Evolit: Week 3--Darwin's story and story telling

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. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, 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 or 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. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you thought about this week. But if you need something to get you started, how are you currently thinking about Darwin as an empiricist?  as a story teller?  Was Darwin a foundationalist or a non-foundationalist?  Is Origin of Species fiction or non-fiction?  What new problems did it create (eg do people matter after they give birth?  can uniformitarianism account for all aspects of biological evolution)? 


lewilliams's picture

Darwin: Between Poetry and Science

I think the line that we are trying to draw with Darwin between fiction and nonfiction would be best viewed the way we would view a poet. Poetry is a medium that is rarely labled one or the other. It would be very difficult to do such a thing. Poetry is never fiction: there's always an underling truth. The poet writes from observation as does a scientist. No matter how this observation is conveyed, whether through verse or scientific narrative, this truth is still a truth in identifying what has been observed.

I was reading an article in New York Magazine about the way people are shopping due to the economy. The article described the situation in New York as Darwinian. The way people are shopping at some stores and not at others so that some thrive and some die out seems to reflect a natual selection of consumerism. I thought this was another very interesting way of looking at Darwin's model.

Anne Dalke's picture


Yes to the poetry; see Marianne Moore on the analogy.

But I think mebbe "no" to Darwinian consumerism? Mightn't that be a misapplication of Darwin's theory/misuse of the word "Darwinism"? When "really" what is being talked about here is "Spenserism"?

lewilliams's picture


I think I might have misspoken in a number of ways, one of which was probably in the word "consumerism", since I actually meant Consumer behavior.

Also, after our most recent class discussion, I'll have to agree that the article was using the term Darwinian loosely-- as many often do.

Hilary McGowan's picture

Religion and Darwin

It seems as if Darwin has almost become a mythological type figure in society today. His work being seen as absolute truth for some (with an almost religious fervor) and complete bullox to others. It's odd that something that was written as an observation of a trend can be taken as the true hypothesis and seen as factual although there have been many amendments on his original ideas. I read Origin of Species in high school, and re-read it again for class. I thought, even then, that he sounded more like a scientist merely stating his observations- not trying to tell people what exactly they have to believe his ideas as the perfect truth. Darwin preludes many of his observations with disclosures saying that he may not be completely correct in his assumptions, but he's trying. How could people turn that into Darwinism?

The cultural significance of Darwin in our day and age makes it seem like he wrote non-fiction, but all in all, he wrote fiction with non-fiction tendencies because it was an observation of the ecology that he studying. I've read his other books on Plants and Animals, and found that they were much like Origin of the Species. He is making his conclusions on the history of life, but haven't people been doing that for centuries? Yet those stories are still seen as being fictional- even though they are the observations of some about the beginning of life.

Seeing cars driving by with the fish and "Darwin" firmly written in the middle always interests me (well, bumper stickers in general do.) It is the sign that they see evolution as not only written by one man, but that a theory of science is the same as a theory of religion. 

Where does religion start and science stop? 

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 3 Response

I have been thinking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction ever since we discussed it in our group. Traditional thinking would be that fiction is made up and non-fiction is true. However, it seems to me that no "non-fiction" book can be completely true. If one observes something and then writes about it, how can it not change. Doesn't the author's memory of it/ thinking about it/ converting it to words always change something, no matter how slight? Doesn't the author usually (always?) put some of their own ideas and interpretations into the writing?

I do think non-fiction as a category exists, what I'm not sure of is what it means. Maybe non-fiction refers not to the truthfulness of the information set forth, but the author's intent.  Does the author intend to write what they saw and experienced or does the author intend to write something out of their imagination? Maybe the difference between fiction and non-fiction is not in the product, but in the writer.

Now I'm starting to confuse myself.  Memory is unreliable. I know that my sister and I remember events drastically differently all the time.  So what if I write a story about something that never happened? Can it be considered non-fiction because I am writing from a memory I have? I'm going to stop this rambling now, before I confuse myself more, and relate it to Darwin.  According to my new thoughts about fiction and non-fiction I would conclude (tentatively) that Origin of Species is non-fiction. Although these are certainly not completely formed thoughts on the subject.  

amoskowi's picture

So far as I can tell (and

So far as I can tell (and correct me, please, if you find evidence to contrary,) Darwin seems to be non-foundationalist (as in he doesn't believe there was any predestination for the creation of humans or any other species) in a negative, not a positive sense. What I mean is, he has no proof or emirical evidence to refute any notion of some sort of foundation or ultimate direction that natural selection should lead to, but since there are also no facts that he's included to support a foundationalist stance, he's not about to claim something that has no basis in his evidence. So, revising that title, I would say he's "not a foundationalist," but he's not a non-foundationalist even though interpretations of his texts may lead to this theory. Basically, what I'm trying to say is, natural selection (from my reading) only negates a foundationalist mentality if you assume that anything not supported by fact isn't true. Note that there's a difference between something not supported by fact and something that is dis-proven through fact-- the notion that the world is flat, for instance, is disproven by fact. The most basic notion behind intelligent design, however, that there is some divine agent giving direction to the development of people, is not disproven by the facts and conclusion of natural selection...just not included. It's not a theory based in fact, it is not a result of an empirical study/story. It's a different type of story with a different type of development that only clashes with natural selection when one or both sides insist that their type of story is superior.  
Sophiaolender's picture

Since I came a bit late to

Since I came a bit late to the class, I have tried to read as much Darwin as possible in the past few days. I guess I will just respond to a couple things I read in the first half of the book.

