Evolution and Literature

ekorn's picture

Fact or Fiction

      It’s my conviction that man has and will always search for the one ‘true’ answer to life’s most pressing questions, “How did we get here?”  The question posed seeks to answer how modern day Homo sapiens came to be corporeal and how his/her outlying environment has shaped and impacted the species.  In Ernst Mayr’s book This Is Evolution, we are presented with various answers to this question but only one solution, Darwinism (the “fact” that evolution and natural selection allowed Homo sapiens to exist and flourish in the Earth’s ecosystem) (Mayr 2001, 275).  However, biology and the story of how man came into existence cannot be viewed in such a concrete manner.  We must constantly redefine what we know to be ‘fact’ by new observations, observations that may remold and redefine what we believe to be true. Therefore, it should be understood that as stories change, so do their meanings.  It is by these standards that we come to discover that stories must be understood as fiction, not fact.
 In the 1970’s, some time before Ernst Mawr published his take on the story of evolution, he published an article in the journal Systematic Zoology.  In this article, Mayr discusses biological terms, specifically their “Origin and History”.  For our purpose, it behooves us to look at the terms as metaphors of sorts for the way we should view evolution itself.  Mayr opens his article by stating “the most important aspect of the history of biology is neither the discovery of new facts nor the establishment of new laws, but the development of new concepts and the maturation or revision of existing concepts” (Mayr 1973, 83).  About terms specifically Mayr can be quoted saying, “once a term has been given, it tends to hang on tenaciously even when its underlying meaning is changing radically” (Mayr 1973, 84).  If we look at terms in relation to the concept of evolution and how man came into being, we may similarly note that the more observations we make about our past and the past of other species on Earth, the more the meaning or story of evolution changes (whether or not the change is ‘radical’). 
 It’s interesting that in this article Mayr toys with the notion that meanings sometimes aren’t fixed, but when it comes to his later stance on the story of evolution, he believes there to be one fixed manner by which evolution has occurred.  In order to understand why Mayr may be wrong in his rather authoritative and assumptive stance, we must go back to the basics and understand the fundamentals or principles on which biology relies.  One author states that to be a biologist “is to seek for, to search for the innermost and the uttermost of nature’s secrets, the nature of life itself” (Glass 1957, 9).  He continues, additionally noting, “It is the essence of the scientific mind not only to be curious but likewise to be skeptical and critical---to maintain suspended judgment until the facts are in, to be willing always, in the light of fresh knowledge, to change one’s conclusions.  Not even the ‘laws’ of science are irrevocable. They are mere summaries of observed phenomena, ever subject to revision.  And it is the essence of the scientific method to rely only upon observations” (Glass 1957, 13).  It would be irrational to claim that Mayr, by these standards is neither a scientist nor a biologist, but it seems rather that he does not adhere to such principles (principles that were established prior to the publication of either of his previously mentioned texts in the late 1950’s).  Mayr’s take on the process of evolution is clearly biased towards Darwinism, indirectly creating a dogma out of it.  Though he admits that evolutionary theories can eventually be rejected, he sees no need to explore any manner by which Darwinism can or could possibly be falsified.  Additionally, going back to the notion of relying on observations instead of facts, Mayr focuses solely on what he believes to be concrete facts or “mountains of evidence” for evolution; implying that it is the only version of the story and that is the ‘truth’ (Mayr 2001, 264, 275).
 To imply that there is one truth impedes upon our learning and being taught new concepts and notions.  We cannot proceed in the world of science or in the world itself without questioning it to some degree, despite what authorities before us have said.  We should be taught “To see a problem unfold, to see progress impeded by traditional ways of thought, to learn that scientists make mistakes as well as achieve success, to observe what experiments brought illumination, and why…to observe how frequently the truth of today is synthesis of opposing counterviews and countertheories held in their time to be irreconcilable” (Glass 1957, 13).  These teachings help us to “damn forever the legions of biology textbooks which serve up to hapless students a crystallized, anonymous biology seeming to have descended perfect, like the divine city out of heaven” (Glass 1957, 13). In his book What Is Evolution, Mayr is essentially serving his readers or students if you will, a ‘crystallized’ and ‘perfect’ answer to how evolution occurred and how man was made.
 After we come to the realization that Mayr is telling a story we must come to an understanding that no two people have the ability to tell the same exact story.  By default, every story is fiction because every story has room to be improved or modified.  By implying that a story is true, there is no room granted for error or falsities.  Mayr implies that Darwinism is the only explanation for evolution and in turn it is the only way to explain how we essentially became who we are.  The story is not a closed book, for man is still in existence and is perpetually changing.  We make new observations everyday that fall into our understanding of who we are, whether it is in a biological sense or not.  To conclude that evolution is a fact rather than a series of observations is to imply that our definition and the meaning of evolution cannot change---when change seems to be, and has always been, inevitable.

