The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories:
Exploring the Significance of Diversity

Forum 4
The Story of Evolution: Continuing II


Name:  Fritz
Username:  fdubuiss@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Truth?
Date:  2004-02-03 08:53:11
Message Id:  7934
Comments:
Like many of the other thinkers in this class, the idea of truth has been tumbling about in my head. It seems to be the driving force between stories and living. We as readers of the story are looking for truth in meaning and at times it seems as if the authors are looking for truth in action. By writing or creating their version of the truth into a tangible space truth is created and acted out and made into...?
Name:  Lauren Friedman
Username:  lfriedma@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  thinking more
Date:  2004-02-03 11:46:07
Message Id:  7938
Comments:

Two things stuck with me most from Thursday's class.

The first is the idea that if there is order being created somewhere, there is messiness being created elsewhere. Professor's Grobstein's illuminating example of this was pollution. While we see human society becoming increasingly advanced, we're ruining our environment and building urban systems at the expense of ecosystems that can often never be recovered. To me, this idea also ties into the idea that Nancy brought up of de-evolution. She explored it as a cyclical idea (we'll evolve to some peak, then begin de-evolving back to where we came from), but is it also possible that these processes are occurring simultaneously? As we evolve more and become more orderly, is there a parallel process somewhere becoming less evolved and messier? Our environment is not an organism, but it is certainly an entity of sorts, and one that is descending into chaos as we fine-tune the inconveniences out of society to try to perfect an ever-broken machine.

The second idea that I kept coming back to was the thought that there are three answers to the question "Why is there such a diversity of living things?" People cite at least three different reasons: God (religion), "it's always been this way," or evolution. People talk about religion versus evolution, but people who believe "it's always been this way" (if people do in fact believe this) rarely enter this debate. History and science aside (those are two big things to throw aside, but oh well), that idea somehow makes sense to me. I can understand how it would be natural to believe that this is the ways things are, and this is the way they always have been. In fact, the simplest ideas are often the most popular, if only because everyone can understand them. Some might say that religion is an "easier" explanation than evolution, but try telling that to a Darwinist, who might find understanding Creationism the most difficult thing s/he's ever tried to do. Or... maybe not.

In an article about the current proposal in Georgia (to strike the word "evolution" from the curriculum and replace it with "biological changes over time" -- supposedly a move that would allow teachers to teach evolution without head-butting Creationists [CNN article]), the writer questions the now painfully familiar conflict between Creationists and "scientists." He says he sees a compromise:

Biblical passages state that man and life came from "the ground" or "dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:6-7). Evolutionary theory teaches that life may have originally come from the ground, and that after millions of years, single cells evolved into multicellular organisms, which evolved into -- among many, many other things -- primitive primates, which evolved into humans... Evolution leaves room for God, but extreme creationism does not leave room for evolution.
I completely agree with this idea. I think people who believe opposite things about the creation of life and diversity should try to compromise, to see the "truth" in each other's stories.

(Sorry for the super-long posting, I was having trouble synthesizing my thoughts.)


Name:  bethany keffala
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  Give Blood! :)
Date:  2004-02-03 14:36:39
Message Id:  7944
Comments:
Sorry for not posting earlier in the day, but I was still processing. In fact, this is still probably a really messy idea, but oh well, I'm just thinking outloud! So, I was thinking about someone's (sorry, don't remember) idea that stories are like fossils, even though there is evolution going as a part of the story as well. This really is true, when you think about the way our language and ideas change over time. One phrase or word now may have had a different connotation previously, and will probably have yet another meaning in the future. So specific contexts or time periods are the intangible equivalents of the type of rock a fossil is found in; they give us a hint as to the 'meaning' if you will, of the fossil. But then, our context/realities change as time passes, prompting different interpretations (meanings? truths?) of the same thing over and over. It seems there are many possible truths to a story. Take Lot's wife, for example. Is every point of view here one of many possible truths or meanings? What does one reader take from it? Another? Is my interpretation different from yours? What about the difference between my interpretation and the author's intention? Within the story, I'm sure Lot's truth was different from that of his wife's on the levels of their emotions/reactions/decisions. Is anyone's truth more valid at any given point? Essentially, this is why things take faith. In a sense, we are all doubting Thomases, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing. We are just in a different, comparatively small context (which is EVOLVING), and so have a hard time trying to piece together the entire puzzle.
...
Where does this idea of an absolute truth come from? Is it innate? Or do we pick it up from our culture? If we do get it from culture, then how did it get there?
...
I was reading something the other day, and one of the main ideas of the text, as I took it, was that our constantly-evolving context constantly creates new meaning, or "Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless." This creates an interesting parallel, as I saw it, between stories and language.
>> Using language, we can create an infinite number of sentences, or even an infinitely long sentence.
>> Because context is boundless, we can infinitely derive different meanings/truths from a single work
On this note, then, is context sort of like a natural selection process for ideas? If we are a certain way, or are in a certain mindset, are we more likely do derive, say, these meanings rather than those meanings?
...
One last thing...I think as humans, one role we tend to play is that of creator, specifically, creator of something that is ordered, and are generally uncomfortable with states of disorder (part of the reason Lot's wife looked back?). Perhaps that is why we want to create the story of evolution, or even create stories in general, to try and give a meaning to our context, and why I must apologize for my rambling. I'm afraid it was rather disorganized. But then I suppose that helps me make my point.
Name:  Paul Grobstein
Username:  pgrobste@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  story of a story teller: appreciation
Date:  2004-02-03 19:38:05
Message Id:  7949
Comments:
Thanks all for your contributions to my telling a story today different in significant ways from how I've told the story before, and very likely to affect the way I tell it in the future. For details, have a look at the green box in my notes.
Name:  Diane Scarpa
Username:  dscarpa@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-03 20:07:56
Message Id:  7951
Comments:
I am begining to experience some distrust of the text that other students have expressed. Despite feeling jaded and cynical I am benefiting from the reading in a way that I don't think Mayr even intended. On the surface it obviously has made me a more critical reader. However, what I really think is so amazing is that I feel like the story of evolution (or George or "biological changes over time," snicker)is really Our story. I'm not only reading the text as a story but also primarily as a metaphor (albeit at times its a stretch). Some of the minescule biological processes Mayr speaks about can really be generalized to the way in which people live (i.e. the concept of nonrandom mating, etc.) Evolution affects all aspects of our lives at all levels, perhaps unconsciously.
Name:  Anne Dalke
Username:  adalke@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  to keep the pot boiling...
Date:  2004-02-03 22:35:27
Message Id:  7954
Comments:

so, friends, @ least one of the questions you had today
(it was nancy's, i think: "what is the catalyst that MAKES prokaryotes evolve into eukaryotes, eukaryotes into multicellular organisms?" ) got an answer:
all this continuing change and exploration is for the sake of...
nothing.

