Archive of Weeks 2-4 Forum: What Evolution Is

Current Forum and Forum Archives for "The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories" (Spring 2005)

What Is Evolution?
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 01/21/2005 09:44
Link to this Comment: 12140

Welcome to Week Two of the Evolution of Stories. We'll begin discussing "what evolution is" this week, with assistance from the first four chapters of Mayr's book on the subject. If you have questions, responses, confusions, revelations, continuities, catastropes as you're reading....

please post them here--

Jargon & equilibrium
Name: Brittany Pladek (
Date: 01/22/2005 14:52
Link to this Comment: 12156

Serendip deleted this twice already, I'm getting tired of retyping it... *argh*

For a book that's supposedly a layperson's guide to evolution, I was surprised at the amount of jargon/specific information Ernst Mayr used to support his case. For example, some of the little box-charts he included were all Greek to me---I don't know the difference between euryoec and stenoec, what propagules are, and what the presence of peroxisomes means. I guess I'm just woefully ignorant when it comes to biology, and that's my own fault... but still, I wish Mayr had included a tad more explanation in a few of his examples. :)

As to the book itself, good so far. I particularly like the way Mayr "lists" the evidence for evolution in different fields of science.

What I was surprised *not* to find was an explanation, or at least acknowledgement, of punctuated equilibrium. Wasn't that the New Hot Thing a few years back? At least, I seem to remember a lot of brouhaha over the idea that species evolved in direct relation to changes in their environment, and that the tempo of evolution echoed these changes, either speeding up or slowing down in accordance with environmental shifts. Because the tempo of evolution wasn't constant, the fossil record has gaps where evolution was occuring too quickly to leave a sizable sample of intermediate specimens.
When Mayr writes that "according to Darwinism there should be smooth continuity in the sequence of fossils in succeeding strata. Alas... the fossil record presents us with almost nothing but dicsontinuities," I thought he was going to launch into an explanation of punctuated equilibrium. Instead, he explains the gaps in the same way Darwin did: "the extreme imperfection of hte geological record."

My question to anyone who knows: whatever happened to punctuated equilibrium? Did it get disproven, or was it never as widely accepted as I thought it was?

Various comments and questions
Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 01/23/2005 00:29
Link to this Comment: 12166

In response to what Brittany said, about punctuated equilibrium: I'm pretty sure that theory's still out there, and hasn't been disproven... I kind of wondered about that too. It was odd he left it out. I guess it's possible he'll talk about it later.

I had a little trouble getting into the book, since I read a little bit of Ernst Mayr once to research for a paper and he just seemed very arrogant. He doesn't really show much respect for counter-arguments to his beliefs. I couldn't help but notice that his list of books summarizing the controversy between creationists and evolutionists were all anti-creationist books. Not that I'm a supporter of creationism, but there's a difference between disagreeing with a belief or theory and disrespecting it.

A couple questions and things the book has made me wonder about so far... As he was talking about how the fossil record for the soft-bodied pre-Cambrian organisms is virtually non-existent, I started thinking about how many organisms and species have left absolutely no trace that they ever existed. It's really kind of sad, if you think about it- so many little lives that have left no record, that don't live on in any memory. And one day when the Earth is gone it'll probably be the same for humans.

What he said about radioactive dating of fossils being possible if they're in volcanic rocks, because they're among the only ones with radioactive minerals- I wonder why that is. That they in particular would have radioactive minerals, that is. And I also thought it was interesting, what he said about ancestral structures like gill slits being embryonic organizers. I was left a bit confused but intrigued by that and disappointed he hadn't pursued the topic a bit further and made it a bit more understandable.

Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 01/23/2005 14:24
Link to this Comment: 12170

Evolution is the gradual change of something over time into something that can be classified as different. However, gradual does not imply that it happens at the same rate, it implies that a series of smaller steps are required because too large a change all at once would be most likely detrimental. However, the series of small changes can happen rapidly, as with the explosion of the mammal population after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Factoring in the fact that even the smallest change to the genetic code can drastically alter phenotype, it seems to me that the book supported the commonly accepted sciencetific theories of gradual and rapid speciation. Thus showing both punctuated equilibrium (periods of rapid change) and gradualism(slow change over time) It also shows that everything must build on something else and there is a meandering path between "simplicity" and "complexity".
I found the book repetitive. I had heard all of these theories before and was hoping for something new. I was suprised, however, that when talking about the origin of life, he failed to mention the fact that scientists have managed to create organic compounds from inorganic compounds. While it isn't actual life, all life is made from organic compounds. So while we haven't made actual life, we have made the building blocks of life. I was also suprised that while he went into a long discussion about why bacterial species are hard to classify, he didn't speak at length on the definition of species in other organisms.

Name: Kate Shiner (
Date: 01/24/2005 12:59
Link to this Comment: 12189

I agree that Mayr can often seem arrogant. He wrote that "most" people who believe the earth was created my some kind of God believe no species on the earth has ever changed or evolved. He doesn't even consider that the two views might not be wholely incompatible.

He also seems to skip over a lot of basic tenets of evolution,at least in these first few chapters. At points he launches into radical detail without giving any kind of introduction or explanation of where he is coming from. For example he will avoid mentioning DNA and oversimplify things as he writes about genes, then when he can't avoid it anymore will just start writing about specific molecules in DNA without explaining what they are. Then he includes these ridiculously complicated charts and doesn't even explain what point he is trying to make with them. I have studied biology and feel I understand evolution quite well, but his "storytelling" method really doesn't hold my interest, and I don't feel that it has taught me much. I don't know how someone without a solid science background would get much besides a very muddled and generalized picture out of this book. I'm hoping I will get more out of it as I continue to read.

I also am very interested in the idea of punctuated equilibrium. In the introduction I believe Mayr wrote that it was a complicated detail he chose not to include..but I think as far as what evolution's relation to creating stories might be, it could be a fundamental detail.

week 2
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 01/24/2005 15:12
Link to this Comment: 12193

Sorry not to have gotten as far today as I intended (see notes, which we'll continue with next week). Do think though that some serious discussion about what one understands by and/or means by "science" is important for our conversation in this course, both generally and specifically in relation to evolution. And thought we had a good start on that. Thanks to all for contributions and, of course, we can continue the "science" discussion here and in class Wednesday. WILL get to evolution, and to some of the issues already raised here, next Monday.

From Lot's wife: a catastrophic story...
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 01/24/2005 15:43
Link to this Comment: 12195

While we're archiving: might as well include the past as well as the future.
Here's the *huge* snowman I told you about, as figure for
my story of our on-line discussion of varieties of storytelling styles...

My other "image" for today's class was the "möbius scarf" Debi Peterson knit for me; see Möbius Strip for a "mathworld" explanation how this works. For me, it operates quite nicely as an image for how stories may look different from different perspectives ("inside" and "outside"?) , yet on another level, "be the same" (form a single surface?)....

Evolution as told by Ernst Mayr
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 01/24/2005 16:37
Link to this Comment: 12202

Evolution as presented by Ernst Mayr is truth. As I read the book, it seemed textual and hence at first sight in some ways the truth, or accepted knowledge. I had to constantly remind myself of the existence of so many truths regarding evolution and in general science.This was a problematic annoyance that when mentioned in class excited me because I was not the only one who felt as though he was almost assuming a religious type knowledge that was truth and hence unquestionable. Science in and of itself is questionable and thats what makes it progressive as Professor Grobstein mentioned becomes a pooling of observances that result in consistencey. Mayr belives in only his own consistency and does not present it in a way that welcomes other theories. However to be fair to him he does include sections on how diffferent people think and study the process of evolution and the origin of life. However even in that presentation is a sense of his being right and the others being wrong. Nevertheless he does present a good overview of the concepts of evolution which are relatively new to a person whose last biology class was in high school.Also not knowing a lot about the topic fascinated me and I must say Mayr's story of evolution is very interesting and logical enabling my ignorance to form an opinion based on only one source. That scares me but as I sometimes got so into what he was saying that I let my guard down and let him simply tell me the story.

I suppose evolution as I understood it was the gradual change of organisms in population and diversity according to the environments that they were exposed to. I think the most fascinating assertion made by Darwin was that "all organisms on Earth had common ancestors and that probably all life on Earth had started wth a single origin of life." (Mayr. pg. 21) I always had heard that and actually had read it in some Quranic scripture and so I found that all the more interesting. To see religious scripture make a similar assertion as Darwin and some modern evolutionists was to be honest strange. Religious scripture obviously was vague but nevertheless I noticed that.

I tried really hard to read this as a novel but the technical jargon made it too much like a text. However I did form my own story, the Mayr story but removed the technical words to form a shorter story of evolution. I found that both easier and more accessible. I think I need to read more of this book before I really figure out how this 97 year old man has presented and told the story of evolution. I dont think he means to dismiss other interpretations but his style of writing is extremely textual and hence taken to seem like he thinks his story is truth.

Why I must take notes on Mayr
Name: Kelsey Smith (
Date: 01/25/2005 17:10
Link to this Comment: 12224

Professor Grobstein indicated in class that we should not take notes on what we read. However, I am continuing to take notes because I don't agree with everything that I am reading. In writing down notes, I will best be able to address the topic of evolution when I write my critique. I also like to be efficient, an end which is best achieved if I can reread my notes rather than continually returning to the text.

On Mobius scarfs and Mayr
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 01/25/2005 21:53
Link to this Comment: 12228

AnneŃÝs Mobius scarf and the article that she posted (although I didnŃÝt understand a lot of the math equations (hmm, what kind of story telling is math?)) gave me some imagery to relate back to our first discussion about story telling style. The concept of the Mobius strip (and my interpretation of it) reflects my continuous view of stories. I believe that all stories are linked together and that they flow continuously into each other and are built off of one another. The Mobius strip also has a way of incorporating the catastrophic view. The twist can represent catastrophe, something unexpected which disturbs what would otherwise be a circle. The shape still holds constant(supporting my continuous view) and eventually, the band twists so that it is back to its original orientation (resolution/circularity/revision/reflection). Also, because the twist is part of the Mobius band, catastrophe can be seen as something that can be expected, something that is a part of life and a part of stories. Eventually, something unexpected is going to happen but it will resolve itself.

In one of the links, (PaulŃÝs 'notes', I think) it was written: Ń°I don't "believe" in stories, wherever they come from. I listen to them, learn from them, and make use of them when I find them useful. To "believe" in a story is, for me, to end the ongoing process of discovery, of "getting it less wrong", and that's not something I'm inclined to do. I'd rather go on changing/evolving/emerging.ŃĪ Since, as I have already stated, I am an uniformitarian thinker, cross-referencing and linking is what the story of my life is all about. The point is not to Ń®believeŃÝ in a story but to perceive it, and by doing so, to interpret it. I think that it is undeniable that stories exist and that just by living our lives we create our own stories (our thoughts, perceptions,and interpretations)

So, now that I have written about Mobius bands and reiterated and expanded on my theory of stories, I should probably write about Mayr. I agree with many others who have posted saying that he is bias (he does not emphasize the importance of creationism as a stepping stone that lead to the theory of evolution and that he is overly technical and should go into more details in his examplesŃ-). Every story has bias and I think that MayrŃÝs faults make his book a more interesting read. His statements are provocative (Mayr (page 5) Ń°we turn to science when we want to learn the real truth about the history of the world." His biases challenge us to think critically while reading his story. Our interpretations of the text should try to fill in some of the Ń®holesŃÝ in MayrŃÝs book, to tell a story about our experiences with the text.

PS: How do you create links in posts? It would help to be able to so easily refer to other postings or items of interest.

Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 01/26/2005 07:30
Link to this Comment: 12231

Having said that "all stories are linked together and that they flow continuously into each other and are built off of one another, " Carolyn asked, "How do you create links in posts?" The observation and the query seem to me directly linked: one of the exciting things about the web is its, well, webbiness...the easy ways in which one can move in multiple directions of exploration. A "uniformitarian," as Carolyn says she is, would naturally want to be able to link.

So here's how; it's fun and easy. Go to our course home page, where you'll find A Hands-On, Interactive Approach to HTML. It's filled w/ lots of web-weaving tools, including how to make links. If you get stuck, stop by my office or Paul's, and we'll show you the tricks of the trade.

links plus, and a report from the trenches
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 01/27/2005 12:55
Link to this Comment: 12272

Actually, if you look at the bottom paragraph of the instructions on the page where you post comments, you'll find the html syntax for creating links. Each message has a "message-id" (look in the yellow area for "link to this comment:"). To make a link to some other message, you put in your message something like (if you were referring for example to Carolyn's message above)

As <a href="#12228">Carolyn said</a> in her posting ...

and it will come out later looking like this

As Carolyn said in her posting ...

"will come out later" is interesting, both conceptually and practically. Your web browser doesn't actually show what it gets from another computer; it interprets what it gets and shows that (tells a "story" about it?). The stuff between <'s and >'s provides some instructions for interpretation (not though always reliably followed).

