Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Evolution in Film Narrative? Or Something Else?

Individual choice comes to film with Turbulence. It reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. This raises some questions, though, regarding the nature of storytelling. For example, consider the fact that in a standard narrative, we are watching to learn what the characters will do, which teaches us something about other minds and other choices. However, if we are deciding what the characters will do, what is the role of narrative? Does film become something more akin to a video game? Certainly such films could be interesting from a game-theoretic perspective -- but it would tell us more about the audience than the film itself, would it not? Are there other issues one could raise?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Denis Dutton, RIP

I am sad to report that Denis Dutton died of cancer Tuesday, Dec. 28 in New Zealand.

Reports can be found here and here and here and here, the latter two of which focus on his site Arts & Letters Daily.

There is an interview with Denis Dutton at We should celebrate his life and work -- and continue that work.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How Norman Holland Got It Wrong

Norman Holland, who has a blog This is Your Brain on Culture over at Psychology Today could not possibly be more wrong about literary Darwinism in his posting How the Literary Darwinists Got It Wrong. The problem seems primarily to be that he confuses reading with literature. He might as well be saying that the ability to create tools did not have evolutionary origins because jackhammers weren't around when we started making tools.

The thing he misses lies in the very statement he makes that it gives him pleasure. Yes, but why? That is what he doesn't answer. The answer to that is the key.

The discussion is carried on further here. I know I'm a bit late to this, but it's a discussion worth looking at.

I would say that Dehaene's book on reading does answer some of the issue raised -- as well as an understanding that "literature" isn't what's written in books, though it includes it. Just because some literature is written, that does not mean all literature is written. Tis a logical fallacy, you know.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Literacy and Facial Description in Literature

The most recent Science has an article by Dehaene, et al. Showing that learning to read intrudes on the part of the brain that recognizes faces, thus reducing face recognition. Which could suggest an interesting research project: as cultures become more literate, does the literature have fewer facial descriptions?

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Deep Is It Necessary to Go?

How detailed do we need to understand the way the brain works for Darwinian literary studies?

Dehaene, in Reading in the Brain goes into great detail about how the brain is converted into an organ able to read and create written script, yet one may wonder to what degree this is in fact helpful to understanding literature per se.

Having said that, I will note that Dehaene does observe that learning to read makes us more phonemicly aware -- which may in fact affect the production of poetry. At the same time, one may argue that one could learn this through studies that do not involve understanding the neurology behind reading.

There is certainly something to be said about the issues of general intelligence and evolutionary psychology's emphasis on modules and instincts -- but how much does one really need to know about neural structures to use these in literary studies?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gottschall's Archive

Jonathan Gottschall's articles page. He's a prolific voice in the field. And he's willing to challenge the ways in which we study literature.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wicked Step-Parents and Inclusive Fitness

Kenrick, et al point out that "Familial provision of resources and care will follow the order (a) self > siblings; (b) own offspring > stepchildren"

It seems to me that the subconscious realization of (b) would be a logical explanation of the prevalence of wicked stepmothers and at-risk stepchildren in fairy tales (Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, etc.). It is found in the West, of course, but we also can find it in many other cultures, such as this classic of Indian literature: The Wicked Stepmother. Further, this Wikipedia entry, under "Fiction" lists many more fairy tales from around the world. "Hamlet" would of course be an excellent example of the wicked stepfather. Surely some work along these lines has already been done?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Science of Literature?

A Science of Literature?

The author also suggests that we literary types have something to teach science. I agree, and not just in regards to rhetoric. The more complex the science, the more important narrative and hermeneutics is to its study -- especially the social sciences.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Motive For Metaphor

Check out The Motive for Metaphor, which features Fred Turner and others talking about the nature of metaphor.

Literary Studies as Science

There is hope yet for literary studies. One hopes people like Gottschall do finally take over our English departments. Of course, the fact that he has already been editor for a major book and now has out another major book of his own but is still only able to get an adjunct position says a lot about the current state of our English Departments.

The Secrets of Storytelling

We do love to tell stories. Jeremy Hsu explains the biological and psychological reasons why we tell stories.

Shakespeare's Poetry and More Complex Thinking

Philip Davis describes some pretty interesting research on the way Shakespeare's poetry affects the brain. In essence, it suggests ways we can write poetry to make our brains work at a higher, more complex level through the way we use the language. Good poetry makes use of grammatical anomalies which are nonetheless grammatically and syntactically tolerated by the brain, forcing it to work at a more complex level than it otherwise does. In other words, good poetry combines the expected with the unexpected, stretching, but not breaking the language.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beauty and the Brain

