Monday, December 6, 2010

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

This is a really interesting "Ted Talks" by Sir Ken Robinson. He is an ex professor who gives a short 15 minute lecture about how school structures affect humanity today. He stresses the importance of creativity and how it is discouraged within the educational system. I believe this relates to our talks in class because he raises some good points in regards to some of the detrimental effects of focusing predominantly on the sciences. He is a wonderful speaker and definitely worth 15 minutes of your time.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Final Thoughts

As class has now ended we are left to look back on what we have learned over the semester, OR our reaction to the class as a whole. I have taken away a greater appreciation for Darwin and his work and am now able to critically analyze it from various points of view. My favorite topics we touched on were Darwin's take on sexual selection, the idea of will in evolution, the use of prose (such as Swift, Shaw, Bacon, Pope and even Darwin himself) to engage with the various issues related to scientific knowledge and evolution, and the distinction between Darwinism and Social Darwinism. I thoroughly enjoyed many of the readings and all of the class discussions that they conjured. From this class I believe I am inclined to read Descent of Man to further understand Darwin's theories having to do with humans. Overall my reaction is extremely positive. These themes and the skill of critical thinking through in depth investigation are things that will help me throughout my academic career. Thanks for reading!

-Krista :)

Dr. Alexander and Richard Dawkins agree?

I share the enthusiasm others have shown for the presentation by Dr. Bruce Alexander that we were privileged enough to experience in class. In Dr. Alexander's lecture about Darwin and his connection with psychology he answered some major questions about human society through use of Darwin as well as enlightening us on the expansive nature of Darwin's overall works. Particularly interesting was the question Dr. Alexander posed about "what is morality?". Many may answer that religious teachings gave human society morality but Dr. Alexander takes the stance that morality is an evolved characteristic of both humans and animals having to live together and co-operate in groups. "Group Selection" is still a very controversial topic but I found a very interesting YouTube clip of one Mr. Richard Dawkins talking about his book "The Selfish Gene" in the 1980s. What Dawkins is explaining sounds eerily similar to that of Dr. Alexander. So might these two great minds possibly agree on something? Take a look:

The Jumping Giraffe?

The controversial idea of WILL has come up in readings and has been discussed extensively in class. We first encountered this idea when reading Samuel Butler's scorching essay against Darwin "The Deadlock in Darwinism". In this essay Butler attempted to disprove Darwin's theory by claiming that he had simply borrowed and re-worked previous ideas from others. One of these "others" was Lamarck whose work on evolution lay in the claim that perhaps giraffes had gained their long necks from generations of the most cunning giraffes stretching their necks to get at the highest branches while the less cunning ones died off. This idea of acquired characteristics being passed on to future offspring as well as the idea willing one's physical body to change were picked up by Bernard Shaw and fully explored in his play "Back to Methuselah". Shaw is a lover of Lamarck and a proponent of what he calls "Creative Evolution", or the idea that sheer will alone can allow for adaptive physical changes. When one first encounters these claims they may seem laughable, but when put in terms of how we think about the world, don't these things make sense? How often are we told to believe in ourselves and positive things will happen? Or why do some people claim that determination and WILL-POWER are what helped them achieve a major goal? Great feats of strength in both the mind and the body are constantly used as evidence of the power of will. So did those giraffes maybe jump to gain those longer necks? Sure; if we claim to have the will power why can't they?

Pope's Religion and (Right) Reason vs. Bacon's Religion and the Hierarchy of Knowledge

Learning about the difference between the Augustan and Baconian strains of thought was definitely helpful in looking at the two sides of the argument for the advancement of human knowledge, particularly science. From what was studied it seems that both strains of thought harnessed the use of God for very different means. In Bacon's "New Atlantis" the society he describes uses the teachings of God to lead them to the institution of the "Houses" to find out the pure nature of all things. Through the explanation of this society Bacon puts forth his idea of knowledge being owned by those who discovered it and it being their responsibility to disseminate their knowledge wisely. Or in other words keep the knowledge from getting into the "wrong" hands. In this hierarchy of knowledge Bacon is placing knowledge at the top of the pyramid right underneath God. In this way it would seem that Bacon wishes to have all of the knowledge possible next to what God knows. He stresses the importance of "morality" and "purity" in nature and knowledge yet his ambitions toward ultimate knowledge do no take into account all aspects of "morality" such as thinking about the consequences of his actions.
In opposition to Bacon, we read a few poems by Alexander Pope criticizing man for attempting to be as knowledgeable as God about nature. In Pope's interpretation nature is an all powerful force that man should respect and work alongside of, rather than try to harness. In the main argument within Augustan thought being the importance of "right reason", Pope would have thought Bacon's views to be irrational and disrespectful. In thinking that just because something could be done, it doesn't mean one should always do it, the Augustans are asking for moderation and forethought in the endeavor for knowledge. I would agree with the Augustans, on the side of rationality and forethought, but is obvious in science today that the Baconians won the battle. There are constant questions of morality that come up in modern day science, but since God can no longer be "rationally" conjured, scientists must use their personal discretion as well as the standards of the society in which they live.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Response to "Bacon's argument against science"

I would just like to quickly respond to a misleading blog post from a fellow classmate. In the above mentioned post the author attempts to claim that Bacon's writing of "New Atlantis" was a critique of the state of science and society during his time, when in actuality this writing is known to be Bacon's own utopian dream of society. Bacon believed in everything he wrote about science and knowledge needing to be hierarchical and how the pursuit of knowledge needed to be a (religiously) moral and but ever expanding quest. It was in this train of thought that Bacon came up with his scientific method and it is in no way "ironic" that he is considered one of the fathers of modern science.