--just want to be sure that, along w/ what's gotten recorded in paul's green box, we have on the table for thursday's class the rest of the questions you asked (or didn't ask, but were thinking inside) during today's storytelling session....
would you record them here, please?
and thanks for doing so--
a.


Name:  orah
Username:  ominder
Subject:  expanding into what?
Date:  2004-02-03 23:21:40
Message Id:  7956
Comments:
question:
so i think we said at the begining of class that the universe was a closed system that was expanding. right? i guess i don't really understand the concept of a "closed system," because i don't understand what we are expanding INTO.
((in my years of jewish education i was always taught that the concept of GOD was something that the human mind could not PHYSICALLY conceive...In the begining God created something from nothing. IMPOSSIBLE! (though there are issues with translation and i have come to beleive that the text actually says that God 'ORGANIZED' the universe...but that's besides the point.) this is just something that we're asked to beleive. it makes God a lot more powerful if he cannot be contained even in the mind. it's comfortable to be dominated by such a powerful being. puts the universe in his power, at his will.
and this idea of an expanding (closed) universe could make sense just as this concept of God makes sense. if the universe is ever expanding then it is endless...and the human mind cannot conceive of something that is endless...because what is beyond the endless?????there MUST be something.
....so science is asking us to do the same thing that religion asks us to do...just beleive. i'm not sure if this makes science more powerful as it makes God more powerful. for some reason i think people will be more "bummed" in a science class if the prof. said, 'just beleive me.'(man, i really don't know what i'm talking about when it comes to this stuff so if i am off my rocker just ignore this, please.)))
Name:  Ro. Finn
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  Believing
Date:  2004-02-04 07:59:27
Message Id:  7959
Comments:
Morning ;-) ...the sun has not risen yet, but it will. Normally I don't even think about it. Being pragmatic, I expect it to happen. And I expect that I (all of us) will expire before the mechanics that make sunrises and sunsets falls apart. Physics (science) and history both support this expectation. So now I can shift my attention away from what I depend upon happening and expand my thinking with stories about ideas and observations that still seem incongruous, knowing full well that any one of these new incongruities, once explained to my satisfaction, might unravel my most comfortably held, most basic expectations. So, actually I do BELIEVE in something. I believe in the meta-story that questioning, tinkering, revising stories works--no matter their content.

Orah wrote, " for some reason i think people will be more "bummed" in a science class if the prof. said, 'just beleive me.'" In a way, I agree with you, Orah. I think that people convince themselves that they need to seek truth by following a set discipline that allows us to repeatedly convince others (prove?) that a scientific proclamation is or is not "TRUE" (at least in the mathematical sense of "true" or "false"). But think about the difference between science and engineering. Whereas scientists test their theories in artificially pure environments in order to be able to repeat their proofs, engineers deal with tolerances, pollutants, and other aspects of being organisms on earth or in this solar system, this universe. They test the efficacy of their products (not theories) where those products must function--under murky, inexact conditions. We learn firsthand when engineering products are "true" or "false", i.e., when they work or fail (the weak bridge, the wrong drug, the haywire spacecraft). Where am I going with this? For engineers, "SEEING IS BELIEVING." They are pragmatists who tinker and revise until they get to a story that works...and then they improve upon it for the next round of products. Scientists, on the other hand, are beginning to look a lot more like believers. Would they believe this? We're back to your question :-)


Name:  emily
Username:  emadsen@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  wordplay
Date:  2004-02-04 17:19:58
Message Id:  7964
Comments:
in response for the request for questions, i wanted to post a little bit on something i've been musing for a while. it has come more and more into focus during the span of our conversations about truth-seeking (and also georgia's renaming of evolution)...
a couple years ago i was in the midst of some important decisions... and during this time i was fiddling around with the word evolution and came up with the term "evolition". this term became useful to me because it helped me realize that i was trying to make my decision under the influence of too many outside sources. the decision making process was evolving, but it was not much of my doing. in this sense, i wanted to coin the word evolition (and perhaps it's already been coined) to bring myself back to the center, to my self. when i think of volition, i think of free will: "i did it of my own volition." meshing it with evolution conveyed that development of the ability to make my own choices: it made sense to me at that point in my life.
the term continues to be relevant, though, especially in terms of our truth-seeking discussions: if we are to allow everyone to have their own stories, shouldn't we allow everyone to have their own search for truths (and likewise their own truths) as well? shouldn't the process of evolition be extended to everyone?
in this sense, i think i am constantly learning to settle my self and my stories in amongst the others in the class (and, i suppose, in the larger picture, the world); learning to let the stories breathe, and stretch, and smell each other. in this sense, i am feeling more comfortable accepting the sacredness of each story because of its intense relation to the teller. it is a relation that is constantly evolving, like any human relationship: child, lover, friend.
Name:  becky rich
Username:  rrich@bmc
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-04 18:20:48
Message Id:  7965
Comments:
should we look for any significance in the way things seem to change faster and faster as they evolve? for instance, it took 2 billion or less for life to come around after the earth formed. then after that it took about the same, 1-2 billion years, for eukariotes to develope, but then only aprox. 4 million years for multicellular life to form. in the past six million years diversity has gotten much wilder (in my mind) than going from prokaryote to eukaryote (which took 1-2 billion years). and the same thing in terms of humanbeing's cultural evolution. it also reminds me of the way one can explain learning, how we learn and learn (expansion/disorder) and make connections between the things we learn, wich makes it possible to distill ideas that strech across different things into one concept(contraction/order). and this keeps going, and the big picture keeps getting bigger (...ani d. said that ;P)
it feels like momentum, however if evolution occurs for the sake of nothing, which is something i can readily accept, i'm not sure if this thought is very helpful.
Name:  becky rich
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-04 18:36:51
Message Id:  7968
Comments:
ps. since i beleive in a creator, my personal story about evolution is that God is the ultimate artist/scientist, and the universe is a lab, a pallette. there doesn't nessicarily have to be a reason for developement, it's just a fantastic experiment and work of art. this jives with evolution and the story that the world is to God's glory- and my observations are my feelings (undeniable to me,) of awe and joy for the world; there must be someone to thank, or some reason for all this!

~this is quite sermon-y i know, but i thought i'd throw a bone to anyone who shares my feelings/ideas/(upbringing).