The creation of patterns within patterns creates fractal depth, and unity among diversity, showing us that “knowledge of the structural principle of fractal images has led successfully to the discovery of uniformity in the variety of appearances” (Fischer, 67) in nature and, as art is a product of the brain, and the brain is part of nature, in art too. Nature has fractal geometry – the repetitious repetition of repetitions. Great works of art have fractal geometry too, and in the same way that nature is fractal, not in the repetition of the same fractals, but of the superposition of different fractal geometries on top of each other. Again, uniformity in variety. We again see the use of repetition, of patterns, and therefore, of rhythm, at the most basic levels of nature. And it goes all the way down. Light is made of waves – they are repetitious and have a steady rhythm. Quantum particles (including strings) all vibrate – they have steady rhythms (this quality of vibrating at a steady rhythm is why we use Cesium – which vibrates at a known, constant rate – in our atomic clocks). Crystals all have patterns, planets all orbit in steady rhythms (as do stars in the galaxy) – nature is rhythmical, patterned, all the way down. It has fractal depth. So we should not be surprised to find the use of rhythm in the development of biological organisms, including humans – and our brains. Nor should we be surprised we find rhythms and patterns comforting – and beautiful. This suggests we would expect our art to be patterned, rhythmical, since both the creator and the audience finds patterned, rhythmic art beautiful. The problem of boredom keeps artists innovating, creating new patterns, suggesting new rhythms, that can potentially help us to see new things in the world, helping us to better adapt to and learn about the world.

Rhythms and patterns in animals are expressed not only within the body, but in many of our behaviors. Rhythmic behavior patterns are called rituals. Sexual selection has generated rituals in fish, birds, and mammals – and humans are not exempt. Turner goes so far as to say that art comes out of ritual, the differentiating feature being that art is more directly concerned with the beautiful than is ritual in and of itself (16). Ritual originated in sexual selection – particularly in mate selection – since sexual selection tends to create beauty, as we see in the peacock’s tail. This, and the oral tradition out of which literature evolved, have some implications regarding literature in particular. When Turner says ritual “is often . . . the place where society stands back from itself, considers its own value system, criticizes it, and engages in its profoundest philosophical and religious commerce with what lies outside it, whether divine, natural, or subconscious” (8), it is hard to imagine he could not be talking about literature in general, and the novel in particular – as any quick history of the novel and its societal effects shows.

Ritual also implies performance. “In ritual human beings decide what they are and stipulate that identity for themselves, thereby asserting the most fundamental freedom of all, the freedom to be what they choose” (Turner, 8). With art and literature, we engage in world-creation, participate in that created world to help us comprehend the natural world, and communicate this information to others. This is what works of art and literature do: communicate information about possibilities. This is the ethical role of art and literature (this is separate from, but inclusive of, the tragic role of art and literature). Art and literature play vital roles, since “communication [is] the basis of both a social existence and of culture” (Bonner, 97). The creation and appreciation of art and literature are fulfilling because “world creation is hard work, and must be richly rewarded” (Turner, 16) through our feeling of beauty.

The creation of particular structures in the brain, the way the brain processes information, and the loss of neural connections and massive numbers of brain cells, are all part and parcel of what constitutes human thinking, learning, and minding. Our brains are programmed to learn certain things at certain times, and in certain ways. The best, most effective way to learn something is to do it as early, and as rhythmically, as possible. If we want to have an effect on behavior and learning through nurture, we have to understand better our own nature. In order to know ourselves, which has been the constant cry of philosophy – and of the arts and humanities in general – we have to know our biological selves. In doing so, we can become aware of our limitations, and of the rules that govern our behavior, so we can make better use of those rules. If the brain makes use of rhythms to understand the world, is it not best to use this knowledge to better ourselves, to make ourselves more knowledgeable and wiser? Certainly, if, as Doczi says, knowledge is varied, but wisdom is unified – what would make for a more beautiful mind than one full of unified knowledge? We can best teach ourselves and our children more knowledge, and in a more unified manner, by making use of what we do now know about how the brain works and understands the world.

For those in the arts, such knowledge can inform us as to both how to create more beautiful works, and why those methods work. For a work of art to be beautiful, it must have repeated repetitions of its visual elements. For a poem to be beautiful, it must be rhythmical, have repetition of sound and beat. For a work of fiction to be beautiful, it must have repetitions of images and theme-words. And each must have variations which have unity. Symmetry with asymmetry. Repetitive repetitions that are not perfectly repetitive – not identical, but self-similar, to avoid monotony, to avoid boredom, and therefore keep the attention of the audience. But they do have to have the repetitions for us to see them as meaningful – as it is the recognition of repetition, patterns, to which we attach meaning. And insofar as one of the purposes of art is to create new meaning and, thus, revalue all values (Nietzsche), the creation of rhythm, repetition, and, thus, patterns is vital to the creation of beautiful works of art.

A biological understanding of the brain, of how the brain is structured and programmed by regulatory genes, which are themselves affected by their environment, whether we understand that environment to be a direct chemical environment, or an indirect one, generated by interactions of the organism with the world (light hitting the retina, transmitting an image to the brain, which then processes the image, comparing it to other things in the brain it remembers and has meaningful and emotional connections to, so it can classify it and, thus, change the very structure of the brain, so the organism can better deal with the world and other things similar to the new thing it has seen), helps us understand our behavior, and how we can better interact with, and therefore learn from, the environment, so nurture can be better used, interacting with nature. Better understanding of how the brain is structured during fetal development, and later, in infancy, when the brain is still developing, can help us create a better learning environment – one that makes good use of the arts, and which sees the arts, not as mere decoration, but as a vital, indeed, integral part of how we learn and what makes us human.

