Steven M. Malinak

Evolution: The Paradigm for the Liberal Arts

Malinak considers the recent divide between disciplines in the liberal arts and argues that as we face complex problems, we must focus rather on connectedness. Malinak explains how both the theory of evolution and Charles Darwin’s own biography model the connectedness that liberal arts should promote.

Some of the arguments and content found herein are adapted from a paper entitled “Evolution and...” which was presented at the 21st Annual Conference of The Association for Core Texts and Courses, Plymouth MA, 9-12 April 2015.

Here, my focus will be on text selection and its role in fostering racially diverse and inclusive academic communities. In his paper, “The Storm Over the University,” John Searle dismisses diversity-based objections to the traditional canon, arguing that the canon serves to expose students to works of intellectual excellence rather than to advocate for social justice. In his case against the traditional canon, Cornel West argues, “The creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian epistemology, and classical ideals produced forms of rationality, scientificity, and objectivity which, though efficacious in the quest for truth and knowledge, prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of the idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity.”[1]

In “The Humanities and Human Nature,” Steven Pinker discusses the “...widespread perception that the arts and humanities are in trouble.” (23) According to Pinker, one possible explanation for the “...malaise of the humanities comes in part from the separation from the sciences.” (24) Many liberal arts colleges describe their curriculum to potential customers emphasizing this supposed separation: “Here you will study in the liberal arts and sciences.” It is almost like a preemptive apology is being offered: “Fear not! All that impractical and irrelevant fluff which we idealistic academics feel is good for one’s soul will certainly be balanced by the practical knowledge the student will actually need and use in the real world.” This situation is unfortunate for many reasons. Consider first that the natural sciences, and the mathematics upon which the natural sciences are built, were integral parts of the liberal arts from their inception – three of the four components of the quadrivium were arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy – and so emphasizing their separation is antithetical. It is also true that the essential premise of a liberating education is that a broad foundation in disciplines that span all divisions of the academy, coupled with strong fundamental skills, is what is required in order for individuals to make informed decisions and formulate solutions to complex problems. Such abilities and perspectives are essential to our democracy and are increasingly acknowledged as important and desirable by employers (Humphreys and Kelly 6), not to mention the fact that the liberal arts really are good for one’s soul and provide the foundation for a life lived in pursuit of knowledge, richness, and diversity. It is therefore important to break down perceived walls that appear to divide the knowledge domains and find effective ways to communicate the importance of broad, foundational education to one’s life and career. A powerful paradigm for articulating the interconnectedness of knowledge and the importance of broadly-informed perspectives is found in the theory of evolution as formulated by Charles Darwin.

The concept of natural selection is remarkably simple and elegant: animals produce more offspring than the environment can support; therefore, animals that have a survival advantage, no matter how slight, are more likely to produce offspring, thereby passing on that advantage to the next generation. Simple as it may sound, it is reasonably safe to say that had Charles Darwin not embodied the ideals of the liberal arts, he quite possibly would never have formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection. Consider that Charles Darwin was introduced to the concept of uniformitarianism by Charles Lyell through the latter’s Principles of Geology. Lyell dismissed catastrophism as the primary mechanism by which the Earth’s features were altered, arguing instead for gradual processes working over vast expanses of time. Darwin was also influenced by Essay on the Principle of Population by the political economist and demographer Thomas Malthus. In it, Malthus noted that humans reproduce at an unsustainably high rate; thus, the resources any human (or animal) can obtain are limited by the attributes bestowed upon each individual by nature. Darwin was also quite familiar with the process of artificial selection, whereby a human breeder selects animals or plants with specific characteristics to be reproductive partners, thereby establishing particular traits in particular breeds. He was of course well- versed in the biology of his day, to include the ideas circulating about the origin and transmutation of species. Finally, Darwin was an astute observer, as the accounts from his globe-spanning voyage aboard the Beagle clearly show. Not discounting the man’s raw intellect and creativity, Darwin formulated his concept of evolution through natural selection in part because he was a life-long learner. Darwin’s depth of knowledge in his chosen area of expertise was considerable, but he also continuously explored more broadly – one could argue that the essential principles leading him to the theory of natural selection were born in the minds of a geologist and an economist. Darwin was a critical thinker and an exceptional communicator. He even studied abroad. The objectives of a liberal education are embodied in Charles Darwin. Studying his biography (Larson 55-75) provides an exceptional opportunity to consider and discuss the value inherent in the liberal arts.

Another way to use the evolutionary paradigm to discuss the objectives of a liberating education is based on considering the definition of the latter as offered by William Cronon in his essay entitled “‘Only Connect...:’ The Goals of a Liberal Education”:

“More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways... A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.” (78)

Seeing connections allows one to critique information from a variety of sources, solve complex problems, work with diverse colleagues, and function responsibly in a democracy. Cronon elegantly captures the philosophy behind the trivium and quadrivium, and all subsequent and expanded iterations thereof, with one simple word: connection. How, then, does the theory of evolution allow us to see and understand connection? It does so in at least two ways.

