2/10/04: BUBBLING ALONG QUITE HAPPILY; a.k.a.
Creating Imaginative Space for Ourselves
Photo from Occidental College Alumni Trip to Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, South Dakota
The course forum itself seems to be mimicking the process of evolution (=undirected change):
Paul: Forum seems to be bubbling along quite happily without explicit direction from me or Anne. That 's fine (more than). If you've got something on your mind, add it to the mix.
Bethany: I think that's all I have for now...still brewing.
Ro: Seems to me that this is germane...still thinking
And curiously (?)
multiple elements in this bubbling, brewing thought-experiment seem to be anticipating the [designed] arc of the course....
[In anticipation of] Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (p. 143):
"Are there units of cultural transmission analogous to the genes of biological evolution?
replicators in a different medium...subject to much the same principles of evolution as genes....
cultural item[s] w/ enough Design to be worth saving...?"
Many of you have already begun exploring this design space, in a number of different directions:
Several of you want to know how evolutionists explain the emergence of thought:
Some of you are exploring the possibility that stories and languages, like organisms, evolved from common ancestors:
- Aia: how do evolutionists explain the introduction of thought/self-awareness/soul that humans exhibit? What were the conditions that allowed for our branching ancestor to acquire the ability to think (to think and therefore to be aware of its existence)? Can it be explained by evolution?
- Diane: Aia raises an interesting point. I too am curious about how evolutionists explain thought. I am more curious, however, about how evolutionists explain culture. It seems culture acts as a bridge between thought and biology. This raises the question of whether thought or biology have a stronger hand in the development of culture, similar to the nature nurture debate. But it seems that we cannot even delve into the question of culture without a better explanation of the origins of thought, which leads us back to Aia's original question..
A number of you toyed with Paul's queries about whether biological evolution is inevitable:
Aia: are trends (if we may call it that...perhaps phenomena), such as modern-day culture and religion, really just products of social evolution? Products that have "adapted" to accommodate a change in population thinking....If life is thought to have evolved from a common ancestor, does the same thought hold for our stories? Did they evolve from a common ancestor?
- Bethany: the origin of language than to biological evolution, behind which theory, ironically? is going undergoing the same process as the study of evolution. Linguists look at word roots from different languages and try to group the similar ones (CLUMPY DIVERSITY) to organize hypothetical language families. Theoretical/Historical Linguists then try to trace back along the branches in hopes of recreating the (what is thought to be) the mother of all languages spoken now.....the mysterious language of the Basque people...called Euskara...has resisted any classification so far. It is called a language isolate, an orphan among languages with no known relatives....It's possible, even likely, that language was 'invented', so to speak, simultaneously all over the place by groups of people who had moved around, as it is possible that different forms of life sprang up simultaneously in different places at the very beginning. For both ideas, it's possible that this process, or a process involving only one starting organism/language happened several times with the species dying, no life, and then a new one created.
Julia: If we were to go back in time to a point where there was no life on earth but given the same circumstances, would the process (creation of life/ evolution) occur again and have the same end result?...could other planets be different examples of evolution, like our own Earth story, but with different changes made over time and/or different paths taken? Are other planets the "what ifs" that we wonder about?
Su-Lyn: Something bad happens....Dinosaurs, along with 45% of all genera, push up daisies. Bite-sized creatures survive....A 10-km-wide big fat rock smacked into Earth resulting in a nuclear winter, devastating all plant life and destroying the food chain from the ground up. If it hadn't hit Earth, we'd still be bite-sized.
Jan: ... if we started the process all over again, I highly doubt it would come out exactly as it has in our world. Perhaps Alternate Earth would have life even better adapted to its environment...but life on this earth is pretty impressively adapted itself. And that, I think, is part of what was in Mayr's mind when he spoke of "perfection."
Lots of you were thinking together about
- Suppose that one were to start the proccess over again, would it come out the same? Or if life evolved in different locations, would it be the same or different? Suppose it were the same in some ways in different locations, how would one account for that?
whether we can CHANGE the biological, cultural and personal stories we inhabit,
whether changing the words we use might open us a space to do so, and
whether we might imagine something we cannot see...
i wondered whether with globalization/technological advances there would be a resurgence of evolution after generations of reproductive isolation...i think it is fair to say that there is already a great degree of cultural evolution in many societies, and that this evolution will in turn lead to biological changes.
Reeve: there is a kind of story that we are a part of just by virtue of our membership in society.... I can disbelieve in the story that upholds racism with all my being, but I am also complicit within this story because something larger than my individual agency is using me as part of the story.
Su-Lyn: Where we stand in this web depends on the extent to which we believe in the story....Stories aren't just creating story-tellers, they're creating connections with other stories and their story-tellers.
And along the way, of course, these stories are getting changed by the tellers too...
Emily: i know why i tell the stories that allow me to be.... if i don't have these stories...i don't have my self .... if i can tell these stories and show that i know my self, maybe i can set about telling stories about other things that scare me....could fear... just another factor enabling the search...?