I would say the most interesting idea I came across was the idea that a lot of survival of the fittest is the unconscious aid of humans to each species. The species that have grown and flourished through history have been the species that have been noticed and loved by man. Why does man's interest in a species determine their survival? In many ways, we are the most powerful of all creatures, but in many ways, we are not. Darwin shows how animals that are loved are then better documented and more noticed by humans, and so we try to breed the species to make them better than they are, which results in a much larger number of varieties. It is interesting that dogs are one of these animals that have such a large amount of different types, since as far as I know, dogs don't have a true useful purpose for humans besides being our companions. I think it really says something about the history of humans that dogs have always been so important to us. One other really interesting idea that I read was when Darwin mentioned on p.118 a slight comment about man's interest in the external over the internal. Darwin shows how breeding was generally manipulated in order to improve the looks of an animal, or something we can see, rather than something inside, that we can't see. Darwin says, "indeed he rarely cares for what is internal." It is fascinating that this search for external beauty over an internal beauty is not a new phenomenon, and it affected beings other than humans. Apparently, many animals that men have learned to love have evolved over the years into more visibly pleasing creatures. And this dates back to the 19th century.

mfradera's picture

survival of the most cooperative

What has stayed with me since class on Thursday is our closing discussion on the assumption of competition in Darwin's theory of speciation. I think this has something to do with a misinterpretation of what “survival of the fittest” means. I have taken it to mean the elimination of competition, however, I have been thinking of this in too narrow of a way. Eliminating competition doesn't necessarily mean defeating a competitor. It can mean (and in the case of natural selection does mean) the elimination of competition through the avoidance of it.

In doing some homework for another class (shocking, I know) I've just started reading The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod. Chapter 5 “The Evolution of Cooperation in Biological Systems” talks specifically about this. Building relationships of reciprocity (i.e. cooperation) between species are actually more likely to guarantee successful reproduction. Rather than an adaptation, cooperation or symbiotic relationships can be seen as an evolutionary result, creating a “evolutionary stability;” that is to say that a population using a strategy of cooperation can't then be infiltrated by another population using a different strategy (a mutant within the population perhaps). This means once a population reaches this level of cooperation, it has become a separate species. It's based off of a theoretical game known as Prisoner's Dilemma. I'm still wrapping my head around it, so I'm not doing the best job explaining it.

Here's a GREAT lecture on the topic (beware; it's an hour long): http://academicearth.org/lectures/evolutionary-stability

fquadri's picture

Ancestors and Luck

It's interesting to think that all animals arose from one common ancestor, that we are all interconnected that way. Another thing that is interesting is that in the sense of struggling to survive, all organisms are equal. Humans are no more important than earthworms because both of us have fought to adapt, reproduce, and keep going and both of us have succeeded so far. In fact, if we want to consider who has been in fighting this battle the longest and give them more credit, we should take into account crocodiles, sharks, and especially cockroaches and other insects (they've been here for a pretty long time). It's amazing that they have survived and adapted through so much.

However what struck me was that everything that has happened in evolutionary history, has been the product of mere chance. The environment just happened to change in a way where humans were able to thrive and something else became extinct. Later on, it is very likely that the environment may change again where humans may die and another species can dominate. It's a little scary to think about that and I can understand where it may be uneasy for people who believe in concepts like destiny and life having a "plan". It doesn't bother me, but I don't know what to make out if it either.
sustainablephilosopher's picture

human society evolution

I'm very impressed by the idea of Darwin as a wide-ranging empiricist who built his theory based on pyramids of observations from all around. It takes real, copious effort to not only spend a lifetime collecting and thinking about your own vast store of observations, but also to go through the catalogues of contemporaries and the annals of history to incorporate everything into some kind of overarching inductive theory. I'm wondering what kind of formidable summaries of observations it would take to unseat his theory... it seems that so far, his theory has only been refined by breakthroughs in genetics and understanding of DNA, and by punctuated equilibrium which upsets or at least contests his insistence that evolution will necessarily happen very slowly and gradually over time. The classification system of cladistics seems to put to rest disputes about how to catalogue different species based on a common ancestor. In this system, groups are demarcated by evolutionary novelties such as the amniotic egg. Given this type of distinction, it's easier to see where and how groups divide, as well as how vastly different organisms with regard to appearance/ morphology have certain commonalities.

I've been starting to think about how evolution could be applied to human societies. If small separated clusters of organisms can diverge to form different species, this could be analogous to subcultures/ countercultures splitting off from the mainstream and in a sense "evolving" into a different type of human being, if not genetically than at least culturally/ intellectually different. Paul or someone else in class Thursday suggested that perhaps Abe Lincoln prevented the speciation of the United States... he made us all "American" rather than the diversity of what might have developed under the confederation of separate states. Perhaps there are various ideologies that prevent evolution, such as various fundamentalisms, which be definition resist change. Also, groups like the Amish seem to be isolated both genetically and culturally from the rest of the human race. As Paul noted in class, a globalized, worldwide way of life such as modern capitalist society prevents variation, the kind which existed when different societies existed separately albeit contemporaneously on different continents. 
unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

week 3 post

So in regards to the photosynthetic sea slug, here are a couple of links:

A news story: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16124-solarpowered-sea-slug-harnesses-stolen-plant-genes-.html

And the original scientific paper:

Evolution in action!