First, the theory of evolution allows us to see the interconnectedness of many knowledge domains and modes of inquiry within the academy. Evolution brings together areas in the natural sciences that otherwise would seem unrelated, such as when genetics, systematics, and paleontology were united under the evolutionary paradigm during The Modern Synthesis. (Larson 221-243) This consilience is not limited to the natural sciences: evolutionary explanations for a variety of other phenomena are prevalent. As examples, understanding human behavior and social activity (Buller), why we believe in gods (Boyer), why we tell stories (Boyd), why we enjoy particular combinations of sounds or colors or images (Dutton), and why we suffer from obesity and morbidity (Lieberman) can all be clarified in the light of evolution. What appear to be disconnected domains found within the arts, the humanities, and the natural and social sciences are interwoven through one powerful explanatory paradigm. Steven Pinker focuses on this consilience in his aforementioned essay, discussing how the study of language within the humanities interacts with the scientific study of linguistics. (25-27) The brain, for instance, appears to be “prewired” to formulate the past tense for regular verbs (add the –ed suffix) whereas the past tense of irregular verbs requires memorization. Consider how a toddler will say “taked” well before the correct “took” because the former is automatic and the latter must be learned. Interestingly, poets tend to use irregular verbs because they rhyme with other common words in a way that is more pleasing to the ear and, because they are tied to memory and emotion, are more evocative. At the conclusion of this discussion, Pinker states:

“The general moral for consilience is that in this area it’s not clear where the science leaves off and the poetics begins. I would be hard-pressed to say that part of this investigation belongs in one pile of bricks and mortar at a university and another part belongs in another pile.” (27)

The academic divisions do not exist in silos, even if practitioners found in each rely on different fundamental modes of inquiry. The division-spanning explanatory scope of the evolutionary paradigm helps illustrate this important concept.

Second, the theory of evolution emphasizes connections to each other and all of life. A thorough review of human evolution, for instance, reveals some truly fascinating facts. (Zimmer) We happen to share many behavioral and cognitive attributes, including tool-use and empathy and altruism, with our closest relatives both alive and extinct; we share many physical attributes as well – bipedalism goes back some 7 million years and “big brains” to about 600,000 years ago even though our own species didn’t arrive on the scene until roughly 200,000 years ago; we co-existed with other hominins for most of our time on the planet, and likely even interbred with other hominin species; we didn’t leave the African continent until roughly 80,000 years ago and so we were once all dark-skinned; and before the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, we were all living in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. Considering our place on this planet from an evolutionary perspective reveals something profound, which is elegantly captured in a couplet from Sting’s Russians:

“We share the same biology, Regardless of ideology.”

For most of our history, we had the same colored skin; had no notions of tiered economic systems, religions, or political systems; and did not discriminate on the basis of gender, though there were undoubtedly different and essential roles that both genders played. The things that divide us are relative newcomers on the scene – no more than roughly 5% of the time our species has existed, perhaps 1% of the time our genus has existed, and about 0.0002% of the time life has existed on this planet. An appreciation for the natural history of our species helps us to focus on the things that connect us, not just with each other but with the rest of life, past and present and future. In Cronon’s view, seeing connection is at the core of what it means to be liberally educated. In these examples, connection and consilience is clearly seen through the lens of the evolutionary paradigm.

Education across all knowledge domains helps students become responsible citizens and creative, informed problem solvers in their communities and careers. While it is important to discuss the fact that practitioners in different divisions may ask and approach questions in different ways, it is also essential for students to understand that all perspectives have value, and indeed, the complex problems facing us require an interdisciplinary perspective to solve. It is this broad-based knowledge foundation that constitutes a liberating education. In this sense, all knowledge and perspectives are inherently practical and relevant, whether they come from the “hard” data-driven natural sciences or the “fluffy” humanities. Charles Darwin formulated and conveyed a powerful explanatory and predictive theory in large part because he read widely, observed keenly, thought carefully, reasoned critically, and communicated clearly and persuasively – one could say he offered a solution to a complex problem by being a practitioner of the liberal arts philosophy. And the theory he formulated unifies the academy in a way that no other idea ever has, demonstrating the connectedness of knowledge in a convincing way. Finally, the evolutionary perspective of the origin of our own species helps us see our connection to all of life and each other. Superficial assessment of our perceived uniqueness and physical and cultural differences has led to horrific outcomes for other humans and the rest of the natural world. By emphasizing connection, we see variances differently, not as things to be feared or hated but as things to be understood and appreciated. In each of these cases, it is connection that fosters open-mindedness and the ability to think outside of the box. The separation of knowledge domains is artificial in many ways, and is made all the worse when certain disciplines are considered impractical or irrelevant compared to others. The theory of evolution emphasizes the importance of seeing connection, and in that sense is the ideal paradigm for discussing the liberal arts.

  • References
    Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. Print. Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print. Buller, David J. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005. Print. Cronon, William. “‘Only Connect...:’ The Goals of a Liberal Arts Education.” The American Scholar Autumn 1998: 73-80. Print. Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009. Print. Humphreys, Debra and Patrick Kelly. How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2014. Print. Larson, Edward J. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Idea. New York: The Modern Library, 2004. Print. Pinker, Steven. “The Humanities and Human Nature.” Skeptical Inquirer November/December 2006: 23- 28. Print. Sting. “Russians.” The Dream of the Blue Turtles. A&M Records, 1985. Audio CD. Zimmer, Carl. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. New York: Collins, 2005. Print.

Steven M. Malinak

Dr. Steven M. Malinak

Dr. Malinak is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Washington & Jefferson College. He earned his Ph.D. from The University of Michigan and his B.A. from Albion College. His scholarly interests include chemical education, synthetic inorganic chemistry, and the exploration of philosophical, scientific and Christian scholarship as it relates to the question of human origin. He recently published “Nietzsche Was Probably Right: A Postcritical Assessment of the Christian Paradigm and Its Deity” which offers a balanced, objective, comprehensive overview of issues that are relevant to all Christians. Dr. Malinak is also an unabashed fan of “Star Wars.”