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Adaptation, Ecology, and Narrative

The evolutionary marvel of storytelling

The Unexpected Connections courses exemplify the interdisciplinary thinking the BYU Honors Program strives to cultivate in its students and faculty. These 200-level classes are team-taught by professors from two different disciplines who choose their section’s unique focus and curriculum. Students are able to engage in an exceptional interdisciplinary learning environment and make unexpected connections of their own during the course.

The Biology & Letters course (HONRS 220) about “Adaptation” is a student favorite, thanks to the interactive projects, engaging lectures, and the integration of Ecology and Narrative. When tasked with creating an interdisciplinary course, Dr. Mike Call (Assoc. Professor, Comparative Arts & Letters) reflects, “ We sat down over pizza and started brainstorming about what kind of ideas are shared between the two disciplines. We ended up looking at the most direct contact possible –biologically, why do human beings create stories? It really is an evolutionary marvel. Why do human beings have the capacity and machinery to create and understand fiction? Is it a human universal trait? Does it confer some kind of fitness advantage?” Dr. Rick Gill (Professor, Biology) explains, “Superficially, we found that both of our fields use the term adaptation. That was a cool connection, and we used it to dive down deeper into- ‘Why the humanities? Why do they exist?’ It is a fun sandbox to play in, and explore fundamental evolutionary literature.”

Interdisciplinary connections continued to flow as Drs. Call and Gill developed the course. The first third of the course focuses on evaluating scientific papers that investigate the origin of the humanities. Students develop a thesis for what evolutionary theory best supports the development of fiction, essentially asking students to use biological theory to explain the humanities. Dr. Gill explains, “This really comes out in an activity where we examine pre-human skulls. The University has a massive collection that we are able to bring into class, set out on tables, and let the students interact with them. Students can see the demonstrable changes in the hominid skull over time. Some of the key changes we see is the expansion of brain volume, and the development of a mouth that allows for communication. These two biological evolutions—thinking and speaking— are really, what the humanities are! We can see the biological evidence for the development of humanities. Once our ancestors reached this human state, all of a sudden we proliferate, move to the poles, tropics, and start to dominate the globe. This is all because we developed the capacity to tell stories.”

The second portion of the class then focuses on the humanities, and applying evolutionary theory to storytelling. The class explores how social and biological selection drive changes in stories over time. During the first year this course was offered, students focused on “castaway narratives”, showing how the Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, and the Martian share a similar narrative but are adapted to cultural contexts. The next year, students used the Beauty and the Beast story and evaluated how it has changed over time. This past semester, students evaluated Cinderella. Dr. Call states, “Stories need to adapt to new cultural contexts in order to survive, just like organisms need to adapt to survive in ecological contexts.”

The final part of the class helps students apply these principles of evolution and narrative to their own lives. The students condense who they are into a single story, and use that narrative to reflect on who they are both biologically and socially. Dr. Call notes, “The most difficult but rewarding portion of our class is to bring it down to the individual level. We ask students to reflect on their own experience as biological beings and evaluate to what extent story shapes their identity and shapes their relationship to the natural world they inhabit. It’s really fun! It is incredibly energizing to say ‘Hey listen – stop thinking about it in abstract terms, start thinking about it in terms of your own life.’”

Dr. Gill says the key to creating their course was being open minded, flexible, and even experimental. “While we waited for these unexpected connections to come, we have learned to be open, give these thoughts time to percolate, and to be teachable. Both of us have been flexible—neither of us came in with preconceptions of ‘in order for it to be a biology class, these are the six things we have to tick off and we can only can pick things that work with those six’. Instead, we both said, ‘let’s just dive in deeply’. It turns out that all the things I would want: a genetic basis of inheritance, evolution, natural selection, process of development, etc., have shown up—but only because they fit organically into the conversation. There is not a single assessment that isn’t an intersection. We go back and forth between a biological lens to interrogate the humanities, and the humanities to interrogate the biological.”

Dr. Call adds, “We took the task of making this course interdisciplinary very seriously. It should not be para-disciplinary, where one [professor] does their thing while the other does another. We needed to work together to make connections, and the course is aggressively interdisciplinary.” Both expressed that even after three years of teaching this course, they still learn something new every single class and take rigorous notes during the other’s lecture. “I’ve learned that storytelling functions in many ways as a non-genetic evolutionary process. Stories have multiple generations of variants, and selection retention of some of those variants allows us to adapt to new circumstances more rapidly than genetics do. Our brain has a massive number of connections; we naturally prune those based upon what is useful and we retain what demonstrates utility. Storytelling is an offshoot as well. It is meaning-making for human beings. From the massive generation of variants, we culturally or individually selectively retain aspects that mean something to us,” Dr. Call explained.

Dr. Gill notes this course has enriched the study of his own field and helped him be mindful of his impact as a professor. “For me, I understand the role of story in human evolution at a much deeper level. It is a central role for what we are doing now. One of the most fun parts of the course was to see the power of story in shaping individuals. The stories we tell to ourselves and about ourselves shape who we are. As a father and a teacher, this is very important to me. You can tell your children one story and have a certain outcome, or tell them another story and they can end up in a different place. I have found it valuable to pay attention to the story I am telling myself, and especially to pay attention to the story I am telling my students about who they are and their potential. We can shape the experience for our students by teaching them they are resilient, bright, talented, and have enormous potential. What we share can last through time and connect people. That is storytelling.”