A Storytelling Adventure: From Darwin, to Literature, and Back Again

Jackie Marano's picture

       Evolution is perhaps the most all-encompassing, fascinating, and thought-provoking phenomenon available for human use and consideration today; it is arguable that some forms of evolution are dependent on human existence, but it is equally arguable that human existence is dependent on various forms of evolution. Evolution, as a concept, typically refers to the favorable growth and/or modification of some system within a specified environment over some period of time. This is, indeed, a fine way to characterize evolution in general, but it is actually a gross oversimplification of evolution in specific; that is, this notion does not adequately account for what very well may be true, or at least worthy of our attention: that humans inherently live by and for ‘evolution,’ and that this may be inevitable.


When most people think of evolution, they likely think of Charles Darwin and his well-known but widely disputed theory, which proposes a means by which biological organisms are modified over time to be more fit for their environment and for reproduction. And in fact, this is not a bad place to start. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was really a breakthrough in many ways, the most obvious of which is that it was an official attempt to account for how and why life as people knew it came to be. But also, and perhaps more importantly for the purposes of our discussion, it was a highly effective means of calling attention to the concept of ‘evolution’ itself; Darwin’s rigorous efforts to define and characterize biological evolution have enabled the concept to be applied and used more universally, well beyond the realm of strict biology and science. And although it was likely not his intention, Darwin greatly aided his successors in identifying and qualifying many other important forms of evolution, a good portion of which we might ultimately denote as ‘life-sustaining.’ And though this assertion may seem overambitious at first glance, a consideration of some key ideas may, in the end, render it plausible and conceivable; it is only once we recognize that the general features and implications of biological evolution (as specified by Darwin) can, themselves, account for how he arrived at writing On the Origin of Species in the first place, that we can truly perceive just how timeless, complex, expansive, useful, and incredible the concept of ‘evolution’ is and can be.


One of the most important aspects of Darwin’s masterwork On the Origin of Species, just as important as the content of the work itself, is the approach that author himself used to create it. That is, On the Origin of Species is a perfect example of the scientific method at work. In general, the scientific method requires that a hypothesis or estimate or guess is made based on some observations. Next, he/she (or they) who hypothesized performs a series of trials and experiments whose goal is to test the hypothesis. After experimentation, it is generally clear whether the hypothesis is or is not supported by the collected data, and in either case, a conclusion of some sort can be reached and has value. This is the general scientific method that most of us would have learned in middle school or high school. And we have good reason to believe that this is how the scientific method functions; after all, Darwin’s scientific account does just this, and it has widely been accepted as a reasonable, logical, believable, and successful work of scientific exploration. However, what is misleading about this generalized definition is that the conclusion represents the end of the scientific method process. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.


It must be recognized that individual scientific method ‘events’ do not come out of nowhere, nor do they stand, function, and exist in isolation. Once the method has proceeded through to the conclusion, the summary of observations either supports the hypothesis, or it doesn’t. If it does, then the experimenter will likely make an effort to make more observations, and perhaps test them at a later point in time. If the summary of observations does not support the hypothesis, then observations must be revised, modified, or re-summarized to make sense of the situation. In either case, the method is not linear; it is loopy. And there is really no purpose in trying to identify where the process begins (some time before the hypothesis, actually) or the progress ends, because every summary of observations has the potential to be modified or changed, even if it is continually supported through experimentation.


It is also noteworthy that there is much unpredictable variation within and among scientific method processes as a result of this loopy process. For example, some experimental results may be more exciting or significant than others. Also, some new revelations may occur one after another over a small period of time, others may be seen as ‘true’ for generations before they are overhauled or modified, and others are present today and have yet to be modified in a large or small way. And in virtually all cases, the magnitude and direction of such modifications that lead to new summaries could not have been reasonably predicted, nor could we say that the course of change was intended on any level. It is within our human nature to make sense of our surroundings and to ‘fix’ or recognize ‘wrongness’ in an observation when we perceive it. That is, we inherently practice the scientific method in some form at every moment in time because we are curious, subjective creatures. It is our subjectivity that enables us to produce and to maintain interest in the unpredictable and unintentional nature of our surroundings.


Interestingly enough, the importance and implications of our subjectivity in the modification of pre-existing notions is fundamentally similar what to what Darwin has described in his theory on biological evolution; the path of biological evolution is unpredictable, unintentional, and punctuated by times of excitement and boredom. So in a way, we can say that Darwin’s theory on biological evolution has helped us come to the conclusion that the scientific method represents ‘evolution,’ on a smaller, non-biological scale. As remarkable as this is, however, we now understand that because Darwin came to his conclusions in On the Origin of Species via the loopy scientific method, his work is nothing more than a fantastic, subjective story. While his work appears objective and linear in course, it is actually a multi-layered account ‘infested,’ so to speak, with subjectivity. But this does not necessarily detract any value from his work; for one, if it were not for Darwin’s rigorous study of biological evolution and his conclusive (subjective) story, we would never be able to ‘loop back’ and create our own useful subjective story (the one we’re telling here and now). And so what we can gather from our considerations thus far is this: our innate subjectivity is what motivates us to modify pre-existing notions, and our modification of such notions can, in turn, be used to construct useful stories. And included is this one, which, inspired by Darwin, addresses the role and importance of our innate subjectivity in living for and by evolution.