Julia Smith's picture

Evolution and Creationism: Separate Similar Searches

Megan Smith


Professor Dalke

February 16, 2007



Evolution and Creationism: Separate Similar Searches



Elise Niemeyer's picture

Randomness versus Intent: the Lure of Security in Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design

           The debate between advocates of intelligent design and Darwinian evolution is one that not only permeates modern legal arenas, but also reflects an underlying dispute about the nature of science, and the innate appeal certain scientific stories over others.  Randomness is at the heart of biological evolution.  It is integral to natural selection and genetic mutation, two of the cornerstones of the modern understanding of the evolutionary process.  While the bulk of scientific observations seem to support such randomness, many people find it unnerving and even improbable.  In an article in the New York Times in 2005, Christopher Schönborn articulated a position held by many people both inside and outside the scientific community, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science” (“Science as a Story”).  This stance on the evolutionary process has come to be recognized as “intelligent design,” a subtle mixture of Darwin and religion.  It is compelling that both explanations seem to provide security to some and anxiety to others.  While many are reassured by the “hard facts” that support biological evolution, others see this enforced randomness as lacking in meaning and thus undermining human purpose.  Conversely, the supernatural beginnings of intelligent design provide security through order, while causing some people to question its narrow view of human potential and attending religious connotations.

Christina Cunnane's picture

Recapitulation: Evidence For or Against Evolution?

Recapitulation: Evidence For or Against Evolution?

The idea that embryos of different organisms look similar is not foreign. Anyone in an introductory biology, anatomy, or embryology class knows that chicken embryos are almost identical to the embryos of humans. Embryological development in different organisms diverges from other organisms at different stages in correlation with the complexity of the organisms. For example, human embryos and rabbit embryos diverge at a later time in development than the embryos of humans and fish. This idea was first described by K. E. von Baer (1792-1876) in his biogenetic law that stated that earlier stages of embryonic development of higher organisms resemble those organisms lower on the scale of nature (Pittendrigh 352). It was Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834-1919) who coined the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” adapting von Baer’s ideas of the scale of nature to that of evolution. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” was a commonly used phrase to explain the evidence supporting evolution. Ontogeny is “the complete developmental history of the individual organism,” and phylogeny is defined as “the complete evolutionary history of a group of organisms,” (Villee 697, 699). Thus, this phase means that the evolutionary history of a group of organisms is repeated during the developmental history of an individual organism of that group. This idea is also known as recapitulation. Recapitulation is a disputed topic used by pro-evolutionists as evidence for evolution and as against by the opposition. The story behind evolution and recapitulation is not as black and white as these suggest. I believe there is a middle ground in which recapitulation neither proves nor refutes evolution.

Shannon's picture

You Want Concrete? Hire a Construction Worker!

