Welcome ...

Paul Grobstein's picture

Anne and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. Its a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had in class (or afterwords), things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind/brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. Looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

J Shafagh's picture

Thoughts

I want to first apologize if these comments are from older classes/lectures/topics….I joined the class a little late and am catching up on writing post and responses…

            I am a firm believer in the belief of science as getting it less wrong, and I do believe it has strong similarity to the literary activity of failing better.  I believe that as humans with intelligent brains, which we all have, we have created the world with our own language, culture, curiosity, observations, society etc, and the only universal “truths” that are available have been created by us ourselves.  So in essence, every new concept or idea that emerges is our way of coping with the new information that was discovered in the context of our present life (as time has evolved) and is essentially getting it less wrong.  However, as life progresses, new discoveries are always being made, so we can say that there is no truth, for they are constantly being modified, as life is a progressive event and process.  Thus, this is why Mayr describes scientists as still searching for a story or explanation to the process of evolution. 

            Growing up, being influenced by my school, teachers, friends and family, I always believed that science was an absolute truth, and literature was made up and was all stories.  It is now that I’m beginning to think that everything in life is stories, explanations, different points of views to help describe things that have happened, occurred, and give meaning and explanation to life.  However, with literature, I believe that many different opinions and interpretations are acceptable, while in science, there is most often one generally held theory or belief that is taught and believed to be the “truth.”  I guess this is a societal and social impact on the two subject matter.

            I also do agree with Mayr stating that “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”  In the context of evolution, we have been able to describe how life and properties of things have constantly been changing over time.  Furthermore, in response to Evan’s post, I believe that new discoveries and treatments to diseases in medicine can be considered a “truth” because it solves the problem, but that might not be the only truth or method of curing the patient, so in essence, it is still a means of getting it less wrong.  Also, if you think about vaccines for bird flu etc. (for example), new strains are constantly “evolving” from year to year, so the vaccine isn’t the truth to the problem, it is a way of getting it less wrong to prevent sickness for now, until things evolve and change and other methods are found that are more suitable or “less wrong” to fix the problem. 

Calderon's picture

Testing

Ingrid

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Observation

I found that the first four chapters of “What Evolution Is” by Ernst Mayr tied at least partly back to the themes that we have been discussing in class.  First, with regard to the “seriously loopy science” process, Mayr states, “What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator?  He was a superb observer, endowed with an insatiable curiosity.  He never took anything for granted but always asked why and how”(11).  Darwin’s ability to observe, be curious, and learn from observations allowed him to form new observations.  I also appreciated how Mayr examined each of Darwin’s crucial observations in order to explain how he had pieced each of them together to come up with the theory of Evolution… the common ancestor, gradual descent, fossil records, and much more. The pictures and examples of the homologies between different organisms such as the human, cat, whale, and bat were also really interesting.  Last semester in Biology 101 we watched the stages of a developing chicken embryo.  In that movie clip, and in reference to the diagram on page 28, the comparable similarities between a chicken and human are incredible-especially in stages one and two!  I also felt that, in response to some of the other comments, while I agree that Mayr pretty much implied that he knew the “truth” of Evolution and focused way too much on “being correct”, at least he followed the process of proving other theories false in order to prove his theory “less wrong”.  Basically, chapters one through four laid the basic framework for what we should know about evolution as a story and as a process and I am looking forward to what deeper ideas the rest of the book will bring.

 

evan's picture

an exception for getting it "less wrong"

Although I agree that getting it less wrong may be a more effective way of going about science, I still feel that there are certain exceptions to this methodology. I find having the "less wrong" mindset is quite useful in studying grand questions like how we came to be heliocentricity, the earth being flat, etc. For these question, a scientist cannot find an absolute answer, only a summary better than the last. These scientists therefore cannot have truth as their absolute goal because these questions are too obtuse. In answering the questions of how we came to be, evolution, because of better observations is a better summary than creationism.