One of the things that struck me most about the section of Darwin's work that we read for this week was his discussion of the possible development of the eye (pgs 211-213 in the bookstore copy). I was so interested in it because 150 years after this book was published, this topic in particular remains so relevant today. Just a year or two ago I read an article debating the merits of a sort of creationist selection and the merits of natural selection, written half by a scientist supporting one theory and half by a scientist supporting the other. The scientist who supported the first theory believed that biological selection is controlled by God in a sort of "vast plan" and he used the eye as an example. The eye, he claimed, is something so intricate and complex that only a mind could have created it. Darwin battling with exactly this example 150 years ago reminded me of just how fresh and controversial his theory remains.

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

I believe Darwin is most

I believe Darwin is most definitely an empiricist. The ideas he writes about all come from his own experiences and knowledge at the time, the experiments he conducted, and what he observed. As a storyteller, however, I do not believe he is as agreeable. I think his overall story is good, but the way in which he tells his story is confusing at times, especially because he explains everything in great detail. Therefore, I sometimes cannot figure out or I forget the point he is trying to make. Professor Grobstein did say in class the reason for his dry writing is because he is an empiricist.

I do not think one can actually say that Darwin’s book is fiction or non-fiction. He was writing a story about what he believed in, but he did not have any tangible proof about whether what he was saying was actually true. Although the examples he provided are real, the idea he conveyed is not necessarily a fact, or at least not yet. I feel that people who like or do believe in Darwin’s story would call this book non-fiction and those who think otherwise may say it is fiction. I think the same concept holds true for the bible to smaller extent.

I also want to point out the branching diagram that was presented in class on Tuesday. I thought it was interesting how there were two branches within the squares (a green one and a blue one). We did not get into it in class very much, but I thought it was interesting because the idea thatmost people have about evolution today is that everything came from a single organism and evolved into everything that exists today. I thought then that the branching diagram should have only had one branch and not two. If so, would those two branches have met up further down the page? It amazes me that the possibility of having two or a few organisms to evolve from did not occur to me. It shows how much I am influenced by what I learn in school. 

ccrichar's picture

Suspension of Disbelief

I think that the "suspension of disbelief" is important to understanding Darwin's Origin of Species. I have had to suspend my disbelief in order to try to understand Darwin's  "Origin of Species".  I believe that in order to understand his science you must first evolve into science and accept the guidelines that are incurred within the dynamics of this field of study. I do not have these guidelines other than the basic principles of science.  Darwin mastered all the principles and used them effectively.  I do not know how to comment on his progression in science with species.  However, I think he made great strides that I cannot comprehend.
lparrish's picture

Last week, we spoke about

Last week, we spoke about the kinds of stories that "we" idealize. Another question asked was "why didn't anybody tell me" that scietists are unsure and full of conjecture. Could it be that the scientists' views of self, purpose, and intent has "evolved" from that of an extreme view of objectivity to a more subjective idea of these purpses? The idealized story of science and the scientist is one of fact and certainty. Though this is not true, it is what we idealize as a society. It is a forced binary which can be meant to simplify things into categories which don't actually exist. Is it truth or conjecture, science or humanity, biology or english, man or woman, male or female, black or white? Where is the love for what falls in between? It might be that it is just easier (or thought to be easier) to make everything fall into a blanket category. Though a deep understanding of this has been harbored by individuals on their own, as Darwin (and some before him) harbored his own views of the origin of species, putting such truths and understandings into the hands of the general public is a somewhat daunting and possibly impossible task.

eawhite's picture

Feb 8 Post

Thursday’s class discussion about our upcoming papers led me straight to my bookshelves and to a book read many years ago called The Journey of Man – A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells. In it he refers many times to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Wells writes (paraphrased) that Darwin with just a few strokes of his pen and some twenty years of dabbling with pigeons and barnacles has demoted humanity from divine creations to a product of biological tinkering. Tinkering and story-telling…one in the same?

When I commented that I wanted to look at how the Bible (another story) influenced what Darwin thought and how his thoughts were a continuation of other stories – I had no idea that in his early days his choices were either to run away on a discovery voyage aboard the Beagle or “…[the] inevitability of a staid country parsonage – the logical career choice for a Cambridge graduate of that era” (Wells, pg.4). This information puts an interesting twist in my paper research.

enewbern's picture

Week 3

Thinking back to the conversation we had in class on Thursday, I could never quite get the idea of Darwin's approach to convincing people of the validity of his story out of my head. I think it is interesting that he choose to portray himself as a trustworthy figure who is modest in his findings. I wonder how true to his own character he was actually staying? By that I mean was he really as unsure of all of his findings being so disputable and subject to interpreation as he seemed to indicate in his writing? I think it would be interesting to think about that.

 I was intriuged by Pr. Grobstein's story that humans are defined by their ancestry. It isn't something that had occured to me before though it does make since when considering that there really is no one universal characteristic that seems to ba able to create a better definition, except possibly the existencialist claim that Pr. Dalke described in class on Thursday. I am not sure that I can say that I buy one claim or the other because I beleive they both have a valid argument. I kind of like the idea that people are defined by the past, but I feel that it isn't quite a complete definition of what humans are since it really seems to indicate what we have been.

Marina's picture

Week Three.