Name:  Student Contributor
Username:  
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-04 20:23:38
Message Id:  7969
Comments:
In response to Prof. Dalke's request for questions, I have been struggling with one since the end of the last class. I understand the logic behind the story of evolution, of the physicality of evolution, but 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?
Somehow I feel it can't. Is this where the story of God becomes useful?
Name:  Daniela
Username:  dmiteva@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Simply nothing...
Date:  2004-02-04 21:02:25
Message Id:  7970
Comments:
Can we verify anything? With every story we tell we assert that the only think we can prove is that we can't prove anything. An absolute barrier exists between man and nature. We can never cross it, so we try to imagine what is beyond and produce a plausible imitation. But this imitation is just a human artifact. Is nature visible then? Does nature exist?

The story of the inflationary theory claims that the universe originated "as a quantum fluctuation from absolutely nothing." If we came from nothing (our stories also originated from nothing), then are we nothing? If what fuels evolution (proding prokaryotic cells to merge creating a highly organized, complicated structure with numerous compartments, membranes, chromatin, histones etc) is nothing, why then we have exactly those patterns of life? Is it a playful impulse? A quirk of a superior force? If it is, then it is still something...How can we define nothing?

In conclusion, I want to quote a question raised O.B.Hardison: "We are such things dreams are made of (Shakespeare, The Tempest). But who is doing the dreaming?"


Name:  Natasha
Username:  nseth@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  none, really
Date:  2004-02-04 23:44:59
Message Id:  7976
Comments:
i was re-reading some of chapter 7, and this thought struck, irrelevant of course, to chapter 7, but i suppose relevant enough to the discussion that i wanted to mention it. it is all well and good to accept the theory of evolution, and heck, even "believe" in it. but what if you don't believe in natural selection? maybe there is a prescribed method and survival of the fittest is not the most precise prescription of the madness behind evolution. Paul was describing the ways in which we compare organisms to see what is missing in the species list. and even at that point i thought, "how much random natural slection paired with survival of the fittest had to happen for us to have the millions of different organisms we have today?" to me that is a mathematical impossibility, an infinity if you will. in people we see what happens when we have one extra gene, and to think on the most minute level of the structure of DNA, what if the sequence is TGGCAT instead of TGCCAT? that might be enough to cause a whole new species? who knows? the infinite possibilities of just 3.5 billion years to evolve all this way without a clearly defined structure is something that i find incredibly hard to believe. maybe i just can't think that big, but still, the diversity of organisms is hard to miss, and its hard to comprehend that bacteria started us down the 3.5 billion year road at a breakneck pace so we arrive at this destination today. ....puzzlement....thoughts, anyone?
Name:  Elizabeth Catanese
Username:  ecatanes@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Art History/Evolution
Date:  2004-02-05 00:49:20
Message Id:  7978
Comments:
I'm taking Contemporary Art and Theory now with Professor Saltzman and was reading articles by Leo Steinberg about contemporary artwork (for example, the work of Jasper Johns). One of his articles called Other Criteria chronicles art work from very early on in order to get a broad perspective on several themes such as Art as work and the canvas as a space for action. I think that visual art needs to be brought into the discussion... Many scientific stories come from observation/photographs... stories often come from pictures and pictures are, in and of themsleves stories. Somehow, I think that talking about the evolution of images and art history in general could help to more concretely illuminate the story of evolution- It would be interesting to trace the trajectory of the earliest art which was not meant to be aesthetically pleasing but to tell an important story... somehow early art work could be compared to prokariotic cells, and then maybe even think about Abstract expressionism and contemporary art installations... fragmented video projects etc. as a sort of entropy... I think in terms of art right now, it is the convention to have more disorder. And maybe this parallels what will happen in terms of the earth... maybe art is just representing a faster evolutionary process...
Name:  Ro. Finn
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-05 07:31:49
Message Id:  7984
Comments:
Becky wrote, "should we look for any significance in the way things seem to change faster and faster as they evolve?... it feels like momentum, however if evolution occurs for the sake of nothing, which is something i can readily accept, i'm not sure if this thought is very helpful."

I had similar thoughts at the end of Tuesday's session. The rate of change (at the level we discussed change) has not been linear. It has accelerated over time. (We haven't talked about a "molecular clock" that seems to have a constant rate of change for the evolution of a molecule, but even that has different rates for different types of molecules/proteins.) Seems to me that as the quantity of different phenotypes AND the complexity of phenotypes both increase, the opportunity (and probability) for RANDOM Something's to click increases.

What really got me thinking is how this might apply to/effect thought or the "parts" that effect thought in a thinking species. For example, coming from a corporate background I've spent a lot of time dealing with competitiveness among organizations that, in aggregate, could be considered a virtual population in the way we are using that word. "Co-opetition" has been the buzz for quite a while: the entities that compete with each other also cooperate with each other, even merge ("breed"?) to create a new entities in order to better survive in their environment. What others and I have noticed and applied is that, today in many businesses and certainly the entire high-tech industry, the absolute topmost differentiator effecting success is SPEED. The faster an organization (organism) can adapt to accelerate conceiving of, producing, and getting its product or service to its market, the more likely it will thrive. And there are definite organizational characteristics/dynamics that have "evolved" to enable more and more speed. Seems to me that this is germane...still thinking


Name:  Heather
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-05 12:44:17
Message Id:  7989
Comments:
After class on Tuesday, I was talking with Katherine about science, and she said that what she likes about science is those "Aha!" moments, where everything makes sense, which Mayr isn't really doing for her because he isn't explaining in detail (but just expecting us to "believe"?). While reading Mayr a couple nights ago, I had an "Aha!" moment, but one that didn't relate to what he was trying to convey so much as the idea I've been struggling with: "truth" and science as story. It occured to me that transmutationism and transformationism "make sense," and if reading it in a textbook could produce an "Aha." So, if I took these theories which make sense to me as "truths" which I am leaning towards doing with evolution, my thoughts could never have evolved and made sense of evolution. Darwin, had he "believed" anything as "truth," if he hadn't kept questioning, could not have made sense of the world the way he did, told his story.
Name:  orah
Username:  ominder
Subject:  more relevant stuff
Date:  2004-02-05 13:53:10
Message Id:  7990
Comments:
found some more relevant stuff in my religion class today that ya'all might find interesting:
been reading an article called 'civil rights-civil religion: visible people and invisible religion' by charles h. long.
the article talks about how there is a sort of racism ingrained in our very language as americans. and if we want to exorcise racism from our lives we must change the very language that we use. the way in which to do this is to live with a brutal self-consious. in american history we tell a certain story and there are peoples who have become invisible. as ellison states in the begining of 'the invisible man,' "i am a man of substance, or flesh an dbone, fiber, and fluids and i might even be said to posses a mind. i am invisible understand, simple becuase people refuse to see me...the invisibility to which i refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom i come in contact. a matter of construction of the inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality." THIS is not the story that has been told. and what Long suggests-demands- is a certain kind of self-consiouness in which we defy our PHYSICAL makeup (as ellison describes it) to SEE that which we do not see. Long COMMANDS us to retell history, retell the american story, go back into history, dig up the dead, and breath life into those who where unseen, those who were never allowed breath, give them another chance to scream what they needed to scream. and Long writes, "the telling and retelling of the american experience in this mode has created a normative historical judgement and ideology of the american experience." Long says that the problem with american culture lies in its epistomology, the way in which we have come to form the stories of our culture, the way in which we have come to know what we know.

what are the stories we tell in order to BE ourselves????????????????
and how by being ourselves do we disallow others from being themselves by telling our stories, by allowing ourselves to be?

