Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
February 27, 2007

--what'd I miss?
--introducing Caitlin Stearn, for the Teaching and Learning Initiative at Bryn Mawr College

"The Encounter":
between the intellectual and the contemplative,
between the biologic and the philosophic

Emily: I am wondering how Darwin's observations can be divided from speculation...
what is the difference between science (the one with no truths) and philosophy...?





M.C. Escher, "The Encounter" (litograph, 1944):
which is figure? which is ground?


Gaby: i am looking forward to prof dalke coming back from her conference and explaining to me how they distinguish between the words "contemplative" and "intellectual"

Hmm... Uncovering the Heart of Higher Education
turned out to involve less of a distinction between
contemplative practices and the intellectual life than
--an enlargement
--a question of pacing
--a "loopy" movement between focusing attention and letting go of it,
--between concentration and relaxation
--a learning to sustain --and live with -- deep contradictions,
--the meeting (as in Escher's print) of figure and ground.

From Science & Spirit: The exploratory seeking that Quakers call "continuing revelation," the process of constantly "testing" in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information...are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms.

Some Examples of this "expansive" sort of knowing
Ed Sarath (Jazz @ UMichigan): Decision-Making in the Context of Improvisation ("what I hear informs the next step")

Diana Chapman Walsh, "Trustworthy Leadership":
each discipline is a self-contained language game,
with an internal consistency and blinders that are
highly seductive to independent judgment
something was missing in the study of the humanities;
"it held the world @ arm's length," didn't point to answers that satisfied
"in the systems perspective of public health,
I found academic work worth all I could bring to it"

Arthur Zajonc (Physics @ Amherst): "Contemplative Inquiry"
Einstein's decades-long "thought experiment" of what it was like to ride an electromagnetic wave
what does the world look like from that frame?



Bob Keegen (Pych/Grad Ed @ Harvard): The Evolving Self and
In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life :

impulsive --> instrumental --> socializable --> self-authoring --> self-transforming mind



Sounds like some analogous work was going on back @ the ranch?
...are [the general ideas of biological evolution]...transplantable/useful/generative in additional contexts?

We still have questions about the biological process itself (in particular: is it really random?)--

Tu: I was curious about how the universe came about, after reading the first few chapters of Dennett's book, thus I did a bit of research on my own....Just a small change in any parameters would mean the universe would not be what it is today...it appears to me that there was a structural recipe that was not random in creating the universe.

Trinh: I find the process of speciation very interesting...There is almost an element of abitrariness in deciding which collection of variations gets to be its own species...there are so many exceptions and inconsistencies. Does nature have a checklist that we just havent figured out yet or is the demarcation of species simply a human construct?

Andrea: I do agree with Dennett that in many cases of speciation, the species exist because the intermediate species no longer exist. I do not agree, however, that there is no extra presence of something, like a gene, that makes the two species different... Without that difference, the two organisms (first and last in the line) would just be varieties of the same species.

Though still imperfectly understood, we are finding the concept of evolution transplantable/useful/generative in thinking about language--

EB: All Romance Languages are descents of "Vulgar Latin". This is significant to the story of evolution because from a single language, or initial language, speech has evolved and specialized into a variety of different ones-but they all stem from the same beginning and therefore all include traces of similarity.

Danielle: Our ability to speak to one another and therefore learn from one another greatly enhances our chances of survival....[but] I don't think that the shift from Vulgar Latin to the wide variety of romance languages today is part of the evolutionary process-- unless modern day languages are more useful for survival, or they can express something that older languages were incapable of expressing.

Isabelle: language limits and changes the "truth" of our stories....alters our memory of events....my math teacher began to yell at us about how the word awkward was ruining us....caused [situations] to be falsely remembered as awkward....It is frightening ...how limited we are by the words we have been taught.

Caroline: Having grown up bilingual, there are definite sentiments that I can't express in both languages, despite being familiar with both of them...language...shapes the way we think... the strategy of eliminating certain strains of language in [Orwell's] 1984 is a logical way to shape the way people think.

Christina: maybe nature is selecting for story telling....People in power must be able to tell stories....going out into the "real world"...companies have interviews and applications programs and schools have essays to determine whether or not you are a successful communicator.

Gaby: when employers select future employees it's not natural....It would be "artificial selection" or even "business selection" (I hesitate to say "cultural selection")....does thought really exist outside language?....i believe that language controls rather than limits our thought process.

What is the border between "natural" and "cultural"? How transplantable/useful/generative is it to maintain it? To work across it?

Katherine: Dennet...states that there is so little time seperating us from the time of Plato, that there is absolutely no way to look at the human race at an evolutionary level....However...the average lifespan of a human being is now significantly longer...examples such as these lie on the border between biology and social/cultural situation....isn't our ability to adapt to our environment by creating and discovering better medical treatments, health and sanitation standards enabling us to live longer?...changing how we as a species reproduce?

Elise: I find the idea of viewing culture through the analogy of evolution very interesting...the earliest societies are the common ancestors of the wide variety of modern cultures that have persisted into modern times through a process of sustainability that could be compared to natural selection. Viewing culture in this way emphasizes the commonalities shared by human societies

The real rub (so far) in crossing this border seems to concern matters of meaning:

Hayley: I like to believe that...the whole point of life is to experience this reality....

Megan: Humans have evolved culturally as well as biologically, and our evolution into beings that search for meaning is what makes us superior.

Rebecca: I stopped paying attention to what I was reading in Dennett when I came to realize that what makes us human - our use of language, our innate love of arts, our perception - and thus what makes us superior, is just what we see.

Sarah: I feel that our need for culture, art, and aesthetic pleasures are major biological weaknesses....They have no value to any other species other than ourselves. Their purpose is to give is a sense of order, belonging, and purpose.... It is likely that our need for exploration and creativity is going to create technology that ends up destroying ... the earth, other species, and ourselves. To me, that is not a successful species at any level.

Shannon: we are to ethnocentric, thinking that we are the best just because our brains are the most complex & we can speak eloquently. We may be able to "kill 99.9% of germs with Lysol spay", but bacteria has us surrounded. Touche.

Katie: I don't know that in the context of evolution we can say that any one organism is more useful than another.... utility can go a lot of ways... If that's the case, is the concept of utility useful in evolution studies?... I feel a little off-put by the idea that evolution results in the mindless, algorithmic generation of organisms, of which I am presumably one....evolution implies that I'm the meaningless result of a meaningless continual process....am I just futiley searching for meaning where there never can be any?

Evan: In thinking about how evolution implies that we are the meaningless result of a meaningless process I believe perspective on the issue plays a significant role....taking a step back...enjoy and make the most of ... short time on earth and not dwell on the possibility that the human race is a microscopic chapter in the ongoing book of life

Paul? Can you give us a hand with this matter of meaning...??

Can Dennett?
(As Trinh noted, this guy's really out there, isn't he?):
After reading some of Dennett's writing i sort of feel like it was unfair to call Mayr authoritative. Compared to Mayr, Dennett does the word much more justice. one particular quote that is very undiplomatic: "to put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant--inexcusably ignoranin a would where three out of four people have learned to read and write" (46). Though his tone is indeed condescending I can't help but feel like its still an effective way to write. He is very polarized in his thoughts...in a strange way it was rather refreshing to read someone who puts himself out there, who takes a stance, who takes a risk at being utterly wrong by being so irrevocably adamant in his views--for there is always a possibility that our observations will someday serva a different story other than evolution. He doesnt stand in the safety zone of indecision or ambivalence as Mary sometimes did....







| Course Home Page | Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Tuesday, 27-Feb-2007 11:31:23 EST