But remember that this here is our story; like Darwin’s, it is not representative of the absolute Truth, it is open to further modification, it does not stand or function alone in time or space, and it is the product of a complex network of subjective scientific method ‘events’ and judgments. In addition, like Darwin’s work, there is no proof of validity here; there is only an attempt to demonstrate consistency. So with that said, we should apply our own subjective story to that of someone else to establish or test our consistency, to see where this takes us, and most importantly to see where ‘evolution’ falls into place.


Perhaps the best idea is to consider someone else whose subjective story was profoundly influenced by Darwin’s (subjective) masterwork: philosopher Daniel Dennett. Like our story, Dennett’s is at least doubly subjective; the product ‘story’ required a minimum of two subjective minds for its ultimate creation. So by placing our story face-to-face with Dennett’s, we will likely find inconsistencies between the two, but these are the most valuable and important to us; they will enable us to modify our story to maintain consistency and credibility in the minds of our audience. But be assured that we are not trying to swindle anyone, we are only trying to make sense of our surroundings in a way that is most useful for us and for everyone else; we may reveal something quite new and interesting, or we may just modify the old in a less exciting way. But we’re subjective, and we’re curious…so on to Dennett.


We must first note that although Dennett is a philosopher, he is just as much a scientist. He is certainly not the empirical scientist that Darwin was, but his recent work (or ‘story’ we might say) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (1995) is, too, a product of subjective scientific method events. Dennett’s use of the scientific method is not as explicit or apparent in his work as was the case for Darwin, but the function of his work as a whole is to communicate a credible, interesting ‘story’ that is useful to his audience; and thus we conclude that he put his ideas to the test, in an abstract intellectual manner, and presents to the audience his best, most modified summary of thoughts and observations.


Consider, for instance, his claim that ‘meaning’ evolved objectively within the confines of ‘mindless’ evolution (the Darwinian version). Already, we could disagree with him on two accounts; firstly, our story suggests that ‘meaning,’ the product and inspiration for our storytelling habits, is the product of human subjectivity. And secondly, because our story suggests that ‘meaning’ is a product of subjective judgments, we cannot consider the process to be ‘mindless’ on all accounts. But these two inconsistencies are very important to our story.


Dennett’s idea of associating Darwin’s biological evolution with the evolution of ‘meaning’ is something we haven’t really thought of or addressed yet, and this could be useful to our story. We stated previously that Darwin’s theory itself is a product of the human desire to establish ‘meaning,’ and that the establishment of meaning is, itself, a product of a comparable, subjectivity-based form of evolution (on the micro, individual scale). Dennett’s story, though, proposes somewhat of the opposite; he claims that Darwin’s idea is the precursor, and that meaning is the product. We still want to hold on to our idea of subjectivity and the derivation of meaning as the precursors to Darwin’s theories all other forms of human-inspired ‘evolution,’ as our testing thus far has proved that this is a working set of observations. But perhaps we can make our story even more consistent, meaningful, and coherent if we use some of Dennett’s ideas to qualify Darwin’s work in a different, but logical way.


For example, we modify our story by arguing that natural selection, as defined by Darwin, depends upon the subjective nature of all organisms on earth, and that it actually selects for greater subjectivity among organisms over time. It seems logical, too, according to our story, that natural selection would favor increased subjectivity; we previously argued that subjectivity is key to the scientific method, and that the results and the overall course achieved by the scientific method are somewhat random and unpredictable. We also said that that such randomness and unforeseeable ‘events’ are actually very useful because they maintain our interest and therefore promote further evolution (of stories in our case). So now we have just established a new understanding, with Dennett’s help, that enhances both the implications of Darwin’s story and the credibility and consistency of ours; just as we have qualified the existence of Darwin’s story, his story now appears to qualify the existence of ours, in a way other than exemplifying the necessary subjectivity involved in using the scientific method in its purest form. What is also favorable about this modification to our story is that the ‘loopy’ nature of storytelling and ‘evolution’ is still apparent and functional; we ‘looped’ back to Darwin, and his story is still able to ‘loop’ to include ours.