This approach is further supported if we look at some of the general ways in which the brain functions. In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner has an essay on the brain sciences. In it he points out that with the left-brain being the primary location of temporal sequencing and short-term memory, and the right-brain being the primary location for a spatial gestalt mode and a memory for “complex locations and images, and with some subjects, for instance dwelling-places, [where] our powers of recall and recognition of spacial patterns are astonishing” (19-20), and the fact that “it is the exchange of information between right-brain and left-brain modes which constitutes the human capacity to make sense of the world” (18), then

In such a perspective plot or story becomes crucially important. The “unity of action” . . . functions as a sort of connected series of rooms, containing places for memory storage. Plot, moreover, with its capacity to organize large units of time, extends the harmonious patterning of temporal periodicities that we find in poetic meter to larger and larger scales, organizing a voluminous body of material and broadening the temporal horizon of memory and expectation. (20-21)

However, I would like to suggest that in longer works fractally-distributed patterns of words could also create a “harmonious patterning of temporal periodicties” over a large scale that works in a similar way to that of poetic meter, the difference being that the music of poetry is rhythmic and expected, while this music of novelistic prose would be chaotically rhythmic and unpredictably predictable. Either way, Turner’s claim does support the idea of plot as something novels should have (and, so students can better learn them, history and science should have too), whether artificial or not, because they are something the brain finds optimally pleasurable and creative of meaning.

Plot not only unites right-brain pattern recognition with the left-brain capacity to deal with large units of time, it also connects those cortical functions in turn with the limbic system and its powerful rewards. It does this by the process of identification. ... Identification makes us feel the character’s emotions as if they were our own. Thus plot promotes and exercises the relations between cortical world construction and limbic reward. (21)

We will soon see that insofar as plot is a form of narrative, we are also programmed to find plot pleasurable, since narrative is the very basis of language, and plots are created by language. Which suggests that plot is not artificial – though artificiality is hardly an argument against its use in art. Turner also points out that symbols work in a similar way, relating “pleasurable emotion or sensation with the higher values” (22). Any work of art or literature should match the different expectations of the brain. The same is true of education, further strengthening the connection between the arts and education.

Since the brain is habituative, “That is, it tends to ignore repeated and expected stimuli, and to respond only to the new and unexpected” (64), a work of art or literature should constantly present new and unexpected things to the reader. Since the brain is synthetic, a work of art or literature must create a complete, new world. Since the brain is “active rather than passive, it constructs scenarios to be tested by reality, vigorously seeks confirmation of them, and painfully reconstructs them if they are deconfirmed” (64), the work of art or literature must construct the kinds of realities that act as tests (of reality, of moral choices, etc.) for the reader. Since the brain is predictive, a work of art or literature must have a certain element of predictability – a novel’s characters, for example, must act in expected ways, and/or a work must have patterns and/or rhythms. Combine this with the habituative, and you get the kind of tension necessary for a work of art or literature to really work well. Further, if a long work of literature, such as a novel, has chaotic word patterns, such a work would be both predictive and habituative too. Since the brain is hierarchical, a work of art or literature must itself be hierarchical – which, in a work of literature, we can see in the emergent meaning from phonemes up through plot. Since the brain is rhythmic, the work of art or literature should be rhythmic, which, again, we see in the fractal patterns of a good work of art, as well as in stylized prose and rhythmic poetry. Since the brain is self-rewarding, it “reward[s] itself for certain activities which are, presumably, preferred for their adaptive utility” (68) and is able to be fine-tuned through external means to increase “mental efficiency,” which “underlies the whole realm of human values, ultimate purposes, and ideas such as truth, beauty, and goodness” (68), the plot/story of a work of art or literature should be one that can both fine-tune the mind and be a source of truth, beauty, and goodness. Since the brain is reflexive, which is how it calibrates itself, a work of art or literature should be repetitive, such as on the word-level for novels, on the sound-level of poems, and on the visual level for art. We see this reflexivity in the very structure of language, such as in our ‘if-then” statements:

The grammar or syntax of human language is certainly unique. Like an onion or Russian doll, it is recursive: One instance of an item is embedded in another instance of the same item. Recursion makes it possible for the words in a sentence to be widely separated and yet dependet on one another “If-then” is a classic example. “In the sentence “If Jack does not turn up the thermostat in his house this winter, then Madge and I are not coming over,” “if” and “then” are dependent on each other even though they are separated by a variable number of words. (Premack, David, “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Science 16 Jan 2004, 318)

Since the brain is social, the work of art or literature should be about social things, about human social interactions. Since the brain is hemispherically specialized, in order to create “a sort of stereoscopic depth-cognition” (Turner, 70), a work of art or literature should deal with space and time. Since the brain is kalogenetic, from the Greek “kalos” for “beauty, goodness, rightness,” and “genesis” for “begetting, productive, cause, origin, source” (71), a work of art or literature should be a source or producer of beauty and goodness. Since the brain is generative, the work of art or literature should be rule-bound, since “the rules must be followed, or the freedom, the limitlessness, the generativeness, will not come about. And those rules include not only the grammar of language, but also the classical laws of harmony, melody, color, proportion, poetic meter, narrative, rhythm, and balance” (222). Which means a work of art or literature should also include each of these. In short,
the human nervous system has a strong drive to construct affirmative, plausible, coherent, consistent, parsimonious, and predictively powerful models of the world, in which all events are explained by and take their place in a system which is at once rich in implications beyond its existing data and at the same time governed by as few principles or axioms as possible. (71)

Which is a good definition of both a chaotic system and a great work of art or literature.

