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Narrating Descent: Popular Science, Evolutionary Theory and Gender Politics

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This article examines a narrative dilemma that popular texts on evolution face. On the one hand, popular science tends to privilege linear and culturally familiar narrative structures, as previous studies of popularization have often emphasized. On
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  This is a post-print version of the article. For citation, please refer to the published article in Science as Culture  18.1 (2009): 1-21. DOI: 10.1080/09505430802668632http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09505430802668632 NARRATING DESCENT:POPULAR SCIENCE, EVOLUTIONARY THEORY AND GENDER POLITICSVenla OikkonenAbstract : This article examines a narrative dilemma that popular texts on evolution face.On the one hand, popular science tends to privilege linear and culturally familiar narrativestructures, as previous studies of popularization have often emphasized. On the otherhand, however, the Darwinian idea of natural selection resists linear narration, as narrativetheorist H. Porter Abbott has argued. This resistance arises from the fact that evolutionby natural selection lacks proper narrative entities and narrative events and that it relieson two parallel narrative levels, the levels of species and organism. This paper exploreshow two popular science books on evolution negotiate this narrative dilemma byintroducing a third narrative level. Both texts appropriate characteristics from thenarrative levels of species and organism and project them on molecular and minute scalesby portraying evolution as a micro-narrative that takes place in chromosomes, genes, cellsand microscopic details of human organs. While this textual strategy produces a coherentand compelling narrative that for the most part succeeds in masking the structural gapbetween the narrative levels of species and organism, it also risks naturalizing culturalimagery. In particular, this micro-narrative tends to represent popular gender ideologiesas biological truths embedded in molecular processes within our bodies. Keywords:  Anthropomorphism, evolution, gender, narrative, popular science Introduction When science enters popular culture it often takes the shape of a story. Whether watching sciencedocumentaries or browsing the science pages in our local paper, we repeatedly encounter science  asa set of emotionally appealing narratives of heroic scientists, nurturing chimp moms, competingbaboon males, and Machiavellian molecules. Indeed, one of the chief characteristics of popularscience seems to be its deployment of culturally familiar narrative structures. In popular science, bothnature and its scientific study repeatedly appear through the easily recognizable plots of adventureand discovery, quest and fulfillment, crisis and resolution.  This use of culturally circulated narratives in popular science has been noted by many. Greg Myers,for example, has suggested that popular science articles are organized around what he calls a narrativeof nature; a narrative model ‘in which the plant or animal, not the scientific activity, is the subject,the narrative is chronological, and the syntax and vocabulary emphasize the externality of nature toscientific practices’ (Myers, 1990, p. 142). As a result, popular science texts represent organisms ashuman-like actors with a lived past and an unfolding future while erasing the methodological stepsthrough which the organism appeared as an object of study in the first place. Alternatively, Ron Curtis(1994) has argued that popular science texts often employ Baconian-inspired detective plots in whichscience is represented as a search for the identity of the criminal offender (an exotic virus, forinstance) and the scientist as the unrelenting detective. Locating this narrative logic in the ideologicaland pedagogical goals of popularization, Curtis argues that:Popular science, written in a narrative mode, is a powerful tool for promoting a particularnormative view of science while, at the same time, rendering that view immune tocriticism. It is a way to moralize while appearing only to describe. This is why thenarrative mode is almost universal in popular science. (Curtis, 1994, pp. 434–435)In the past decade or so, this equation of popular science with conventional narrative—andconventional narrative with ideology—has become a commonplace that structures academic inquiriesinto the textual dynamics of popularization.This understanding of popular science as essentially narrative will be the starting point of this paperas well. In what follows, I will explore the narrative form that one widely popularized and constantlydebated field of scientific inquiry—Darwinian evolution—takes in contemporary popular science.Jon Turney (2001) has observed that the sciences concerned with historical change are easier to turninto a commercially successful narrative than fields that lack a clear temporal trajectory. This wouldsuggest that evolutionary biology, as a major historical science, would be a prime example of adiscipline that is easy to narrativize . Yet, this view of evolution