I found our discussion on Thursday clarified my thoughts on Darwin and the suspension of disbelief. I feel like the believing/doubting cycle that Professor Dalke introduced in small discussion really organized my thoughts on the subject and simplified a rather complex theory. 

On Darwin's work as foundational or emergent, it is pretty clear to me that Darwin's ideas were more emergent than foundational. His (and others) observations were substantial and numerous enough to eventually lead him to a theory rather than the theory leading him to certain observations. 

In terms of fiction and non-fiction writers, I think that a non-fiction writer would typically be thought of as a foundationalist because they are building upon certain givens and truths that occurred in real life and these truths build upon one another to create a story whereas, fiction writers are more emergent. That is, stories emerge as they create characters and fantasy worlds in their writing. However, some fiction writers could be considered foundationalists because some may be writing about a fictional world that has its own truths and givens and build a story based on that fictional world.

rmehta's picture

Some thoughts

Extending from my previous question of how we classify the ideal, this week I began wondering how we classify the memorable. We discussed in our group meeting on Thursday about the verses in the comparative debate between Darwin and Lincoln.  Amongst all the responses to the question of which figure was the most memorable, there was one that induced the question of whether there is a time frame requirement when classifying something as “memorable”?  Is the most memorable idea the one that has had the longest influence? I guess on the surface this question appears to seem fairly simple and not all that significant, but looking deeper, I think it deserves some thought. The other thought that I was contemplating was this idea of the necessity of competition in Darwin’s evolutionary argument. I do think that he needed a notion of limited resources in his argument.  Variation cannot exist without competition. There is a consistent movement forward in organisms to try and acquire the optimal formation.  In this movement forward, those that able to survive in a specific environment longer and with less energy outweigh the weak. Those that are able to reproduce more progeny outlive the weaker.  Evolution is a process of continual, optimal change. This definition would not be viable unless competition was understood.

skhemka's picture


     There are so many things about Darwin and his story-telling that can be put up for discussion. One of the things that made me decide that On the Origin Of Species wasn't just another story is the "underlying sense of caution" which makes a reader think that there is more to the book than just the "story-telling".Darwin takes the utmost care in writing this book and making sure that it isn't offensive to anyone. He makes sure that no scientist or botanist or any such expert feels offended. He keeps saying that he takes into consideration the accounts of all the esteemed and highly valued experts. And here is the irony because even though he tries his best not to offend a few people , by writing this book he alienates a whole group of people and goes against their "system of belief"! So Darwin being cautious was not of much use because his writing is still under a lot of controversy.

     I think the success of what Darwin was explaining through his book depended a lot and still does on personal views. Does an individual want to hear that he/she is only a "successful variation" and has come to be so due to natural selection? Or would that individual prefer to be the descendant of some magical creation of a supreme being called God? The choice to believe in either in upon an individual and the views that he/she finds comforting. A person cannot believe in both the views. In order to believe in one view he/she has to give up belief in the other view and this is a very difficult task for most people since both are stories and one of them helps reinforce belief in something greater than oneself and the other one removes that same belief.



kbrandall's picture

Foundation of Fiction and Nonfiction Stories

As far as the foundationalist/ nonfoundationalist, fiction/ nonfiction opposites that we began discussing in Pr. Dalke's section on Thursday, I think there is sometimes but not always a correlation. A nonfiction story can clearly be either foundationalist or nonfoundationalist-- it can begin with a certain viewpoint and explicate it, or begin with a set of observation and construct a conclusion from them. I think that by definition, useful scientific theories are nonfoundationalist, because they begin with observations and the conclusion follows. In cultural anthropology right now, we're reading a lot about early anthropologists who were foundationalists, and who collected data to support their set ideas rather than the other way around-- mainly in the construction of racist theories. This kind of pseudoscience has been (largely) discredited. So all scientific stories are by nature emergent in the way they develop. Other types of nonfiction (history, biography, etc) I think could be either foundational or emergent, I'm not sure.

Fictional stories I think could be either foundational or emergent-- dependent on the ideas of the author, and constructed to promote those ideas, or written to explore certain themes without leaving a clear message. In a story that includes the perspectives of various characters, for instance, a more complicated picture emerges than could be told through one.

I'm not sure if I'm using the terms foundational and nonfoundational exactly as we did in class, but these ideas seem related. I'm writing more about whether the process of storytelling begins with a set foundation, than whether the story itself explains a phenomenon in terms of a foundation and destination.

eolecki's picture

Week Three

Through are discussion last week, one of the ideas that seemed to create the most opposition was the idea of defining organisms based on their ancestors and not any singular or set of characteristics.  This concept makes sense to me.  Organisms have certain characteristics because they share genes with whatever organisms are related to them.  Defining a species in terms of their ancestor cuts out the middleman.  By saying elephants are elephants because they came from elephants makes more sense than saying an elephant is an elephant because it is a mammal (based on certain characteristics), it has a trunk, etc.  If an organism came from an organism that possessed those traits then both will have those traits.  So defining a species as coming from a common ancestor really just simplifies things.

            In regards to Darwin being a foundationalist or a non-foundationalist, in the general sense it is clear he is not a foundationalist.  His idea of evolution is moving in an unpredictable pattern towards no specific goal.  Natural selection helps increase representation of favorable traits with no motive and no morals, simply survival and reproduction.  However, I believe the idea itself can almost be treated as a foundationalist one.  Darwin talks about natural selection as an unstoppable, continuously present force.  In other words, natural selection is eternal and will be acting on populations as long as they exist.  The only major difference is there is no fixed goal, like loopy science, populations are continuously being put back through the cycle, constantly being changed, and no perfect answer or organism exists.     