To take up something I disagree with Turner on, Turner claims that “ordinary prose comes to us in a “mono” mode, so to speak, affecting the left brain predominantly” while “metered language comes to us in “stereo” mode – or even a quadraphonic one – simultaneously calling on the verbal resources of the left and the musical potentials of the right, the fronto-limbic sensitivity to rhythms and cycles, and the sensory-motor specializations of the posterior cortex” (95). While this may be a good definition of much “ordinary” nonfiction prose, it does not necessarily hold true for fiction (and other literary) prose – especially any kind of prose that paints vivid pictures for the reader. The right-brain holism (for plot) and visuals (scenes, imagery) shows us good fiction-prose also uses both sides of the brain, though in different ways. One could bring up the rhythm argument, but if a novel has fractally-distributed-word-patterns, which we would expect from a fractal system, these would be the natural rhythms and cycles found in good fiction that parallel the more standard forms of poetic rhythms and cycles. Also, while poetry may make good use of short-term memory (Turner and Pöppel have shown the optimally three-second lines of poems fit nicely in the three-second short-term memory window), the novel makes use of the right-brain’s long-term memory abilities, as well as its tendency to conceptualize. One must have a good memory to read and understand a novel, so it could be argued that reading novels also helps increase long-term memory.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Bad Story

Adam came downstairs, dressed in his suit, briefcase in hand. Bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and grits made a blend of aromas that pulled him into the kitchen. His wife, Lily, placed the last glass on the table as Adam walked in. Both worked full time, and today was Lily’s turn to make breakfast,. She smiled at Adam as he came in and sat at his place at the table. The conversation they’d had the previous night was still on his mind.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling. I haven’t changed my mind,” Adam said.

Lily frowned.

“Do you want me to quit my job? Do you just want a housewife?” Lily asked.

“Why does having kids mean you’ll have to quit your job and become a housewife? Lots of women have kids and careers,” Adam said.

“Not my sister,” Lily said. She poured them both milk.

“That’s your sister’s choice,” Adam said.

Lily put the milk in the refrigerator and grabbed the plate of bacon and the bowl of grits and placed them on the table. Without a word, she grabbed the bowl of scrambled eggs and the plate of buttered toast and placed them in front of Adam.

The two ate in silence. Adam thought of his assistant at work, a tall blonde who was always eating fruit. She had been talking recently of how much she wanted to get married and have children. Eva was a good woman.

Adam shook his head and took a bite of bacon. He shouldn’t think things like that. Thoughts like that could get a man in trouble.

After they finished eating, Adam helped Lily clear the table and fill the dishwasher. Each kissed the other goodbye, finished getting together what they needed for work, got into their separate cars, and headed in opposite directions to their jobs. Adam continued thinking of the situation with Lily. Why didn’t she want children? What was the real reason? He didn’t buy for a minute her excuse. Now Eva . . . No. No. He mustn’t think that.

Adam shook his head to dispel this last thought, and failed to notice the red light. As he ran it, a semi truck hit his driver’s side, killing Adam instantly.

* * * * *

The above is a bad story because it leaves the reader unfulfilled. We are supposed to learn more about this developing conflict, not be left with such a stupid ending. But for the vast majority of us, our lives end exactly this way: stupidly. If it is not death by an accident, it is by cancer, heart attack, or any of a number of ways that deprive our deaths of meaning. Few of us get glorious ends, culminating our lives in any sort of meaningful ways. Faced with the practical certainty of meeting such a stupid end, we have all, every culture, set out like Don Quixote, determined to come up with a better end to the story, whether that end be heaven, a longer life granted by God/the gods to give you more time to create a better end for yourself, an afterlife state of bliss, elimination of suffering (in nirvana, for example), or earthly utopias.

Thus is born various teleologies, eschatologies and soul concepts. The way we get to them is through and because of language. We have, through and because of language, narrated our own lives beyond the present, through various futures, to our own certain deaths, and discovered that we inevitably end up with terrible, meaningless, stupid endings. So we narrate the story beyond our lives, to afterlives, including material afterlives (Communist utopias, for example). Or we fashion our own glorious endings (in suicide bombings, etc.). Every time we work for the future, for our children, for a future society we will never see, it is from the same eschatalogical drive that creates and created the world’s religions. Because we have recursive narrative (grammatical) language, we have created the need for religion, to make the future meaningful. So we can see, then, that for religion, in the beginning (arche) was the word (logos). Without it, one cannot get religion at all. Thus, Nietzsche’s statement that “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar . . . “ (Twilight of the Idols, 5) is quite profound in its insight.