Let’s continue and test this modified set of observations to see where this notion of ‘favored’ subjectivity in biological evolution might take us. It is arguable that humans are the most sophisticated organisms to have yet wandered the earth; we have very high cognitive abilities that contribute to our sense of curiosity, our tendency to inquire, and our tendency to make sense of our surroundings for individual and more universal purposes. But perhaps there is a great cost to our very subjective, sophisticated nature; we (and our subjectivity) have evolved to such a great extent that some of our more primitive subjective judgments, such as “This is a bird, this is not a bird” (4) are accepted most universally to be the truth. And while accepting long-established and long-unmodified subjective judgments as the truth may be useful to us (and to our evolution, of course), it is also to blame for the diminishing significance and recognition of the subjective foundation of most, if not all, of what we consider to be true. So what might the consequences of such a phenomenon be, when the majority of the ‘most subjective’ human creatures fail to recognize the extent to which their lives and understandings are based on subjectivity?


The phenomenon is certainly not life-threatening, but it can conceivably lead to what we might call inflexible ‘truths’ that can effectively be disproven, but not without significant resistance. We might say then, that such ‘inflexible truths’ resist potentially useful stories that could, in fact, modify such ‘inflexible truths’ and make them less wrong. Consider, for example, another scientist of a recent epoch, Walt Whitman, and his scientific account “Leaves of Grass” (1855). If you find that you disagree with the words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ in the previous sentence, you are, yourself, a believer of an ‘inflexible truth.’ The belief that Walt Whitman is not a scientist, and that his “Leaves of Grass” is not fundamentally similar to Darwin’s masterwork is the result of human subjectivity; it has been solidified as a ‘truth,’ perhaps worldwide, that the realms of science and literature are necessarily two distinct entities. And in fact, our own story can be used to disprove this ‘truth’ and to become of even greater use to us and to others.


Without a doubt, Walt Whitman and his well-known work “Leaves of Grass” are widely accepted to belong to the realm of literature. In fact, this realm is considered to be so different from science that the custom practice is to read, to interpret, and to value this ‘other’ form of writing in an entirely different manner, and according an altogether different set of standards. In fact, most people would take Darwin’s story more seriously and accept it as the ‘truth,’ while these same people would likely consider Whitman to be entertaining at most. Why has this become a universal ‘truth’ or tendency?


The meaning, direction, and substance of Whitman’s poems in “Leaves of Grass” is not as clearly presented to the reader as it is in Darwin’s account, but other than this fact, the two actually did very much the same to achieve their product ‘story.’ In “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman experimented with his ‘unconscious’ in hopes of telling a new story that would explain things to himself, but also to others. That is, he did, in fact, use the scientific method, just like Darwin. He certainly had some sort of hypothesis based on pre-existing notions, perhaps in literature, in life, or even in science. When he put his hypothesis to the test, using himself as the experiment, he determined conclusions that are presented in a unique fashion as afterthoughts in his introduction. According to our story, subjectivity was the motivating force behind his project and product ‘story.’ The ‘inflexible truth’ of science and literature as separate entities compels us to claim that Whitman’s story and Darwin’s story are different beyond their contrasting style, content, and topic of interest. By separating the two realms in this way, we establish that the two works are not ‘separate but equal’ (our story would claim they are very comparable), but instead ‘separate and unequal.’ Of course, preference for one ‘story’ over the other may be an issue of personal interest, but in the end, it is all about subjectivity and how we manage it.


While Darwin explains the trend in his story of biological evolution through his own subjective experiments, it can be argued that Whitman explains the trend of literary and personal evolution through his own subjective experiments. They have both used the scientific method, they have both been necessarily subjective in doing so, and it cannot objectively be determined that one story is ‘better’ or ‘more true’ than the other. But what we do note is that middle school and high school science classes taught us the value of the scientific method in determining the ‘truth,’ and so when many of us see this process so explicitly in Darwin’s work and so indefinitely (if at all) in Whitman’s work, we are more likely to believe and value that with which we are familiar, especially if it’s obvious.


It seems that culture, simply an assemblage of diverse stories, is an essential part of this phenomenon; so we need to modify our story once more to include the fact that a collection of ‘solidified’ stories plays a key role in the valuation of new stories. We see, then, that not only is our incredible subjectivity significant to the development of cultural practices, norms, and values, but the actual established culture, itself, greatly influences the nature of our subjectivity, and how we value and interpret new or different ideas. In the context of what we stated before, does this mean that we have evolved to be more subjective and more ignorant? This seems rather negative and perhaps inconsistent with the rest of our story, which accounts for all the wonders that being subjective has brought about for ‘evolution’ and life in general. Maybe what we can add to our story, then, is that this ‘ignorance’ that seems to have evolved along with subjectivity might not be harmful on all accounts; sure, it causes us to miss out on some useful stories, but perhaps as such complex creatures, we must establish a sort of hierarchy of subjective judgments by which we will live. But telling these stories is still very much worth one’s while, as the potential for change or for evolution of a collection of ideas (cultural evolution) only exists as long as stories are available for ‘testing’ and for consideration.