On a practical level, you should always use the "Preview for HTML" button below the posting window to check what your posting will look like (more or less) when it is interpreted. This is not only if you are making links but generally. In Carolyn's posting, for example, there currently appear a lot of funny looking characters. That's because she copied and pasted from some word processing program that uses hidden interpreting symbols that caused the browser to do some intepretations other than those intended. This sort of thing would show up in the "Preview for HTML" window and one can then fix them by retyping some of the characters in the posting window (click on "Preview for HTML" again to see the changes).

On another note, interesting Wednesday conversation, with a few ideas that I thought were worth noting (for myself and any one else interested) ...

Re "things can always be explained logically based on antecedents events" vs "principle of disorder"

Re Mayr

The View from Upstairs
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 01/27/2005 20:57
Link to this Comment: 12281

We also had an awfully interesting conversation upstairs on Wednesday afternoon. What I remember most strongly, and found most useful, were these things: first, the play between the notion that

I suppose this was our version of the conversation going on downstairs, in which you were posing an opposition between the notion that "things can always be explained logically based on antecedent events" vs "principle of disorder"--only instead of two storytelling styles, we were thinking about how a certain sort of story might be generated in opposition to (as a way of "cleaning up"?) the world-as-it-is (okay: as we perceive it)...

As we were playing w/ these counter-notions, my students taught me the meaning of a word I'd never heard before, one I have continued to roll over my tongue. I knew about "entrophy" (the distribution of energy within a system--the disorder of which tends to increase in time), but not about "enthalpy"--which is its heat content, or quantity of energy (which also tends to decline). (For more on this, see Energy, Entropy, Enthalpy.) Measuring how much energy there is, and observing how it is ordered, might be another way to talk about the process of evolution....

So: your assignment this weekend is to read four more chapters in Mayr, to think about what he's showing us about stasis and change, about randomness and order...and to post your reactions, thoughts and questions here by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Mayr's ideas on "truth"
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 01/29/2005 15:55
Link to this Comment: 12309

This week's reading brought me back to 10th grade Bio and my endless (and seemingly futile) attempts at figuring out the whole evolution, hybrid, and genotype "thing." It was interesting to try and read this text as a story - I found many parts more suited for storytelling than others. It seemed at the beginning of each chapter (or sometimes subject), Mayr would explain the historical context behind the ideas he was about to introduce, which I personally found most interesting and much easier to understand than the technical terms and explanations which would soon follow. I will admit, however, that I now understand much more about the theories of evolution, and Mayr’s explanations for why certain theories must be false, while others must be “true.” I found many of his claims against other theories and his very firm statements that they “are not true” much more interesting and plentiful after Monday’s discussion (though perhaps before I just wasn’t paying attention to his blatant exercising of opinion with regards to his expertise.) And it made me wonder if a young, up and coming scientist will soon come and blow all of Mayr’s theories away, after we discussed on Wednesday how those new to the field or on the peripheries of it are almost always the ones to make key, paradigm shifting discoveries. Mayr to me seems a very intelligent scientist, but perhaps he is too involved with his subject to ever see any outside, alternative possibilities to his theories?

novel vs. science text
Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 01/29/2005 17:09
Link to this Comment: 12312

I've been struggling to read "What Evolution Is" as I would a novel instead of a science text. This has made me think about the fundamental differences between a novel and a science text, which leads to what we were discussing in class: Is science really unique?

Beginning with the book, there are a number of things that prevent me from reading this like a novel, some of which have been pointed out by others. First of all the complexity of some of the jargon and examples make it difficult to breeze through and concentrate on larger concepts. The details just bog me down too much. The structure of the book, which "tells the story" of evolution through asking and answering questions, organized into neat little sections, seems much closer to an academic text than a novel. The content vacillates between overly simplistic introductions and overly complex explanations. It seems like Mayr didn't quite know how to write for the audience he intended to, and he missed the mark.

But I should stop criticizing Mayr and get back to my point. My expectations from a story, for example a work of fiction, include characters that I can follow through space and time, who experience emotions and take part in events. I expect to be able to interpret the story to make my own meaning. If the story is more about an idea (like evolution) than a person, I expect a narrative of the idea with enough left open that I can interpret and come up with meaning. But Mayr's book doesn't allow for this. He tells us what is right and what is wrong. I don't think this is necessarily the nature of all science texts--many allow for personal interpretation--but there is still a didactic element in science texts (which I guess is necessary since the purpose is didactic) that's not present in many other stories.

Science in general, if it's presented in a fair and open manner, should allow for personal interpretaion and thus it should not be viewed as a completely unique discipline. But I don't think that Mayr's book represents this kind of science.

center of the story
Name: Jessica Rosenberg (
Date: 01/30/2005 11:50
Link to this Comment: 12321

Like much of the class, I am also struggling to stop thinking of this book as strictly a science text. Where I find the good story to be, however, is not in the actual theory of evolution, but Darwin’s discovery of it. I like it when people develop ideas, like natural selection, that once they’re explained make sense of so much that came before. Even better are all of Darwin’s ideas that made more sense decades later as the field of genetics expanded. (Though I’m just realizing it now, I realize I’m attracted to this because of my uniformatarian outlook.) Mayr seems to appreciate this too, and attribute it to Darwin’s unending genius.

Mayr also puts Darwin in the center of the story in more tricky ways. I especially likes when Mayr talks about organisms achieving “success in Darwinian evolution,” (101). Rather than evolution existing, and Darwin doing his best to explain it, it’s as if Mayr believes Darwin thought of evolution, so everyone better do a good job of it.

Also, I find myself reading this with a completely self-centered, human-centered eye. (There was some better phrase for this Prof Grobstein used on Monday while talking about Titan.) I keep trying to picture the earth existing for millions of years without people. I know this is ridiculous; we’ve only been here for the blink of an eye. But the only way I know how to mark time is by history, stories, events, births and deaths. What was a day like when no one could separate it from the one before or the one after? Its so obvious (maybe geologists have an easier time of accepting it) but it feels counterintuitive. We are raised with humans at the center of our universe. I’m trying to get myself away from that.

Evolution as a Storytelling Style
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 01/30/2005 14:20
Link to this Comment: 12327

After Wednesday's discussion in Professor Grobstein's section, which mentioned that Mayr's writing style can contradict the points he tries to make, I found myself thinking about that as I was reading the next four chapters. I kept comparing Mayr's storytelling style to the versions of evolution he mentioned. Just as he says unfit individuals are eliminated by nature, Mayr sets up the theories he disagrees with and, one by one, gives evidence against them until he believes he has proved them to be utterly false. This leaves only one theory remaining - the one Mayr set out to prove true. The surviving (or successfully reproducing) individual is deemed most fit, just as Mayr's remaining theory is.

Of course, this differs from Mayr's theory of evolution in that his writing style has a definite goal in mind, while he constantly stresses that there is no end goal to evolution. This makes me think think that he's writing more to oppose other views than to prove his view, which would certainly fit his antagonistic style of writing.

I don't mean to sound so anti-Mayr, but I found reading this section to be fairly frustrating. I know a little about many of these concepts from high school biology classes, but Mayr never seems to expand in the directions I'd like to know more about. I found lots of details on subjects I already knew, but very little new information.

Name: Ariel Singer (
Date: 01/30/2005 14:42
Link to this Comment: 12328

Outside of my real biology textbooks (the fifty pound ones that cost the equivalent of the price of a small country) I have always read books on science as something along the lines of theory summation. I enjoy them (sometimes) and I am educated by them, but I guess I never considered them in the same category as my textbook.

I have found Mayr’s book to be unclear and close-minded. More than once while reading it I have been glad that I already understand the topic that he is discussing, otherwise I would be floundering. I agree with Kate here, the most irritating aspect of his writing, for me, is that he is ridiculously general in certain areas, but when he needs to use an example he does not choose the correspondingly simple one. Instead he pulls out something obscure and confusing.

The nice thing that I have found while reading the book is that I am constantly reminded of all of the aspects of evolution that I learned about in the past. My personal favorite evolution text is called The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. I read it years ago, sometime early in high school and I still remember most of the details. When what Mayr says confuses me, I can usually hunt up a more clear example that was mentioned in The Beak of the Finch.

If I had to label this book with a style I would call it academic archaic. Statements are often repeated, they are unnecessarily convoluted and the flow of the chapters does not seem natural. In other words, Mayr needed an editor and a whole lot less arrogance. Also frustrating is his treatment of science as if it were a religion. What has been so-called proven must be right, there does not seem to be any space for new information, unless it corroborates what is already believed to be correct.

Something New
Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 01/30/2005 14:45
Link to this Comment: 12329

I wish I could look at Mayr from the perspective of someone who isn's a biology major. Whenever he makes mistakes or arrogant statements, I have a habit of simply ignoring them or understanding the core of what he meant and not the words he used. I realized something interesting about myself when reading this book. I read it the way I read all science text books but it's the way most people read novels. When I read a novel I take so many notes so I don't get confused. I get annoyed at the writing style or something the author says easily. I also have a horrible habit of believing whatever the author tells me as truth for that story. However, when I read this book, I take no notes, I take all his statements with a grain of salt, and I really don't care about his writing style. He has evidence to back up a point he's trying to prove. Since his aim is to make his theories outshine the others, he's going to point to their flaws and not to what's good about them. It's like reading a newspaper article that's trying to convince you of something.
I suppose the thing I love so much about evolution is the randomness and order combined into one. Natural selection, selective mating, etc all create order. Animals breed with the best mates; they survive because they are best suited to their environment. However, the genes that the offspring gets are random. It's interesting because it's almost as though the other things are trying to compensate for the randomness.

View from as many places as possible
Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 01/30/2005 15:27
Link to this Comment: 12330

What I am finding most unexpected about Mayr’s book, and this course in general, as it is actually causing me to question Evolution, whereas in high school my doubts were few. Perhaps this is because Mayr has gotten a lot of bad press on the forum lately. But more importantly, I am starting now to question the special status I formerly attributed to science. In my mind, science was singled out for its objectivity. I felt that science had a special ability to explain the “truth” about the natural world, and that explaining the ethereal was a job best left to the humanitarians. Now, I am starting to view science as a discipline equally hindered by the perspective of the individual. I remember that in his lecture last Monday, Grobestein claimed that the “view from nowhere” is not possible, so instead scientists try for “the view from as many places as possible.” I don’t think that Mayr has this view. He is only interested in viewing the world from the Darwinian perspective. Granted, he does point out existing criticisms of evolution, but he tries to explain these inconsistencies in such a confusing way that I have become considerably more doubtful about the theory of evolution.

Name: Eleanor Carey (
Date: 01/30/2005 16:16
Link to this Comment: 12332

Whether I believe that evolution is an indisputible truth or not (I have difficulty with indisputible truths), I must say I am enjoying reading its story and the stories that it supports. Having, as I do, limited experience with the concept, I am eagerly reading and perhaps too willingly accepting the arguments put forth by Mayr in the book. That humans as well as ferns and plankton came from a single origin of life in the first place boggles my mind and awakens my imagination. I have, since discussion in class, become more aware of Mayr's seeming unwillingness to consider other points of view and other possible stories, but for me looking at his presentation of the story of evolution has been a valuable and enjoyable experience. Though I do not necessarily feel that the book was written for a person with as little knowledge as I have, I certainly have gained, from this reading, a desire to learn more about evolution.

Name: Haley Bruggemann (
Date: 01/30/2005 16:41
Link to this Comment: 12333

As I continue reading What Evolution Is I am beginning to analyze it a little less and to enjoy it for what it is. There are only a few places where I can look at it as a story, and they are usually when Mayr talks about Darwin and the historical aspects. I find these parts very interesting and I always wish he would add a little more detail to them.

Some of the science is also fascinating. Most of it is information that I knew beforehand, but Mayr looks at it in a different way, or points out something I never thought about considering. For example, I was struck by the way he presented developmental interaction, beginning with the competition between an individual's organs and structures. I think that's why I'm enjoying the book so much, because I can mold my thinking a different way for a little while.

Like some of the others, I am a bit frustrated that Mayr brushes over things a little too quickly, assuming that all is understood. It makes some parts confusing and difficult to read. However, he makes up for it in others, and I am still looking forward to reading more.

Name: iva yonova (
Date: 01/30/2005 16:50
Link to this Comment: 12334

The book itself to me is very uninteresting in the sense that I don't feel like it is a very unique and different type of reading. I see it simply as a science book which is trying to explain the Darwin theory of evolution... it is only told in a more informal and nonscientific manner...
The interesting part however is disscussions in class and the forum because I see all those different views and oppinions...

I explain myself the situation this way: When I read a book I do not analyze it as I am reading it or right after I have read it. I think that the beauty of books (or good books at least) is to let them absolutely persuade you in what they are saying and see the matter from the viewpoint they are offering. There is no point to argue with what you are seeing every step of the way because that simply means that you are not trying to understand it and see the logic behind it. After I read a book I give it time to linger in my mind and find its place there... and then I could start analizing it or disagreeing with it.
When you have read the book and really got in between the lines then you can actually have a more competent oppinion about its truthfullnes and objectivity.

