As assigned in Nature's Prose, Spring 2012
Eleven years ago, I taught Nature’s Prose, a full-time academic program for first-year college students. Field trips, curricular activities, and readings were diverse and unusual, and assignments included five sets of “Reflection Questions” on which, every second Thursday, I asked students to think and write. We then discussed them in class the following Monday, and they submitted their answers as part of their portfolios at the end of the quarter. Here, with no edits or further explanations, are those Reflection Questions. Everything past “armadillo” is for paying subscribers only—generalists vs. specialists, fixity of species, lunglessness, what it means to see, game theory, metaphor, fiction, migration, wing span, and more…
Reflection Questions Set #1
1. Living organisms are extremely complex. Why do we nevertheless prefer simple explanations even for living things? Can you generate an example of something that is complex in nature, which has a (relatively) simple explanation?
2. The killers in Sheldon’s story, The Screwfly Solution, are convinced by the narratives they are telling (about women, God’s wishes, etc.). Does the number of people who believe the stories, or the degree to which they are convinced, change what the underlying truth is? Is reality democratic? Is science?
3. Dawkins specifies that he is describing what is true about how humans have evolved, rather than making a moral claim about what we ought to do (p3). Conflating these two things—what is for what ought to be—is also known as the naturalistic fallacy. Describe this in your own words.
4. Did chimpanzees “want” to evolve into socially complex, long-lived apes? Explain your answer. (Refer to Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, chapter 2, if you don’t know where to start.)
Reflection Questions Set #2
5. Choose a species from one of the groups of organisms discussed in lecture (e.g., Crustacea, Hymenoptera, Homoptera), and describe how one of the following things manifests in that species:
parent-offspring conflict (Dawkins chapter 8)
sibling rivalry (Dawkins chap 8)
male – female conflict (Dawkins chap 9)
group living and sociality (Dawkins chap 10)
6. Emergence is the concept that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. One effect of emergence, if true, is that we cannot fully understand complex systems by practicing reductionist science. For instance, knowing the genes and cell structures of an armadillo does not enable us to create an armadillo,