The first thing that comes to mind as an exception to the "less wrong" mentality is certain medical research. I believe if a scientist was trying to find a cure for a certain disease, he/she should have the goal of truth rather than getting it less wrong. If a scientist creates a certain pill that completely cures a harmful disease I do not see how the discovery of a way to treat a harmful disease is less wrong than a previously pill that, say, mitigated the severity of the disease. If this new pill cures the disease, without side effects, then how is the creation of this pill not the "truth" to the question that was "how can this disease be cured?".

tbarryfigu's picture

Same Story, New Teller

When I first began to read What Evolution Is, I was surprised to find that Ernst Mayr was telling the exact same story I had just explored in Evolution 229, last semester. But then I noticed that his way of presenting Evolution differed greatly. He claimed to be professing "facts," things that could "challenge those who are still not yet convinced of the occurence of evolution" (page 12), while expressing his argument in a manner similar to that of a story teller. I did not feel like I was reading a text book of facts, trying to tatoo different statistics on my mind, but, instead, enjoyed his leisurely and informative progression through history.

This, of course, is probably why we are reading this book, though Mayr's constant argument in favor of evolutionary truths seem to counter our recent class discussion about science's ability to only "get it less wrong." Perhaps he intended to write in this manner so as to appeal to those that are not in college, frantically studying the dates of the mass extinctions, ect. In this way, Mayr seems to be both preaching science while dumbing it down to make it more interesting, and less like a lecture. While I agree with this approach, I find it difficult not to analyze it, as he tends to leave out some important facts that were stressed in Bio 229 (perhaps they will show themselves later in the book?) For example, Erasmus Darwin was the first to hint to the perpetual transformation  of all animals and their progression towards higher levels of organization. Mayr does touch on, but hardly gives enough credit to, the other "fathers of Evolution, " especially Wallace, who drafted a similar paper to The Origin and actually initiated Darwin's decision to publish. Before Wallace, it was sitting in a closet in Down House!

In any case, I found the first four chapters rather entertaining, and I look forward to Mayr's development of the story of evolution.

-Tamarinda Figueroa

ChrsitinaCunnane's picture

What Evolution is. Chapt 1-4

This didn't go on the first time so I'm trying again. :)

Ernst Mayr's book "What Evolution Is" is discusses the overwhelming evidence that supports the theory of Evolution. He includes in this evidence, the fossil record, genetics, and morphological similarities. He presents the information as matter of fact with a bias toward the existence of evolution. His argument is one-sided and does not include the possible cons. As a firm believer in evolution, I am not saying his presentation is by any means wrong, however, it lacks a possible counter argument. Maybe there isn't one.
In chapter 3, The Rise of the Living World, Mayr discusses what happened at the beginning of until the present world dominated by mammals. He gives an in depth discussion as he transitions from lower organisms to higher organisms. His transitions are so logical and clear in a stepwise fashion that it would be impossible to imagine anything other than evolution taking place.
Mayr obviously does not believe that there are no truths, or more specifically, no truths in science. When Mayr is discussing very briefly the views of a Creantionist, he states that, "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" (Mayr p. 5). Therefore in essence, Creationists tell stories, while scientists tell the truth. Which is directly the opposite of what we are learning in class.

Katherine Redford's picture

After reading the first

After reading the first four-ish chapters, I'm looking for a way to see how by discovering and believing in evolution, we are getting it less wrong, as opposed to the more widely accepted concept of finding the perfectly correct answer.  Through the first three chapters, I was having a hard time finding support fot the "less wrong" concept.  There were allusions to the concept such as on page 13, "such inferences subsequently must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened when confirmed by all of these tests."  Most references to the scientific method, skirted on the line between the loopy and the linear that we discussed in class.  I was expecting to find in the reading one or the other, but wasn't able to. 

However, when I reached chapter four, I began to cosider the beliefs that came before Darwin and his revolutionary theories.  Here was Darwin, a brilliant scientist who found a summary of observations that proved the old summary incorrect.  Meanwhile, the creationist believers refused to accept this new, maybe not correct, but certainly less wrong, conclusions.  After the lectures on Tuesday and Thursday, I found myself looking at them, not as crazed religious believers, but rather as bad scientists.  Whether or not this is a worse label, I have no idea.  These anti-Darwinians refuse to accept this less wrong conclusion.  Perhaps the reason for this, in part, is due to the fear of being wrong.  As Prof. Grobstein said in class, good scientists want to prove the existing theories wrong, not defend them.  In the story of Darwin, I feel that we can find the two polar examples of the intro lecture from class.