Jackie Marano's picture

Natural Selection is...creepy?

     In Prof. Grobstein's Thursday section, we briefly thought about what Darwin's theories would have to about phenomena such as women living long after their childbearing years. I have been thinking about this concept more generally, and I had one semi-spooky thought: is Natural Selection analagous to what scientists refer to as 'potential energy'? That is, can we reasonably believe that Natural Selection is some sort of looming power (not in the sense of a divine being) that reveals its 'desires' for the future evolution depending on what humans 'activate'?

     I think that the answer is YES, and I do not intend to personify Natural Selection, but I do find it very curious that Alzheimers, osteoporosis, and diseases that mostly affect the elderly didn't appear when the human life expectancy was maybe 30-40yrs of age. Such predicaments seem to have come into existence ONLY once humans better adapted and began to live longer. Perhaps this was/is a way to keep population dynamics in check?  The creepy part about this, though, is that with all of our modern technologies today, if we somehow figure out how to raise the life expectancy (among many possible ways we could change our lives) to 120yrs old...what kinds of things would Natural Selection (if applicable) have in store for us?

aybala50's picture


Talking about the first paper due in this class really got me thinking about "human superiority". In my paper I think I will explore whether humans in fact are superior to other being at all. I'm really curious about why humans are thought of as superior to for example insects? Is it because those who think of humans as superior are humans? Also I want to explore the possibility of evolution going backwards? Can humans, for example, go back to a more primitive form because of the environment they are put in (such as in the Donner Party)? 

 I just really enjoyed thursdays class because all of what I believed to be confusions about Darwin, started turning into questions I want to explore. I'm looking forward to writing this paper and hearing everyone's responses.  

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Black and White

One of the discussion topics I found most interesting this past week was in reference to education, especially elementry school. Someone, I apologise for not remembering who, mentioned that a possible explanation for why the stories we're learning now are new, and why "no one told us before" was that elementry education has to be black and white, truth and fiction, for a basis of understanding to be built up by children.

I recenty asked my little sister, who is in fifth grade, what she thought about this. Admitedly, she's probably not the average student as she woud read 24/7 if given the chance and reads anything written she can get her hands on, from novels to non-fiction--perhaps giving her a wider range of stories to work from, but, nonetheless, she is constsntly frustrated by the single story fed to her by teachers. For example, her class is currently learning about the begining of the American Revolution and Rebecca told me she would really like to hear the British point of view. (Honestly, growing up next door to Lexington and Concord, it probably wouldn't happen anyway, even if other stories WERE offered.)

I think that students of all ages should be given more credit and given access to different stories. I also think that location, as per my example of living near the start of the American Revlution, background, etc. all influence which and perhaps even how many stories are told. It would be interesting to see what others' opinions on the matter are.

dshanin's picture

God and Darwin

Dr. Grobstein posed this question at the conclusion of Tuesday’s lecture “was Darwin an optimist or a pessimist?”  Unfortunately we did not discuss it on Thursday but it was an interesting question and I have a few thoughts.  The first issue that must be addressed is to define what optimism and pessimism mean.  This is where it gets interesting: in the traditional, religious, sense optimism is the idea that there are greater rewards to come.  It is an open ended view of life where there is always room for great, perhaps illogical, improvement from the present condition.  On the same basis pessimism would then be the belief that everything will remain the same, no outside force will intervene, and there will be no great improvement, catharsis or final judgment to lift the worthy. 

When Darwin is viewed through this religious lens then he is certainly a pessimist.  I strongly doubt Darwin would have considered himself one however.  Darwin's theory had no place for God's final punishment or reward, Darwin placed the responsibility for having a good, fulfilling life solely on the person living it.  Everybody is equal in birth and equal in death, what occurs between them defines the person.   The idea of a great equalization after death is diametrically opposed to Darwin's theory.  Some may view this interpretation as supporting atheism but I argue that it is humanist.  Darwin's theory does not invalidate the idea of God; it is possible to believe in both God and Darwin.  What Darwin rejects is the idea that a poor life will be repaid afterwards.  He does not reject the idea of an afterlife as a whole but rather values each life based on what is achieved during it.

In this sense Darwin is an optimist.  He views each person as being able to determine their own happiness and destiny.  He rejects the notion that a person (or a group of people) should be satisfied with hardship and prejudice because there is some greater prize waiting.  Darwin places the burden of a rich life on the person actually living it.  Thus the answer to prejudice is not to simply hope for change, but to seek it with all of our energy and intellect.  The lives are ours, and we must take full responsibility for them.         

jaferr's picture

Week 3 Response

One of the things that most interested me in this week's discussions took place in our small-group discussion when Professor Dalke's group talked about the concept of existentialism.  Although we did not discuss it in detail, the juxtaposition between a foundationalist point of view and an existentialist point of view got me thinking about why some people are so opposed to the current story of evolution.

A foundationalist's view of life is essentially the opposite of that of an existentialist.  That is, a foundationalist believes that any evolution that occurs in the species is bringing that species closer to a fixed or pre-set ideal that gives purpose to the existence of that species.  An existentialist believes that a human's "existence precedes essence," or that there is no set or fixed purpose for the existence of human life, but that through the fact of existence we are able to give ourselves an "essence" or a purpose.  The currently "accepted" story of evolution (i.e. the one we are most often taught in school) is that changes in the species occur as results of random, but strong, environmental stimuli.  This is directly opposed to the idea that human life and evolution exist for the purpose of achieving some greater purpose or reaching some sort of ideal end.