Long writes, "the invisibility of indians and blacks is matched by a void or a deeper invisibility within the consciousness of white americans. the inordinate fear they have of minoriteis is the expression of the fear they have when they contemplate the possibility of seeing themselves as they really are." the white writers of history have constructed the stories we hear today because of this deep seeded, physical, emptyness within themselves. and they have told the story of american culture in a brutal attempt to comfort themselves. WEB du bois writes in a section of this book 'the souls of the black folk,' "from this must arise a painful self-sonsciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence."

i don't have any more time to talk this out because i have to go to class...but maybe people have responses. though it is not starkly science i think it is relevant. hope you agress.


Name:  orah
Username:  ominder
Subject:  two hours later (continuing last post)
Date:  2004-02-05 16:15:05
Message Id:  7991
Comments:
this idea is still throbing in my head so i will try to clarify and continue...thanks so much for baring with me (if you are).

my main point/question from two hours ago was, "what are the stories we tell in order to BE ourselves? and how by being ourselves do we disallow others from being themselves?"
i think, quite litterally and simply, that the stories of evolution and creationism are two of the stories that we tell in order to explain our existence/justify our existence. and by ingesting one of these two stories into our beings and saying that only one of the two stories is the TRUTH then we disallow others to be themselves/to justify their own existences. by constantly critisizing creationism, mayr is saying that the story of creationsm does not justify our existence. he's going into a creationist's life and saying, 'find something better because with YOUR story your very existence is NOT justified.' but what good does this do except to get mayr off on the idea that his story is better than my story? it is more practical, it is more pragmatic, to LET BOTH BE. the beatles say it, 'let it be.' shakepeare says it (hamlet), 'let be.' it's all about PRAGMATISM. let live. beleive what you want to beleive and let others beleive what they want to beleive. whatever is USEFUL is TRUTH.

so maybe the reason we tell stories is to justify our existence.

and (i'm so sorry for ALWAYS being so long winded...*cringe*) but one more idea from james:
he says that pragmatism is "a mediator and reconciler" and that it "unstiffens our theories." pragmatism gives the label of TRUTH to both religion and science and as a culmination of so so much of my thought processes james writes, "IN SHORT, SHE (pragmatism) WIDENS THE FIELD OF SEARCH FOR GOD."

wow. that blows me away. because james realizes that EVERYTHING is a search for this thing that we call GOD. that's why stories are told. we are all searching DESPERATLY, i mean our whole existence is this godamn desperate search for something. and i think that something is GOD. and please don't get all turned off by this word and yell and scream because i'm saying that everything is religion. I don't have a definition of what God is, but rather i think that our search is what defines God. God is that which aches within humanity, it is what EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US is searching for. and we obviously don't know what that is yet because we haven't and can't ever find it. but it is God.
:)


Name:  Perrin
Username:  Pbraun@bmc
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-05 18:42:55
Message Id:  7997
Comments:
To elaborate on Orah's last comment, I don't know if I can necessarily say that everyone is searching for their own personal god, but we are indeed searching for something, and I think that something is security and knowledge. I mean, humans haven't historically searched explored their surroundings so passionately in order to find a god, but rather to take comfort in the fact that we know what is out there. Otherwise, we would always be stuck--wondering and yearning. Or maybe security and knowledge is what god really is?

But back to a more tangible subject...I don't really agree with what I'm about to write, but it's just something to think about: could the perfection that Mayer describes as the goal of evolution be defined by extreme self-sufficiency? In Prof Dalke's discussion section, the example of the mollusk was frequently invoked. Most people probably think of mollusks as "low" organisms, occupying the last rung of the evolutionary ladder, but humans are definitely more dependant and needy beings than the mollusk is. I'm not an expert on the subject, but mollusks definitely have less physical and emotional needs than we do. Does that make them "higher" or more perfect than we are? 'Perfection' is a pretty scary word and I've actually only heard that word seriously used in reference to god, not a mortal organism. So can perfection really exist on this earth?


Name:  Anne Dalke
Username:  adalke@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Out and Up and Uut and Uup...
Date:  2004-02-05 21:24:55
Message Id:  7999
Comments:

I've said several times that this class is only one of many sites on campus where stories are being written and revised. One PARTICULARLY relevant other site you are invited to visit/might want to watch on-line is the working group on emergent systems (which you are welcome to drop in on in person, too--though it DOES meet @ 8 a.m.!). In the first two sessions this semester, in which Paul led the discussion, we have sounded a number of the themes of this course. This morning, for instance, I heard in particular three keynotes of this week's class discussion:

In my class discussion section this afternoon, we explored (along with those self-sufficient mollusks Perrin mentioned!) one current example of this last idea: ways in which our understanding and then revising current stories can actually alter the shape/state of the universe--that is, the recent creation of two new chemical elements, which both fill a gap in the periodic table and hint @ other yet-to-be discovered elements.