All of the human cultural universals that constitute the various elements of our religions have this same origin in (recursive, grammatical) language leading to an extended sense of time: divination, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, propitiation of supernatural beings, religious ritual, soul concepts, and eschatologies. Our extended sense of time allows us to project into an increasingly uncertain future. It makes good evolutionary sense to have a fear of what is unknown – since what is unknown could be a predator. Our extended sense of time creates an increasingly unknown and unknowable future, meaning our fear of the known “out there” in a spatial sense gets applied to time, as it becomes increasingly unknown. At the same time we, as all the great apes (and perhaps all animals), have a sense of causality: in the past A resulted in B several times; therefore, A causes B. And it is important in an evolutionary sense for a species, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, which develop much of their understanding of the world through learning, to have evolved a sense of causality – if you do not figure out that the leopard or something like that leopard is the cause of the death of a fellow troop member, then you will probably end up becoming leopard (lion, etc.) food yourself. But our extended notion of time makes us realize predictability breaks down over time. Faced with the contradiction of belief in causality and long-term unpredictability, we developed divination. Divination is the attempt to make the unknowns of the future “known” through applying causality to the far future, beyond when reasonable predictions can be made. Luck superstitions would be the attempt to explain in a causal way why good things happen to some people, but not to others – it is a variation on the sense of justice (also felt by chimpanzees), applied to that part of the world not within our control. It is in a sense related to the idea of magic, which is how we attempt to make sense of the unknown and unfamiliar in the absence of causal explanations. All of these are possible only with language. They require being put into words and being discussed. The discussions about “that strange thing that just happened” lead to causal explanations because we need causal explanations, even if the cause is magic (which makes more sense to most people than there being no cause, or no cause that can be discovered – and what is technology to one is magic to another), of which miracles for this discussion are a part. Miracles in this sense are magic performed by supernatural beings, by those supernatural beings, or through people chosen by those supernatural beings.

These universals arise because they are how we can explain the unexplainable to each other, and they served us so well, they became instincts. This is why so many people have problems with scientific, naturalistic explanations. Science shows us everything has a naturalistic explanation – magic is not needed. But we need magic as an explanation. It is part of our need to have faith in something beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding. This is the source of faith healing, and it is also why faith healing in a sense works. Having a hopeful outlook helps us heal more quickly. If you have two people in the same health who receive the same surgical procedure, but one believes it will work while the other does not, the one who believes in the procedure will recover faster and more completely than the one who does not. At the same time, you can give placebos to people who think they are receiving real medicine, and some will react to the placebo as if it were real medicine. This explains both why there is some success rate among witch doctors and other faith healers, and why modern medicine is not always the best it could be. While we should not give up on the real advancements made in medicine, medicine could be served by combining it with some form of faith healing – modern medicine would supply biological benefits, while faith healing would supply psychological benefits. This would give us a more fully human medicine, by reuniting physical health with the holy. Modern medicine all too often feels dehumanizing to the patients. To the extent it deals with body parts without acknowledging those parts belong to a human being whose needs extend to a very powerful, creative, body-influencing psychological element, including deep instincts that sometimes – as in the case of magic, faith healing, luck superstitions, and divination – do not stand up in the face of contemporary scientific knowledge, it is dehumanizing. And until we either gain full faith in science (a danger too, in that it can suppress scientific innovation, as people have faith in the current or traditional scientific findings, as people did and still do with Newton’s physics – Laplace’s calculator is scientific divination), or evolve beyond the need for faith (as Nietzsche wishes we could do) so we can accept facts as facts (and not as truth) in naturalistic explanations, there will continue to be rebellion against purely naturalistic explanations for and approaches to everything. People prefer Laplace’s calculator over chaos and complex systems theory, as the former says the world is eminently knowable and the future calculable, if we could only have enough information, while the latter says the world is inherently incalculable, even if we had all the information in the world. Wolfram, in his work A New Kind of Science, attempts to bring a form of Laplace’s calculator back into complex systems theory, making it deterministic – showing how strong the drive is for divination.

Part of being human is believing in the supernatural. Even when we try to “get rid” of religion, all we do is replace one religion with another. Take Marxism as it has been actually practiced. Its eschatology is the inevitable Communist anarchic utopia at the end of history. Its divination (divined by the prophet Marx) is the Marxist theory of history – the immanent (historically determined) triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeois. In this sense, luck will ultimately be with the proletariat, as it was with the bourgeois against the aristocracy. Anyone familiar with Lysenko’s biological theories knows the Soviet Communists, at least, (and, I would argue, anyone who believes reality is completely socially constructed to the extent that we can do things like grow wheat in the tundra) believed in magic. The proletariat had a deep, fundamental identity clearly separable from the bourgeois’ that is readily identifiable as different kinds of collective “souls.” Lenin and Stalin (at least while Stalin was alive) and other Communist heroes were treated as if they were supernatural (one could go so far as to say that in a sense all our heroes are “supernatural” in that they go beyond what the average human does in their thoughts and actions – thus our need for heroes). The universal belief in supernatural beings comes from the combination of eschatology from our extended sense of time, and the application of status differentiation into this realm (meaning beings have to exist in this realm for status to apply there), as well as relating this realm to kin groups (until Judaism, (the) God(s) in the Middle East were local, meaning they were coupled to property rights in a loose sense; until Christianity, God(s) were associated with kin groups, and were related – often literally – to those who worshiped them, all of which suggests we have been developing an extended sense of who belongs to our tribe for millennia). Religious ritual comes out of the combination of chimpanzee meat-eating rituals, where head male chimpanzees distribute meat the troop caught in such a way as to provide unity in the troop through fair distribution of the meat, as well as emphasizing the troop hierarchy, with the collection of behaviors that gave rise to religion in general – which suggests why religious rituals so often involve ritualized eating and drinking, including sacrificing food and drink.

