy as Darwin's Dangerous Idea does, or through the relationship of science to the lives of characters in a story as it does for the characters of Herculine Barbin, Middlesex, and even Orlando. All but Orlando present science as an important aspect of truth though not all give it the same credit or the same value as a predictor of things to come. While Mayr, in What Evolution Is displays an unshakable conviction that science will allow us to learn "the real truth of about the history of the world" ((4) Mayr, page 5), Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, hails scientific theory as a source of what as "true" and evolution as a source of "dangerous ideas" relating not only to biology but to ideas and to what we may do with artificial intelligence. Dennett goes so far as to point to science as a source of good that other traditions cannot provide ((2) Dennett pages 515 and 516). Eugenides' work, Middlesex portrays a family that on more than one occasion makes a decision with utmost faith in science to dictate truth. The case of Herculine Barbin is different in that the memoir presented does not demonstrate as much trust in science as the readings of the reports on the condition of the writer of the memoir. Orlando does not address the issue of science very directly, but it does ask that the reader believe things that science says cannot happen as true within the story. These different views and uses of science provide an opportunity for the reader to think about what science is to them, what it means in society today and the importance of context and awareness when one is doing or reading about science.

We first read two works that used science as the source of truth. These were What Evolution Is and Darwin's Dangerous Idea. We then read two works that demonstrated a degree of mistrust in science while still making science essential. These were Herculine Barbin and more importantly, Middlesex. We finished with a book that used very simple "scientific" things that we have learned from experience, such as the passage of time, and played with them in interesting ways that make them important while making what we know about them unnecessary to the storytelling. This was Orlando, and in the context of the question of what science is, it was a very appropriate last reading.

We began with Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is, which explained to anyone in the class who may not have had experience with evolutionary biology what it is and how it works. This is a science book and Mayr begins by stating that "we turn to science when we want to learn the real truth about the history of the world" ((4) Mayr, page 5). This is a very strong statement of faith in science's ability to explain it all. The fact that Ernst Mayr spent most of his life working on evolutionary science is itself a show of his great appreciation for what science can do and of how much it meant to him.

Mayr comes off as somewhat arrogant, not only when he responds to creationist ideas (which are not scientific) but also when he addresses evolutionary theory that differs from what he has discovered and accepted as "truth" (for example, his approach to theories of evolution that differ from that of natural selection in populations- especially his adamancy about the lack of any goal of evolution) ((4) Mayr, pages77- 87, page 150). These matters are important to understanding of evolutionary processes, and Mayr must be forceful in explaining these matters simply because there have been different ways of understanding them. However, if science were not perceived as important truth this would not be an issue at all. Mayr would have had no difficulty, if he did not see science as "the truth" saying his understanding and then saying "this is one way of telling the story, there are others just as valid, but they are not the ones I have chosen to tell". Instead he outlined other stories and said, in response to them, "there is no evidence whatsoever to support..." (in this case cosmic teleology) ((4) Mayr, page 82, addressing the rather unlikely theory that evolution occurs as a result of a "strive for perfection"), and in reference to failures resulting from theorized macromutational processes involved in transmutationism, that "they have never been found because, as is now quite obvious, such a postulated macromutational process does not occur" ((4) Mayr, page 79).

Ernst Mayr's writing clearly communicates the science behind evolutionary theories and the processes by which evolution works. Mayr also makes clear that he knows what he knows because of scientific evidence he has found or seen, because he presents his writing as "truth", and science as the way to the truth. Mayr does not address what evolution means beyond the scope of science, beyond our full understanding of the history of the world. This along with its uses for further scientific understanding and for medical research appears to be enough to support the great importance of evolution. Understanding evolution and using it to understand other workings of the world is here the goal of science. It is certainly an important goal, and for these reasons alone, evolutionary science must be understood.