And right now I am at the point when I am just reading and absolutely and unquestionably agreein with Mayer... I also feel that I am going to keep agreeing with him even after having read the book because having a generally fundamental knowledge in genetics and a little bit more extensive one in chemistry I can see the connections he makes and the logic behind his arguments.


another thing that really got me thinking in wednesday class was the "truthfullness"-of-the-world issue. I see and appreciate people's questioning of the world and science and knowledge, but I feel its too big a spoonful for people to handle. If you really want you can practiclly question every single aspect of life and the universe and everything... and no one will ever find THE "right" answer. that's why I try to abstain and work with what we already have as a possible explanation or "truth"... it makes it easier and is way more progressive than the denial attitude...

Mayr, novels and theories
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (
Date: 01/30/2005 16:51
Link to this Comment: 12335

Am I the only person who likes Ernst Mayr? I think he's great; I think evolution is great. Granted, What Evolution Is isn't exactly a beach read, but I think it's important to put a few things into perspective about Mayr, before we write him off. As Arshiya mentioned in class on Monday, Mayr was ~ 97 when he wrote this book. (He was born in 1904... and still kicking!?) What Evolution Is isn't even his most recent book; he just published a new book in 2004 about biology! I am in absolute awe of this man.

A lot of you are saying Mayr is arrogant in his writing, and he expects everyone to eat up his theories as fact... but really, evolution is his LIFE, how else is he going to treat it? I like the idea of reading Mayr as a novel, in principle, but I agree that it's very difficult. We are, in essence, reading a story, but that doesn't mean that it reads like one. I find it easy to confuse the term "story" with "fiction," and I think that's where a lot of the confusion comes from. Unlike a typical novel, Mayr is presenting us with evidence and published data from journals among other things. If we're going to treat Mayr's book as a "novel" then we should compare it to other "novels" like Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Maybe I'm making a really obvious point, here, but I think it's just easier to read a scientific piece as a THEORY as opposed to a novel.

On another note, as far as "scientific" writing is concerned, I think the style is largely uniformitarian. This isn't to say that there aren't interesting twists, but in general, science sets out to explain and make connections of things. The goal, anyway, I think is to create a continuous body of knowledge...

Name: Jenn Gerfen (
Date: 01/30/2005 16:52
Link to this Comment: 12336

I found portions of these chapters made it more difficult to read the book as a novel. The genetics section was rather distracting because it seemed at times like a catalogue of terms. When we were given terms it seemed hard to read both with the fact that it was rather discontinuous that it took me out of the story and the fact that I had already had my own idea of the concepts. It was sometimes hard follow concepts that felt like they were being horribly oversimplified, though I do understand that Mayr was not going to mention every detail about the study of genetics.

In talking with Dr. Grobstein after class on Wednesday the idea that oftentimes scientific stories tend to be better written by someone who is not a scientist. As a scientist it sometimes feels difficult to explain certain topics. I know I personally have a great deal of difficulty explaining to people exactly what I’m doing with my summers. I believe that Mayr is incredibly intelligent, yet I can see that being an expert on something would cause challenges when trying to convey that knowledge.

Name: Carolyn (cdahlgre@bmc)
Date: 01/30/2005 16:53
Link to this Comment: 12337

Something that I am really enjoying and trying to appreciate about Mayr’s book are the different levels of evolution that Mayr illustrates. Lauren wrote about the history of evolution through Mayr’s writing. I like the way she described the evolution of the theory of evolution in Darwin’s (well, Herbert Spencer’s really) own words ‘survival of the fittest’. In a way, that is what scientific exploration and experimentation (I am thinking back to our classroom discussion on the scientific method) really is… a theory is used to explain observations until a new theory is proposed that differently explains the observations or until new observations are experienced and the theory changes to incorporate the new information.

I also liked Mayr’s description of genetic evolution. It gave me a different entry point for the story of evolution. (evolution within evolution… genotypic evolution as a more focused view which connects to the broader view of phenotypic evolution). It reminded me of our class discussion on the types of story telling. You can approach a story from many different perspectives a narrator of writer must pick a level (or chose to interweave levels) on which to tell a story (a spectrum from broad (continuous) to focused (catastrophic)). There are many choices story teller makes (with or without conscious awareness) and the summation of these decisions makes each story and each telling of the story unique. Mayr tries to be both continuous and catastrophic (while reading the book, I noticed that he repeated uses the word continuous… he occasionally wrote the word catastrophe but not nearly as much… leads back to the question about science writing…). Mayr’s examples are catastrophic, but he wants to tell a continuous story. He wants to write about the evolution of the theory or evolution.

One of the things that I am really enjoying about this course is how it is helping me see science in a new way. The scientific texts that I have read have always struck me as pretty dry; they were informational rather than entertaining. We even use different words to name books from the different fields (texts v. novels). Attempting to read Mayr as a novel has breathed life into the science. Being creative and imaginative with the science has really helped me appreciate it more. One example is when Mayr mentions the German concept of ‘Bauplan’ which Mayr translated from ‘Body Plan’ into ‘map’ or ‘blueprint’. If I had been reading the book as a scientific text, I would probably have overlooked that piece of information; Mayr barely mentions it and it doesn’t seem so important. (also I would be reading it as a science text; I would not read it as part of the story, but just as a piece of information). Reading the book as a novel, however, I was struck by the images and ideas of a ‘Body Map’. It made the exploration and examination of the human genome seem more like an adventure. (it reminded me of pirates searching for a great treasure only to discover it wasn’t what they imagined it to be… the ‘junk’ DNA or the seemingly small amount of genetic difference that separates humans from monkeys) That is not an experience I can ever remember having with a science book.

View from upstairs, underneath and upside-down!
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 01/30/2005 17:02
Link to this Comment: 12338

I’ve been arguing with myself a lot lately over ideas about continuity, discontinuity, chaos, order-disorder, perfection, reality, truth, existing-not existing …and especially the physics and science behind these very human and visceral assumptions. And I apologize if my posting seems disconnected and purposeless but unlike traditional science, I have no ambition to “asymptotically approach any truth”!

What comes to my mind first is the conflict between Mayr’s stories about Darwinian evolution and my own. So, I have always thought that evolution was a random, indefinable, and uneven process (and I explain this later on). But Mayr clearly talks about natural selection as being an even process. He says that everything is changing in a distinctly directional sequence. Mayr explains survivability as being a non-random mechanism of elimination. In fact, he also breaks down the process of natural selection and calls it a “two-step” process. To me, this seems very contradictory to the ideas of genetic variability, segregation and adaptedness, which seem to occur as discontinuous processes that are neither even nor predictable.

But what I have been most interested with is the conversation that we had on the continuity/discontinuity of life.(Dalke .) I believe that the world is a place of constant disorder. Natural systems exist simply because they happen to and no other explanation is either necessary or more accurate. For decades, biologists have been discovering exactly how dynamic ecological systems are. It seems as though change and chance happen almost too frequently for any kind of continuity or reason to settle into place. Mottled Wood Owls feed on Rufus Woodpeckers which feed on Dung beetles simply because randomness brought them to overlap within a similar geographical area. There is no reason, no calculation and certainly no certainty that this food chain will continue to exist. Molecules bump into each other at random. Even DNA and genes segregate at random. Nothing happens for a reason, although academics, research and scientific explanations are stories that impose continuity on a fundamentally catastrophic universe. It is this very chaos that makes life so romantic.

This is from a book called the Principia Discordia which is the sacred scripture of the Discordian religion.

“I am chaos.
I am the substance from which your artists and scientists build rhythms.
I am the spirit with which your children and clowns laugh in happen anarchy.
I am chaos. I am alive, and I tell you that you are free.”

reaction to Mayr
Name: Kate Shiner (
Date: 01/30/2005 17:05
Link to this Comment: 12339

As I continue to read Mayr I've tried to be more open to his writing style. I think one thing that bothers me about Mayr (besides his seemingly illogical jumps from point to point) is that before he even explains his own arguments he first criticizes all other perspectives that have been developed through history, without seeming to highlight what each actually brought to move the field forward.

I think that science is a collaborative effort that constantly moves to get things less and less wrong. I get the impression that Mayr does not often see these shades of gray, but believes that all wrong is equally wrong. This contradicts the concept of evolution in that each species adapts optimally to its niche in the environment. Is it not possible that the theories of the past were evolved to optimally fit their historical environments in the past and they only became obsolete when the available evidence changed? This is an interesting thought, but I don't know that I actually believe it. However, I do think there are more nuggets of truth in antiquated theories than Mayr may be willing to admit.

Name: Annie Sullivan (
Date: 01/30/2005 17:22
Link to this Comment: 12340

In Professor Grobstein's discussion group, we talked about the parodox of Mayr's "essentialist" method in telling a story about diversity, "non-directional change," and relativity. Many of us agreed that Mayr's style seemed to subvert his own conclusion. Now before making this observation, we have to ask (and someone did) if there are different contexts and perhaps allowances for a literary story vs. a scientific story. Is it fair to hold the biological story (which refutes the notion of destination, progress, etc) against Mayr's own "literary" story? This perhaps gets at the very question that we are asking in this course: is it useful to use biological evolution to understand literary evolution (the generation and propogation of stories) and vice versa. This is a complicated question, but I think it would be a mistake to view science and literature (or art, philosphy) as separate/isolated disciplines. Mayr, in fact, tells us this in his refutation of alternative stories of evolution. So much of the opposition that Darwin confronted was not simply due to differences in scientific experiments/conclusions, but rather, it was due to nineteenth century thought-patterns regarding essentialism and finalism. These thought-patterns infiltrated literature, philosophy, art, every mode of human thought (one need only look at some of the 19th century scientific philosophies, such as Positivism, that were manifested in literature ). In taking the time (albeit extremely limited) to discuss these opposing world-views, Mayr admits the relationship between science and philosophy. This is why his essentialist story-telling style is so odd. He does not present the currently accepted story of evolution as part of an evolutionary process (which it is.. I think it would be very interesting to examine the ways that this story reflects aspects of today's philosophy.. especially postmodernism), but as the end-point in a long-running trajectory toward perfection.

Name: Brittany Pladek (
Date: 01/30/2005 20:23
Link to this Comment: 12348

The next four chapters of "What Evolution Is" haven't succeeded in endearing me to Mayr's style. Maybe this is because I just can't read this book as a novel---and I've tried, I promise! I *do* enjoy reading science books (not textbooks, I mean--stuff like "Adam's Curse," which is a lot of fun if you read it as a novel and not a textbook, ie. with a big pinch of salt). Out of those I've read, this one comes off as very textbook-y. The format just turns me off. This might be closeminded of me and not Mayr's fault, but I just can't concieve of a "novel" that includes tables, charts, and graphs, numbers its key ideas before expanding on them, and italicizes the "thesis sentence" of each chapter. Additionally, the novel does not "evolve" as real stories "evolve." I got no sense of progression from the book. Rather, it's organized into discrete, individually-digestible sections that are rigidly delineated by lots of boldface titles and line breaks. Progressing through these sections, I don't feel any continuity.

For example, let's take chapter 8, which is entitled "The units of Diversity: Species." Mayr begins with discussing how many species there are, how to deal with gaps between species, and the significance of sibling species. Only afterwards does he discuss what actually defines a "species" and the controversy surrounding the word. And only after that does he give the three different uses of the word "species" which he considers essential to understanding the concept (he does so in the supplement Box 8.2, which begins by explaining the "great confusion [that occurs] when these differences are not clearly recognized." Hm. This could possibly explain my great confusion at the beginning of the chapter... anyway). After clearing this up, he explains "The Meaning of Species," which is actually more a discussion of hybridization, and then ends the chapter with species definitions for asexual organisms (which are different from the three essential species concepts in Box 8.2... I think?)
Reading chapter 8, I got a strong sense of relevance, but a very weak sense of progression. Sure, everything in the chapter dealt with species, but it was more like reading fact-cards pasted together than a chapter in a novel that took what had come before, considered it, expanded on it, and then moved recognizably forward.

Um... since that was all complaining above and it makes me sound really picky, I just want to add that I think this book works---just as a textbook, not a novel. Mayr is obviously an amazingly erudite and accomplished scholar, and the fact that he wrote this at 97 is nothing short of astounding. The format just isn't my cup of tea.

More Mayr!
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 01/30/2005 22:45
Link to this Comment: 12361

As I read more of Mayr this weekend, I felt it became more theoretical and hence a harder read. I dont think I was able to absorb as much Id like to. However at the same time I was able to ascertain my feelings for Mayr's writing style a lot more as I read on. Yes hes a little pompous but I find the stuff so fascinating that I suppose it doesnt bother me.
However its fun because his feelings are so evident in his writing that I suppose hes a very honest writer which is always a good thing. I still dont think Im over the fact that hes so OLD!!

