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.