Thursday, February 10, 2011

argument for adaptive function of literature

Troy explained to me how to post a new message, so I'm trying it out. (I always liked that scene in Catch--22 where Orr gets shot down, is in his inflatable life raft, and tries out everything in his survival kit, just to see how it all works.)

I'm writing an essay on violence, homicide, and war in literature, for an evolutionary handbook on violence, homicide, and war. When I got to the conclusion, I remarked that we don't necessarily get pleasure from reading about painful things, but we do get pleasure from learning about the extremes of human experience. I said we have evolved an adaptively functional need to find out about such things, and not just find out about them in an intellectual, conceptual way, but to understand them emotionally, to feel them. "Literature and other emotionally charged imaginative constructs—the other arts, religions, and ideologies—inform our emotional understanding of human behavior. The arts expand our feeling for why other people act as they do, help us to anticipate how they are likely to respond to our behavior, and offer suggestions about what kind of value we should attach to alternative courses of action."

It seems to me that this formulation implies a fairly simple and virtually axiomatic argument about the adaptive function of literature and the other arts. (1) we have evolved and adaptively functional need for emotionally informed understanding of human experience; (2) literature and the other arts fulfill that adaptively functional need; (3) ergo, literature and the other arts are adaptively functional.

I don't see any logical holes in that, and it doesn't seem to me that either of the first two propositions is doubtful or speculative. What do you think?


  1. Might one also go so far as to say that literature allows us to have emotional experiences by proxy, allowing us to train our emotions, so that we can have the proper reaction to a similar situation when it arises, rather than be overwhelmed by the experience? From which 2 and 3 also follow.

  2. I think the combination of the two would make for a good argument for one of the values of literary studies. With recent proposals to cut back on the humanities -- and to even cut entire programs -- we need these kinds of arguments. Not to mention that it would really distinguish us from the postmodernists who argue that there is no value to the humanities (as Stanley Fish, for example, argues).