as a prototypical scientific narrativeis in curious contrast with recent research in cognitive narrative theory. While science studies scholarshave emphasized the role of narrative in popular science, narrative theorist H. Porter Abbott (2003)argues that what characterizes evolution as a theory is its fundamental unnarratability .According to Abbott, a significant reason (though obviously not the only one) for the unusuallypersistent resistance that Darwinian evolutionary theory has met is that evolution by natural selectiondoes not make a good story—or, in fact, any story. The main problem with evolutionary narrative isthe absence of entities that would act out the evolutionary plot: ‘Put briefly, the difficulty withevolution by natural selection arises because neither natural selection  nor species , as they wereconceptualized by Darwin, are entities with agency. Worse, they do not seem to be narrative entitiesat all’ (Abbott, 2003, p. 144; emphasis srcinal). Abbott observes:One faces, then, the difficulty of constructing an explanatory narrative that shows agencybut that has to make do with an apparent lack of entities and even an apparent lack of events, without which, of course, there can be no narrative. Yet because natural selectionis a way of understanding change over time, which in turn would appear to be a kind of action, it is difficult to find other terms with which to describe it. (Abbott, 2003, p. 144)As a result, I would suggest, popularizers of evolutionary biology have to negotiate two contradictorypressures. On the one hand, there is the strong preference for linear narrative in human cognition ingeneral (Abbott's argument) and in popular science in particular (the science studies argument). Onthe other hand, there is the pressure to convey the intricate nuances of the theory that is beingpopularized. If the understanding of natural selection as a blind mechanism devoid of intentionalityis what makes Darwinian evolution revolutionary, as many scholars have suggested (Dennett, 1996;Beer, 2000; Grosz, 2005), and if this crucial absence of agency is precisely what resists narration,  how do popular texts on evolution negotiate this contradiction? What are the textual strategies throughwhich popular science texts turn a theory resistant to linear narration into a narrative with popularappeal? What are the textual, cultural, and ideological implications of such strategies?These are the questions I hope to answer in this paper. Evolution as a Narrative As we saw above, Abbott connects the expressive difficulty that Darwinians have faced with theabsence of proper narrative actors and narrative events in evolution by natural selection. This absenceof actors and events is, however, symptomatic of a more fundamental problem with evolution as anarrative. What makes Darwinian evolution so difficult to narrate, Abbott argues, is its reliance ontwo parallel narrative levels. There is, on the one hand, the narrative level of species constituted byever-changing genetic variation within a population, ‘a succession of averages with no real existenceat all’ (Abbott, 2003, p. 148). On the other hand, there is the narrative level of organisms concernedwith the ‘little stories of love and death’ that is ‘the activity of entities in the real, empirical world(hamsters, humans)’ (Abbott, 2003, pp. 147–148). A narrative account of Darwinian evolution wouldhave to be able to convey activity on both of these levels. This is in striking contrast with alternativesrcin narratives, such as creationist and ‘intelligent design’ accounts, which operate on only onenarrative level (Abbott, 2003, pp. 152–156). Unlike natural selection, which is merely a mechanicalprinciple or an elaborate algorithm that does not ‘cause’ or ‘design’ anything, as Daniel Dennettemphasizes (Dennett, 1996, pp. 48–60), God or ‘intelligent designer’ can function as a propernarrative actor who initiates the events that shape species and organisms in creationist and ‘intelligentdesign’ narratives (Abbott, 2003, pp. 152–156).The task of narrating the two levels of activity is further complicated by a ‘narrative disjunction’between these two levels (Abbott, 2003, p. 147). The ‘little stories of love and death’ acted out byorganisms on the second narrative level are only loosely connected to species level variation, sinceorganisms are not consciously acting for the survival of the species, nor is there any direct link between a single organism's actions and the future of the species (Abbott, 2003, p. 147). Yet changesin the evolution of species take place precisely because of the constantly changing variation of traitsproduced by the enormous total of all the ‘little stories of love and death’ on the second narrativelevel. Sometimes these two narrative levels approach each other, as is the case with the rapid evolutionof some viruses or bacteria in a few generations, but even then the disjunction between an individual organism's action and the fate of the species remains.Unlike alternative accounts of srcins, then, narratives of Darwinian evolution cannot rely on the ideaof species as a narrative entity since species is non-existent in the sense that it can be construed onlywhen the process of speciation is