ChristinaCunnane's picture

Ernst Mayr's book "What

Ernst Mayr's book "What Evolution Is" is discusses the overwhelming evidence that supports the theory of Evolution. He includes in this evidence, the fossil record, genetics, and morphological similarities. He presents the information as matter of fact with a bias toward the existence of evolution. His argument is one-sided and does not include the possible cons. As a firm believer in evolution, I am not saying his presentation is by any means wrong, however, it lacks a possible counter argument. Maybe there isn't one.
In chapter 3, The Rise of the Living World, Mayr discusses what happened at the beginning of until the present world dominated by mammals. He gives an in depth discussion as he transitions from lower organisms to higher organisms. His transitions are so logical and clear in a stepwise fashion that it would be impossible to imagine anything other than evolution taking place.
Mayr obviously does not believe that there are no truths, or more specifically, no truths in science. When Mayr is discussing very briefly the views of a Creantionist, he states that, "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" (Mayr p. 5). Therefore in essence, Creationists tell stories, while scientists tell the truth. Which is directly the opposite of what we are learning in class.

kgins's picture

evolution as storytelling

The idea of evolution in the way of storytelling is interesting... it's interesting to think about how many of us have different beliefs about how we came to be, but yet here we all are, at more or less, the same place. We have scientific data- fossils, and a story, that can keep changing to work, to account for evolution, as opposed to the story of creationism, where a higher being is assumed.  It's interesting to think about why some of us think one way, others another, and some in a way completely different.. it was a very rare chance we came to be as we are- a very improbable assembly, and searching for where we came from- our origins- seems to be the natural thing to do.  It's interesting to think about what we've (possibly) evolved from.. from the tiniest of particles falling together by chance.  It's a tiny chance that we were going to come to be how we are now, and so, in that, I could see where there could be such an awe-inspiring reaction to this improbability, but at the same time, I think a lot in our world- a lot in our universe- happens by chance, because of the constant state of flux and change.. so the most improbable assemblies do occur, because, so many things are happening all the time that don't produce much (at least that we can see), and so the chance of some- of very few- highly improbable assemblies happening, wasn't all that improbable..(with the assumption that, if reactions are constantly taking place, sometimes they will produce something more complicated).. the whole idea of evolution- how we came to be, where we're going, and where we're from- will probably always be changing, but.. the more we're learning, the less wrong we're getting it, the closer we get to understanding ourselves.. and as it seems..we've got a long way to go.

Shannon's picture

Interesting Reads...

Firstly, I put my blog post in the wrong spot last night apparently... it's under "Recent Blog Posts" whoooops! Now it's in the right place.

I found Chapters 1-4 to be very interesting. I'm going to be completely honest: Before I read the material, the thought of reading 80-some pages about evolution made me sick, as I am a Spanish major taking this class for a Div. II requirement & by spark of interest. I'm glad I read now because I learned some new things that 1) I have always wondered about but never cared or remembered to research & 2) just never occurred to me. For example, I never knew that the young Earth initially consisted of methane, molecular hydrogen, ammonia, and water vapor, and finally, oxygen came in increasing quantities with the rise of cyanobacteria. I guess I just foolishly assumed that oxygen "came with the package" so to speak. I also appreciated how in Ch. 3, the author describes the domino effects of the first eukaryotes: they made more complex organisms (plants, animals, etc.) possible, and these multicellular organisms then achieved nucleated cells, sexual reproduction, & meiosis. I was surprised how detailed the reading was -- especially when the author writes about the origins of mitochondria & chloroplasts (very interesting). I did not, however, quite comprehend all of the aspects addressed in regards to evolutionary biology. I understand the fundamentals of population thinking, essentialism and finalism, but the sub-concept of transmutationism is a bit confusing.

kaleigh19's picture

Punning?