I found it most interesting that besides humans animals also exhibit variation amongst their species. For instance tiger 1 is not tiger 2 and there are distinctions among them. As simple and obvious as that sounds, I dont think I looked at it like that nor did I think it was important. Precisely this simplicity is what I like about the book. It makes simple things fascinating that you wouldnt think of. It is in these details that I feel Mayr is successful in educating me. It isnt necessarily in the greater picture which makes sense and I believe it but in the more simple little details that Im able to peice together a knowledge I actually dont know much about.

On a another note, I found it both scary and fun that mammals were once insignificant when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Hence today's dinosaurs are in some sense human beings whose rule over the Earth may not be sustained forever. Perhaps evolution has a different destiny in store for Earth. I know that sounds a little bit crazy but I really enjoyed that part in the book.

Thoughts about "
Name: ()
Date: 01/30/2005 23:18
Link to this Comment: 12365

Thoughts about "What Evolution Is"
Name: Austin (
Date: 01/30/2005 23:18
Link to this Comment: 12366

I can see how the class is struggling with “What Evolution Is,” I don’t think I am having too tough of a time because I really enjoy reading and learning more about evolution, but reading it as a story rather than a textbook is a little challenging. It is certainly more interesting than a text, but not quite a story that flows easily and intriguingly. Some of the information in the book I am already familiar, if not comfortable, with… while other parts seem heavily text-y and consist of loads of new information. I don’t feel like I will be able to retain vast amounts of what I have read…but I am definitely getting the gist of what Mayr is telling us about evolution. To make it more of a novel, I think Mayr should have used a more flowing style. The layout is so textbook-y that it is hard to overcome. I still find the information interesting, since I love the story of evolution so much, and am not struggling too horribly much… for which I am thankful. I am looking forward to discussing more about this book and its ideas in the upcoming classes.

Name: maria s-w (
Date: 01/31/2005 01:11
Link to this Comment: 12373

I’ve also been thinking recently about the stories we tell ourselves and the purposes they serve and it reminded me of an article I read a couple of weeks ago. I read it before I came back to school, but remembered it recently because it seemed to me to be such a clear example of an individual taking a story, a legend actually, that he had been told since he was a child and how it was revised in light of his experience with the tsunami, the first paragraph of the article reads:

“For generations, the people of Poompuhar have spoken of the days when their sleepy fishing town was the capital of a powerful kingdom, and traders came from Rome, Greece and Egypt to deal in pearls and silk. Then, more than 1,500 years ago, it was gone. The thriving town, according to ancient Tamil-language texts, was "kodalkol" - "swallowed by the sea." Perhaps, archaeologists and historians thought, the sea water had gradually risen. Or, some think now, perhaps it was something else. "Nobody knew what had happened," said Murugaiyan, a 38-year-old fisherman whose family has long talked of an ancient kingdom that vanished. On Dec. 26, though, it all became clear to him, when the tsunami slammed into coastlines across Asia and Africa. "Now I know," he said. "It must have been another tsunami."”

The story of the ancient kingdom will likely still be told from generation to generation, but the experiences of this generation will inform and alter the telling of it. If the storyteller no longer considers what happened to the kingdom a mystery but rather the previous occurrence of a tsunami, the focus of the story may shift from describing the grandeur of the ancient kingdom to describing the horror and power of the wave that destroyed it.

While I understand the complaints made by others regarding Mayr’s “arrogance,” I have to admit to some impatience with the notion that it is at any level Mayr’s responsibility to extend to creationism a credibility that he does not feel it is due. Regardless of whether one agrees with him or not, I don’t understand why he is responsible for sugar-coating his views on creationism…I mean, the book’s title is ‘What Evolution Is’ and as responsible readers we should all acknowledge that as objective as that title sounds it was written by a man and therefore cannot help but be a subjective account of evolutionary theory and its history. The references made to creationism are not flattering, but most of the major threats to evolutionary thought come from creationists and religious groups and it seems reasonable to me that as someone who has clearly sided with evolution, Mayr would not pander to those who want to undermine the theory which he has spent his life supporting and studying. My guess is that Mayr has spent much of his life having evolutionary theory challenged and is more than aware of the views that exist outside of it but (1) doesn’t think there is much legitimacy to them and (2) is writing a book about evolution, not evolution and the theories with which it competes to explain why the world exists the way it exists. I guess I just don’t have the reaction that a lot of people do to his writing style, I don’t feel as though he’s trying to present any profound ‘truth,’ I think he’s making an argument, presenting his case and that it’s our responsibility to evaluate his arguments critically.

On the principle of disorder
Name: Rebekah Baglini (
Date: 01/31/2005 02:59
Link to this Comment: 12375

I know that the forum has been dominated by a fascinating dissection of Mayr for the last few days, but I want to backtrack a little and return to the concept that was batted around in last week's class sessions, "the principle of disorder." I think that Anne touched on the way I'm thinking in this message, although unfortunately I haven't yet gotten the chance to view the article she linked to.

In recent years I've become more and more aware of the idea that complexity and chaos only *seem* totally complex and chaotic, but are actually governed by certain rules on the local level that end up creating a whole that is somehow wonderously ordered and organized. I'm actually a bit obsessed--I noticing this everywhere now, these "emergent phenomena", in everything from Wikipedia and Usenet to insect colonies to education, and it's really shaped the way I think about the world.

As I said (er, gushed?) last class, I feel overwhelmed by the story of evolution I'm experiencing in Mayr (to such a degree that I think I'm too excited to pay much attention to his obnoxious qualities as a writer). It IS a catastrophic story, one of the most catastrophic I can imagine. How could all of this end up working out? Meteors hitting, reptiles rafting across oceans, extinctions, and the unlikely rise of these funny-looking primates--talk about an epic. And yet, there is a system, there is some order underlying all of these wild happenings. No one could have predicted that meteor--but we have a thorough story of what happened in the aftermath and WHY it happened. I think that makes it all the more exciting.

I know in class I've vigrously defended the catastrophic worldview, yet considering this "principle of order-out-of-disorder" I realize that it's actually an interesting reconciliation of the two. I'm afraid I might have to excuse myself from the catastrophist camp and move a little closer to the uniformatarians, planting myself firmly in the middle.

Name: Maja (
Date: 01/31/2005 03:42
Link to this Comment: 12376

Unlike most other people in the class, I didn’t find it all too difficult to read Mayr as a novel. Clearly, it was not the same type of entertainment as John Irving, but he didn’t fall into the category of my biology textbook either. Perhaps it’s the scientist in me that can appreciate his efforts to simplify the scientific papers into a text that is informative and accessible to the general public. We often loose sight of the underlying work and the stepping stones that lead to that one experiment that brings us to a discovery. Mayr spares us of all that tiring and tedious detail and summarizes the big ticket items for everyone. Through my research, I’ve realized that months of hard work and experimentation can sometimes go into a single statement that is made in one sentence of the published journal article. And it is fascinating to think that he took all those papers and theories and experiments and compiled them into a cohesive and continuous text. I also feel, however, that with every new resummarization the text on some level looses on its reliability and becomes more subjective as it is presented in a unique story-telling style (Mayr’s style just happens to be one that most students are finding irritating, though I don’t think that his arguments should be discredited because of his attitude… a distinction between the two should be made).

Name: ()
Date: 01/31/2005 11:44
Link to this Comment: 12378

I feel, as many others have posted, that the philosophical distinction so essential to Mayr's presentation of evolution, that of typology versus population thinking, is inherently undermined by his tone, style, and presentation of the facts. Additionally, while he supports the idea that populations evolve to fit their respective environments rather than to gradually become a more perfect being, his own presentation of the theory of evolution refutes this. He looks scornfully on pre-darwinians and creationists, making it clear that his own "evolutionary synthesis" theory of evolution is the ideal theory which evolution has evolved into over time. While I find such inconsistencies annoying and undermining, I don't think they detract so much from the overall reading experience. If anything, they make it easier to read it like a novel, because the inconsistencies between style and substance rip you out off a factual, "textbook" reading facade, and make you realize just how controversial and discontinuous the theories of science are as they try to wrap themselves around the ever evolving world of facts.

Name: Michael Heeney (mheeney)
Date: 01/31/2005 11:45
Link to this Comment: 12379

^ that was by me

Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 01/31/2005 15:02
Link to this Comment: 12386

Lots to say after a very thought provoking class today.

The idea that Mayr presented Science as religion made sense to me. That implies that the very thing that he is reacting against, is the style to which he is conforming. Science is not a fixed structure and if presented in that way it becomes "real truth" and that becomes a disturbing factor. But in all fairness I do not think Mayr meant it in the way that we are taking it. Mayr's writing style suggests a reactionary story telling style in the sense that he is reacting to the criticisms that have probably plagued him throughout his life. Hence his constant and occassional outbursts and demeaning of all other views is in a sense a reaction to a highly emotional topic.

It struck me in class that perhaps the reader's intention is as important as Mayr's writing style. If the book is read as a casual readthat is meant to be both entertaining and informative. The low blows to creationist thought isnt really a problem. Its fun and interesting but it doesnt make one hate him. However read critically we may come to a different conclusion. Hence the way one reads it affects the way one critiques it. The truth is I know so little of this topic that it doesnt bother me what his personal quirms are. It simply entertains me from the dryness of his theory sometimes. It fascinates me and I think for someone like me its a good book. It teaches me something. So when Professor Grobstein asked the question, "Does his writing stle compromise his content" I would have to say it doesnt. Yes at a critical level its bothers me that he is so rigid but then I think of my grandmother and it all makes sense. For someone who has probably had to hear a lot of bad stuff about what he essentially believes is the story of truth, it must have made him both bitter and focused on his own story. Hence now its his turn or always has been his turn to be as demeaning towards the other versions of the story. Theres no doubt that it bothers me that he sometimes he just talks about Darwin and ignores the importance of Lamarck (this is highly debateable) but I still feel as though theres an explanation for his disdain for the 'rest.' Thats awfully uniformatarian of me but like I said Im a catastrophic wannabe in a uniformatarian body! Hence the 'crack' becomes very important in this book and how can one avoid the crack because the crack demonstrates who we are and what affects us. Can we simply ignore our experiences when writing a book? I think the point of expressing your views scientific or not, right or wrong, views permeate and influence and hence must be given the consideration they deserve.

Mayr's style
Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 01/31/2005 15:11
Link to this Comment: 12387

There was something I wanted to comment on in class today, but we moved away from the topic too fast- someone had said something about how perhaps Mayr has spent previous books providing better evidence for what he believes in, and arguing more fairly against people who disagree with him (that wasn't it exactly- I'm just typing from memory). I suppose this might be true, but I know that the only other book I've read by Mayr- written some 20 or 30 years ago- showed the exact same arrogance and dogmatism that he shows in What Evolution Is. I don't recall the title, but I was researching a theory of his called the Biological Species Concept, and I found it ironic that it was his own writings that were the least helpful. He didn't do justice to the many counter-arguments to his theory, and acted as though the theory were virtually flawless, which I found extremely confusing since elsewhere I'd heard people call the theory nearly obsolete.

Another thing- in response to what Ghazal said about how evolution is Mayr's life, and so it's natural for him to treat it as fact- I think that might be one reason why he writes about evolution as he does, but part of it I'm sure is just his own personal attitude towards science. Just as another example, I recently read a book called "T.rex and the Crater of Doom" (cheesy title, but it's a great book) by a man named Walter Alvarez. Now, Walter Alvarez has devoted virtually his whole life to studying the K/T (dinosaur) extinction. He was on the team that first put out the theory that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, some 25 years ago. But his attitude couldn't be more different from Mayr's. The book is told a bit like a story, again- talking about the progress that's been made researching that extinction in the past few decades, but he emphasizes again and again how it's been a group effort. He emphasizes the importance in questioning widespread beliefs, in endless theorizing, in backtracking, in following up on opposing theories to see if there's anything to be learned from them. I don't remember him ever using the word "truth" (though I could be wrong). So I think a lot of it is just attitude... And ultimately I'd say the attitude of people like Walter Alvarez is far more helpful to science that that of Mayr.