already over (and even then only in the abstract). The same appliesto evolutionary events, which, too, can be indentified only in retrospect, as Robert J. O'Hara shows(O'Hara, 1988, 1992). Instead of proper actors or events, then, what we have is an odd combinationof interdependence (changes on one narrative level effect changes on the other level) andindependence (causal relations are indirect and lack intention). Again, this also applies to cases of rapid evolutionary change, whether continuously evolving bacterial resistance or the periodic changesin the ‘punctuated equilibria’ model proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge (Eldredge,1985). Whatever the speed of change in Darwinian evolution, the concepts of species andevolutionary event are in constant flux, lacking an essence that could render them viable narrativeentities.  Negotiating a Narrative Dilemma While this paper builds on a wide array of previous studies, it also clearly departs from the existingliterature. Studies of narrative in popular science—represented, for instance, by Myers (1990) andCurtis (1994) quoted in the opening section—have emphasized the role of narrative in theconstruction of scientific authority and scientific knowledge in popular texts. My focus is not on thetextual construction of  science  (at least not primarily) but on the narrative structure of  the idea  of evolution by natural selection and the way in which that structure becomes rewritten in popular textsto meet the expectations of publishers and non-specialist audiences. Accordingly, I understandnarrative as a structural phenomenon rather than a specific instance of narration—a ‘story’ told bypopular science—as is often the case with studies of narrative in popular science. Studies of populardiscourses on science, on the other hand—Nelkin and Lindee (2004), Fox Keller (1995, 2000), vanDijck (2000), Roof (2007), and Hayles (2001), for instance—have tended to focus on genetics ratherthan evolution or the use of metaphor and rhetoric rather than narrative. 1  While I am interested inhow popular discourses on science reflect and reproduce cultural values, I focus on evolution ratherthan genetics, on the popular science book rather than wider cultural discourses, and on narrativestructure rather than other discursive features.Starting with Abbott's understanding of Darwinian evolution as operating on two narrative levels, thispaper examines how popular science texts turn the idea of natural selection as a non-linear processthat lacks an initiating agent into a coherent narrative. One strategy that popular texts employ is theintroduction of a third narrative level, which I call the micro-narrative  level. This emerging narrativeis the imaginary site inhabited by microscopic entities such as DNA, genes, chromosomes, or gametes(egg and sperm). In reality, of course, these entities represent different levels of biologicalorganization, and even the most advanced visualizing technologies are unable to make some of themvisible. Yet they are often treated in popular discourse as if they all occupied the same molecularspace and were discernable through the magnifying lens of a microscope. 2 I want to suggest that this micro-narrative can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the structural gapbetween the first and second narrative levels in Abbott's model. It pursues this reconciliation by 1  Judith Roof (2007) and N. Katherine Hayles (2001) in fact do raise questions about narrative. However, Roof's focus ison genetics, with evolutionary discourse lurking behind the iconic image of the double helix. My paper approachespopular discourses from the opposite angle, viewing genetic discourse as the cultural context through whichevolutionary discourse takes shape. Roof also understands narrative in a more abstract sense as ‘a cultural,psychological, ideological dynamic’, ‘a pervasive sense of the necessary shape of events and their perception and as theprocess by which characters, causes, and effects combine into patterns recognized as sensical’ (Roof, 1996, p. xv).Hayles, on the other hand, makes important observations about the narrative structure in Dawkins's The Selfish Gene  ,which I draw upon in my discussion of evolutionary narrative. In general, however, her article is mainly concerned withmetaphor and questions of agency in postmodern culture. 2  Some popular science writers have taken the opposite route and turned ‘life’ into a narrative protagonist, producingwhat might be called a ‘macro-narrative’ of the evolution of life. This kind of textual strategy is evident, for instance, ina number of texts that appear under the title ‘Epic of Evolution’. Turney (2001) provides an insightful analysis of onesuch text, Connie Barlow's Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science   (1997). As Turney suggests, this macro-narrative is often used to advocate environmentalist causes by underlining the close connections between different lifeforms and to propose a secular alternative to religion by turning a diverse field of scientific disciplines, theories, andobservations into a single cosmic story. I would suggest, however, that the problem with ‘life’ as a protagonist inevolutionary accounts is that it makes a rather predictable and uninteresting narrative. Portraying evolution as a slowbut constant progress toward ever greater complexity of life, such ‘evolutionary epic’ lacks the drama of danger, struggleand death associated with evolution (and narrative in general) in the popular imagination. As a narrative protagonist,‘life’ is also difficult to conceive since it seems to include everything and yet not anything in particular. It also does notembody agency (i.e. it does not strictly speaking ‘act’) and thus makes a rather poor narrative entity. By contrast, theevolutionary micro-narrative I examine in this paper can provide narrative accounts that reflect and respond to popularideas of what makes a ‘good story’.  