Name:  Roz
Username:  rschorr@brynmawr.edy
Subject:  Evolution in the Classroom
Date:  2004-02-06 10:31:53
Message Id:  8002
Comments:
I've been dwelling on the question as to whether or not evolution should be taught in classrooms, and if it should even be called evolution. I feel strongly that evolution should be taught just as mathematics and literature should. Evolution is a scientific theory with the same qualities that are upheld within mathematic theories. Evolution is also a story with the same qualities that are upheld within great works of literature. In english classes, books (as well as plays and poems) are read, discussed, and analyzed; and not everyone learning in the class agrees with, or understands, what is being said about the work. I remember my senior year in high school we read Hamlet and had to do a character anaylis. I chose Claudius who was very complex and had a lot of meaning in the play. I thought I had proved my points clearly but when my paper was returned it was covered in red ink that said most of what I believed was wrong, but they were my thoughts and my drawings of his character. Students don't have to believe everything they are taught, and teachers don't have to teach with an air of you must believe this, because this is what I say attached to their lecture. Teaching evolution is another form of educating children and allowing them to decide if they believe in creationism, evolution, or a mixture of both. Taking the theory of evolution out of the curriculum is as harmful as taking out religion classes.
Name:  Diane Scarpa
Username:  dscarpa@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-07 12:47:03
Message Id:  8008
Comments:
Student Contributor 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 Student Contributor's original question..
Name:  Paul Grobstein
Username:  pgrobste@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  this week
Date:  2004-02-07 13:36:06
Message Id:  8009
Comments:
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. But if someone needs something to get them started, an interesting issue that came up in our section on Thursday was the question of whether biological evolution is inevitable. 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? That last question has some interesting resonances to story telling, in that there are similarities in myths between quite different cultures. How come?
Name:  Student Contributor
Username:  
Subject:  Evolution of Stories
Date:  2004-02-07 15:10:43
Message Id:  8011
Comments:
Professor Grobstein raises an interesting point. This course has been primarily concerned with the evolution of species, of biological life, but what about culture (as Daniel points out in her last posting) or even religion? We have yet to discuss the evolution of stories and, I admit, this comment may be a little premature, but 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 (ex. Women's rights)?

There are similarities in myth/truth between different cultures. For example, all three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) share similar prophets who are recorded to have told similar stories (there are few exceptions, of course. Changes needed to be made to satisfy the population, maybe?). But even before the birth of these religions, ancient cultural myths (such as Ancient Greek myths) told similar stories. 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?


Name:  meg
Username:  mfolcare@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  evolution
Date:  2004-02-07 18:48:54
Message Id:  8016
Comments:
I like to think that stories evolved the way humans did. We spread out all over the globe, and still managed to evolve into the same species. I think that stories are the same way. It is hard to picture stories having a common ancestor though, because despite the fact that the same stories appear across cultures, there are many of these instances. The stories are so diverse, for example many have a Cinderella story, but many cultures also have a flood story similar to Noah's. There is very little chance that these two stories have a common ancestor. I think that the stories told reflect the basic human qualities, and show that people think very similarly. It is another example of how we managed to evolve separately and turn out the same.
Name:  stefanie
Username:  sfedak@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  What if God was One of Us?
Date:  2004-02-08 00:57:57
Message Id:  8023
Comments:
orah orah orah!
so orah and i had dinner the other night, and i definitely get where she is heading with her posts about the notorious G.O.D. she has the right idea.

God is a loose term that we have given to "truth". all people seek truth, but some people call it God. Perrin is on the right track, but i think it should be recognized that our search for truth is less about security as it is about the innate human desire to understand.

In Grobstein's discussion section on thursday 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. orah made a point the other night, which i had been pondering myself, and that is whether this return to evolution is like the contraction and expansion we had spoken about in previous weeks. there is contraction and expansion in literature, science, and all aspects of life...so why not evolution?


Name:  reeve
Username:  rbasom@haverford.edu
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-08 13:57:22
Message Id:  8027
Comments:
Orah's posting about racism and language touches on something so important. We may be able to chose to believe in some stories and not others or to believe in a story so far as we find it useful, but there is a kind of story that we are a part of just by virtue of our membership in society, the kind of story that structures society and the systems that produce and disseminate knowledge. The stories that we tell, the way we interpret stories, and our ability to believe or dismiss stories is constrained/informed by other stories that are perpetuated by our unconscious participation within them. For example, I strongly believe in social justice and active antiracism work, but the systemic racism of this society affords me power and privilege as a white person - the fact that I benefit from this privilege means that I participate (even though it is unconscious participation) in the perpetuation of the system (story?) that upholds white power and privelege through the marginalization of people of color. 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.
I'm sorry if this is convoluted or unclear. It's something I struggle to think about and struggle even more to articulate. Again, similar to something Orah said, I feel somewhat constrained by the language we have to talk about race and racism.
Name:  Julia
Username:  jeddy@bmc
Subject:  re-evolution
Date:  2004-02-08 15:01:43
Message Id:  8029
Comments:
Wow, this thought of repeating the process is racing through my head. 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? Is it all part of a greater plan, and therefore repetition inevitable? or could a whole new set changes occur over time resulting in something totally different (perhaps no life as we know it at all)? I'm sure we all can remember a time, i know i can, when we did something, said something, hesitated, etc..., and wondered after, what would have happened if we had taken a different path. So much of our personal evolution is random spontaneous actions that are often taken for granted. It seems that the same goes for much of biological evolution as well.

And on a similar more universal note, 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?

Mind boggling.... I shall have to continue thinking about this one.


Name:  su-lyn
Username:  spoon@hc
Subject:  stories structuring societies
Date:  2004-02-08 15:11:16
Message Id:  8031
Comments:

Reeve's post: "the kind of story that structures society and the systems that produce and disseminate knowledge". My tangent off of it:

Stories structure our societies by acting as a locus for story-tellers. So, with regard to the story of science, we have practicing scientists, science teachers, science journalists, philosophers of science, and sociologists of science. Where we stand in this web depends on the extent to which we believe in the story: whether it's worth devoting one's life to acting by it or sharing it with others, whether it says enough by itself, whether it says anything at all.

Then again, think about it this way: Teachers can now teach science, journalists write about it, philosophers think about it and sociologists study it. 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...
Name:  su-lyn
Username:  spoon@hc
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-08 15:27:54
Message Id:  8032
Comments:

Julia, don't know how familiar you may be with the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, but here's how one story goes:

Cretaceous. Big dinosaurs with furry four-legged bite-sized creatures getting in between their toes. "Mmm, that one looks deliiiicious!".

At the boundary. Something bad happens. Dinosaurs swear they didn't do it. (If not them, then who?) Dinosaurs, along with 45% of all genera, push up daisies. Bite-sized creatures survive.

Tertiary onwards: Bite-sized creatures get bigger. Invent the wheel and IKEA.

The End.

Moral of the story: The bolide did it. 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.