This mixing of instincts makes sense if our brains generalized as they evolved, making specialized regions (for recognizing kin, for status differentiation, for narrative, and for communication) overlap or otherwise become connected in places – allowing for the retention of instincts while others developed from the overlaps and connections. The hierarchically nested brain evolved hierarchically nested instincts, so that “each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom” (Fraser, TOC 10). Instincts follow the same pattern as I (and Fraser, Argyros, F. Turner, et al) have suggested the rest of the universe follows: an agonal relationship among parts that gives rise to new integrative levels that are scalarly self-similar. The new instincts are similar to the ones they develop out of, but at the same time, those new instincts give us new emergent properties, giving us more freedom. In this theory of the development of more instincts in humans, we see a parallel with chaos theory, which shows how a universal gives rise to a plurality with a family resemblance, with these cultural universals giving rise to endless variations of those universals. The fact that the extended sense of time created by the recursive narrative structure of language leads to divination, eschatology, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, the propitiation of supernatural beings, religious rituals (how we give meaning to religion), and soul concepts explains why these became combined into the various religions of the world, past and present. So when Turner says humans and animals both ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (Natural Classicism, 9), we can see he is in effect saying that only humans have religious ritual.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Entrance to a Work's Beauty

A piece from the NYT In Defense of Naive Reading. The author's point is actually that literature is more complex than scholars often give it credit for, ignoring, as they/we too often do the "first level response" to literature. But isn't our gut reaction to a work a valid one? It is the entrance to a work's beauty.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Human Universals

We have, according to E. O. Wilson (actually, George P. Murdock, whom Wilson is quoting), identified at least sixty-seven cultural universals so far:

age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving. (Wilson, On Human Nature, 22)

Each of these, in various forms, can be found in every culture, throughout history. In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter to the list of sixty-seven. And in The Culture of Hope, and in Beauty, he gives a list of what he calls neurocharms (208-210), many of which could also be considered cultural universals, since they are found in every human culture. Many of these, such as narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and pattern recognition can be found in other animals, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and birds. Others, such as giving meaning to certain color combinations, divination, hypothesis, metaphysical synthesis, collecting, metaphor, syntactical organization, gymnastics, the martial arts, mapping, the capacity for geometry and ideography, poetic meter, cuisine, and massage (which would be a development of mammalian and primate grooming rituals, which humans also engage in, as any couple can tell you), are uniquely human.

The existence of these instincts has some implications for art and literature. When Turner points out that both humans and animals ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (9), it is as though he was equally pointing out all the themes one would expect to find in a great novel, play, or epic poem, and which very well may be a list of the themes of all the great works of literature. Turner himself points out that considering all of the cultural universals make it “tempting to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and thematizes” (26), since “it is the function of [literature] to preserve, integrate and continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon [of cultural universals], while using it to construct coherent world-hypotheses” (26).

In a more directly evolutionary sense we may wonder where these universals came from. How did these specific rules of human actions arise to generate all of the world’s various cultures? And are they universal? And would these universals not restrict human action, giving us less freedom (do they not argue for our behaviors being determined)? Every culture in the world, throughout all of human history, has had religion. Does this restrict the expression of any culture or individual? Hardly. It has led to a very large number of expressions. The forms of religion have varied: various monotheisms, polytheisms, pantheisms, nature religions, the promises of various utopias, earthly and transcendent, not to mention individual interpretations of each religion, showing how much variety one can get in unity.

For the Darwinian literary theorist, what sort of research does this imply? How can we differentiate ourselves from cultural theorists who may take these facts into consideration? But where do these instincts, or deep behaviors, come from? The natural place to look should be in the way the mind works, meaning, how the brain is structured. The deep structures of our brains have given us language, culture, and, as I argue, art and literature. But where does the brain get this tendency to create deep structures? Why would evolution create instincts? Why these particular instincts? And what is the relation of all of this to culture? Why would I consider something called “cultural universals” to be instincts?

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that “human intelligence may depend on our having more innate instincts, not fewer” (243), and the calculations of complex systems supports this idea. One could easily say that anything one could call universal, in that all human cultures in all places at all times have had them, should rightly be understood as an instinct. This gives us quite a long list of human instincts.