We moved on after Mayr to Daniel Dennett's work, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which outlined the ideas of evolutionary biology and asked that we use them for science in other areas of life, that we expand the scope of evolutionary theory. Dennett asked that we recognize implications of evolution that have not been shown by a great deal of scientific research, and some that cannot be shown by scientific research. Dennett is a philosopher and he demonstrates what the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory are, frequently asking the reader to put more faith in science than Mayr does when he simply tells what science has shown. He frequently does this using thought experiments and stories rather than scientific explanations of the ideas he explains, but what he asks in these experiments and stories is that we see where our trust needs to be put in science.

Dennett makes an argument first that no other history of the world may coexist with evolution, stating that a creator God is not something in which a "sane, undeluded adult could literally believe" ((2) Dennett, page 18). He says this after saying that "Darwin's dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted, even to themselves" ((2) Dennett, page 18). Dennett sees evolutionary science as in direct conflict with religious tradition, but more importantly, he wants to take evolutionary theory further than it has been taken before, further than most evolutionary scientists have tried, to a place that will make many uncomfortable. He wishes to do this because this is what he sees as truth. He sees science as having a great deal of power and its truth as somehow essential, or he might not have called attention to these things.

Dennett does two things that Mayr does not. He uses evolutionary ideas to make statements about other parts of life besides our understanding of the history of the world (things such as artificial intelligence and cultural evolution), and he asserts that religion is "no longer viable" ((2) Dennett page 514) in a culture that understands evolutionary processes as "truth". These two actions show an almost greater faith in science.

Dennett's argument for artificial intelligence hinges on his faith that scientists are capable of making computers that are indistinguishable from humans. This is a great faith, considering how much is not known about the workings of human beings. Dennett argues that because no intentionality went into the creation of humans and our intentionality is derived, robots could derive the same intentionality as we have ((2) Dennett, page 425). This argument is essentially that because we are products of evolution, there is nothing so special about us that it cannot be recreated. This hangs on a strong belief in evolution as truth, but what is interesting is the idea that such robots could be built by science. This shows just how much Dennett is presenting science as capable of achieving.

Dennett's description of memes is very much like that of genes, and the ideas about memes "survival of the fittest" and evolving as they transfer from person to person could not exist without the ideas of biological evolution and selection of traits on genes. He describes memes as invaders in human minds that transformed us into people ((2) Dennett, page 341). He describes memes as a Darwinian explanation for our culture, and states that, "like life itself, and every other wonderful thing, culture must have a Darwinian origin" ((2) Dennett, page 341). This description of "every other wonderful thing" having a Darwinian origin, demonstrates again the delight that Dennett gets from evolutionary ideas, which he also expressed in the beginning of the book when he said, "If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin" ((2) Dennett page 21). Certainly Dennett is here expressing a faith in Darwin more than just in science, but the faith is still there. Darwin was a scientist and his ideas are, in the meme idea, transferred to more than just biological evolution. This description of cultural evolution is a demonstration of the expectation that science can explain more than it originally sets out to explain and that scientific theories can be used in areas outside those for which they are developed.

Dennett has placed a great deal of faith in science and appears to expect the reader to do the same. At the end of the book he discusses what will happen with religious tradition, the beliefs behind which are, "in a word, wrong" ((2) Dennett, page 514, in reference to the sentiment expressed in the song he began the book with, which asserts that God made us). He goes on to compare religion to wild animals to be preserved in cages, saying "safety demands that religions be put in cages, too- when absolutely necessary" ((2) Dennett page 515). Dennett addresses problems with religious traditions such as the status of women in Roman Catholicism and Islam and fanaticism in all sects. When he addresses religion and what is dangerous about it, he says things like, "if you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach then that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you" and "if you insist on teaching your children falsehoods- that the earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection- then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods" ((2) Dennett, page 519). When he says "we" it implies the enlightened and implies that the reader stands with him. What is good about religion? It has served a purpose, "kept Homo Sapiens civilized enough, for long enough, for us to have learned how to reflect more systematically and accurately on our position in the universe" ((2) Dennett page 518). Religion has kept us around long enough to finally learn the truth. This truth is what is good. This truth is what will protect us from religion. Science has created a new world.