So goes the story, anyway.
Name:  katherine
Username:  kpioli
Subject:  god
Date:  2004-02-08 15:37:17
Message Id:  8033
Comments:
I haven't even read all of the posted comments, but i just finished reading Orah's GOD posting. I instantly thought, this girl and I are so similar. I have often felt that god is really a universal feeling or searching that all humans experience, maybe love, and not a being who conducts our lives. Still, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word "god". I feel like ever time I say "god" people think of a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud. I feel like "god" instantly suggests one accepted coarse of action, a pre-determined path, finalized right and wrongs. You know, the untimate christian higher being. Maybe most "religious" people don't picture god this way anymore, but i am still weary that they do. therefore I shy away from using the word. I have to laugh because then I feel much like the woman in Georgia who wants to strike "evolution" from the text books and replace it with an alternate phrase. 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 if I say "love" or "spirit" or "common consiousness" to replace the G-word?
Name:  orah
Username:  ominder
Subject:  words
Date:  2004-02-08 19:40:22
Message Id:  8040
Comments:
i call it Love, too!!! call it whatever you want, just as long as we realize we're talking about the same thing. and we don't even know what this same thing is...all we know is that we're all on this crazy trip searching for the exact same thing. isn't that wonderful? that we are all here, telling our own unique stories, all doing the exact same thing. and we spend our whole lives trying to find someone who will understand, trying so so hard to find a person who will justify our existence....we inevitably fail, but i think if we all realized that we are all looking for the same thing: God, Love, Truth, Eachother... whatever abstract word you want to use....if we realized that we all want the same thing, even though we don't know what it is...........
words only limit things. they are shabby equitment. they are what we use to capture and yet the only thing they succeed in capturing is US. they are just vague categoizations, keeping us apart from the things we see, preventing us from seeing things for what they ARE.
we inevitably want to capture the world, the universe. i think it's in our nature. we want to control. the first command that given in the bible is, "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and SUBDUE it." and that's what we try to do with words. we throw our dull spear-words at everything, trying to capture the essence of thing....we fail....words collapse....."words strain / crack and sometimes break, under the burden / under the tension, slip, slide, persih, / decay with impercision" (eliot).....and we sink with them.....and the the sea and all of time rolls on over us ..... so let's not talk about it.
been thinking about what reeve wrote and, yeh, it's scary scary stuff...because we condemn racism and we scream and yell for equal rights and democracy and i hate capitalism and yet we are in the matrix and can't get out. and we are told that we have freedom of choice and all that BS, but those stories are the shakles that keep us tightly bound in this matrix. it's interesting to think how stories have such a PHYSICAL power over us....don't they? and as i said before it isn't just the stories that keep us bound it's the words themselves.

and i ask again,
what are the stories we tell to BE ourselves?
and how by being ourselves do we disallow others from being themselves?


Name:  Daniela
Username:  dmiteva@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Of Myths and Mayr
Date:  2004-02-08 20:38:29
Message Id:  8045
Comments:
As I wrote in an earlier posting, nature is a human artifact. Human myths are sort of proof thereof. People tend to superimpose their way of thinking, observations of the human society, mores etc on the surrounding world. Not surprising is it then that the Sun and the Moon, for an instance,are often represented as either brother and sister or as man and wife in various cultures all around the world. The Sun travels from its house in a carriage drawn by winged-horses, while the Moon awaits his return at home. I think these myths reflect the 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. Using their everyday experience, primeval people (and some afterwards)told those stories. So, because those people knew no other faster way of transportation, the Sun was purported to travel in a carriage (also symbol of wealth, and authority in many societies).

Also, I find it striking that most gods are in the shape of humans (or bear human resemblance). Observing the natural world, people gradually came to the conclusion that no other known species is superior to them.(true, some are stronger, but none of them can come up with ruses and srtategies for hunting, harnessing water etc). This observation makes me wonder whether peole can worship something they can't imagine. Can human imagination beget forms no one has ever seen? Or can people only collect various pieces of the world they see and simply improvise on putting them together?

Furthermore, people have always tried to take some advantage of nature. Because trade/agriculture/the well-being in general of a society often depended solely on the nearby river/sea/ocean, why not try to propitiate the Spirits that control them? That natural objects are controlled by a superior force is beyond doubt for the primeval societies. From their observations of the regular patterns of natural events they could deduce that somebody/something must be in charge of them. So, if a society's well-being depends on this somebody/something, why not try to propitiate him/her/it?

Myths make me reconsider the role of Ernst Mayr's story. He is not telling a new story, what is the aim of the book then?


Name:  bethany keffala
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  Your toes, by any other name would still smell like feet...
Date:  2004-02-08 22:34:34
Message Id:  8049
Comments:
I think this may be relevant to Grobstein's half of the discussion from Thursday, the question about evolution taking place in isolated communities (Sorry, I know it's a bit long, but I think it's really interesting. There is more on the site if you are interested, with more relevance to 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. There are some freaks of nature as you will see if you continue...):


PETER THOMAS: But sometimes, regardless of approach, historical linguistics is faced with an unsolvable puzzle. There is one language in Europe which has baffled scholars for centuries. Sarak looks like a typical French village, but its graveyard holds a linguistic secret. Inscribed alongside the French is the mysterious language of the Basque people. The language is called Euskara, and it has resisted any classification so far. It is called a language isolate, an orphan among languages with no known relatives. The land of the Basques straddles the borders of France and Spain. No amount of analysis has been able to link Euskara to French, Spanish, or to any European language, nor, in fact, to a language anywhere in the world. How could this linguistic isolation come about? Perhaps it was the fierce independence of the Basque people, their resistance to outside invaders and their strong history of oral tradition. But, whatever the reason, the Basque language has withstood centuries of influence. Scientists have wondered whether a biological comparison between the Basques and their Indo-European-speaking neighbors would reflect that isolation as well.
LUIGI CAVALLI-SFORZA: What we ordinarily do in biology is, really, bilateral comparisons, but we do them all, all the possible ones.
PETER THOMAS: Geneticist Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University was a pioneer in the search for notable biological indicators.
LUIGI CAVALLI-SFORZA: They must realize that there is a degree of relationship, and that it's very important to take that into account. Otherwise, you cannot do anything.
PETER THOMAS: Cavalli-Sforza was interested in exploring historical relationships among different populations by examining their genes, rather than their languages. Would his research team find the Basques as unique as the linguists found them? If the Basques are as isolated as their language suggests, this isolation might also show up in their genetic makeup, blood groups, DNA patterns, and so on. New techniques now make it possible to carry out much more detailed analyses of individuals and populations using just a few living cells, in this case, cells from a hair follicle. The DNA pattern not only distinguishes the Basques from their neighbors, it suggests they must have been among the earliest people to settle in Europe.
LUIGI CAVALLI-SFORZA: Basques were recognized as genetically different a long time ago. Basques are so different that they must have been proto-Europeans. Basques were probably the descendants of cultures that have made all those beautiful painted rock paintings in the southwest of France and in the north of Spain.
PETER THOMAS: These cave paintings, many of them located in Basque country, were painted fifteen thousand years ago. Since the genetic data suggests the Basques have been a distinct group for thousands of years, isolated from other peoples, it may have been their ancestors who painted these caves during the last Ice Age. Although this conclusion is speculative, Cavalli-Sforza is trying to use these techniques to solve other linguistic puzzles, including Greenberg's controversial classification of Native American languages. DNA samples from may different tribes in North and South America were collected and analyzed in Cavalli-Sforza's lab at Stanford. He believes his results provide a strong confirmation of Greenberg's groupings.
LUIGI CAVALLI-SFORZA: When we took all the data from American natives, they clearly fell into three classes, and they correspond exactly to the linguistic families that have been postulated by Greenberg. Not only that, but the family which is most heterogeneous of all genetically is the one that is linguistically more heterogeneous of all.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2120glang.html