Something that captured my interest in Thursday’s lecture was the brief discussion that we had about punning.  Although I do not personally share the linguist’s anxiety towards punning, I enjoy puns for the same reason a linguist fears them, the subversion of the integrity of language.  As I understand it, linguists think of language as a code, an arrangement of words and letters in infinite combinations, each permutation either yielding one definite meaning or no meaning at all.  It’s the same kind of approach that we are taught in elementary school through the scientific method –there is only one goal, the right answer/meaning.  And anything that isn’t the right answer (down to however many significant digits after the decimal point) is wrong.  Punning messes with the system: taking a different connotation of a word, which is always a possibility due to the fluidity of language, yields a different combination, and therefore a different meaning.  For example, if I say, “He ran for the party,” I could mean “he jogged to get to the soiree” or “he put himself forth as a candidate for the political organization.”  Same code, different meanings.  I love this aspect of punning.  It forces me to be more flexible, to be open to multiple meanings/answers at once.  It adds layers and possibilities rather than suggesting that our language is inevitably going to collapse around us like a house of cards.  In the spirit of the class, then, I’d like to put forth a potential analogy.  Language is not unlike DNA, the code for biological proteins.  Proteins are like sentences in which the “words” are single amino acids.  Each amino acid “word” is coded for by a trio of bases, or “letters,” and these “letters” are coded for by DNA.   If the DNA is changed in some way, thereby changing the basses coding for amino acids, then the protein will be changed.  Some times this is a bad thing – many genetic diseases come from mutations in DNA that result in a shortened or non-functional protein, a nonsensical sentence.  But sometimes it’s a good thing – it might enhance the function of the protein, like a more specific or better sentence.  So in this sense, punning is not unlike genetic mutation – it can enhance or compromise the meaning of a sentence just like a mutation can alter a protein’s structure and function.  Perhaps this thought is overly tendentious, but I found it intriguing and would be interested to know what others think about it.
Katie Baratz

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Evolution as an "honorable failure"

When reading Zadie Smith’s article last week, I was struck by her observation that “the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honorable failures.”  I had never considered looking at the works of literature that our society has deemed “significant” in such a way.  But the moment I read that statement, it made sense to me.  It is impossible to faithfully transfer an idea to the page without losing some of that “ineffable” quality that it once had.  In light of this observation, I wonder if evolution should not be thought of in the same way.

For me, evolution is the “least wrong” explanation that can be applied to the origins of life on earth, but there are still issues that cannot be totally reconciled with the evolutionary system.  The most significant of these for me is the inability of evolution to explain the initial impetus for the whole process.  While I personally do not agree with intelligent design or creationism, this is one question that both ideologies can answer.  Which brings me back to the assessment of modern evolutionary theory as an “honorable failure” or the “least wrong” answer.  There is much evidence to support its validity, and yet there are still holes that must be acknowledged.  It is a valiant attempt to make sense of one of the most puzzling questions in the world, and a convincing, plausible story.  It does, however, remain short of a full explanation, something that can conceivably never actually be reached.  For now, evolution is a central part of how humanity understands the world and our place in it, but new scientific developments will continue to adjust its validity and essentially allow everyone to continue to “fail better” as they try to fully understand their own existence.

Elise

rebecca farber's picture

The reading in Mayr caused

The reading in Mayr caused me to explore the constancy of change, and how variations in the Earth stay consistent throughout time. Mayr mentioned seasons, days transforming to nights, the movements of tectonic plates, variations in climates, severities of winters, and even the fluctuations of the economy as certain changes the Earth will undergo without question. Certainly the notion that “the only thing that is constant is change” is not revolutionary, but when applied to the cycle of evolution, I cannot help but become more drawn to my belief that our existence is due to a series of changes that took place over time, as delineated by Darwin and those who followed.

I am no science major. While I have some experience with balancing chemical equations and some knowledge of a cellular unit, I will choose a dictionary over a microscope any day of the week. Linking evolution, then, to literary stories seems to be a way to integrate two very distinct topics and making sense of them both. We examined in class how stories develop from a cultural crack – perhaps, for example, that the meaning of a written work has been swayed by the author’s own personal biases, background, and experience. And in the spirit of relating stories and evolution, we looked at this cultural crack when examining the loopier version of the scientific method: what causes people to observe what they observe. What threw me off is the fact that we are not looking for right answers; instead, the importance lies in being wrong and exploring all of our options. Last week, Professor Grobstein demonstrated that he was getting shocked. If he shifted his position to the left, he was correct in his assessment that he would no longer be shocked. However, millions of other possibilities existed; he would never be one hundred percent correct, but rather, less wrong than he was before.

Emily Korn's picture

A new way of thinking

The discussion we had the second day of class, overflowing into the third, made me really reevaluate how I thought of science and how important it has become in explaining society and the environments surrounding. The discussion we had in class specifically about what can be considered truth in science impacted my interpretation of the beginning chapters in Mayr’s book on evolution. It seemed to me that Mayr touched on a few of the so-called “observations” on how man and his surrounding nature have come to be, but above all he names Darwin’s theory of evolution to be the one truth. Though I have always thought this to be the true story of evolution, and though there are no major flaws with this observation as of yet, it made me ask myself whether or not I had observed any processes of evolution (a question also raised during lecture). Though I am not ready to make any conclusions as of yet, I have opened my mind to a whole other realm of scientific thinking I had not known before.