We moved on to literature with Jeffrey Eugenides' work, Middlesex. This is a work narrated by pseudo-hermaphrodite Cal (Callie) and it claims to be the story of how he came to be what he is, the story of the "recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome", Cal says ((3) Eugenides, page 4). Cal knows that this is why he is a pseudo-hermaphrodite but does not pretend that it is his genes that make him who he is. Indeed, while the story of his grandparents' incest and that of his parents is the story of what led up to his having two of these recessive mutations, it is also their stories that led to them being who they are and to the nature of his upbringing, which with his genes made him who he was. Cal is not a scientist or a philosopher by trade and neither are any from his family. There is an interest and an awareness of science, however, and they use science in their lives with a sort of faith.

First, in the very beginning of Cal's story, Cal's father decides what gender his child will be based on scientific information he got from "Uncle Pete", a chiropractor who claimed that sperm carrying male chromosomes swam faster and that conceiving the child twenty four hours before the woman ovulated would ensure that the baby would be female (which would allow the male sperm time to die off before the egg dropped and allow the arrival of the female sperm to be more timely) ((3) Eugenides, pages 7 and 8). He and his wife, Tessie, wanted a daughter and tried to assure this by following "Uncle Pete"'s advice. This may not be great science but it sounds scientific and allowed Milton Stephanides (Cal's father) to feel that he took control of the situation. The reader knows immediately that it did not work in this case (the sperm that created Cal had male chromosomes, though they did contain a mutation), so may imagine that the practice is not foolproof. However, when Milton's mother Desdemona did her traditional spoon test for the gender of the child and stated that the child would be male, Milton knew she was wrong because of "science" ((3) Eugenides, page 6). Cal says that his father was experiencing a "scientific mania" at the time of these events, resulting from the progress that he had witnessed in those years before Cal was born. Cal also says that the timing of his conception did have to be rather particular or he would not have been what he is, demonstrating his belief in science and in the fact that if his parents had not so precisely timed the conception of their second child, their child would not have been a pseudo-hermaphrodite. The reader knows that the intent was not to have a pseudo-hermaphrodite, and while it cannot be denied that Cal's parents loved him very much as what he was, it could be argued that this dependence on science to allow control over the gender of their child backfired in a way (certainly, we are glad that it turned out the way it did). It is certain that the result of their science was not the intended result, and that where the parents felt they had control, they did not.

Science tried to make Cal a girl again when Cal was a teenager who did not menstruate and who had different genitals than other girls. Her parents took her to Dr. Luce, a specialist in sexual disorders and gender identity. After examining Cal thoroughly and interviewing her about her life and attractions, after watching videos of her as a child and analyzing all the information he had, Dr. Luce determined that while Cal was genetically male, he had a female gender identity. His report described Cal's physical condition and the reasons, based on Cal's behavior and interviews, that he believed Cal had a female gender identity. Dr. Luce told Cal that Cal "was a girl whose clitoris was merely larger than those of other girls" ((3) Eugenides, page 433). Dr. Luce told Cal's parents the actual condition that Cal had and that Cal was a girl because of her upbringing as a girl and that he had determined this from her "interests, gestures, psychosexual makeup" ((3) Eugenides, page 427). He said, "Callie is a girl who has a little too much male hormone"((3) Eugenides page 428). Dr. Luce told them, and Cal, that they could easily fix this by surgery to "finish" her genitalia ((3) Eugenides page 433) and hormone injections which would cause breasts to develop and make her "the girl she feels herself to be".((3) Eugenides page 428).

Dr. Luce was "the world's leading authority on human hermaphroditism" ((3) Eugenides page 409), an expert and a man of science. His investigations into Cal's case told him that Cal was female. He felt that this showed that "sex of rearing, arther than genetic determinants, plays a greater role in the establishment of gender identity" ((3) Eugenides page 437). He believed that the right thing to do was to determine her actual gender and make it so that she could live as that gender. The way that he presented his findings to Cal would have made it difficult for Cal to even think of any other possible courses of action. Because Cal read the report which said that Cal had male genetic makeup, however, Cal decided that that was that, she was in fact a boy. It was Cal's trust of science and of genes as what makes a person who he is that led him to make this quick decision, that he was a boy.