Insofar as instincts are behaviors one must do (i.e., we must language, we must narrate, we must experience beauty), meaning instincts are rules, we find we have many more degrees of freedom by having these rules. More freedom of the mind is the same thing as saying there is more intelligence. More instincts develop because

when an environment is stable, there is a selective pressure for learned abilities to become increasingly innate. That is because if an ability is innate, it can be deployed earlier in the lifespan of the creature, and there is less of a chance that an unlucky creature will miss out on the experiences that would have been necessary to teach it. (Pinker, 244)

The creation of more instincts in humans would have made us more adaptive to our environment, since our being able to innately enter into language, for example, makes our learning language much easier (I would argue, possible at all) than it would be if our minds had to literally create everything tabula rasa. One may object that if we learn at all, what we learn cannot be an instinct. But lions, which everyone would agree have the instinct to hunt, must also be taught how to hunt well if they are to survive. The fact that they also have to be taught what they know (that they have to learn to become who they are) does not negate their already knowing it on a certain level. It is the details that have to be taught. All the instincts, as well as Turner’s

charms involve a cooperation between a biogenetic endowment and a cultural tradition that can activate and shape it. We all have neural organs adaptively designed for the purpose of language, but also require the environment of a specific natural language to awaken them. The same applies to the skills of melody and harmony, of poetic meter and visual representation, of theatrical performance and cookery. (Beauty, 67)

So we can see that there is a cooperation between the instincts built into the brain and the environment in which the owner of the brain finds himself. However, one may also wonder why, if as Pinker says, making behaviors innate is beneficial, that all elements of our behavior are not innate. Why should we have to be taught the details? Pinker points out that

evolution, having made the basic computational units of language innate, may have seen no need to replace every bit of learned information [words, surface grammar, syntax] with innate wiring. Computer simulations of evolution show that the pressure to replace learned neural connections with innate ones diminishes as more and more of the network becomes innate, because it becomes less and less likely that learning will fail for the rest. (244)

The question still remains where these cultural universals – these instincts, these universal rules for human behavior within their cultures – came from. Recent research has shown that not only chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), our closest living relatives, but orangutans too, have culture. Different groups have different ways of behaving, which are passed down, not by genetics, but by learning from watching others. If we take the above list of sixty-seven human cultural universals, I can identify in that list twenty-four which chimpanzees share with humans: bodily adornment, cleanliness training (in some), community organization, cooperative labor (i.e., when they hunt), courtship, division of labor, ethics (see Frans de Waals’ Good Natured), family feasting (a true ritual in chimpanzees), games/play, gestures, gift-giving, government (in a primitive form, see de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics), greetings, hygiene (in cleaning each other of parasites), incest taboos (admittedly a questionable one, since it is clear the Westermarck effect is in effect, but not yet clear that it is also socially transmitted), kin groups, medicine (de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master, 254-255), postnatal care, property rights (chimpanzees are very territorial), ritual (see family feasting, above), status differentiation, tool-making, trade, and visiting. And this does not include the cultural differences found among chimpanzee troops (Whiten). I say there are only twenty four, but look at those twenty four. Are we really so much better because we have developed calendars when chimpanzees have developed medicine (albeit far more primitive than human medicine, to say the least, but quite impressive all the same)? Many of those uniquely human cultural traits can be genealogically traced from this pool of twenty four we share with our closest relatives. And I have not even included narrative, which humans also share with chimpanzees – as well as any animal that hunts, particularly with others of its social group. Government too would naturally arise in a species that has status differentiation and the need for rules. We could see religion arising in part from things such as status differentiation and narrative leading to language. The development of religion naturally leads to instincts such as divination and religious ritual (combining religion with feeding rituals could do this – as we see in the Christian Eucharist, eating bread and drinking wine). All of these cultural universals are combinations of those cultural universals we inherited from the common ancestor we held with chimpanzees and bonobos. And many are specifically derived from combinations with language. What implication may that have for literary studies?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Boyd on Why We Love Fiction

Brian Boyd on Why We Love Fiction. He asks, "if fiction offered no benefits in terms of reproductive success, those of us with less inclination to engage in it would thrive, and fiction would fade away as a human behavior. Manifestly, it has not. What benefits does it offer?" Indeed, this is one of the main things that interests me as a literary scientist.

One thing Boyd points out is that music and dance precede literature by quite a bit -- being found in other species (gobies dance, after all). Literature is thus one of that last of the arts to be invented. Indeed, this would seem to support my belief that literature began as a primate mating call which first bifurcated into music and language, and then recombined into song, which then evolved into poetry, which then evolved into prose. The history of literature seems to support this as well. While we can find prose literature quite far back, it's certainly not the dominant form. As literature, song was first dominant; then spoken poetry; then written poetry; then written prose. Among the "high arts," I think there would be little argument about this developmental line. At the same time, however, song is still in fact the dominant literary form -- more people listen to songs than read novels.

Boyd also connects the arts to play, something which I did in my dissertation, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and in my article Literature as a Game: Game-Play in Reading, Creating, and Understanding Literature. I think much more can and needs to be done with this connection, inlcuding the nature of and reasons for play, and the evolution of play.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Imitation of the Other

The very way our children learn from us -- and, thus, learn best from us -- has been shown to promote social bonding. More, such imitation seems to be central to the creation of larger groups, of the extended order we now live in, and thus to the expansion of our morals in the way Darwin himself explained. It turns out that this kind of imitation is necessary for people of different cultures to get along. Thus, artists who use ideas and concepts from other cultures are not "appropriating" (a term created by multiculturalists whose theories are atavistic in nature, wishing to keep us separate from each other just as much as do racial purists) those ideas and concepts. Rather, such artists are working to create bridges between cultures, to bring us all together. Thus, are we learning from each other.

