Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
January 31, 2005

Considering the Relation Between Form and Content/Style and Substance
And What We Do When They Don't Relate Very Well....

Images on this page from the Watercolors of Sharon Burgmayer

Multiple versions of any story are always possible: two examples from The New York Times--

"The Arab Media Decide to Focus Coverage on the Voting, Not the Violence" (1/31/05):
"...news directors said they found the decision surprisingly easy to make. The violence simply was not the story on Sunday morning; the voting was."

Gregg Easterbrook's review of Jared Diamond's Collapse (1/30/05):
The thesis of ..."Guns"...is that environmental coincidences are the principal factor in human history. Diamond contends it was chance...that brought industrial power first to Europe....as the last ice age ended, by chance Eurasisa held many plants that could be bred for controlled farming...a food edge that translated into a head start on technology....Also, as the ice age ended, Eurasia was home to large mamammls that could be domesticated....Diamond ended his 1997 book by supposing, "the challenge now is to develop human history as a science." That is what Collapse attempts--to use history as a science to forecast where the the current world order will fail....Diamond fears...all may crash when legacy commodities run out....But the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends tells us patterns won't remain unchanged....Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to consider society's evoutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth many even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature's standards....

We've been saying something similar about Mayr:
Shouldn't a Story of Evolution Have an "Evolutionary" Style?

A persistent lament:
Mayr assumes the tone of "religious certainty"

Nada: Evolution as presented by Ernst Mayr is truth... he was almost assuming a religious type knowledge that was ...unquestionable....Mayr belives in only his own consistency and does not present it in a way that welcomes other theories....I think the most fascinating assertion made by Darwin was that..."all life on Earth had started wth a single origin of life." I ...had read it in some Quranic scripture....To see religious scripture make a similar assertion as Darwin and some modern evolutionists was to be honest strange....

Ariel: ...frustrating is his treatment of science as if it were a religion....there does not seem to be any space for new information, unless it corroborates what is already believed to be correct.

Lauren Z: What I am finding most unexpected about Mayr's book...is... I am starting to view science as a discipline equally hindered by the perspective of the individual....Grobestein claimed that...scientists try for "the view from as many places as possible." I don't think that Mayr has this view.

Tonda: ...perhaps he is too involved with his subject to ever see any outside, alternative possibilities to his theories...

Becky : It seems like Mayr didn't quite know how to write for the audience he intended to, and he missed the mark....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....

Jenn: ...oftentimes scientific stories tend to be better written by someone who is not a scientist....being an expert on something would cause challenges when trying to convey that knowledge....

Mayr's Style Is Particularly Vexing (To Some of Us)
Because It Is Does Not Express the Story He is Telling

Kate: ...before he even explains his own arguments he first criticizes all other perspectives that have been developed through history....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?

Lauren T : Mayr's writing style can contradict the points he tries to make...Just as he says unfit individuals are eliminated by nature, Mayr sets up the theories he disagrees with and, one by one, gives evidence...until he believes he has proved them to be utterly false....The surviving ...individual is deemed most fit, just as Mayr's remaining theory is.... he's writing more to oppose other views than to prove his view...

Arshiya : Mayr clearly talks about natural selection as being an even process.... everything is changing in a distinctly directional sequence... survivability [is] a non-random mechanism of elimination....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....

Brittany: ...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....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....

Annie : 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....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...) this story reflects aspects of... postmodernism...but [is presented] as the end-point in a long-running trajectory toward perfection...

Y'all Offered a Range of Different Ways of Handling This Paradox:

Kelsey : I am continuing to take notes because I don't agree with everything that I am reading.

Iva : I think that the beauty of ...good books...is to let them absolutely persuade you...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....I give it time to linger in my mind and find its place there....right now I am at the point when I am just reading and absolutely and unquestionably agreein with Mayer...

Carolyn : The point is not to "believe" in a story but to perceive it, and by doing so, to interpret it.... Mayr's faults make his book a more interesting read.... His biases challenge us to think critically while reading his story. Our interpretations of the text should try to fill in some of the "holes" in Mayr's book, to tell a story about our experiences with the text.

Trying out another experience, another reading of "What Evolution Is"....




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