Obviously, the idea that humans only evolved from monkeys as a means of making existence easier (walking upright being a prime example) is scary to many people.  The idea that we as human beings do not have a set purpose and must create one for ourselves probably induces in some people a panic about 100 times as strong as the panic one feels upon having to choose one's major and presumably one's career life-long career path.  However, now that I can see the story of evolution as a story that I can choose to like or dislike rather than absolute fact, I think I prefer the existentialist story.  The idea that we as humans do not exist for any specific reason is empowering to me, because it means that we each have the opportunity to choose and fulfill a purpose for ourselves as individuals.

Arielle's picture

Devil's Advocate?

On a ridiculously long car ride through southern Maryland, my friend and I stopped into a pretty greasy restaurant and had a conversation about evolution oin schools.

I mentioned to him that I had been surprised by the number of people who had testified to the fact that they had not been taught evolution in high school, and he made some very deragatory comments about how theology should not be taught in a science class. Now, I myself tend to choose the "scientific" theory of evolution over that of divine intervention when it comes to creation, but I was slightly alarmed by the way he so readily dismissed the alternative theory of creationism. I told him that there were some ways in which neither theory could be conclusively proved or disproved, and he said that of course, evolution had already been proved. I asked him to justify that, and he, as any good vaguely arrogant post-collegiate would, referenced Darwin.
The trouble came when I asked him to disprove creationism. His response was "well, they ca't both be true."
That wasn't really a sufficient proof for me.

eglaser's picture

Big Fish

As a second, real post, I was watching the movie "Big Fish" yesterday with my room mate and I was struck by one of the lines of dialogue from the film. The movie tells the story of a man who always tells stories about his life and his son reconciling with him as he is dying. At one point the son gets frustrated and demands facts from his father who replies, "I've told you a thousand facts, Will, that's what I do. I tell stories."

As I heard this line it struck me that, that was the big distinction between literature and science. Science is liek the stories told by the son, fantastic but full of details and facts because that is what he thinks is important. Science must verify the story, quantify it and prove that that story is 100% true. Literature is like the father, it tells stories because it thinks it is more interesting that way. Literature wants to gives truths in its storytelling but it weaves it in in a way that can never be repeated or quantified.

Towards the end of the film the son talks to the doctor who delivered him as a baby. And this exchange takes place which, for me, exemplifies why stories in general are important and literature is often more loved than science.

Dr. Bennett: Did your father ever tell you about the day you were born?
Will Bloom: A thousand times. He caught an uncatchable fish.

Dr. Bennett: Not that one. The real story. Did he ever tell you that?
Will Bloom: No.
Dr. Bennett: Your mother came in about three in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her, on account of your father was on business in Wichita. You were born a week early, but there were no complications. It was a perfect delivery. Now, your father was sorry to miss it, but it wasn't the custom for the men to be in the room for deliveries then, so I can't see as it would have been much different had he been there. And that's the real story of how you were born. Not very exciting, is it? And I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one involving a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancy version. But that's just me.

eglaser's picture

I saw this article on

I saw this article on Wallace and thought it could aid in our view of Darwin and the theory of evolution in general.



Tara Raju's picture

Week Three

My understanding of a foundationalist is that it is an individual that believes in something (idea, concept, etc) if the something is epistmically justified by basic beliefs.  To that end, a foundationalist may be more inclined to write non-fiction as in the case of Darwin’s text. Darwin made observations and then developed a story based on those fixed beliefs. But, at the same time, Darwin as an individual and the story that he developed, could be viewed as entirely non-foundational in that his basic beliefs are comprised of a foundation that is not consistent with the basic ground or foundation of inquiry. Maybe the reason that Darwin’s story is such a good one, as we discussed in earlier lectures, is because there is no right answer. For every criticism there is a counter-argument to a point, as discussed in our small group on Thursday, that the argument is a never-ending circle.

The never-ending circle that is comprised of believing and doubting epitomizes most concepts, theories and “laws” that we observe and practice today- evolution, morality, value, duty, virtue, free will, consent, etc. With all of these concepts, there is a never-ending circle ideology that is consistent with Darwin. We will never know if Darwin was truly a pluralist or a non-pluralist, if he was a true foundationalist or non-foundationalist- with increased discussion about the matter, the faster we spin around this never-ending circle. 



Lisa B.'s picture

Darwin: The Empiricist

Darwin continues to be a well-respected evolutionary biologist because of his empirical approach to science. As a developing young scientist, Darwin was able to collect a diversity of specimens and make observations of natural history, which became important background development for his views on natural selection. Darwin's The Origin of Species synthesized evidence that life on Earth had changed over time and many species had become extinct since life emerged on Earth. Also, Darwin read widely, and was influenced by a publication of an economist, Thomas Malthus, who argued in "Essay on the Principle of Population" that unchecked human population growth would lead to food shortage. Although Malthus was commenting on late eighteenth century England, Darwin recognized that animal and plant populations could also be affected by food shortages, which could drive adaptations in population or species. 
ctuckerman's picture

Observations from On The Origin of Species

From On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin: "To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should be due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual."  This suggests that Darwin did believe that a Creator, or divine being, created the underpinnings upon which his theory of natural selection rested.


