TORONTO PURSUITS – Evolution of the Darwinians

In July 2013, at Toronto Pursuits, a bunch of inquiring adults gathered each morning for a week to discuss the works of Charles Darwin. Some in the group were anxious and uncertain about their choice of material – calling to ask about switching seminars because they found the material tough and unengaging.

Darwinists: Jan, Martin & Jackie
Darwinists: Jan, Martin & Jackie

As is common, once the members of the group got together under the skilled leadership of Mark Cwik, they took off. And they haven’t stopped. Because it routinely happens that participants in a Toronto Pursuits seminar or on a Travel Pursuits trip remain intrigued by the questions and ideas raised while they were together, they carry on the conversation – often for years as is happening with former travellers to Egypt and Turkey.

So you can see, how a Classical Pursuits experience keeps on giving long after the bill has been paid, I include one of the threads of conversation from the Darwin group below.

Sent: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 4:38 PM
Subject: The Social Life of Genes

I kept thinking about all my Darwin peeps as I read this.
I hope that you find it as interesting as I did.
I wish that we all could meet once a month in our aerie at Massey Hall.

With best wishes to all,

Jan Hope-Burke  (Toronto)

Sent:  2013-10-18, at 2:35 PM,

Thanks Jan,
Not sure if the “guys” would like this, but Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) has written a new book
that deals with Darwinian theory. “The Signature of All Things” Once you get past the gratuitous sex, it really is interesting–set in Darwin’s time and you will never look at moss in quite the same way.

Ann Sofia  (Tampa)

Date: Fri, 18 Oct 2013 15:55

Moss, you say??? I clearly missed much last summer.

Ann Kirkland (Toronto) – me, who was not in this seminar

Date: Fri, 28 Mar 2014 17:08

Dearest Darwinians – I’m sorry to miss you this coming summer. I have a birthday party for my partner’s granddaughter, as of now at the same time, in Wisconsin that will be a family reunion of sorts, involving a few days. You have all stayed in my mind, and I hope we can all sign up for summer ’15 in a science-based discussion led by Mark. Marx? Einstein? Our group was uniquely cohesive in its communicative arts and grasp of the deepest of the deep. A gifted leader, like ours, can cast his line and “fish” out the potential of the group, and turn each participant’s nibbles into something big and memorable. That’s why I remember all of you.

Darwinians, are you depressed? If not, why not? I just read “The Depths” by Jonathan Rottenberg, recently reviewed in NYTimes Book section, which is what turned me on to it. According to Jonathan, we must explore the “architecture of the mood system” that dictate our motives and behavior. Our flexibility on that score has evolved to where we can pull back from fruitless goals, as the pursuit can be ruinous, and find a different path. Key resources in the environment, or their lack , ensures that a being does not “waste precious time” and energy on such a dubious goal. THis may feel, for our species, certainly others, like being really bummed out, but while we are tired and out of sorts, or in the fetal position, we are re-grouping, re-energizing, re-directing, acknowledging the fruitlessness of some things more than others, and will head out somewhere else.

I particularly liked his reference to the odious Happiness culture we live in. The bunny feels happy with his taste of a carrot, then hops on to get some more, in order to survive. If he stayed happy from that particular carrot, his species would have ended a long time ago. So much pursuit (with its requisite frustration – why isn’t it even more constant?) is part of daily living. No one promised us a rose garden. As a child of the 50’s and 60’s I still expect carrots, non-stop. Somehow this book gave me an insight that explains my life, and naturally, the most useful was the part that put it in the Darwinian paradigm. Thanks to all of you for making that happen!

I don’t know how to send links. New York Times book review Rottenberg, etc. Have a great time in Toronto. I’ll see you soon – as at my advanced age even a year-plus is soon – for some more carrots.

Karen Sholl (Chicago)

Date: Mon, 31 Mar 2014 18:24

Dear Classmates,

So lovely to hear from you Karen and all your musings!

I could concur very quickly with Rottenburg’s book but it comes from an older perspective. I am only now really discovering what a trickster is Time: we can’t help but necessarily feel there is little time left – in comparison to the long life lived. And today, with technology what it is, we naturally and unsuspectingly are left behind as we find our grandchildren are leaps and bounds ahead of us in so many ways in the spiralling world of technology. There are so many ways technology has raced past us but I think “mood” is not necessarily the thing which has been slow to responding to progress. I don’t think some of us are doing too badly.
However, the other major and very depressing factor is the shrinking of one’s circle of friends and family. Every day seems to bring another bit of bad and sad news.

We must keep going and can only hope and pray to have reasonably good health. The alternative is too grim. And I suppose that is all part of resilience and we just have to learn to try and “roll with the punches”. Not easy.