Thinking about it now again, there are more similarities between these two stories. 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. How many origins could there have been? Is this science? Philosophy? both...
...
ALSO!
I'm so glad that Orah and Katherine and Stefanie(and others?) feel this way about GOD/LOVE/UNDERSTANDING. It really strikes a chord (I've always wondered, is it strikes a chord, or strikes accord?) with me...I've always loved those 'AHA' moments when you find a parallel, a pattern, what in physics, I think, has come to be known as the theory of everything, how we feel that there is some answer that will make all of our questions obsolete, that everything is connected. I think we can feel it all around us, and yet it's so invisible and elusive, . I think that when we feel most fulfilled, it is perhaps when we come closer to understanding these connections, viewing at the same time these exapansions and these contractions, these fluctuations of IT, whatever that may be, God, Love, ultimate Understanding, George...
I think that's all I have for now...still brewing.


Name:  emily
Username:  emadsen@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  connecting the dots?
Date:  2004-02-09 09:04:00
Message Id:  8062
Comments:
i was talking with my good friend over the weekend, and we were talking about fear. for a moment there was a shifting of the contents of my brain, and then i was thinking-- i know why i tell stories. i know why i tell the stories that allow me to be. i tell the story about the little dark-haired baby with the moon face who scowled out of the womb because of fear. i tell the story of the girl who saved a hornet from drowning only to be stung because of fear. listen-- if i don't have these stories, what do i have? i don't have my self, which is a very scary proposition. it's not nail-biting, wide-eyed fear, it's the kind of cosmic twisting of the guts that makes me run towards defining 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-- things like racism and homophobia and AIDS. so i guess i'm asking: could fear be the flip side to god? or is it just another factor enabling the search for truth/love/understanding/god? my friend thinks i should lighten up, but in truth, i am not upset to be realizing all this. in fact, i am comforted. is this a function of the new story i'm telling my self?
Name:  katherine
Username:  kpioli
Subject:  Ponderings
Date:  2004-02-09 10:05:04
Message Id:  8064
Comments:
Bethany- I think that it is "a chord".

There are some really mind-bending things being bounced around this week. Hard to keep track of it all, hard to find my own deep-down opinions about some of this stuff. If life on earth started over again, we went back in time to the moment when the rocks and gases first fused to make this planet, would evolution happen in exactally the same way with the same results as now? I must say flat out, No, I don't beleive we would find the same exact results twice. Evolution and life itself seems to be a matter of chance. (Especially if evolution is really not directed at any purpose, the purpose is nothing, why would it ever follow the same path twice?) Random mutations have no logical order, they just happen. So I think that it would be more likely to have a different random mutation and evolutions the second time around than the same one.

Um...what are the stories we tell to be ourselves? I take this to mean, how do we imagine ourselves? What do we bring together in our minds to create an image of who we are as an individual, and how is that reflected in our actions, and how do these actions affect people around us? I am not ready to divulge to this forum exactally what stories I tell myself to make me who I am, that's a bit personal, but 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?


Name:  Lauren Friedman
Username:  lfriedma
Subject:  scattered thoughts, as usual
Date:  2004-02-09 15:51:16
Message Id:  8070
Comments:
I have a couple of thoughts which I'm having trouble tying together in a neat little bundle, so I'm just going to address them separately.

First, Orah's questions ("what are the stories we tell to BE ourselves? and how by being ourselves do we disallow others from being themselves?") really got me thinking. Her questions take me back to some discussions we were having previously, regarding the absence of "truth" and how important it is to be open to other people's stories, even if they contradict one's own. "Being ourselves" can disallow others from being themselves only if we refuse to open our minds to the stories of other people. 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 (i.e., does it matter if we call evolution "biological changes over time"? Does that really change anything?). I think that sometimes a name can have a huge effect on how an idea is received. For example, my pet cause in high school was gun control. I started up a branch of a national organization and flyered the school with startling statistics. I got in trouble when the national people found the website I'd made for my local branch. Apparently, "gun control' was too controversial, and they demanded that I remove it from the site. The appropriate terminology, I quickly learned, was "anti-gun violence." The idea was that people could say they were against gun control, but what maniac would claim to be pro-gun violence? We see a similar idea surrounding the abortion debate (pro-life implies the other side is anti-life, pro-choice implies the other side is anti-choice), and the debate surrounded same-sex unions (many more people support civil unions for same-sex couples than marriage, even though they are essentially the same things with different names). Anyway. This was just a very verbose way of saying that calling evolution "biological changes over time" might actually make more people open-minded to the idea.

Sorry for another long-winded posting. See you in class.
Name:  Student Contributor
Username:  
Subject:  Stories and Fear
Date:  2004-02-09 18:40:06
Message Id:  8072
Comments:
"listen-- if i don't have these stories, what do i have? i don't have my self, which is a very scary proposition."

Reading this (and re-reading this over and over again) I couldn't help but feeling that Emily had struck a nerve with her statement. Where Emily tells stories out of fear, I realized that I believe in stories out of fear. If I don't have the "story" of God, or the "story" of religion, or even the "story" that somehow, in the cosmic existence of things, my life does really matter, that my life does hold some purpose, if I don't have these "stories" then I don't have my self. And if I don't have my self, then I am left with nothing but a story of myself...and why would this story be any different from all the rest?

We tell stories, and we believe in them, because this is what shapes our existence. Last week I was concerned with the evolution of thought, but more importantly, it was the introduction of thought that set us apart from all the other species of the world. And what did we do once we began thinking as a species? We began to tell stories. Without these stories we don't exist. And to not exist is a very scary thing.


Name:  Elizabeth Deacon
Username:  edeacon@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Perfection
Date:  2004-02-09 18:48:41
Message Id:  8073
Comments:
I've been thinking about the word "perfection," and why Mayr keeps using it, and why most people use it.