appropriating a set of characteristics from both of the other two levels. From the level of species, thismicro-narrative borrows its narrative scope. Like species, the microscopic entities that inhabit themicro-level are imagined as living through millennia, reproduced over and over again in generationsof organisms. Significant here is the way in which the micro-narrative, by evoking images of DNAand the microscopic, often extends notions of longevity and immortality associated with genes tosuch mortal and temporal entities as chromosomes or gametes. Unlike individual organisms, then,these minute agents are not merely historically insignificant instances along the evolutionarytrajectory, but entities that are perceived as outliving by millennia the bodies they occupy.From the level of organism, on the other hand, this third narrative level borrows its anthropomorphictendencies. Projecting the ‘little stories of love and death’ of organisms onto minute entities withinthose organisms, this third narrative level produces a microscopic universe that is inhabited byhuman-like actors. Thus the micro-narrative emerges as a curious mixture of overarching historicaldevelopment (the slow evolution of the human genome) and the particular (the romances andtragedies of humanized microscopic units), resulting in what one might call epic stories of love anddeath.It should be noted at this point that Abbott, too, acknowledges the use of molecular entities asnarrative actors in popular science (Abbott, 2003, pp. 144–145). For Abbott, however, this is ademonstration of the problem involved in narrativizing Darwinian evolution, and, as a textualstrategy, generally results in ‘an unresolved contradiction’ and scientific inaccuracy (Abbott, 2003,p. 145). The deployment of micro-narrative may indeed necessitate some level of scientific obscurityand may simply mask rather than resolve the fundamental narrative dilemma. However, the point Iwant to make is that this micro-narrative is highly successful as a narrative  even if it lacks in scientificaccuracy. Unlike narratives that focus on species and organisms and thus need to tackle with theproblematic relationship between the two, the evolutionary micro-narrative makes a good, coherent,linear story. The difference between Abbott's and my own analyses is, then, in the nature of questionswe ask. Whereas Abbott is interested in identifying the narrative structure implicit in evolution bynatural selection and theorizing the possibility of narrating evolution in a way that would notcompromise Darwin's theoretical insights, I am concerned with how popular texts actually  negotiatethis narrative difficulty. Accordingly, Abbott does not examine the growing interest in molecularprocesses that followed the introduction of the modern synthesis  in twentieth-century biology, whilemy analysis is concerned precisely with the interconnections among narrative structure, textualstrategies of popularization, and the cultural understanding of developments in science and scientifictechnologies.Throughout this paper, I draw attention to the effects of this emerging micro-narrative. First, byincorporating the understanding of evolution as an overarching narrative of human srcins oftenencountered in species-level narratives with anthropomorphic tendencies familiar from the level of organism, the micro-narrative gives the anthropomorphic treatment of non-human entities an air of naturalness and teleological necessity. The micro-narrative that emerges in popular science may thushave major consequences for the cultural understanding of such politically heated issues as themutability of identities, the line between nature and nurture, and the status of science as anexplanatory model for social phenomena. Second, by employing Western cultural imagery, the micro-narrative casts non-human entities as not just any anthropomorphic actors but stereotypicallygendered miniature men and women. Situating them within the eon-spanning historical frameborrowed from the first narrative level, this narrative device naturalizes popular gender ideologies.This is why the deployment of micro-narrative in popular texts on evolution should be of interest forfeminist and queer scholars in particular.In what follows, I shall first locate this evolutionary micro-narrative in the historical context in whichit emerged in the public imagination, particularly as epitomized in the figure of Richard Dawkins's
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