What about Swift?

In perusing the other blogs I have come to notice somewhat of a hole in the story that is being created about the class content. No one seems to have touched on the important distinctions between Baconian and Augustan trains of thought that the reading of Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels has given us. This text was one of my favorite this semester because of my natural love of sarcasm and satire. When you first think of Gulliver's Travels you do not think about the comment it is making on the politics and society of the time, but once inferred there are many extremely funny examples of this in the text. In the section "A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms" when Gulliver is living with the Houyhnhnms (rational horses) he is very content to live without "the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend...[a] Physician to destroy my Body, nor Lawyer to ruin my Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction" (Swift 258) and he enjoys hearing how the horses concentrate their thought on "Friendship and Benevolence...the visible Operations of Nature...[and] the unerring Rules of Reason" (259), ideals which Swift obviously shares. Through prose Swift gives a perfect example of the type of situations and issues of morality that the Augustans were arguing against. They felt that "right reason" and a balance between nature and man was necessary for a morally correct society. Swift turns nature on its head by inventing an island where the horses are civilized and reasonable and the humans are amoral and simple to show how far from these ideals his society had drifted. In using deadpan humor and imaginative situations, Swift extends the Augustan philosophy of respect for nature and knowledge to a different and artistic level.

Source: Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Claude Rawson and notes by Ian Higgins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Darwin and Sexual Selection

Darwin's theories of sexual selection were primarily covered in his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex but was briefly discussed in class. The idea that males within species are stronger in order to compete with one and other and have distinct characteristics of their sex to display to females is a perfectly sound theory in and of itself, but where the problem lies is in the interpretation that because of these characteristics males are somehow superior. Yes it is absolutely true that males (including human males) are on average physically stronger and bigger than females but this fact is where this theory must stop. Darwin suggests that females are inferior because of their lack of need to develop characteristics such as strength, cunning, and courage. This interpretation is extremely problematic for humans as there are so many biological and societal factors that affect males and females differently such as age, education, marital status and cultural norms. As a feminist it is obvious that I would take offense to the idea that males are superior to females, but I do see the extent to which Darwin was a product of his time. The gender roles in Victorian England are vastly different from those of today and it is easy to see how Darwin would draw from that in considering females inferior. My problem is with how this sexist interpretation of sexual selection in humans can be taken out of context and used to bolster arguments against equality between the sexes. So as I do think Darwin's basic theory has some merit, I do not think enough factors are taken into account when concerning the complexities of human society.

Duh DUH DUN! Social Darwinism in Modern Culture

The concept of Social Darwinism was bound to come up eventually and it finally did in talking about Darwin's theory of Sexual Selection. In Darwin's construct males of a species are stronger and have different physical traits than females because of the competition with one another geared toward getting chosen by a female and being able to pass on their genes. (I feel I need an entirely different post to address my reactions to this theory itself and so it shall follow.) Both this idea of sexual selection and the idea of Natural Selection have been twisted into Social Darwinism which attempts to attach these biological theories to societal constructs such as politics, war and poverty. Though Darwin's theories can be seen to be influenced by his Victorian upbringing and Whig affiliations, they were never directly connected to or supposed to be used to explain competition within human culture. This YouTube video perfectly explains the conclusion we have reached after many class discussions and readings:

Please check it out and let me know what you think!


In reading E.O. Wilson's article "Intelligent Evolution", my first reaction is skepticism and slight repulsion, as he takes his belief in Darwin's theories to an extreme level. In both language and content Wilson reveres this great unmasking of nature that Darwin has given mankind as a gift. hmm. In class it was discussed how Wilson uses language reminiscent of the Bible (similar to Darwin's in Origin) when encouraging Darwinism and openly bashing religion. The difference between this use of language is time and context. In Darwin's time writing in this style would have been beneficial to him in creating interest in his text while Wilson is purposefully using it to antagonize those on the other side of the argument. No where in Origin does it mention anything about religion, but the obvious atheistic connotations of the theory have been mis-used and placed as both an argument for and a main point against Natural Selection. Wilson's attack on religion in his paper seems somewhat petty for a man so well-educated, but he surely gets his point across. He even refers to Origin as "history's most influential book". So much praise of Darwin causes one to become suspicious of intent and also brings about the question of Darwin's own religious affiliations. I will admit that before the inception of this class I had assumed Darwin to be an atheist, but in learning about his life and writings that is clearly wrong. Other sections in this blog have pointed to Darwin's letter to Asa Gray as the perfect insight into Darwin's views on God and I would have to agree. As Darwin considered the "subject too profound for human intellect", I would suggest for people to attempt to separate Darwin from the question of religion before making any decisions on its validity. Everyone has their biases, but critical thinking allows for one to attempt to peer around those biases in order to find their true beliefs.

Initial Reaction

It was extremely interesting coming into a class based around Darwin as everyone has preconceived notions and assumptions about the author and his subject matter. Myself in particular, coming from learning about Darwin in high school biology, assumed to know what his theories were about and some of who he was as a man. As can be seen now near the end of the class, there was so much to be learned simply from reading the first hand text. I was very surprised to learn that it was not Darwin who coined the term "Survival of the Fittest" and his political and class associations as a Whig. One of the biggest revelations one comes away with is the fact of how, when certain ideas are so deeply entrenched within society, just how easily there are ignored in critical thought by the majority of people. Since Darwin's theories are accepted as true, why question them? As the different readings and conversations within class have shown, many have and will to continue to question them on grounds of understanding the biggest questions life has to offer.