I think most people who like to say that humans are perfect, or at least more perfect than anything else, or at the top of the food chain or what have you mean that we are the best at what we do. Most Americans like to think of themselves as above average, and to some degree this attitude is visible in all humans, visible in that we almost always think of ourselves as better than all other living beings.

Obviously we're the best; we speak, build cities and use complex tools, reason out how the universe works, do so many things that place us far above other animals. True, they can often run faster than us, or hear better, or live in better harmony with the world, or do something that we can't do at all, like fly. But those things just aren't as good as talking, right? Well, I suspect that if, say, eagles can think, and are pondering the nature of the universe as they turn lazy circles high up in the air, they're thinking about how they are obviously superior to all other beings, especially us humans who spend all our time running around for no good reason and can't even fly.

My point here is, when most people say humans are the best, they mean we're the best at what we do, which is the most important thing to be able to do because we can do it and we're the best.

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.

Probably this isn't the whole reason Mayr calls things perfect; there's no reason to use such a touchy word when he means something relatively innocuous. But I feel that' s part of the reason he describes things that way.


Name:  Jen Sheehan
Username:  jsheehan@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Mayr's use of "perfection"
Date:  2004-02-09 19:34:31
Message Id:  8074
Comments:
I think the idea of a scientist like Mayr using the term "perfection" -- such a loaded term! -- disturbs us because it strikes us as being a kind of value judgment. The terms seems to imply that a particular species is superior to all others, or that it has reached some sort of shining pinnacle and can evolve no further...and like the "hierarchy of races" established by racist 19th century biologists, in which they ranked different races according to how "developed" and "evolved" they were (by European standards), it causes us tremendous discomfort because it seems so arrogant and presumptuous. Who are we to say that we are more perfect than other species, or that we have reached such a perfect state that we can evolve no longer?

But I didn't get the impression from reading the book that Mayr was implying such a thing. I found myself nodding in agreement with Elizabeth in her estimation of Mayr's intent: 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. On Thursday when we were divided into our sections, Anne commented on how Mayr's rather careless use of "perfection" might have simply stemmed from a scientist's natural awe at the world, and a biologist's appreciation of just how amazing it is that life has evolved into such rich diversity and adaptability. I remember when I was in the rainforest in Costa Rica two years ago and looked around me, thinking to myself, "This is so perfect" -- and I didn't really mean "perfect" in the strict definition of the word, but just how all the flora and fauna and even the accompanying weather (a tremendous downpour of rain, followed by bright sunlight filtering through the trees) seemed to be in such a wonderful balance and state of "rightness." Every plant was suited for that environment; so was every animal.

And yet, it didn't have to happen that way; Prof. Grobstein asked in this forum "whether biological evolution is inevitable. Suppose that one were to start the proccess over again, would it come out the same?" I believe that evolution in inevitable, but 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." I wish he didn't use the term, but I can understand his reasons for doing so.


Name:  Elizabeth Catanese
Username:  ecatanes@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  career and evolution
Date:  2004-02-09 19:46:28
Message Id:  8076
Comments:
I'm very intersted in Orah's idea that we are all searching for something... all in persuit of the same basic goal which can be defined, in an abstract way, as God or the follow up posting which said that it could be defined as "love" or as "another abstract word" etc... That's a very reductive synthesis of all of that great thought, but I was really taken by these ideas. I think it's absolutely right, for me, at least... but maybe not for everyone. I guess everyone subconciously is searching for this "[abstract word]" but I think some people are more concious of it than others... I think Emily's idea that fear is the flip side to God (abstract word equivalent) is an interesting one too and that we do often tell stories because we are afraid. I think that fear is equivalent to the PROCESS of finding God (or abstract word)... becoming concious of what exactly we are doing here is scary... the more we think, the scarier it can get and also the more complex the ways that we can try and come to understand the world. Some people though try and understand less so as not to have to confront it at all. Which is a choice also... I'm not sure how many people make that choice.

Julia said "so much of our personal evolution is random spontaneous actions that are often taken for granted." I was having a conversation with a friend this weekend. She is a BMC senior who has taken science courses for all of her life and is pre-med. She has always wanted to go to med school and become a doctor... but just recently she has begun to reevaluate that and has started thinking that she might want to be an architect instead. This is causing quite a bit of anxiety on her part because she has spent so much of her life headed in this one direction and does not find anything terribly wrong with the direction where she's going. She said that she never would have even considered doing something other than med school if there had not been several things which happened in the past two years, one of which (the factor particularly relevant to this particular forum entry) was deciding to take architecture courses at Bryn Mawr because she had never done that before. So I guess the point is, that this random act of taking architecture classes may have a lasting effect on her future. I think it's wonderful that she's open enough to re-evaluate... (to let different prokariotes bump into each other to speak metaphorically) because something really wonderful and unexpected may evolve. My friend and I taked for a long time trying to figure out what she should do and in the end, I told her that it didn't matter too much what she did because there are an infinite number of "whats" in the world but only one "who"... that she will still be essentially who she is at the core whether she becomes an architect or a doctor. I hadn't thought that this was much related to evolution but I do think that it somehow is, especially with Professor Grobstein's lecture... that a large part of evolution did in fact happen by chance... I guess what matters is not so much how it happened as the fact that it happened. But as individuals, we somehow need to know how it happened to exist happily within the realm "it did indeed happen." Frightening, exciting, necessary, perplexing... Here we all are.


Name:  Ro. Finn
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  
Date:  2004-02-10 07:10:04
Message Id:  8087
Comments:
I'd like to weigh in on the discussion surrounding Mayr's unexpected and, to some of us, disturbing use of "perfection" as an explanation for where evolution of a population is heading as it changes randomly over time. In one way it's just one more example of Mayr's inscrutable notions sprinkled here and there throughout a fair bit of otherwise easily digested logic. But why don't we expect scientists to think about perfection? Do we think their intentions are to only observe? Or are they observing in order to understand and to then apply what they learn "improve" things? (We could certainly question the definition of "improvement" as it's comes about over time—to a number of things and situations). But if we can accept that science has produced improvements, doesn't that suggest a movement towards perfection?

In our discussion we may be shifting our own definition of something that sounds brittle and inflexible (perfect) to something that's iterative and regenerating...as if all that happens happens on two interacting axes—like the earth rotating around the sun, combined with the earth spinning on its axis—both of which contribute to the changing seasons. Maybe this is a universal formula that applies at both the macro and micro levels in our realm of reality.

Maybe we're recognizing that nothing may go in a straight line from simple to complex (or good to better to best of all). The relevant geometric shapes for evolution seems to be the circle, the sphere.

BTW, does any of what we're thinking about--or the way in which we're thinking and talking--remind anybody of Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass"?


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