This could suggest one way for literary Darwinists to discuss cross-cultural works. To what degree do they contribute to our imitating each other? To what degree could they thus contribute? The effects may in fact be quite subtle. Is the use of a form from another culture, such as the ghazal or the Noh play, an imitation of this sort?

Evolutionary Psychology and Literature -- an Objection

I had an email discussion once with a fellow scholar who argued against using evolutionary psychology to understand the actions of Shakespeare's characters on the grounds that Shakespeare couldn't have put in something he didn't know about. The problem with this is that if evolutionary psychology accurately describes human behavior, then Shakespeare doesn't have to have known anything about it to nevertheless use it. I think this may be one of the main errors theorists make in their objection to using things like evolutionary theory and psychology. It's one of the many things literary Darwinists have to overcome. One does have to wonder, though, why Freudian interpretations of Hamlet don't meet with the same objections, though.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Literary Darwinist Program

What should Literary Darwinists be doing? Doing evolutionary psychological analyses of characters? Trying to understand the evolutionary origins of storytelling, genre, etc.? Trying to explain, using evolution, why some works of literature are successful, and why others fail? Trying to develop a "natural classicism" that explains the common foundations of all works of literature, across cultures? Finding hints of evolutionary understanding in works of literature? Trying to develop experiments to confirm hypotheses we develop from evolutionary theory? (Others I'm not thinking of at the moment?) Some combination thereof?


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Family, Ritual, Evolution, and Literature

In the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Arjuna observes that, "In the annihilation of the family, its time-honored rites are destroyed; and when these rites perish, lawlessness overpowers the entire family."

This got me to thinking about family structures.

There are many ways one can structure a family. In the West we have settled on the "nuclear family" of husband, wife, and children, but throughout world history there have been families with many wives, those with extended family living under the same roof, etc. The nuclear family has the benefit of being highly mobile, which is beneficial in a rapidly changing, highly mobile society like the U.S. If both the husband and wife work, it's hard enough to make the decision to move -- if a man is married to ten women, and they all have jobs, that decision is going to become nearly impossible. Why move just because one of you got a better job? The same argument could be used if your household consists of a husband and wife, their children, and their children's children. More people in the household certainly makes for a more psycho-socially healthy atmosphere, but it really narrows your economic options.

The idea of family rites, or rituals, also made me think about what happens when two people get married. I certainly had certain family rites and rituals I was raised with, and which I have taken into my own family. The same is true of my wife. When we decided to get married, we talked about what rites and rituals we wanted to have (naturally, we didn't say, "Hey, honey, let's talk about what rites and rituals our family should have," though that was what we were doing). We talked about how we wanted to raise children, what kind of lifestyle we wanted, etc. In marrying each other, we brought together the rites and rituals we were raised with, used some, rejected others, came to compromises, and even added some we weren't raised with at all. Neither of us were raised going to the opera or ballet or to museums (though I probably went to a few more museums than she did, neither of us had ever gone to the opera or ballet growing up), but these activities are certainly a part of our lives now, and will become a part of our children's lives. Bringing together different family rites and rituals is what really drives cultural changes, and it is what almost certainly drove the evolution of different cultures throughout the world as families migrated across the face of the earth.

My wife one day wondered why it is that most of the novels, plays and poetry in my library were written by men, and why it was that historically men were the storytellers. Where were the women? I asked her: who do you think came up with all the fairy tales and other stories told to children? The Grimm brothers only collected the stories -- it was women who came up with the stories and told them to their children, passing them from generation to generation. Over time, the stories were changed, developed, made more complex, simplified, etc. until written down. Many of our stories are based on folk and fairy tales, and it's likely both men and women contributed to their telling and development. For some reason, men tend to dissociate things from the family more than women do, so that may be why literature written for others (outside the family) have tended to be written by men. I would guess that this is because prehistoric women gathered food with family, but men hunted with men from other families. This tension between staying close to family and seeking help outside the family is likely what drove the creation of larger tribes, etc. until we get to the much larger cooperative-competitive international communities we now see.

Naturally, literature oftentimes deals with family structures and rituals. We oftentimes see the breakdown of family and rituals. If we return to the quotation above, what implications might there be for this insight from a Darwinian perspective? What examples can we see from literature?

Monday, September 13, 2010


I decided to start this blog because I have seen how some of the economics blogs I follow act as places where people can discuss their ideas and methods, and even post initial thoughts on papers, leading to discussions that lead to more and better ideas. I think that evolutionary approaches to literary studies could benefit from having a place like this where ideas can be developed and discussed. I hope that that is what this will become. In the past one had to be in New York City or Paris to be part of a cultural evolution. Now we have the internet. We should use it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I am hoping that this blog will be a place where people can come together and discuss evolutionary approaches to the study of literature.