Evolution as a bad story

The talk by Dan McAdams that I described in my last post was mentioned in a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In discussing the importance of stories, McAdams noted that authorship (the third layer of personality) builds on agency. He also mentioned, more or less in passing, that this explains why evolutionary theory is not a good story: It lacks an agent, a purpose, a design. (Because I’m a former student of the history of science, my first reaction was to wonder if what we need is not only to teach kids about science itself, but also to tell them the stories of how humans discovered these things, particularly things that are not immediately obvious, or are counterintuitive, or that replace a particularly appealing religious story.)

McAdams didn’t get into how this is related to the fact that conservative religious beliefs seem to be the main driver of rejection of evolution in the US. I think the two are quite compatible; his observation could be extended to religious stories in general and their (often considerable) hold on the human imagination. It’s worth wondering why literal belief in this particular religious story has such a hold in the US but not so much in the rest of the developed world. I think the general preference for narrative of a particular type might be entwined with other cognitive biases and various historical influences (anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism) that are operating here in ways or to degrees that they are not in other countries. (In other words, it’s complicated; a universal human preference may have particular force here owing to local factors.)

Science describes the behavior of physical systems; in the right hands, the facts of science can be fascinating, but that doesn’t make them the type of narrative that McAdams was talking about. Interestingly, one of the commenters on the Chronicle blog recommended a book by Misia Landau, Narratives of Human Evolution, which explains how evolutionary theories correspond to versions of the hero tale that is ubiquitous in human culture. I don’t know much more about the book than that, so it’s hard to tell if the point is that the facts of evolution really do fall into that particular shape, or that we humans are prone to impose that framework and mold all our knowledge into that form in any case.

I remember being taken to task in an undergrad physics or astronomy class once for writing something like “The particle wants to go where the charge is strongest”; the particle, of course, has no feelings on the matter. OK, that’s not appropriate language for a lab report, maybe, but that sort of anthropomorphizing doesn’t bother me, at least with respect to clearly inanimate objects (we metaphorically use words like “attractive force,” after all). My initial reaction to the idea of seeing evolution in terms of a folk tale, however, is caution because there is so much potential for serious misunderstanding. For example, folk tales have clear endpoints (the species triumphed or lost out, maybe), whereas evolution does not. We are not the pinnacle of a directed process; we’re not the end of the journey. We’re a snapshot in time, evolving even today. (That said, I’d have to read the book to know whether my point is even relevant to what it says.)