Elizabeth Ver Hoeve's picture

Darwin's Observations

I found that the first four chapters of “What Evolution Is” by Ernst Mayr tied directly back to the themes that we have been discussing in class. First, with regard to the “seriously loopy science” process, Mayr states, “What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator? He was a superb observer, endowed with an insatiable curiosity. He never took anything for granted but always asked why and how”(11). Darwin’s ability to observe, be curious, and learn from observations allowed him to form new observations. I also appreciated how Mayr examined each of Darwin’s crucial observations in order to explain how he had pieced them together to come up with his theory of Evolution… the common ancestor, gradual descent, fossil records, and much more. The pictures and examples of the homologies between different organisms such as the human, cat, whale, and bat were really interesting. Last semester in Biology 101 we watched the stages of a developing chicken embryo. In that movie clip, and in reference to the diagram on page 28, the comparable similarities between a chicken and human are incredible-especially in stages one and two! I also felt that, in response to some of the other comments, Mayr talked too much about “being correct”. However, at least he followed the process of proving other theories false. Basically, chapters one through four laid the basic framework for what we should know about evolution as a story and as a process and I am looking forward to what deeper ideas the rest of the book will bring.

I.W.'s picture

Telling the Story of Evolution

In reading “What Evolution Is” I am struck by how much the story of the discovery of evolution has been simplified since 1859.  So often the story is told as if Darwin came up with his theory of evolution spontaneously while exploring the Galapagos Islands. Now, I am a steadfast follower of Darwin, and am forever in awe of his brilliance, but I will also easily admit that he did not discover it all on his own.  Reading Mayr and his summary of the scientific discoveries that opened the door for Darwin, including Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s evolutionary theory in 1809, it shocks me how much the story has been simplified to being just Darwin aboard the Beagle discovering evolution. In light of our class discussions about people using the story that best suits their life, why is it that the story of evolution has been cut down to just Darwin?  Is it simply due to the story then being easier to tell, or does it run deeper to a collective desire to think that one man could be his own scientific island?

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

science and story telling

In grade school and high school I have been taught that story telling is, generally, a practice of improvisation and creativity, making things up as one goes along, and that science is a definate practice that is set by evidence and documentation. It wasn't until class with Professor Grobstein that I learned that story telling and science are not only related but work hand in hand. From the prospective I have now it is clear that Darwin's work was full of improvisation and "looking outside the box"of other theories that were popular in his tim. Whether he was aware of it or not, Darwin was using scientific observation to eliminate the deffinately wrong observations in his attempt at "getting it less wrong." 
Like Darwin, authors use a system of "getting it less wrong" as well. They referr to that as revision. Anyone who writes knows that revising and editing is an arduous and tedious necessity, and it is the writer's way of getting rid of the "deffinately wrong observations" that they may have made in their piece. In this sense, a hypothesis or a system of observations is similar to the gathering of ideas for a story, a first draft is similar to the implications made as those ideas and observations are brought together, and the revision process, like I said, is similar to the collecting of new observations and making corrections to the original observations or ideas.

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Less Wrong Vs. Failing Better

I agree with Megan that there is a distinct similarity between the scientific notion of “getting it less wrong” and the literary notion of “failing better”.  In both instances one tries to improve on his or her hypothesis/story of an account.  The major difference lies in what each account represents.  While a literary story most often deals with ones own feelings that he or she has a direct experience of, science deals (unless it involves the human nervous system) with the analysis of something completely outside the analyzers personal experience. 

 

I feel that this distinction dictates the way in which we view the scientific hypothesis or literary story.  It seems that individuals are more likely to accept a stories revision as “failing better”, than accept a new scientific hypothesis as getting it less wrong, and that this distinction is a product of how closely the hypothesis or story is related to our personal experience with subject matter.  When we attempt to describe something we fully experience (personal feelings), it is much easier to label it “wrong” or “incomplete” than something we only experience as a witness (electricity). 