I also noticed an apparent inconsistency: "And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporate and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection." I wondered if Darwin took this position because he lived in an era when species loss may have been less apparent. Reading on however, on page 221, I found: " Natural selection will not produce absolute perfection, nor do we always meet, as far as we can judge, with this high standard under nature."    


jrlewis's picture

In response to the

In response to the inconsistancy you spotted, I think Darwin is saying that natural selection achieves increasingly closer approximations to perfection, but never actually reaches it.  Kind of like asymptotes and limits in calculus.  To extend the comparison a little further, asymptotes continue into infinity.  So does the process of natural selection?  There is always change occuring?
mcurrie's picture


For starters I feel like Lincoln has been taking over the spotlight.  Comparing him with Obama and Darwin has now kind of made me sick of hearing about Lincoln.  Throughout our two discussions I really haven't had any amazing thoughts.  I definitely had fun figuring out if mammals or dinosaurs were better then one another and match.com trying to make the world pretty.  Now I'm just trying to understand Darwin and the Origin of the Species in my own words.  As I was reading I have focused on his tone and the different stories he uses about plants and animals.  All I keep thinking is where are the stories about humans?  Why did Darwin have to hide behind plants and pigeons?  I know he could and probably would have been shunned considering the time but I also feel like Darwin was unsure about some topics.  At the beginning of every chapter he states some questions and then he'll keep playing safe by saying well I don't have all the answers but from my data this is my theory.  I can see that he leaves his theories open to be proven wrong or added to but I feel that Darwin wasn't very confidant about some of his ideas.  And if he wasn't confidant why should I believe his theory?  I think I'm finally starting to step out of my comfort zone of rules that have been taught to me in school and questioning them.
ccrichar's picture

Evolution of stories.

I am daunted by Darwin and his experiments with pigeons.  I don't want to hear about another pigeon for the rest of my life.  However, Pigeons are short lived species and gave Darwin a lifetime of interest because they do not live very long and he could dissect them as soon as they died.  He could begin his research...,immediately or rather a continuation of research in the beginning of his research.  I do not know where this course is going and I hope to find out soon.  There doesn't seem to be a beginning and an ending...a right or a wrong, in my thinking about these topics.  I hope to find some understanding at some point.  However, I am enjoying this course.
amirbey's picture

Darwin, a fictional writer

The definition of a foundationalist is still a bit confusing to me.  But if I take this definition as a person who bases his observations on a foundation, a fixed base, something that he is sure of, then we could think that a foundationalist would write non-fictional texts.  However, in one of my French classes, the teacher gave us the definition of a fictional text as reality which encounters some inexplicable facts.  If we take into consideration this definition, we could imagine that a foundationalist can write fictional texts since the text is based on a certain reality, and in which we might find some mysterious facts.  But wasn’t this Darwin’s case? Wasn’t he writing on observations, (which could represent his foundation), and weren’t there some unexplained facts in his texts since he did not have enough knowledge at his time to explain them? So, Darwin could have written in his time a fictional book. 

kapelian's picture

Talking about our first

Talking about our first paper today in class was not only helpful for me to find a good topic to write on, but also helped me think about Darwin in different ways too. Everyone had different ideas that came from their interpretations of the reading and it helped me look at the reading in a different light as well.

Something from Tuesday that sticks out to me was the quote about how humans are still changing and evolving is the most disturbing thing about evolution.  However, with our small group discussion with Prof Grobstein we spent much of the time talking about how people have greatly changed over time and also how we are still changing.  I actually think thats a really interesting thought.  In Darwin's story, he seemed to stick closely to examples with birds, insects, and plants and shyed away from looking at human evolution.  I wonder if this is because they simply provided better evidence to his theory and made for a better story then did looking at the changes in humans over time.

From what I've read of Origin of Species, I think Darwin was a foundationalist, but then became a non-foundationalist after finding all of this evidence and so many stories that support a more non-foundationalist narrative.  Even though it isn't possible to say one story is right and one is wrong, the evidence that Darwin collected shows that non-foundationalism, to him, is more correct.

jrlewis's picture

looking backwards and forwards

In another course I am taking this semester, we are talking about how the story of evolution contributes to the field of biology.  The particular perspective is how genetics, evolutionary, and developmental biology are integrated into a paradigm of enormous scope.  All of this is history is taking place post Darwin, yet his name is thrown around a lot.  I am struggling with reading papers about limitations of natural selection as a story concurrently with Darwin’s initial description it.  I keep wondering what he might think about it?  Would he agree with the words that Gould and Lewontin put in his mouth in their paper The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme.  They present the argument that no observations are capable of disproving evolution.  According to the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, this property renders the story of evolution as not scientific.  Outside of Popper’s philosophy, it is problematic when the story supplied by evolution is neither interesting nor useful.  Gould and Lewontin provide several examples where the story that adaptation tells about empirical evidence is inferior to the story told by developmental biology.  The authors argue that Darwin would readily accept a broad approach.  They state, “We welcome the richness that a pluralistic approach, so akin to Darwin's spirit, can provide.”

As our prompt for this week’s post was to discuss whether or not Darwin was a foundationalist? Empiricist?  I would like to add the question was he a pluralist?

Anne Dalke's picture

combining all questions!