Reading Mayr as a novel
Name: Eileen Talone (
Date: 02/01/2005 11:03
Link to this Comment: 12417

I know it is an unfair comparison, but this exercise in broadening our definitions of what a story is reminds me of an Onion article "Grad Student Analyzes Phonebook". And while "What Evolution Is" has an argument, some characters, and thematically divided sections, it comes up short when we are made to compare it with stories that have people, dialogue and plots.
I'd probably warm up to the book if I weren't constantly disappointed that there will be no drama. It's making me think about how I read novels- I remember lines or passages that feel really true, and then I stockpile them like facts when I want to think about possible meanings of life. Although it's not the conscious thought, I guess I know what I'm doing, which is taking other people'sword for most everything.
I squirm somewhat under the narration of this book, because I don't know the terms he is using, and I imagine he would be exasperated to find me reading it, looking for salient points and graceful denouements and finding only his life's work written in his vernacular (it's like technical terms are his slang), written for the world while refusing to speak in anyone else's words. "anyone who cannot explain hs work to a fourteen year old is a charlatan"- kurt vonnegut.
I wouldn't call Mayr a charlatan, but I think of him as a mind that doesn't believe in lowering the bar, and for all that i fail to appreciate in his story, I only blame myself for preferring confessional, conversational, even stiff and formal but always literary language.

cracks facts and science fiction
Name: sarah k (
Date: 02/01/2005 15:41
Link to this Comment: 12419

A couple things – I think the use of the word “crack” in describing the input of “cultural background / personal temperament / individual creativity” is deceptive. Despite its inclusion as a “feature” and not a fault in the system, the word crack implies that the rest of the system is whole, and that the perspective only enters the system in one place. Our observations are limited to what we perceive – perceptions limited by our own senses and what we think we should see. Then this data is further subjected to our interpretations of what it means, what it should mean and how it means that. Whether we confirm or reject the hypothesis or description is irrelevant – the whole process is socially constructed and each step is subjective. I think its important to remember this because when we talk about “facts” (as we did last class) and their subjective analysis we need to remember that the facts themselves are subjective. Who decides what is worthy of facthood and why and how – all questions that stand behind the word “fact”. I’d agree that they can be useful for description (especially when you’re in a community of peers and you all agree on the summary) but facts are cracked out too. Additionally – while the distinction between the “traditional” and “evolving” science is valid, I am not sure how many scientists actually practice evolving science – the very use of the word fact implies that it doesn’t (wasn’t that Kuhn’s whole critique?). The community is not open nor is it inviting – not only to fellow intellectuals (of the more literary persuasion) but also to the general population. Anti-intellectualism isn’t a hatred of intelligence, thought, debate, discussion or education. It’s a reflection of class differences and therefore something we’re all complicit in. The point being – if we’re going to talk about science as it is done and as it has been done, I think we should use the traditional definition. If we talk about what science could someday be – or indeed what we are trying to remake it into within the class itself, the ideal model is appropriate. Science fiction [“I’m not a fan I Just read the stuff”]- a really good source of stories about what people (much of the time actual scientists) think about science – its politics, potential and meaning. It inspires and explains the inspirations of the field (inspirations being one of those cracks) and it’d be interesting to look at the relationship between the fact and fiction and compare it to research being done “in the field” or lab. How did these stories evolve out of science’s stories and what is their legitimacy in either field (literature / science)?

On Mayr dispute
Name: Maureen England (
Date: 02/01/2005 17:40
Link to this Comment: 12423

It is really interesting how disscussion of Mayr has been so centered on his style and his audience. Many people keep talking about his bias, experience, etc, which brings to mind the crucial issues about authorship and readership which pertain to every form of literature or writing, though we tend to think less of them when reading textbooks. What is the responsibility of the author when he/she writes? How accountable are they for the outcome of the "reading" of the work? What is the reader's responsibility? Who does the work belong to? the author or the reader?
It seems, in class, that different readings of Mayr seem to approach these questions differently. I personally have had a difficult time reading Mayr, not for what he has said specifically, but rather I don't count myself one of his audience, and therefore dislike his overall style of writing (it being more technical than works I enjoy). Perhaps then, that I don't find his language too offensive simply because I see his audience as those already interested in what he is writing about, and assume that they would agree with him. Can we therefore blame Mayr for the faults we may find while dissecting his book, when perhaps we were not specifically meant as his audience while he was writing? But, as a piece of written work, meant to last for posterity, is Mayr giving up his right to his work for future audiences? As a piece of published work, is the book open for any interpretation, regardless of author intent? I don't even seem able to answer these questions myself.

The other thing about last discussion that I had issues with was the statement Professor Grobstein said, "the issue is not belief in the story, it is understanding the story and being able to use it." I have a hard time thinking that a story cannot be "believed in". There are, undoubtedly stories that are meant more for practical use than belief, especially stories with talking animals, or science fiction stories; stories which, rather than meaning for us to believe that the tortoise and the hare really had a race with each other, we are meant to understand and put to use the moral of the story. But I find it had to believe that there are no stories meant to be believed, especially thinking of the open diffinition we are giving to the concept of stories. But once again, like I have said before in class, the matter of belief comes down to a personal decision. One person may believe in certain stories such as religious stories, while another person may just use the "moral" of the story and not believe in the events. I cannot give any examples as to how I feel because they would be personal examples, and could easily be debated by other people.

All the above are certainly reasons why I have always loved English classes, because there never is a "right" answer for everyone; that everything can be debated.

some thoughts
Name: Annie Sullivan (
Date: 02/02/2005 00:06
Link to this Comment: 12428

I have been thinking a lot about evolution and science and how many opinions there are regarding the projects of each. In class, we agreed that science is a 'story' and there are always multiple story-telling methods. It was very helpful for me to think about science as a 'social activity' -- as a story emerging from a collaboration between members of a particular culture, temperment, etc. In light of this description, I was surprised to read Robin Gimour's description of science as an "imperial ideology," one that lays increasingly grand claims to fields it had "previously thought closed to it" (Gilmour 111). Science--as a colloborative social project--can be called an ideology, and is its agenda can certainly be seen as imperialistic. I think Gilmour's description helped me to work out some of my difficulties in understanding evolution (as Mayr describes it) as directionless. This claim for a kind of neutral, nonteleological evolution (and I am not doubting its accuracy), I believe, achieves more than just scientific explanation. Perhaps THIS evolution, and the kind of language used to describe it, has evolved out of the kind censure that Gilmour puts forth. THIS evolution (I am speaking in Mayr's language) is not the narrow, essentialist ideology of creationism, for example; it is not an arbiter between higher/lower, simple/complex, good/bad. This evolution recognizes individual differences and characteristics rather than generalizing about groups or 'types.' I think it is helpful to think about evolution-- as it is understood yeserday, today, in all times -- as (in part) an ongoing social project, an ideology, if you will.

Another thing on my mind is the idea of evolution as reverse teleology.. while it recognizes no destinations, it seeks origins. Evolution is the business of imagining the past retrospectively, of tracing lineages to their common point of descent. When there is insufficient evidence, an evolutionist fills in the blanks. It's interesting to think of evolution as a retrospective narrative and the kind of trajectories that are cast backward.

a.k.a. "sunshine"?
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/02/2005 17:39
Link to this Comment: 12438

Am a little unsure whether this is a new thought, or just a re-run of last week's View from Upstairs. I'd very much "liked" (is this a synonym for "wanted to believe in"?) the version of science's storytelling style that had been circulating among us last week: that it accounts for catastrophes by taking a longer view, placing them within a larger continuum...

but I think I heard in Paul's expanded story today just the reverse: that evolution is the construction of a continuum ("heritability") within catastrophe ("the sun's falling apart," formerly known as sunshine).

P.S.: Things Fall Apart
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/02/2005 17:43
Link to this Comment: 12440

I know that some of you are reading (or have read) Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart in English 250. Am wondering how/if the tale we got today of "things falling apart"=generating new forms works as a description of that story. Maybe a local example of when/why falling-apartness doesn't inevitablylead to the construction of something new, but to death that just...

stays dead?

Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 02/02/2005 18:24
Link to this Comment: 12443

Thanks for attention/engagement in extra large group session. Think the conversation about randomness and its role in evolution was a useful one. The dependence of evolution on entropy, the possibility of order from randomness, and the idea of unpredictability as a variant of narrative uniformitarian story telling all seem to me significant. But, like last time, there are things we didn't get to. Apologies for that, and to those of you waiting patiently for some more of the evolution specifics.

A quick sketch here of some of the things I would have liked to have gotten to (and, of course, will at some point, in one form or another). Talking about variation in the abstract is fine for a broad brush view of the story of evolution but a deeper appreciation depends on a better understanding of the genetics that underlies both inheritance and variation. Of particular concern is that genes influence but do not in general determine organismal characteristics and that it is organisms rather than genes which are subject to differential reproductive capability (Mayr is pretty good on both these points). Additionally significant is that variation reflects both gene mutations and, in sexual populations, a mixing of parental genes in the offspring. Both contribute to the variability of organismal characteristics but the mixing also tends to keep populations more similar (at least genetically) than they might otherwise be. Because of this, population change tends to occur without clear divergence ("anagenesis") into distinct populations unless two populations become isolated from one another. In the latter case ("cladogenesis"), there is an interruption of gene exchange ("reproductive isolation) and so populations may diverge from one another both genetically and in form/function. The latter, in general, reflects both the inherent randomness in the system and any selection pressures that are different for the two isolated populations. It is the cladogenesis process that helps to make sense of the nearer and more distant patterns of relatedness in "clumpy diversity".

This kind of tree-like pattern may make it useful to think of different kinds of organisms as different branches of an ongoing exploration of a space of the possible kinds of organisms (perhaps akin to an exploration of the possible kinds of story telling?), with the variation among organisms being the different versions of what has been generally discovered so far that creates the potential to generate new forms. To put it differently, in evolution there are, at any given time, multiple equally "successful" outcomes of exploration and variations of those outcomes, each reflecting lots of past (ancestral) observations. And this, plus continuing random variation, provides the grist for future explorations. Here too I think it may be worth thinking of parallels to story telling and revising. An interesting feature of the later is that stories can affect one another directly as well as by inheritance. While the inheritance feature is most strongly emphasized in the recent history of evolution of the story of evolution, there are a variety of reasons to suspect that some equivilents of a direct effect of stories upon one another (co-evolution as well as lateral spread of genetic material) will become a more prominent part of the story of evolution in years to come.

We also touched much more briefly than I would have preferred on the issue of whether there is "progress" in evolution. There is, as Mayr says, no reason to suspect a force "guiding" it in any direction, but there are features that are best described as exhibiting some directedness because of the internal dynamics of the process. This area too is likely to see substantial development in years to come. In short, perhaps the most important conclusion to be reached both about evolution and the story of evolution is that they are dynamic and to a significant degree unpredictable because of the central role that variation (and interactions among variations) .

I hope this, however sketchy, contributes to the ongoing conversation. Looking forward to hearing/talking more about what you all think not only of Mayr but additional takes on the story of evolution as well.

Random things flit in and out
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/03/2005 01:05
Link to this Comment: 12459

I came out of class feeling confused, yet strangely satisfied.
My head is an eddy of "how's" and "why's" and "what the hell?s" !
Here's my attempt to create an appearence of order while the real jumble is much too scary to investigate into !

1). So Mayr argues that the 2nd law of thermodynamics and entropy only work in closed systems. Therefore, evolution need not proceed towards a state of higher disorder as predicted by these two theories. Prof G described how “closed” systems refer to however you want to define them and in such a case the universe is a closed system. I want to know why things become disordered only in closed systems. I guess I am trying to understand what it means for things to innately proceed towards a state of higher disorder. In what way is disorder a more adapted state for molecules to reside in? What is the relationship between the state of disorder and the state of potential energy? Doesn’t it seem intuitive that molecules, reactions, natural systems would proceed to a more stable, equilibrium, less energy and state of less disorder? How is disorder / entropy different from chaos? (yup – means I need to do moooooooooooore reading !)

2). I have also been thinking back to our class on 1/31 about the scientific method and “the crack”. As far as I understand, the crack refers to an element of subjectivity, influence of culture, education, temperament that is inseparable from the scientist’s style of storytelling. I think I also remember Prof G saying that Mayr believes that his stories are truth. And then we were asked whether Mayr’s belief in truth impacted the content of the book and the reader. It seems that Mayr’s belief in his truth is “the crack” and the feature that we have been talking about. That inevitable feature in ‘What Evolution Is’ that recognized it as Mayr’s book and not my uncles. Does this crack now allow science to start claiming truth? And how do you draw the line between Mayr’s personal truth and the social truth that is imposed on the reader when he/she reads his book? Yet, it seems silly to tell an author to write completely objectively. Where’s the fun in that?

3). Does biological evolution seem inevitable? Suppose, the process started all over again, would it end up the same? Suppose if life evolved in different geographic locations, would it come out the same? How do we reason with this sense of convergence, order even? I guess we have mostly been talking about the evolution of biological organisms, but what about the evolution of storytelling in different cultures? I feel the same themes / arguments apply to the idea of social evolution as well. If life is thought to have arisen from a common ancestor, does the evolution of cultures, or the evolution of stories also have a common ancestor?

…still thinking …

small note, big question
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/04/2005 11:52
Link to this Comment: 12520

First: a "semantic" note: I very much like the description of different organisms as different branches of an ongoing exploration, but I'm not sure that "exploration" is the "right"/most "accurate" word here (though it's certainly hard, any more, to talk about "correctness" in this space....!). If randomness is just, well, randomness, undirected, w/out a goal, well...when that process of randomly trying out new things is called "exploration," I think we have a "story" on our hands, one that gives "meaning" to what is innately meaningless. It has the sound of "willfulness" to me; to my ear, there's just a taint of the pathetic fallacy in that term "exploration"....