Science, for both Dr. Luce (who had a very good understanding of Cal's situation) and Cal (who was the one who had to live Cal's life), science led to absolute decisions about Cal's gender. Cal did not take into account anything besides what his genes said about him when he made his decision to live as a man. Luce did what his experience told him to do. Cal, later in life, acknowledges that there is some girl in him as well as boy. Perhaps, however, if Luce had taken the time to better explain to Cal the situation, Cal would've had a different experience, a different understanding from the moment when he realized his genes were male. Perhaps he would have made a different decision. This moment was a demonstration of the weakness of science and also of its power.

Herculine Barbin is a memoir, and probably interesting to scientists interested in the experience of a pseudo-hermaphrodite who goes from living as a woman to living as a man. Herculine herself did not seem to need a great deal of science to figure out that she was different from other women, that she could live as a man. Her statement that "Science, furthermore, does not have the gift of miracles, and even less does it have the gift of prophecy" ((1) Barbin, page 39), though not stated in the context of her condition as a pseudo-hermaphrodite but with regard simply to her health, can be read as a judgement on science- it is not foolproof and it does not explain it all. One cannot determine by science what another person will be. But Herculine did, because science called her a man, go on to live as a man though it meant giving up a life for which she was well suited for which she had worked very hard. She faced the untruths that newspapers printed about her actions as a woman so that she could do what she believed she must and live as a man ((1) Barbin, page 90). Her faith in science that led to this action must have been great.

However, our book Herculine Barbin includes medical reports from doctors who examined Alexina Barbin, and the reader who looks at these cannot help but gain a better understanding of Herculine's condition. These reports describe what happened to Herculine, what her body was, in a scientific way and it illuminates the situation a great deal. Indeed, were it not for science Herculine Barbin might not currently exist as a book that people value at all. While the text acknowledges the limitations of science, Herculine Barbin also recognizes science as valuable. That science is something that must be handled with care and with full awareness of what it can and cannot do, then, is shown by Middlesex and Herculine Barbin, both of which give science great importance.

In Orlando, a person, who we meet as a boy but who as an adult in Turkey simply woke up a woman after a sleep of many days ((5) Woolf, pages 133-137). This person, Orlando, lives through the time of Queen Elizabeth and through the time of Queen Victoria, living an unnaturally long life and never really growing much older. This is somehow believable in the story, however.

None of what happens by Orlando fits with science or can be explained by science, and none of it is explained at all. Still it draws the reader in. That these things that cannot be "true" in a scientific way can be "true" within the story allows science to take a break and shows that science and the unscientific and almost nonsensical can coexist in a person's mind. A person who firmly believes in evolution and gravity and that they will not live much more than one hundred years at best, even a person who works as a scientific researcher may enjoy reading Orlando. Even if science is "truth", it does not have to influence everything.

As a science course, this course illuminated the workings of evolutionary processes and demonstrated how it could be important in the world and in our lives. It encouraged us to think about evolution in the context of stories and to recognize science as made up of stories as well. The works that we read related to each other in such a way as to make us think seriously about what science is and how it works in the world. The works we read that demonstrated the strength of science (What Evolution Is and Darwin's Dangerous Idea) along with the works we read that showed a more cautious view of science (Middlesex and Herculine Barbin) allowed us to think about the role of science and science's value in a way that we might not in a class that simply asked us to learn what evolutionary processes are and then move on to apply them to literature without thinking about what it meant. Orlando finished the course with a story that could not happen based on any scientific experience, but that the reader frequently believed despite this. There is a power in science and there is also power in good storytelling.


1) Barbin. Herculine Barbin: being the recently discovered memoirs of a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite (originally Herculine Barbin, dite Alexina B. 1978). Introduced by Michel Foucault. Trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Random House, Inc. 1980.

2) Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone 1995.

3) Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.

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

5) Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, 1928.

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