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Biology/English 223
Bryn Mawr College
Spring 2007

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

Anne Dalke (English House, ext. 5308, adalke@brynmawr.edu)
Paul Grobstein (Park Science Building, ext. 5098, pgrobste@brynmawr.edu)


"Ever since Darwin, we live in a world of stories."
(Jonathan Weiner, "The Science of Life and the
Art of Living Well." Scientific American,
February 20, 2006)
"T.S. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science...with the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination ....Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe...that fiction is the thing you...seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced...we have to ask of each other a little bit more."
(Zadie Smith, "Fail Better," The Guardian, January 13, 2007)
We will experiment, in this course, with two interrelated and reciprocal inquiries: whether the biological concept of evolution is a useful one in understanding the phenomena of literature (in particular: the generation of new stories), and whether literature contributes to a deeper understanding of evolution. We will begin with an exploration of the basis for the "story" of evolution as developed by biologists, move on to a consideration of the relevance of the concept of evolution for making sense of other bodies of information and observations, and then turn to a consideration of one literary story growing out of another. We will ask repeatedly: Where do stories (scientific and literary) come from? Why do new ones emerge? What causes them to change? Why do (must?) some of them disappear? We will consider the parallels between diversity of stories and diversity of living organisms, and think about what new insights into evolution and literature emerge from such considerations.
Required Texts:
Ernst Mayr. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic, 2001.
Daniel Dennett. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
E.M. Forster. Howard's End. 1910; rpt. Penguin, 2000.
Zadie Smith. On Beauty. Penguin, 2005.
Howards End. Dir. James Ivory. Videocassette. Merchant Ivory Productions. 1991. 143 minutes.
Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton University Press, 1999.

Week One: Playing/Setting Things Up
Tues, Jan. 23

Thurs, Jan. 25
Zadie Smith, "Fail Better." The Guardian, January 13, 2007.
Weeks Two-Four:
Where Does the Story of Biological Evolution Come From?

Tues, Jan. 30 Mayr. Chapters 1-4 (pp. 3-82)
Thurs, Feb. 1 Mayr, Chapters 1-4, continued
Tues, Feb. 6 Mayr, Chapters 5-8 (pp. 83-173)
Thurs, Feb. 8 Mayr, Chapters 5-8, continued
Tues, Feb. 13 Mayr, Chapters 9-12 (pp. 174-268)
Thurs, Feb. 15 Mayr, Chapters 9-12, continued

Fri, Feb. 16 Paper #1 due
Write 3-4 pp. in which you think through some problem that has been raised in your mind by our discussion of biological evolution. This is not a "reaction paper" (like your forum postings), but should rather make a claim, develop a thesis, and support it with observations which you have drawn from several new resources you have located (either in the form of written texts or on the web).

Some sample topics:

Bring a hard copy to your section leader's office (Anne's in English House, Paul's in Park) by 5 p.m. Friday, February 16, and post a copy of the paper in the course web exchange.

Weeks Five-Seven: Is Evolution a Useful Story Beyond Biology?
Tues, Feb. 20 Dennett, Part I: Starting in the Middle (pp. 17-145)
Thurs, Feb. 22 Dennett, Part I, continued
Tues, Feb. 27 Dennett, Chapters 12-14 (pp. 335-427)
Thurs, Mar. 1 Dennett, Chapters 12-14, continued
Tues, Mar. 6 Dennett, Chapters 15-18 (pp. 428-521)
Thurs, Mar. 8 Dennett, Chapters 15-18, continued

SPRING BREAK March 10-18

Tues, Mar. 20 (Extended Due Date for) Paper #2
3-4 pp. on some aspect of the story of evolution beyond the context of biology which is of particular interest or use to you. Bring a hard copy to class and also post a copy of the paper in the course web exchange.

Weeks Eight-Eleven: How and why do Literary Stories Evolve?
Tues, Mar. 20 Howard's End (Chapter 11)
Thurs, Mar. 22 " (Chapter 22)
Tues, Mar. 27 " (Chapter 33)
Thurs, Mar. 29 " (Chapter 44)
Tues, Apr. 3 On Beauty ("Kipps and Belsey," to p. 125)
Thurs, Apr. 5 " ("The Anatomy Lesson," to p. 270)
Tues, Apr. 10 " ("On Beauty and Being Wrong," to p. 362)
Thurs, Apr. 12 " ("On Beauty," continued to p. 443)

Weeks Twelve & Thirteen: Biological Evolution, Literature, and ... ?
Tues, Apr. 17 What a Biologist Is Learning from Literary Studies...
Thurs, Apr. 19 "

Fri, Apr. 20 Paper #3 due:
3-4 pp. on some aspect of the evolution of literary stories that particularly interests--or is useful--to you. Submit a hard copy and post a copy in the course web exchange.

Tues, Apr. 24 What a Literary Critic is Learning from Biology...
Thurs, Apr. 26 "

Week Fourteen (Tues, May 1 and Thurs, May 3)
Bringing it all together--telling each other new stories
Spontaneously formed emergent groups of four or so students each should prepare ten-fifteen minute presentations reflecting on some aspect of the course readings. Presentations should encourage, in a provocative and entertaining way, further story development on the part of others in the class.

5 p.m. Saturday, May 12 (seniors); 12:30 p.m. Friday, May 18 (all others)
Paper #4 and Portfolio Due.
Paper #4:
10-12 pp. in which you make use of the biological, philosophical and literary stories of the course to create a new, interesting, useful story of your own--one that might well (in consultation with your instructor) have a creative dimension.

Instructions for Preparing and Posting Your Papers
Instructions for Preparing Your Portfolio

Course Requirements:


  • 1/6: participation in class and on-line conversations
  • 1/6 each: papers # 1, 2, 3
  • 1/3: final paper
In this class, we'll be exploring how diversity is fundamental to all levels of organization, in both biological and cultural systems. It will be clear, from that exploration, why we think a single grade will not adequately reflect your various, distinctive efforts in the class; nor do we think it will function as an adequate index to how you may perform in other contexts. We hope you'll regard this score as only one measure of your accomplishments, and take into account your own sense of how what you achieve here relates to your own goals. We're of course happy to discuss all these matters with you in conference.

The images on these pages are reproduced with permission of Rieko Nakamura and Toshihiro Anzai; you can see a complete display of their work at http://www.renga.com.

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