 

On the other hand, it seems that when we are analyzing scientific assertions in which we have absolutely no personal experience with, such as the creation theory, we tend to be the most skeptical.  Ultimately, I feel it is interesting to find ourselves most sure about the things we know very little about, and most skeptical about the things in which we know most about or least about.  I guess it goes to show how context can really skew our opinion, and is something that we all must be aware of if we are to be true scientists.

 

As for the reading, I felt that Mayr was far too focused on getting his assertions correct than less wrong.  In other words, he spoke as if the evidence found to support a theory about evolution in fact made that theory true.  While his hypotheses may be the most logical or even the most probable explanations, they are not necessarily correct.  Biologists, as well as other scientists tend to take the most probable as the ‘correct’ answer, when, in fact, it is only the ‘best’ answer.  A specific scientific example is the law of parsimony when using genetics to analyze phylogeny, which states that the evolutionary tree with the least mutations (most probable situation) is the correct one.  I also feel that his writing style (his view is correct instead of less wrong) is a product of academia’s need to argue ones hypotheses as best as possible, leaving as little room for debate as possible.

Sarah Malaya's picture

Less Wrong Vs. Failing Better

I agree with Megan that there is a distinct similarity between the scientific notion of “getting it less wrong” and the literary notion of “failing better”. In both instances one tries to improve on his or her hypothesis/story of an account. The major difference lies in what each account represents. While a literary story most often deals with ones own feelings that he or she has a direct experience of, science deals (unless it involves the human nervous system) with the analysis of something completely outside the analyzers personal experience.

I feel that this distinction dictates the way in which we view the scientific hypothesis or literary story. It seems that individuals are more likely to accept a stories revision as “failing better”, than accept a new scientific hypothesis as getting it less wrong, and that this distinction is a product of how closely the hypothesis or story is related to our personal experience with subject matter. When we attempt to describe something we fully experience (personal feelings), it is much easier to label it “wrong” or “incomplete” than something we only experience as a witness (electricity).

On the other hand, it seems that when we are analyzing scientific assertions in which we have absolutely no personal experience with, such as the creation theory, we tend to be the most skeptical. Ultimately, I feel it is interesting to find ourselves most sure about the things we know very little about, and most skeptical about the things in which we know most about or least about. I guess it goes to show how context can really skew our opinion, and is something that we all must be aware of if we are to be true scientists.

As for the reading, I felt that Mayr was far too focused on getting his assertions correct than less wrong. In other words, he spoke as if the evidence found to support a theory about evolution in fact made that theory true. While his hypotheses may be the most logical or even the most probable explanations, they are not necessarily correct. Biologists, as well as other scientists tend to take the most probable as the ‘correct’ answer, when, in fact, it is only the ‘best’ answer. A specific scientific example is the law of parsimony when using genetics to analyze phylogeny, which states that the evolutionary tree with the least mutations (most probable situation) is the correct one. I also feel that his writing style (his view is correct instead of less wrong) is a product of academia’s need to argue ones hypotheses as best as possible, leaving as little room for debate as possible.

LS's picture

Stories & Evolution

After reading Mayr’s book the overall theme that I noticed was curiosity, curiosity of the scientists, the researchers and even us, the readers.  We all share something – the curiosity about where we came from and how we came to be what we are today.  This is similar to the curiosity that we explored in class when we read “On Beauty”, even though we did not know what the poem was about we were curious about what it mean and what the author was trying to say.  If we follow what Zadie Smith says in “Failing Better” we are striving to understand the self and the meaning that the writer embedded in their story.  It is in this same way that we explore evolution and all of its evidence; we are striving to understand meaning.

 

The third chapter in Mayer’s book got into the mechanics of evolution and how every organism builds off the organism that came before it.  I was especially interested in the part of the chapter on the prokaryotes and eukaryotes.  The prokaryotes replicate through lateral transfer, which is why it is hard to classify them and diagram their evolution (44).  These organisms basically take hunks of genetic information from other types of prokaryotes and transfer this new information in to their genetic code.  When I read this is reminded me of stories and their beginnings and development and the “mutations” of genres.  There are many different types of stores and many different classifications that we have labeled “genres.”  Although you may find a story that is purely one genre, it is much more likely that a story that you read with be the combination of several genres, and much like the prokaryotes it will be hard to try and classify this story or it beginnings.  Also, the prokaryotes acted as a stepping stone for the Eukaryotes.  The prokaryotes allowed for more developed and further evolved organisms to exist.  This is also much the same in stories.  Stories build off other stories and the very earliest stories paved the way for more developed stories to exist.