On we go – and we are fortunate enough to still be able to have wonderful classes and continued good discussions. What more could we ask?

Best wishes to all,
Dinah Tremain (Toronto)


Date: Apr 1, 2014, at 6:35 AM

Dinah thanks for your wise thoughts! How true, about the losses. These are real material reasons to be bummed out. I think this writer would agree with everything you said. He talks about studies to point to the similarity between bereavement depression and other kinds of depression. I think he mainly wants us to look at low mood as being on a spectrum, the same, and from the same source. He seems most concerned with the flaw of the “deficiency” or “defect” model, where theoretically something is lacking in the person’s make-up to cause the mood. I agree with him that there would be less stigma about depression if we looked at it his way, as “part of our animal legacy” as he says.

Of course, Rottenberg sees depression as a very prevalant phenomenon, an epidemic. Being depressive himself, besides the research, his views may be skewed on that! Dinah, I like your prescription for resilience and hope and just keep on going, and like you, I think communication and discussion brings so much pleasure to life. We have to look for it where we can. I liked your “time as trickster.” The last ten years just flew by. Thanks Dinah.

Karen Sholl (Chicago)


Date: Tue 01/04/2014 9:14 PM

I am going to play devil’ s advocate here. The joy of life is the openness to new experiences and the willingness to continue to learn. Of course eventually we know more dead and sick people than otherwise, but so it has always been. What is different is that people under 65 have been raised and cosseted to believe each is special, gifted, and a shining star. Well bummer. Each is just an ordinary person and their collective coping skills are sorely lacking.

Get off your butt, contribute to humanity, get exercise both intellectual and physical and LIVE! One trip only folks, so enjoy the ride.

Ann Sofia (Tampa)


Date: Wed., 02/04/2014 8:19 PM

Ann,  it doesn’t sound to me like you are advocating for the devil at all – more like advocating for our moms who said “buck up” and/or Dear Abby who was always telling us to “wake up and smell the coffee, sis”  and other wise and beloved figures from our past!

I could do better in the physical exercise department, but have tried to keep up with the humanity and mental exercise parts of the program, but still subject sometimes  to Rottenberg’s plague.

He would say that the get up and go, and enjoy it, recommendation would feel like an anvil around our collective neck.  Maybe that’s why I like the book – I have never cheered up by prescription, always the opposite.    What creates the inertia preventing so many from  getting in the game, which would be healing?  Depression? Or  “bad attitudes,” such as being spoiled/entitled, etc.

Maybe I liked Rottenberg’s assumed preference on that score – the depression, an animal legacy – reinforced by the negative  jolt to the self-esteem for just not being able to “straighten up and fly right” .  I must be in a nostalgic mood, remembering all these Anne and Abby nuggets — sorry.  Though at 65, I can still, just barely,  lay claim to the “cosseted” demographic and I just wish more people would appreciate me and do alot more for me dammit!

I think Rottenberg would say we would all feel better, and paradoxically do more un-depressed stuff, if we knew that the low moods and inertia are part of our evolutionary legacy, serving a useful purpose, originally, and even now.

Ann, you are an inspiration.  YOu seem to really live life to the fullest, appreciate it, and this rubs off on those of us lucky enough to get into your orbit, at least during some summers. Thanks so much  for contributing your thoughts.   Warm regards,   Karen Sholl (Chicago)


Date: April 5, 2014, 10:00AM

Greetings to everyone from our Darwin seminar last summer! It’s great to see the conversation continuing.

Sorry I’ve come a bit late to the conversation.  Karen has started quite the chain going the last week or so!

I’m intrigued by the Rottenberg book The Depths, especially with the author’s arguing for the adaptive function of low mood. It seems he could have argued for the value of low mood on other grounds—from a more philosophical angle, for instance: that low mood and sadness add a depth, even richness to our lives. That, like pain, they are essential to our full experience of being human. I’m curious, Karen, if you have a sense of what his working from an evolutionary perspective achieves that a more philosophical approach might not.

I’m also interested to know, where he draws the line between adaptive low mood and maladaptive depression.  Does he present any theory on why someone would slip from one side of the line to another?

I gather that he’s trying to get us to de-pathologize what he thinks is the more adaptive response to life’s circumstances.

I don’t mean to put you on the spot of having to presenting Rottenberg’s entire book for us, Karen—but you’ve stirred up a lot of questions!

Best to all,

Mark Cwik (Chicago)


Date: April-06-14 8:08 PM

This link will take you to the balm that lifted and comforted my spirits through our unending winter.

Perhaps it will make you feel less alone, too.

With heartfelt respect to all,

Jan Hope-Burke (Toronto)


Check this out
Ann Sofia  (Tampa)


And the beat goes on….

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