And then a far bigger question. When Paul said, in class on Thursday, that things become more disordered BECAUSE of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, I thought, no: the "law" is "just" a "story," it doesn't explain WHY. So, like Arshiya, I've found myself wondering, too: WHY does the random action of molecules lead "innately"/inevitably toward more randomness? Why is the state of greater probability one of greater disorder? Why doesn't randomness proceed to a more stable state?

"Tell me why..."

Name: Brittany Pladek (
Date: 02/05/2005 02:38
Link to this Comment: 12523

Some more random stuff...

I have to admit I was shocked when I got to Mayr's description of human evolution and read this: "Man is indeed as unique, as different from all other animals, as had been traditionally claimed by theologians and philosophers. This is both our pride and our burden." Judging by the rest of the book, I would have guessed that Mayr fell solidly into the category of those who consider humans to be just another group of evolved animals. But he thinks we're special, somehow, because we can "think" better than other animals.

My question is this: what if "thinking" is just another evolutionary adaptation, like wings on birds or gills on fish? Mayr gives lots of other instances of behavioral evolution (dolphins swimming in pods, for example). Why is thinking any different? Are we "more unique" than those dolphins because, whereas we think up antibiotics and space travel and Big Macs, they muck around in the water and have a good time? I'm trying to figure out at what point an adaptation becomes something more than an evolutionary tool for survival. Can any species ever transcend evolution in that way? When do "different" and "unique" become "better"? (Do they? Should they? Or are all animals equally unique, because---don't take this in the wrong way---separate but equal is inherently unequal?)

Onto the class discussion, which was really interesting. I'm still not sure I understand the waterwheel/thermodynamics principle. If everything in the universe moves towards disorder, how did life "break free" of this law (even momentarily) and create order? How did those first organic compounds in the primordeal soup climb into that waterwheel and ascend? Why is that waterwheel even *there*? I mean, if the 2nd law of thermodynamics is absolute, why was there the tendency to organize in the first place? Also, why is life is allowed to break those rules? Is there any other property/system that moves towards order?

On a more technical note, I was wondering how the 2nd law of thermodynamics works in a universe with gravity. The universe started with the Big Bang, a supercompressed ball of matter that sucked all the matter in the universe into it. By drawing this matter together, isn't gravity itself a physical property that tends towards more order? Or is it simply one stage of the ascending waterwheel that descends again with every Big Bang?

Ernst Mayr Dies @ 100
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/05/2005 08:57
Link to this Comment: 12524

The man who provoked Brittany's questions, called in his NYTimes obituary this morning "the Darwin of the 20th century, the defender of the faith," died on Thursday. The obituary details the significance of Mayr's contributions to understanding the role of geography in the origin of new species, as well as his founding the fields of philosophy of biology and history of biology. Two bits from this account snagged in my mind: one about his eating habits, the other about the way he argued. Between 1928-1930, Mayr collected more than 3,000 birds in the South Pacific:

He had to live off the land, and every bird, after being skinned for study, went into the pot. As a result, he is said to have eaten more birds of paradise than any other modern biologist....

Dr. Mayr, a strong believer in the Hegelian dialectic as a way of advancing understanding, was known for his definitive proclamations, which often inspired as many heated rebuttals as nods of vigorous agreement...."no one will agree with all his positions, analyses, and opinions....But anyone who has failed to read Mayr can hardly claim to be educated in evolutionary biology."

"a very real thing"
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/05/2005 09:06
Link to this Comment: 12525

That posting "flew away" before I was finished. There was a third very striking thing in Mayr's obituary, one I'd like to return to in class:

When he went to New Guinea...there was a popular school of thinking known as the nominalist school of philosophy that held that species did not, in reality, exist. They were merely arbitrary categories, little more than names...."The coincidence of what Western scientists called species and what the natives called species was so total that I realized the species was a very real thing in nature."

disorder, progress, etc
Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 02/05/2005 13:19
Link to this Comment: 12528

There is so much going through my head from discussion and Mayr that I can't really focus on one idea right now.
I'm still intrigued by the idea of disorder leading to order. The vast example of the sun "falling apart" which leads to life on earth is increadable. And it makes me think of how different our interpretations of something can be. Most humans view it as sunshine, normal and ordered. If the sun doesn't shine, it seems like disorder.
The idea of whether or not evolution is "progress" is also stuck in my head. I think that Mayr did a decent job in this section, explaining that evolution is not linear progress because it can cause retrogression into simpler forms, etc. But I don't think that he did enough to emphasize the randomness of it all.
I was also bothered by his emphasis of "human uniqueness". I've always thought of humans as another animal and I can't buy his argument of brain power making us unique. I think that other animals could be just as complex and "highly developed" as humans, but in different forms that are beyond our comprehension due to our limited perspective. This connects to the quote from Mayr's obituary where he said that species must be "real" because both Western scientists and indiginous people recognised the same species. But this could just be due to our limited perspective and way of looking at things and classifying them...

Mayr's story
Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 02/05/2005 14:45
Link to this Comment: 12529

I found it interesting that Mayr made it seem as though non-human animals lack any capacity to think or reason. I was wondering how we know this. Clearly the human brain to body size ratio is larger than any other known animal, this has been calculated. But that does not mean they do not thinnk. Also he places a lot of merit on verbal capabilties, however, humans raised without language since birth often appear severly mentally retarded and have only limited speaking capacity even when they have people who work for years with them. I remeber watching a tv show in this very intelligent species, when the baby was shown relationships between words and concepts from an early age,it gained a huge vocabulary, although it could not speak. There have been parrots that could recognize shapes and then say their name. Therefore, it would seem to me that language is a poor indicator of whether or not something can think or how highly something can think. I am not saying that other animals can think on the same level as human, however, maybe the gap isn't as large as we seem to believe it is.
Another thing I wondered was whether or not humans could control evolution, give it a purpose. The movie Gattaca shows this type of a world. People are more or less forced to use genetic selection of the s-called best embryos or else their child will not succeed. One scene in the movie shows men and women in line getting DNA tested to see how smart, strong and susceptable to disease (physcial and mental) potential mates are. In that world where your DNA determined everything, people who weren't as genetically fit couldn't find jobs, etc. The reproductive disadvantage of not being some standard became present and humans tried breed their children to be ideal. This type of thing, if possible could lead to a giving evolution a purpose. People would purposely have children who were smarter, perhaps this means that overall brain size to body mass would increase. Would we move towards this well-rounded human ideal that we construct thus controlling in some way evolution. Mayr states that larger brain no longer equalled a reproductive advangtage, however, there is little in society today that does, most individuals have children and most in wealthier nations only have a few. However, if we continually selected the "best" of thousands of possible children (Since we have around 8 million or so possible gene combinations in our gametes if I remember correctly) over generations it begs the question whether we could cause evolution to occur, just like in the word game where we found a pattern that could arise from a disordered set of letters after many generations.

Thoughts... not necessarily connected...
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 02/06/2005 08:12
Link to this Comment: 12545

I'd like to comment on Liz's Comment, I wonder if such a society that would choose their mates based on DNA would take into consideration those with genetic mutations, extreme or minor, for isn't it the mutations that generally throw a species into the possibility of evolving? (Of course, the majority of these mutation-commenced species don't survive, but mutation is a necessary part of evolution nonetheless.) I must say I've been anticipating reading chapter 10, because every other chapter made references to it throughout the entire book, and I kept thinking "chapter 10's going to have to have a ton of material in it" - and I was right. Though it was incredibly dense, and I often had a rough time trying to remember what I was supposed to be connecting these ideas to, I enjoy making connections like that when I can, so it was rather enjoyable to me. Also, a quote from page 188 struck me for this course: "...heated controversy over whether macroevolution is nothing but an unbroken continuation of microevolution...or rather disconnected..." (Mayer, 188). It seemed to touch on the ongoing argument between continuous and discontinuous, and I thought I'd share :)

Name: maria(h) (mscottwi@bmc)
Date: 02/06/2005 11:25
Link to this Comment: 12549

There have been parrots that could recognize shapes and then say their name. Therefore, it would seem to me that language is a poor indicator of whether or not something can think or how highly something can think. Okay, here’s the thing: while it is tempting to say that the apparent disparity between a parrot’s cognitive abilities (“bird-brain”) and it’s language abilities (which would appear significant) proves that there is not a correlation between the two, such a comparison grossly underestimates the complexity of language and the fundamental differences between an organism being able to make use of a system of communication on their own in the wild (certain chimps have various calls that signal to the others when certain predators are approaching, for example when a bird of prey is seen the call used would be different from the call used to alert to a boa constrictor), to acquire a system of communication (for example teaching apes ASL or yerkish) and the uniquely human linguistic abilities that are simply not found in other species. No other species is able to construct a language that follows grammatical rules or to manipulate syntax to create new meanings. Humans raised without language that are then brought back into society are basically unable to acquire normal language or cognitive function, but it’s questionable how much bearing that fact has on the uniqueness the human *capacity* for language. *Capacity* is the key word here, one can always prevent normal development by not exposing a person to the necessary stimuli, but it is the ability (within a normal developmental context) to develop language at all that is remarkable.

On a different note, the stories we tell under the name of evolution seems (to me) to be an interesting issue. Evolution as it was understood by Darwin (and the way in which he intended other to understand it) versus the general public at that time who were exposed to the ‘survival of the fittest’ version that seemed to view the evolutionary process as separating the ‘strong’ or those organisms that were ‘intended to survive’ are quite different, the most noticible difference being that humans have a tendency to put value judgments on things…organisms that survived must have been ‘better’ in some objective sense than those that didn’t survive. I feel as though the same things applies today with the current notions of what constitutes evolutionary theory. My guess would be that LOTS of people would say that to *some* degree they think evolutionary theory is a useful story in terms of accounting for the world around us (and so they accept it and make use of it, though the extent to which it melds with other stories people have obviously varies a hugely) but how many of those people would define evolution as the process by which “the strongest animals survive and pass on their genes” when clearly, reading Mayr’s book, evolutionary theory is so much more nuanced and complex than that. The way that I’ve always thought about evolution is as a sort of process that while constantly going on can’t be ‘understood’ in the present because we make sense of the evolutionary process by comparing what ‘was’ to what ‘is’. It’s a characterization that we make ‘after the fact.’ We can’t ever ‘control’ evolution because it’s not an entity that can be manipulated (as much as the notion makes for a good movie).

Chance vs. Necessity = Catastrophic vs. Uniformitarian
Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 02/06/2005 13:07
Link to this Comment: 12553

In chapter 10 of What Evolution Is, Mayr’s deals with the question of whether evolution is driven primarily by chance or necessity. He leads us to the conclusion that both play an important role: “One can conclude from these observations that evolution is neither merely a series of accidents, nor a deterministic movement towards ever more perfect adaptation” (Mayr’s 229). He claims that both processes operating simultaneously drive evolution. Animals evolve by adaptation, (i.e. by necessity); however, adaptations exist only because of random variation (chance). I was wondering about the implications of this claim for our classes’ experiment in which we consider evolution a “story,” rather than a “theory” in the traditional sense. Is Mayr’s assertion that evolution is the result of “virtually simultaneous actions of two seemingly opposing causations, chance and necessity” indicative of a catastrophic or uniformitarian story telling style? (Mayr’s 229). Earlier in the course, most of us considered evolution a uniformitarian story, but now I think that further reading and discussion have made it seem like both continuous and catastrophic. I am reminded of all my classmates who insisted Anne put them on the line between the two theories. I am now wondering if it is possible for a story to fit in only one category.

Yet another reaction to Mayr
Name: Alexandra Mnuskin (
Date: 02/06/2005 13:19
Link to this Comment: 12554

So unlike most of the class, I’m finding Mayr to be a well structured biology book. Yes, his style is pompous and it often presumes that his view of evolution is the only right view, but as an introduction to the often complex theory itself and as a story of the evolution of evolution, I think he does an admirable job. I also found that that the idea of science being a social activity about which Prof Grobstein talked about in class is actually well supported by Mayr story of evolution. As Newton famously noted “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”. I believe that the story of Mayr’s account of the emergence of evolutionary thought is very much in keeping with this idea. He emphasizes the emergence of evolution and the various theories that were already existent prior to Darwin that were invaluable to Darwinian evolutionary thought. For example he emphasizes Lamarck’s view on adaptation (use and disuse) explains it and finally refutes it. However, despite the fact that Lamarcks theory is now disproved, Darwin’s quote from class emphasizes how instrumental the Lamarck’s theory was to his own theory because it introduced to concept of change over time.
On another note, I found the lecture last wed to be absolutely fascinating. The idea that disorder actually creates order and that the 2nd law of Thermodynamics is in fact necessary for the existence of life is very intriguing. However, it made me wonder whether or not the evolution of so many different species is actually a tendency towards more order. Surely there is more order in several, unicellular species, than in the enormous variety of complex species that exist today?

Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 02/06/2005 13:35
Link to this Comment: 12555

Thinking about the idea that the human race is special, somehow- somehow superior, there's a quote I really like that I think is relevant, by Stephen J. Gould. It leads off the fact that chance plays such a large role in evolution- that if you were to turn the clock back and let events play themselves out again the world would be entirely different, and that changes in the environment can come at any time that make the "fittest" organisms suddenly unable to survive.