Shannon McPherson

Evolution Paper 1

February 16, 2007

fortunesfool's picture

The Incredible Storytelling of Creationists

Throughout this course we have repeatedly made note of the great importance of storytelling in science. Scientific stories are constantly changing, undergoing perpetual revision as new observations are made over time. The inconstancy of such scientific stories, however, can weaken reception to science, as vast uncertainties are naturally unsettling, and many people thus prefer to believe stories based in squarely in religious faith. The current story of biological evolution has still not convinced even half of the American population, almost 100 years after Darwin first introduced his theory in The Origin of Species1. This is a somewhat difficult fact to grapple with, as so much physical evidence backs the theory of biological evolution that it would seem somewhat foolish to dismiss it outright, and yet evolution remains an incredibly controversial issue. Although I personally put much stock in evolutionary theory, I am hesitant to label creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design as backwards, ignorant or delusional as some evolutionists are wont to do. Rather, I find their dependence on the Bible and on a historical world view based entirely within a religious context to be quite natural, in the sense that the biblical story of creation has been around for thousands of years, and is a static story, not plagued with change and uncertainty like the scientific story of biological evolution. Additionally, I feel that biological evolution is often grossly misrepresented in the mainstream by those advancing creationist perspectives. Biological evolutionary theory, therefore, is damaged by comforting and effective religious storytelling, Storytelling, therefore, is an incredibly crucial component in the tension between evolutionary and creationist world views.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

First EvoLit Paper, Specifying the Self in Smith and Mayr

Specifying the Self: Zadie Smith’s Concept in Ernst Mayr’s Writing

Gaby Kogut

Biology/English 223: Evolution/Stories/Diversity


In her essay, “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith describes what she sees as the qualities of and purposes for the novel. She theorizes the novel as an author’s attempt to describe his unique “self” and believes that since the author can never fully do that, the masterworks in the literary cannon are excellent failures, instead of successful novels. I would like to apply her ideas to Ernst Mayr’s novel on science, What Evolution Is, and examine how well her ideas hold up. I have two arguments against her conception of self, one that applies to how the self comes through a novel’s content and the other relates to the self in a novel’s style. My reading of Mayr’s content and style prove my arguments against Smith.

cevans's picture

Evolutionists vs. Creationists

       Ernst Mayr seems very disdainful of creationists and their opposition of evolution in his book What Evolution Is. He makes it very apparent to the reader that he believes their claims have no proof to back them up and in his list of books that would prove that they are wrong we have such unbiased sounding titles as Niles Eldredge’s The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism as well as Philip Kitcher’s Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Why are these titles so harsh? It is because on the other side of the divide the creationists are just as stubborn. Philip Kitcher says that creationists are abusing science but Paul Abramson the editor of creationism.org says that evolutionists are abusing science. The animosity these groups hold for each other is astounding and due to the opposite nature of their beliefs I wondered if it were possible for the two groups to co-exist. I believe that the answer to my question is a provisional yes. I do not believe that these groups need to publish entire books that are poorly veiled attacks on the opposing side. I believe that evolutionists and creationists could co-exist if they were willing to listen to each others points and agree to disagree on certain others.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

Is Zadie Smith's "Fail Better" a compelling way to view literature?

Hey everyone! Marquise de Merteuil here, starting her evil letters. Just have one book keeping question. It's OK for me to post a blog entry as my forum writing for the week, right? My thoughts don't correspond to any existing thread, and I was thinking of creating a forum topic but just instinctively felt that "the blog" would be a more appropriate outlet. So people can comment on blogs, right? Because, as always, I would love to chat.

Since our course, "Evolution of Stories" is about the relationship between science and literature, we apply Prof. Grobstein's idea that science is a process "of getting it progressively less wrong" to Zadie Smith's idea that literature is the same thing, that classics are the best failures we have, since the author can never express "his true self." Or "soul" but somehow she feels in our society that word can't be said... But even in a course like this it is essential to keep in mind that literature is not just a discipline that can be connected to science, but its own rich field, and so I'd like to see if Smith's argument holds up from a literary point of view, or in other words if it describes literature in a compelling way.

Shannon's picture

What Evolution Is...

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.

Syndicate content