Katherine: what stories to Bryn Mawr students tell themselves, how does that shape the image of a Bryn Mawr woman? I think that we like to tell a story of strong womanhood. We like (but perhaps I am wrong) to imagine an instant link with each other because of our sex. The story of the Bryn Mawr woman includes free-will, free-expression, an excellent vocabulary, etc. And who do we esclude by creating this story of ourselves as Bryn Mawr women? Do we exclude raically, sexually (yep), or along class lines?
Cf. Culture as Disability: One Report on the Conversation: How might we all learn to measure ourselves against ourselves?...If there is no single definition of inherent human dignity, then not only will each individual differ from every other one, but each can alter who she is, what she values, and what she is capable of doing over the course of time....the act of enabling access to a culture... is not about tolerating difference. It involves, rather, valuing ourselves and others for whatever is unique about each of us, and actively appreciating each particular contribution to our joint activities. There are LOTS of different ways to be a high achiever.
Elizabeth: Mayr, of course, talks about levels of perfection of all creatures, not just humans, but I think he's just expanding that same thought process to all creatures. A creature that is "perfect" in some way is a creature that is very good at something it does. Maybe it's the best of all creatures at that thing. So when he says things are perfect he doesn't mean they've reached some goal, have found some evolutionary nirvana; he just means they're very good at what they do.
(in changing the cultural and personal stories we inhabit), might changing the words we use open us a space...?
- Stefanie asked whether cultural evolution might contribute to further biological evolution:
(in changing the stories and words we use) might we imagine something we cannot see...?
- Katherine: I am so uncomfortable with people missinterpreting my meaning of "god" that I need to find a new word. a safer word, but can that really happen? Just as changing "evolution" to something else was laughable to us, is finding a new word for god laughable too? Is it just an obvious side-step...
- Orah: words only limit things. they are shabby equitment.... they are just vague categoizations, keeping us apart from the things we see, preventing us from seeing things for what they ARE....we throw our dull spear-words at everything, trying to capture the essence of thing....we fail.... those stories are the shakles that keep us tightly bound in this matrix.... it isn't just the stories that keep us bound it's the words themselves....how by being ourselves do we disallow others from being themselves?
- Lauren: By putting all stories on equal footing, we don't lose our own identities, and we don't trample the identities of other people either. Second, we've been talking about whether a name makes a difference.... sometimes a name can have a huge effect on how an idea is received....calling evolution "biological changes over time" might actually make more people open-minded to the idea.
Finally (?!) there was some focus on the consequences of the (biological AND cultural) speeding-up of this process of change:
- Daniela: one of the primary roles of storytelling-to disperse the fear of the unknown. By molding the mysterious into familiar notions and, thus, giving comprehedible explanation, people were no longer frightened....
Can human imagination beget forms no one has ever seen?
- For a discussion of the way in which mathematics enables this sort of imaginative work, see
Brown Bag Discussion on Quantity, Quality and Value: A View from the Brain
"Vincent Desiderio, '77: Contemporary Realism, Historical Breath." Haverford Alumni Magazine (Summer 2003).
Show @ the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan
Backstory: Pieter Bruegel's "The Land of Cockaigne"
Vince Desiderio, "Cockaigne"
From "A 10-Year-Long Art History Course," The New York Times (Sunday, Febrary 1, 2004):
In Vincent Desiderio's ambitious new painting, "Cockaigne," six centuries of Western art lie scattered on the floor like the remains of a really great party....The title is a reference to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Land of Cockaigne" (1559), a moral allegory set in a land of plenty...the targets in Bruegel's painting were gluttony and sloth; Mr. Desiderio's version is a critique of what he calls "cultural bulimia"--our compulsive consumption of images that only leaves us hungry for more. It is also a comment on the predicament of painting in the 21st centry; faced with such a plethora of styles and formal idioms, how is it possible to create something new, something distinctive to our own time? "Cockaigne" is one artist's response to...the "anxiety of influence," an attempt, in Mr. Desiderio's words, "to reconfigure the history of art in order to create imaginative space for ourselves."
Vince Desiderio, "Pantocrator"
(From the press release for the show):
In the left panel a naked woman seen from the back is standing in a shower behind a clear curtain covered with fish. In the larger center panel a huge circular space station with the eye of its camera focused on the universe revolves in a starry night. In the right panel one sees a part of the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The title of the painting comes from the Greek language and means "Ruler of All"....Desiderio...likes the triptych format because to him it seems closely attuned to today's fragmentation of life and thought. He also likes to set up a dialogue that produces meaningful correspondences between divided parts.
(From the catalogue for the show:)
So, shifting focus once again, going up (down?) another level:
The fantasy spaceship ...is a luminous construction in cosmic darkness--a triumph of technolgoical consciousness over the unconsciousness of space....Brunelleschi's building became the model for all subsequent perspectival architecture. Deseriderio's paintings are deeply involved in the perspectival construction of perception....Double focus is the subtext...The question of finding the proper place from which to contemplate a picture haunts Desiderio's pictures, as their juxtaposition of near and far views--their abrupt shifts in space and focus--shows. Which is the best place to stand to wake one from one's visual sleep to serious consciousness of what one is seeing?
using Daniela's question as a fulcrum to get us there:
"Ernst Mayr... is not telling a new story, what is the aim of the book then?"
turning back to "The Story of Evolution," Part III...