On this note, now that we have modified our story to account for cultural evolution, we can take a brief look at where this idea might bring us, and our story. Consider another ‘unscientific’ work, Siri Hustvedt’s “The Sorrows of an American” (2008); the structure and content of this novel don’t seem to resemble that of Darwin, Dennett, or Whitman on almost all accounts. One characteristic that most definitively sets this work apart from the other three is that it is fictive. But what is actually quite interesting is that this work in particular is considered fiction because the specific set of circumstances that Hustvedt supplies in the plot are not known to have happened in real life. But, they could have, and might have, conceivably. For these reasons, her novel is considered fictitious, and her work is placed without hesitation into the category of ‘literature’ and ‘not science.’ What is really shocking, though, is that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species does exactly the same: his story of biological evolution cannot be objectively proven as ‘truth’, it is not known to have happened, and his ‘plot’ concerns events that could have or might have happened. Why isn’t Darwin fiction? Why is he ‘science’ and not ‘literature’?


Does the distinction arise from Darwin’s explicit use of the scientific method, and the fact that it is part of our (Western) culture to view this as ‘more true?’ What if we were told that, just like Darwin (and Dennett, and Whitman), Hustvedt used the scientific method on her observations and experiences, as a means of expressing herself, and the product was this story? Why would so many of us still claim that she is not a scientist too, and that her work is not scientific? It appears that once more, we need to modify our story to explain this difference.


If you think about it, it is really impossible to measure or quantify subjectivity. But everyone has it to some extent, and it is the source of all that is unpredictable, random, interesting, and human. In our story so far, we have stated that the scientific method (itself, a forever evolving process) is an inevitable but very useful process that is fueled by human subjectivity. We have also determined that human subjectivity accounts for Darwin’s story, which, in turn, is a great story that might account for how we achieved this subjectivity in the first place. And so with this notion, we proceeded to mention that our subjectivity is so great, the greatest on earth, that this presents a whole new set of issues with which we must deal; one is the loss of our ability to realize the subjective foundation of our beliefs and practices, and the other concerns the role of culture in establishing ‘inflexible truths.’ From there, we saw that some ‘inflexible truths,’ such as the distinction between science and literature, can effectively be revealed as incoherent or nonsensical when a new story is applied, but that they are largely not broken down by the greater human population.


And now, we must try to account for this in our story. We have seen that all four authors of interest have used the scientific method in some form, and that all have published stories that are useful to them for the consideration of others. But since we have broken down the ‘inflexible truth’ of science and literature as separate entities, we can say that the four works are fundamentally different in their content and structure, but not in their motivation. Sure, each author was working off of a different set of experiences and observations, and sure each used their unique, personal subjectivity to generate their stories, but beyond this, the difference is actually negligible. So in the end, everyone who is subjective is both a scientist and an artist, and there is no way around it.


But since everyone is, in fact, unavoidably subjective, the apparent differences are only a question of how one chooses to express one’s self. And while it is nice to think that all means of self-expression are equally valuable and useful (Darwin vs. Hustvedt for example), our subjectivity and our need to ‘sort’ and make sense of things makes it such that this is not the ‘truth.’ Maybe this was a survival mechanism at one point in our past, and the occupations and natural interests of some members of society seemed to help sustain and promote life more effectively than those of others. In Western culture, it is only until recently that our advancements have made the struggle to survive less of an immediate concern in our daily lives, and the focus on being a productive member of society a much greater concern. And so now, the role of self-expression and the way it shapes Western culture and society is more important and apparent than ever. So, we can anticipate that there will be structural changes in our belief systems, both major and minor. And by creating this story in the ‘here’ and ‘now,’ we have made a great attempt to be part of it, and we have exemplified what we set out to clarity: that we live for and by ‘evolution.’

 

Bibliography:

1. Darwin, Charles. “On the Origin of Species.” Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts,
2003.

2. Dennett, Daniel C. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.”
    Smith and Schuster Paperbacks. New York, 1995.

3. Hustvedt, Siri. “The Sorrows of an American.” Henry Holt and Company. 1st Picador Edition.
New York, 2008.

4. Raymo, Chet. “Skyhooks and Cranes.” ScienceMusings.com.
    http://www.sciencemusings.com/2007/10/skyhooks-and-cranes.html (accessed 9 May
    2009).

5. Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” Original 1885 Edition. Dover Publications Inc.
New York, 2007.
 

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

from subjectivity to ... the world

"we inherently practice the scientific method in some form at every moment in time because we are curious, subjective creatures. It is our subjectivity that enables us to produce and to maintain interest in the unpredictable and unintentional nature of our surroundings."

From which follows science, literature, culture, and ....  Who'd thunk?

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