And I'm interested in the (possible?) connections between all these questions:
  • is a foundationalist a non-fiction writer?
  • would this mean that (conversely) a non-foundationalist
    is always going to be a writer of fiction?
  • is a non-foundationalist (by definition) a pluralist?
  • are pluralist non-foundationalist stories (by definition) those
    that are incapable of being disproved?

    (etc. etc. etc.)
epeck01's picture

In class on Thursday, I was

In class on Thursday, I was very confused by the possibility of a connection between foundationalist thought and non-fiction, and non-foundationalist thought and fiction.  In my mind, writing fiction or non-fiction and believing in foundationalist thought or non-foundationalist though are completely unrelated.  They are especially unrelated since we had discussed earlier that perhaps everything is fiction as there probably is no absolute truth (at least that we know of).  So, is it the mindframe of a foundationalist that would drive him/her to write non-fiction because of a belief in the existance of truth?  Would a non-foundationalist be forced to write fiction because he or she would not truly believe in the genre of non-fiction?  If these types of thinkers uniformly write in certain genres, or even view the world's stories within the framework of a certain genre, I do not think that the most essential aspect of fiction would be able to be used.  To me, the beauty of fiction is that it is grounded in truth.  So while a non-foundationalist might be writing it, there is usually a groundwork of believed truth that can be found just as easily in non-fiction.  I do not believe that foundationalism or non-foundationalism distinguish fiction and non-fiction.
mfradera's picture

It's been a while

Unfortunately, I was unable to post for the last class (or show up for that matter) because of a family emergency. Today, however, I found myself thinking back on several things that have come up in past classes. First, I was reading The Fundamentals of Special Education: A Practical Guide for Every Teacher (Algozine and Yssekdyke, 2006). They begin their book with a definition for Education: “the process of learning and changing as a result of schooling and other experiences” (iibid: 9). I think this definition works fairly well. In relation to this, what would we call a liberal arts education?

Second, I've been refining a thought I had/ comment I made in class last Thursday in regards to Darwin's use of punctuation. I'm particularly interested in his use of exclamation points and rhetorical questions. The exclamation points show an injection of emotion into his text (a clear personal investment in his narrative and his research), it feels as though his use of rhetorical questioning is a reflection of the same kind of cautiousness Anisha is speaking of above; by posing a leading question, it becomes the reader who supplies the answers to what he is proposing. Quite ingenious, Mr. Darwin! Might this be my paper topic...?

eglaser's picture

I had an issue wih your

I had an issue wih your statement that humans are labeled as human solely based on their ancestors. I simply don't understand how a speciation event can be marked if a species is based on their parents rather then their attributes. I don't understand how it is rational to argue that humans are humans because their ancestors were humans when our ancestors were only human, relatively recently. I think a large part of what Darwin was saying was based on the attributes of a species as being an important marker of different species. I am just still confused about how that statement works in tandem with what Darwin was positing.
selias's picture

In response to eglaser

It may help to remove the label of "humans" when thinking about the non-essentialist definition of a species.  Ancestors will invariably pass on some of their attributes to their offspring, but there will still be variation in other attributes.  As I understand it, the non-essentialist view comes from the idea that no matter how an offspring is different from its parents, it is still of the same species as its parent was.  Speciation takes place over a long period of time and is a gradual process; it is not as if speciation will occur with the birth of just one child with a certain variation.  It is only when this variation spreads throughout a population and is unable to produce viable offspring when crossed with a different species that a speciation event has occured.

Actually, I am not certain of what a speciation event means, exactly; and because of that, I think it is a rather restricting term.  It implies that there is a single moment when a new species emerged, and I am not sure that this is what actually happens. Like I said before, it seems to me that a new species emerges over time, and not in any single moment (or generation).  Of course I could be wrong about this (and correct me if I'm wrong!), as I haven't taken biology since my sophomore year in high school. 

I did notice, however that Darwin also seems to feel some uncertainty on where the line can be drawn between designating a species and acknowledging a variation.  He spends a good portion of chapter 8 discussing the creation, fertility, and occurence of hybrids, and uses his findings to explore the definitions of a speicies and a variety.  He concludes on page 268 that "the facts briefly given in this chapter do not seem to me opposed to, but even rather to support the view, that there is no fundamental distinction between species and varieties."  So I do not  think that Darwin himself believed that certain attributes were necessarily a marker of a species.  It seems to me that he also held this non-essentialist view, that species cannot be defined by attributes but by it's descent.

Anisha Chirmule's picture


I do believe that Darwin was an empiricist in practice, however when it came to writing his data, he was cautious because his ideas were so revolutionary.  (His cautiousness is also seen with his actions when he did not publish his findings until years after his research and conclusions were reached).  When we analyzed the actual semantics of The Origin of Species, he used ‘I’ and ‘we’ many times when presenting his evidence, so as to make it more personal and read more like a novel.  Despite this, I still feel as though Darwin had concrete and substantial evidence supporting his claims even if he did not present it in a conventional scientific manner.  I also think that Darwin reached his conclusions of natural selection and evolution because he had empirical data and from this data he formed his theory.  The data that he had was from his own research with the finches and pigeons, as well as the information that other scientists, such as Malthus, had uncovered.  I believe he used a combination of all of this data to influence and shape his theories.

merlin's picture

A passage taken from

A passage taken from Organic Chemistry II lab manual.


"Do the poet and scientist not work analogously? Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision."

-Marrianne Craig Moore, Bryn Mawr College Class of 1909