cevans's picture

In response to the question

In response to the question about how the scientific idea of “getting it less wrong” is similar to the literary activity of “failing better”, both ideas deal with the idea that there is no expressible “truth”. In science nothing can every be truth because you cannot observe everything or know everything that there is about a subject. Mayr points out in his book that it is impossible to know everything about some things in science because the moment has passed and can never come again. In literature the “truth” I mentioned is something closer to literary perfection or the Platonic ideal that can never be reached by an author. The idea of perfection can be visualized but can never be realized on the page. In the same way scientists can hypothesize about what is correct but can never actually know for certain whether they have the right answer.

azambetti's picture

Fossil Record

“Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution” (39 Mayr).  Although I believe that evolution is accountable for how life has evolved from a unicellular, simple organism to billions of multicellular creatures that have themselves further evolved (or fallen short in progressing and have become extinct), not everything concerning evolution makes sense.  This is especially true since there are countless holes in the fossil record that scientists are unable to account for.  Scientists are constantly trying to connect various species over these gaps in the fossil record to figure out how the species have evolved over hundreds of millions of years using assumptions/ pure guesses.  Therefore, the concept of evolution creates more nonsense in the study of biology.

Andrea Zambetti

fortunesfool's picture

Accessing the truth

On Thursday when we were discussing the poem “On Beauty” in class, we briefly talked about how some kind of fear or insecurity kept many of us away from posing interpretations of the poem. It was an insecurity rooted in not feeling equipped with the proper skills for interpretation, which prevented us from getting to the “true” meaning of the poem. Immediately I thought about the nature of truth, and if it could even be applied to poetry, or if like in science it is not a process of learning the truth but of getting progressively less wrong. As reader-response theory would have it, the “truth” of a poem doesn't even exist until some individual reads it.

I think its interesting that we still feel that there has to be some kind of truth to literature, and that the way to get at that truth is by endlessly analyzing and picking apart passages, and that the people best equipped do do this are literary critics, or English professors or what have you. This feeling is so strong that those without a background in literary analysis feel anxious about suggesting possible interpretations. In this sense, a sort of scala naturae of the literate world is created; a hierarchy of more perfect and complex organisms, with only those at the top being totally equipped to appreciate literature. I can't help but feeling, however, that close analysis and interpretation is but one way to experience a poem. It is any less real or “true” to read a poem and appreciate its beauty? To allow it to simply make you feel?

Should children not read poetry because they can't get to the “truth” of it?

Julia Smith's picture

Stories vs. Science

If we assume that scientific theories are always "getting it less wrong", then there is a definite relationship between what we normally refer to as 'stories' and what scientists refer to as 'theories'. The writer, as Zadie Smith says in "Failing Better", is constantly trying to "tell the truth of experience perfectly", that is, they are constantly revising trying to reach some form of their own truth. Similarly, scientists are also trying to do the same thing, only with "fact". Scientists, as Mayr describes, have been searching for the answer to evolution, and the idea is still being constantly changed. After all, it wasn't until the 1940s that scientists generally accepted "a far-reaching consensus" of evolution (72). Therefore, perhaps fiction too is "getting is less wrong", at least in the eyes of an author. Zadie Smith argues that writers never create the work that they yearn for, they only get as close as possible to their ideal. Writing itself is getting it less wrong.

LF's picture

In class on Thursday we

In class on Thursday we examined the poem “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith. The sentences and the structure of the poem were so confusing that no one was able to come up with any form of conclusion. However we read the poem and appreciated its complexity, trying to find a “truth’. The same dedication has been seen over many years, in the work of scientists to find a conclusion or “truth” in the theory of evolution. The more one analyzes a story/poem, the more one finds elements they did not see the first time they read it. A similar theory applies to the observation of evolution, at a glance it seems simple but the more you analyze, the more you find, however there is no universal truth.

Anne Dalke's picture

I want to add my warm

I want to add my warm welcome to Paul's...and to ask you, as you arrive in this forum space, to think aloud a bit about the ways in which his description of science getting it less wrong resembles/differs from what Zadie Smith, in The Guardian article, calls the literary activity of failing better.