"Look in the mirror, and don't be tempted to equate transient dominance with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival."

I really like that. It's a very humbling thought. We may be "unique" because of our high brain-to-body ratios, because of our advanced capabilites for speech- but ultimately what does that mean? Neanderthals had higher brain-to-body ratios than we do, and (from what I recall) there's evidence that they were also capable of speech as well. We survived and they didn't, but we could easily have died instead. It's interesting to think about... All the chance occurrences that have led up to how the world is today. If a chance asteroid hadn't wiped out 50% of all species 65 million years ago, we wouldn't be here right now.

Another thing I was thinking about- completely unrelated, had to do with what he said at the beginning of chapter 10 about bacteria becoming resistent to penicillin. I remember hearing something on the radio recently about a similar thing that happens with insects and pesticides, and there's a solution that's been introduced that interested me. What they do is only use pesticides on 95% of the field, and in the remaining 5% they let the insects be. As a result non-resistant strains are allowed to stay in the population, and the population as a whole is less resistant to the pesticide than it would be otherwise. I thought that was interesting.

On human superiority
Name: Rebekah (
Date: 02/06/2005 14:18
Link to this Comment: 12558

This discussion on the notion of the evolutionary superiority of homo sapiens is interesting--as Maria(h) pointed out in her post, complex linguistic capability is a good litmus test for complex, abstract thinking skills, and humans exhibited more developed abilities in both of these than any other known species. Maybe I've been getting into this book, but I can't help considering this issue from an evolutionary standpoint: of course, the only way to really gauge how "superior" we really are would be to take a look back from the end of time. And in fact, I woudln't be all too surprised if these unprecedented abilities unique to us eventually end up driving us all, and possible the rest or a good deal of other living organisms, into extinction. We've also demonstrated, more recently, an unprecedented inability to live in a way that doesn't undermine the lives of other living entities.
One other entirely disconnected idea: in the section on altruism (Mayr, 256) I was somewhat puzzled by the assertion that altruism extended to "outsiders" of particular human clans is unreconcialble with natural selection. Mayr himself acknowledges that "hominid history is a history of genocide"--obviously, something that isn't good for anybody's genotype. Universally ethical, kind behavior towards fellow humans, even when it's inconvenient, sounds like one of the most effective self-preservation measures humans could exercise. Is this not possible because of the complication introduced by humans' group mentality, which suggests that an individual, even a universally altruistic one, won't be preserved by this trait as long as they're associated with a targeted group?

Defence of Mayr use of the word "fact"
Name: Jenn Gerfen (
Date: 02/06/2005 14:51
Link to this Comment: 12559

There has been a lot of complaints that Mayr is describing the current view of evolution a “fact”. We have discussed the cyclical nature of science, and how there always seems to be a new theory that works better than the previous one. The way we were talking it seemed like everything in science will be discounted with a better theory at some point. I know that things are constantly rewritten, but there are certain principles that are retained even as the stories change.

When the average person thinks about a theory they think of a speculation, though people also tend to believe in other “truths”. Indeed much of what people hold as truths are in fact scientific theories. We can not prove that the earth revolves around the sun, but it is a theory. Scientific theories are the best ways that scientists are able to explain how the world works with the limited knowledge that we have. There is the idea that as we learn more and make more observations that we can refine the theories and create a better understanding of what is going on.

In order to communicate with people who associate science with truth and theory with uncertainty it is necessary to describe things as scientific facts. Mayr is writing about a subject that has brought up a lot of controversy, which has likely influenced the way that Mayr has presented his material. If Mayr was talking about the fact that DNA was the molecule of heredity he would probably not have the same problems, though there were strong debates over the subject before it was widely accepted and understood better. It is not just Mayr who uses this technique to address people. In the November 2004 National Geographic there was a cover article whose title was “Was Darwin wrong? No. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.” A link to scans of the cover and first page that demonstrate the way National Geographic portrayed the story. I found the format of the title interesting, the way it showed how they seemed to portray a discussion of evolution on the cover, but the article was actually rather clear on the views on the issue.

Conceptions of Time
Name: Laine Edwards (
Date: 02/06/2005 14:59
Link to this Comment: 12560

Throughout my reading of Mayr I've paid attention to the specific words he uses to describe time in the evolutionary process. Words like "gradual", "rapid", "rate", and "slowly" made perfect sense to me as I read Mayr like a novel, skipping over things that didn't immediately make sense. When I thought more about the words he uses and the amounts of time (millions and millions of years) that they actually represent, I got caught up in the way I perceive time and whether or not that has an effect on the story of evolution.

I cannot imagine what 544 million years is like. I say the words and in my head I think that's a really long time, but I don't think I'm really grasping what an incredibly LONG time that is. I am used to encountering words like "rapid" and "slowly" in a completely different context- things like rapid-dry nail polish or slow-cooked chicken. I find it hard to think about the word rapid representing millions of years of change.

I'm wondering if the difficulty I am having in accurately envisioning the time span of evolution affects the way I understand the story of evolution. Can I really understand the term "rapid" when it stands for a million years or more? I feel as if my reading of evolution as been skewed by my inability to accurately understand the time frame of evolution.

Random Thoughts
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 02/06/2005 15:49
Link to this Comment: 12563

Wednesday's discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as comments on the possibility of humankind driving itself into extinction, made me think of an analysis of the theory behind Deep Ecology. The essay "Ecofeminism," by Freya Mathews, says that the actions of humans are to be viewed as a natural part of nature, even when they're destructive. If humans should make this world so unfit for our survival that we die out, some form of life will probably continue living. From our demise a new species could be born, millions of years in the future. I know it's not an especially original idea, as dozens of science fiction books will attest, but I thought it was interesting to see a connection between different ideas.

The theory that even disorder can produce some form of order is almost reassuring. As the sun is destroyed, photosynthesis occurs. As prey is captured, predators thrive. One thing is destroyed, but another goes on. Admittedly, it also implies that the cycle must one day end, such as the time when the sun finally runs out of energy to give forth.

superiority and then perfection...
Name: natalie (
Date: 02/06/2005 16:03
Link to this Comment: 12564

This may be a bit repetitive, but in the least, a dilemma we all have taken notice of. This is a response to “on human superiority” (message 12558) We may have charateristics that are unique as homo sapiens or so called superior. But are we really capable of getting inside the head of an insect or even a dog? If we could maybe then we could actually compare and see whose characteristics provide a “summary of observations” or story. No matter how many Dr. Doolittle movies are created, we still have yet to understand the “other”, a species or animal or breed with different linguistic capacities than our own. I understand what can be said about a complex linguistic capability, but if we understood the languages of other animals. What if insects were plotting against us and we don’t even know it, the competition for the “struggle for existence” may be at a higher probability state than we assume.

But what I originally hoped to mention was the continual use of the word “perfection” in Mayr’s work. Specifically on pg. 140 Mayr relates natural selection to the production of perfection. However, instead of forging a relation, he rather asks us the question, why is there no correlation between natural selection in any sort of effort to “produce perfection”? From a literature perspective, you will have to forgive me, it has been a long time since I have set foot in a course relating to anything scientific, this word perfection is heavily charged. And for me brings up religious connotations as well. I don’t know that this dubious “summary of observations” of science, can really speak of perfection at all. What god or higher power/ authority defines that?, If he/she or group of gods can not exist in the arena of science at all…
What is interesting about science is that there is no inherent approach to deducing purpose or meaning within the limits of their continual research and methods. That science may never be teleological or goal directed, even if we do manage to show that not all things in life are due to chance. Or that even below the surface level of chance, there is a pattern which is reproducible; in terms of, for example, the game we played online in class last Wednesday. Where as, if we were in a room full of philosophers, would it not be our job to research meaning and purpose first between all the lines of the stories we tell? And how can science really avoid doing so in all their innovation and discovery?

more thoughts on Mawr
Name: Austin (
Date: 02/06/2005 16:15
Link to this Comment: 12566

I am a lover of the story of evolution but Mawr’s book got harder and harder to read as it progressed. It definitely has an overwhelming feeling of being a textbook and was hard to handle in anything but small chunks. I really feel like he could have made the book much more interesting and readable had he used a different format, or went about the telling of the story and information in a different way.

On the idea that Mawr writes his book as if everything he believes is factual: I feel that he has that right. It is his book and he is allowed to write his opinion as fact if he wants to, since indeed, this book is not a textbook (the book only feels like one, which is maybe why so many of us have a problem with him being so matter-of-fact).

Also, Wednesday’s discussion was really interesting. Talking about chaos and order definitely got me thinking, and I learned a lot of great new information for outside discussions with peers and friends. I like that this class allows us to get away from Mawr’s book and discuss the more interesting points he makes in our own way. It’s a great way to understand the material and the concepts, without boring us all!

Name: Eleanor Carey (
Date: 02/06/2005 16:46
Link to this Comment: 12568

Because I do not read a lot of science books (I have used science textbooks for science classes but not many others), I do not have anything with which to compare Mayr's book. I found it more readable than I had textbooks I used in the past, and while I did not necessarily feel that this was written for me, I found it about as clear as straightforward as I ever have found a science book. Upon finishing it I felt I had a better understanding of evolutionary theory than before, and one upon which I would like to build.
It has occurred to me that the story may have compelled me as it did in part because it was presented as fact. While this is a story that could be told many different ways, so in theory is any story I might tell or any story I might choose to read in my free time (a novel). When I read a story I want to believe that it is true and when I tell a story I either believe it to be true or to be something that could be true. Maybe science cannot claim to determine "truth", but this story is a part of the evolution of our understanding of evolution, and this part of the story was told by Ernst Mayr. So it isn't truth. Having tried to understant Mayr's story, I can look elsewhere for other stories, for the story of evolution told in a different way.
I may be less inclined toward criticism, having so enjoyed addressing ideas about which I knew next to nothing as I read this book. Perhaps next time I look at I shall feel differently.

Name: Haley (
Date: 02/06/2005 16:48
Link to this Comment: 12569

This week I found Mayr's section on human evolution the most intriguing part of the reading. It was controversial yet gripping at the same time...I have always been interested in the mysteries that surround it. It used to be such a big concept to grasp, and I am only now starting to fully appreciate it. For awhile (and before my first biology class) I could not shake the image of the cave man. Now, of course, I realize how much richer our evolution has been.

Mayr seemed to provide the information on human evolution as a point of view rather than a fact, which caused me to think a bit more. As I read, I was reminded of the article I stumbled upon in a National Geographic once...questioning whether humans descended from Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, or a combination of both. There was also the concept that we all may have descended from one woman-who scientists named Eve, I think someone posted that idea here awhile ago.

The final chapter of the book was also particularly intriguing. I feel as if I have learned a great deal from this book, and I am looking forward to discussing it.

Whew! So we have made it through Mayr…
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 02/06/2005 16:58
Link to this Comment: 12570

After finishing Mayr, there is so much I am still working through… and reading through the class comments have given me more ideas.

Reading Mayr and asking ‘What Evolution Is’ has lead me to another question; what is progress. Some of the posts Natalie, Jenn , Liz , and others really intrigued me. Liz talked about the future of humanity by referencing Gattaca, a movie which reminded me of the novel “A Brave New Word” (by the way, is T.H. Huxley (who was mentioned in the book) related to Aldous Huxley?) Both of these story telling media ask the question, where is humanity headed? Are we progressing/evolving in a positive direction?

The direction of progress relates back to our class discussion on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We discussed how life sustains itself on disorder (the sun breaks down, plants photosynthesize, plants get eaten, animals get eaten, animals die, decompose back to the earth). Taking this chaotic view into account, is there a perspective on progress that is constructive, optimistic, positive? The more we progress, the more we seem to move away from the evolution, we seem to be aiming to transcend evolution. There are medicines to cure/relieve many ailments. We have developed techniques to allow people to live (and pass down their genes) with what would have otherwise been a mortal condition. We genetically modify our crops to make them more resilient and resistant to insects. Our lifespan and longevity is getting progressively longer. I do not argue that that progress in the field of medicine is a good thing (and I definitely don’t want to argue a case for genocide/eugenics), but are we digging our own grave. The growing resistance of medicines and pesticides that Mayr talks about could lead to problems. What happens if a ‘super’ disease develops/evolves that is resistant to all forms of intervention/medication that we have. Or perhaps a ‘super’ pest will develop/evolve that will eat our crops. Diseases like Alzheimer’s disease appear in elderly people. Are we not capable of living for so long; is that a ‘natural’ means of correcting the balance which we have disturbed? I am still working through these questions (and I doubt I will reach an answer… just develop more questions…). Mayr has helped me begin to develop an idea of ‘What Evolution Is’… now I am starting to wonder what the implications of evolution are…

Mayr on species concepts
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (
Date: 02/06/2005 17:00
Link to this Comment: 12571

One thing that has always fascinated me is the different species concepts, so I was interested to see what Mayr had to say about this. Mayr admits that there are different species concepts and that there is sometimes an incompatibility between them, so other definitions of species need to be applied. It seems that he really glossed over the species issue quickly, which I think is to be expected from him. He mostly plays mind to the biological species concept, which is the traditional species concept (I think) and mentions that the typological (or morphological, as i learned it) is the only other one that may be applied. While those two species concepts are the two MAJOR concepts, I remember reading, years ago, that there are at least five more which scientists use. "What evolution is" is kind of a tricky book, in the sense that we REALLY have to be aware that it is Mayr's take on evolution. It absolutely reads like "here are the facts" ... but I still believe taht Mayr had good intentions with the book, although if *I* were to write a book about evolution, I'd probably try to make it not only more accessible, but also les concrete.

Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 02/06/2005 18:27
Link to this Comment: 12574

Mayr's book may be over for most of you, but I still have a good bit to read tonight. Here are some comments until then...

Many of us (especially Dr. Grobstein) were discussing how Mayr doesn't emphasize chance--or should I say catastrophy?--in his book. I've been paying much more attention to that, and see that in some cases he does give a lot of credit to randomness. For example:

(pg 141) "MUCH of the differential survivial and reproduction in a population are not the restult of selection, but rather of CHANCE... potentially favorable gene combinations are undoubtedly OFTEN eliminated by INDISCRIMINATE environmental forces."

Mayr's obituary mentioned how species were decided similarly among different cultures the coincidence of what Western scientists
This reminded me of an argument I had with my dad about whether science was a universal discipline or whether western science and eastern science (and southern science, or whatnot) would remain distinct. Although not specifically related to evolution, it brings up the question of whether science can brige cultural divides more easily than other disciplines. ...All right, I'll read and think some more before class tomorrow.

More Mayhem, More Stories of Evolution
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/06/2005 20:04
Link to this Comment: 12577

And the questions keep piling …
I am really thankful for the postings in the forum. They have kept me thinking, agreeing, and disagreeing all weekend!

1. Mayr’s expression on the progress of evolution is risky. I am immediately repulsed by the idea of evolution as a directional and progressive process. He seems to say that largely evolution is uniformitarian: where one can draw upon the past to tell stories about the present. But he says it is the mechanism of evolution that is catastrophic or discontinuous: random fertilization, mutations, variation. My unease about this argument basically relates to Mayr’s definition of “progress”. Instead of thinking about “more evolved” as “more complex”, shouldn’t we focus on ecological indicators of adaptability? Isn’t how adaptable or successful a species is determined by its population size, energy efficiency, reproductive success etc.? I don’t buy the whole “humans are more complex, therefore more evolved” argument.

2. I also think that this is a great time to start talking about social, cultural evolution and the evolution of stories. I was thinking that as analysts of evolution and other theories, we set our own criterion for what constitutes successful species, or factors that can drive natural selection of a particular trait. But if what metaphysicists say is true and everything and everyone is a figment of our own imagination, and Dawkin as right and all we are is selfish genes, then it seems to me that we no nothing at all. What if the real driving forces of evolution are actually cultural? Let’s say that instead of camouflage in the African savannah, hyenas are actually selected on the basis of how well they cooperate as a group or how adapted their hierarchical system is to finding food etc.

What if we don’t have that biology? And stories is all we’ve got …

About Previous Posting
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/06/2005 23:21
Link to this Comment: 12586

Thousand apologies for the dreadful spelling mistakes in the above posting !

Goodnight Serendipzzzzzzzzzzz

appreciation and addition
Name: Paul Grobstein (
Date: 02/07/2005 08:51
Link to this Comment: 12591

This, friends, is one of the richest explorations into both science and evolution that I've ever seen. Thanks all. There's more than enough here to keep not only us but many others thinking about evolution in terms of observations, stories, implications of stories, and new questions requiring new observations, stories, etc for many years to come. And more than enough to give us a take off point to move on into some broader implications of the story of biological evolution, including its possible significance for literature. Thanks again to all.

We don't NEED more but ... an interesting and relevant article about avian brains appeared this past week (see links at the bottom of my notes for another class. Its an argument that "story" (in particular the names applied to things) is an important element of science that is somewhat independent of observations. And it bears as well on the issue of "uniqueness" (and "perfection"?) of humans, suggesting that birds may have a more sophisticated brain than they are being given credit for in many current scientific stories. Not human, different, but ... also successful?

Name: Jessica (
Date: 02/07/2005 12:00
Link to this Comment: 12596

(Sorry for this lateness, but I just have to post something about this, if only to get it out of my head)

I am fascinated by Mayr's section on Altruism. This is the kind of thing science does that I can actually have some use for.

The biological story of how we have ethics, morals, conscience is an amazing question. As Mayr asks "is not selfishness the only behavior that can be rewarded by selection(256)?" I'm taking this Sociology of Deviance class right now. One main school of thought is about the functionality of deviousness, about how none of it (crime, violence, deviance that leads to positive social change, people like Ghandi, etc) would exist if it didn't serve some purpose in society. Also, there are theories about how everyone starts life in a state of low self-control, and have to be socialized to delay gratification enough to not just rob people and have sex constantly (I am grossly over simplifying).

These are connecting in my mind as two different ways to tell the same story, the story of ethics, in a biological and sociological sense. I think the reason I thought of myself as a continous person, three weeks ago when we started asking, was b/c I like to look at the laws that govern human behavior as continuous; people loved and hated and laughed and cried and all of that bs thousands of years ago just as they do now. But now, through Mayr, I'm trying to look at every act of kindness, every altruism, as a catastrophic event going against the rest of evolution. Maybe I'm overreaching to far in the other direction now, possibly.

I'm excited, because I didn't know this kind of science got to talk about this.

Name: Kate Shiner (
Date: 02/07/2005 13:00
Link to this Comment: 12602

This whole concept of catastrophism vs. uniformitarianism has been gradually fermenting in my brain these past few weeks. I've noticed that I've started to shape and categorize materials from other classes in light of these concepts.

One passage from an article by W.C. MgGrew called "Culture in Nonhuman Primates?" particularly struck me as relevant to our discussion. The quote is, " Investigators of other species must constantly walk the line between anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. Anthropomorphism brings with it the temptation to overly extend the principle of uniformitarianism. Anthropocentrism must remain mindful of the old adage, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

I've struggled with this passage for quite a while now and although I still feel I cannot fully get my mind around it, it's raised a lot of questions in my mind. Anthropomorphism in this context, as I understand it, is perceiving animals to have human qualities. I believe this is a kind of storytelling humans are prone to do. However many people also have a problem with this, because they want to draw a sharp line between humans and animals, often around the concept of "culture." To people like this it is almost impossible to prove any true similarities, and they have a huge problem with the idea that animals may have any form of culture. I myself believe there is enough evidence to support non-human culture in some animals. I suppose this makes me an anthropomorphist, and perhaps a uniformitarian to some extent? This surprised me because I had not previously thought myself a uniformitarian, it just seemed too conventional and conformist a stance. However, in this case I believe the idea that animals can have culture is actually quite creative and controversial.

Purpose in evolution
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/07/2005 16:16
Link to this Comment: 12618

I thought this link would be interesting. Apparently the Vatican is also wondering if there is a "purpose" in evolution.
Its very short and doesnt answer any questions but nevertheless interesting.

Name: Annie Sull. (
Date: 02/08/2005 14:13
Link to this Comment: 12693

I'm still having a hard time with the notion of "purpose." I feel like this word has accrued such negative meanings lately.. that if we say something has "purpose," we've somehow adopted that positivist, linear mind-set which no one likes these days.... It was helpful in class to distinguish between different kinds of purpose (1. an interpertation that an individual imparts on something else; 2. Purpose that exists within an entity itself; and 3. the idea of a plan/intent governed by an external (or that same) entity) --(the fact that we spent so much time discussing what 'purpose' meant. . . and that we had to agree upon which story we meant when talking about 'purpose'. . . shows how slippery the concept is) It seems to me that there isn't a difference between these three understandings; in fact, they could all fall under definition #1. If you think of the world as a composite of overlapping systems, each individual entity will acquire a different purpose based on which system we are looking at. To humans, the purpose of a tree is to produce oxygen; to a bird, it may be to provide a place for its nest. These are the different stories we choose. It's one thing to say that evolution is not a design; that there is no endpoint. . but I still think it is a bit more difficult to say it has no purpose. I still don't really know what 'purpose' means . . It seem detached from time and always changing. It is only what we name it in the aftermath of an event, or perhaps when looking forward at a hazy future. The word 'purpose' will always invite the deconstructionist; one can remove the layers of meaning inscribed upon this word... but when you get to that blank space underneath . . it is not "no-thing" you find, but everything. . . and saying that there is no purpose is just as "story-like" as any other meaning we choose.... I don't know if any of this made sense . . . so sorry for the rambling.

Purpose and Rules!
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/08/2005 15:52
Link to this Comment: 12695

I think, like Annie said in her forum, it helped to define purpose in the context of evolution. After giving it some thought, i realized something simple and easy, that purpose in evolution meant that the intelligent design of the universe and life was orchestrated by a higher being, I suppose we can safely say God. I know all of you are saying DUH!! but the point is that I did not assume that purpose meant that God had something to do with evolution but rather that the will to live or do something or achieve something is somehow purpose. The ball falling down a mountain has the purpose of reaching the ground because certain laws of gravity will guide its goal. Hence in some way purpose was defined differently in the context of rules. The question hence moves forward by asking whether rules have a purpose. Do the rules within which we operate have a purpose and where did they come from. For instance I was reading an article about when the universe began. They say that the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years approximately. However as we move back in time towards the beginning of the universe (towards time=0) the rules that have applied in the universe, at a point close to zero stop making sense. Hence I ask whats the purpose of the rules if they stop making sense at a certain point. Im obviously not equipped with the knowledge to understand all of this very well, but its nevertheless unbelievably fascinating. If I were not scientifically and mathematically inept this is the stuff to study. Sorry thats a random thought. I think the randomness I have posted will amply confuse all of you so I apologize.

Animism, Purpose, and meaning
Name: Maureen England (
Date: 02/08/2005 17:04
Link to this Comment: 12697

I know we are all thinking about "purpose" now since last class, and I don't want to kill the idea, but I'm still thinking about it too. I was thinking of the old belief of Animism. Basically, the belief is that everything has a soul, even inanimate objects. I'm not particularly knowledgable about the religion, but I have been reading a few internet sites since I remembered the concept from High School Religion class. Here are a few links which brush over the idea:

Of course, when one gets into religion in answer to the question of purpose, one crosses over into another field which many people may be hesitant to discuss, due to its subjective nature.

There is another issue I want to raise. We have been suggesting that Evolution is a story. We have also suggested that perhaps Evolution doesn't have an ultimate goal, a purpose (just as a suggestion, barring any objections). But in saying both of these, aren't we contradicting ourselves? When we think of a story, there is generally expected some outcome, or conclusion to the story arrising from Character progression, action progression, or moral significance. Indeed, for me, a story that hasn't progressed to a point in which an end is presented or foreseeable in the future, isn't a story at all. A story progresses and developes just as organisms due during evolution. To see evolution as purposeless, or without point or reason, is rather depressing. Perhaps it is true that humans want to see purpose in things; we have adages "Carpe Diem" and such to add meaning and purpose to our lives, but what would life be without such purpose? Would evolution be significant if it had no purpose? Why do organisms evolve if they have no ultimate goal? For me, I'd rather believe that every thing has a purpose, has significance than think that the process of life and the amazing things that have arisen from evolution, is just an accident, and has no future.

Interesting Answers
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/08/2005 23:14
Link to this Comment: 12702

So, procrastination has finally paid off...
I found an amazing site that basically provides the Bible's answers to contemporary questions. For example:
- What was Adam, the first man, really like?
- Where did the flood water come from? or go?
- Did Noah need oxygen above the mountains?
- How did the fish survive the flood?
- Are dinosaurs mentioned in the bible?
- Does DNA similarity between chimps and human prove that they have a common ancestry?

I could go on, but I'll let you check it out ! Cheers...

Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 02/08/2005 23:15
Link to this Comment: 12703

The site that I was so enthusiastic about is:

Islam and Evolution
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 02/09/2005 15:17
Link to this Comment: 12711

Professor Grobstein asked me what the muslim take on evolution was and is and since I wasnt very helpful I found some websites that offered some perspectives. Im sure there are many but these were a few I encountered.

These were just two. I think they maintain that it is God's will that life exists and hence I suppose its like the position of the Catholic church. But I think since Islam lacks a central school or authority that proclaims what their position is we get an array of positions on the matter.

These are not anti evolution but there are some.

further directions to follow...
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 02/09/2005 18:42
Link to this Comment: 12718

I dropped by this evening intending to "clean up" the forum on Mayr and "open up" a new one on Dennett...but am finding myself led, instead, to gather together a number of references and links which arose this afternoon, as folks in my section were helping one another along w/ our individual story ideas and expansions....

You might want to check out

That should keep you occupied...
@ least til next week.

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