Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hard-Wired Envy

Bryan Caplan, an economist, shows he really understands the true relationship between biology and society in his short piece on envy. Yes, things like envy are hard-wired into us. But then, so is xenophobia, sexism, and many other behaviors. Does this mean we will never get rid of them? Probably. Does this mean we cannot change them in ourselves and others, through culture and social pressures, including education? Absolutely not. We are also hardwired for many virtues as well. Which we choose to emphasize us up to us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Note on the Adaptive Function of Literature

I am reading The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose, which talks about some of the new ways stories are told with the internet and games. They talk about how much of the theory behind how the world wide web works -- using links - comes from Vannevar Bush's idea of the brain being associative and, thus, it would be better to organize information in such a way, using what became known as hyperlinks. It is suggested by Rose that stories can and should make use of the inherent nonlinearity behind this idea.

However, from an evolutionary perspective, there is another interesting point made:

Steven Pinker once described fiction as "a kind of thought experiment" in which characters "play out plausible interactions in a . . . virtual world, and an audience can take mental notes of the results." While perhaps not the most poetic assessment of literature ever penned, this view does seem to be borne out by recent experiments in neuroscience.

In a paper published in 2009, for example, four researchers at Washington University in St. Louis conducted functional MRI scans of 28 people as they were reading a series of stories. The narratives were all taken from One Boy's Day, a 1951 book about the life of a seven-year-old schoolkid named Raymond. The experiment demonstrated a close correlation between the actions described in a story and the parts of the brain that process those actions when a person actually performs them.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging works by showing blood flow within the brain. It can't show what a person is thinking, but it can show which parts of the brain are being activated. When Raymond picked up his workbook, blood flowed to the parts o the readers' brains that are associated with grasping motions. When he walked over to his teacher's desk, the frontal cortex and hippocampus lit up -- the areas of the brain that deal with location in space. When Raymond shook his head no, the part of the brain that deals with goal-directed activity was activated. This suggests, the authors wrote, "that readers understand a story by stimulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change. (141-142)
He then goes on to quote Will Wright, creator of Sim City and The Sims (the latter, after reading Maslow):

"You've only got a limited bubble of experience in your entire life, [...] and you're going to perform better if you can build from a larger set of experiences than you could have personally. As a caveman, you know, your fellow cavemen left the cave and a tiger almost ate him. So he comes back and tells you the story -- This tiger almost ate me! And the next time you leave the cave, you'll look around and make sure there's not a tiger there."
It is perhaps no surprise that this comes from the creator of The Sims. It is a shame that it is game creators rather than fiction writers (and theorists) who best understand the nature of fiction. It certainly points to what many of us have argued is the primary adaptive function of storytelling.

"a kind of thought experiment": Steven Pinker, "Toward a Consilient Description of Literature," Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007), 161-77

"that readers understand a story": Nicole K. Speer, Jeremy R. Reynolds, Khena M. Swallow, and Jeffrey M. Zacks, "Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences," Psychological Science 20, no. 8 (August 2009), 989-99

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Modern Man Made by (Moderate) Madmen

Here is an interesting article on the differences between modern humans and Neandertals. And here is the punchline:

what if the archetype of the visionary/mystical leader with charisma is responsible for the distinctiveness of modern human groups? This is not a common individual, but not exceptionally rare. Most humans are not particular visionary, nor are they prone to mysticism. Perhaps the difference between Neandertals and behaviorally modern humans was less about large between group differences in individual level traits, and more about the fact than Neandertals simply lacked the leadership cadre which behaviorally modern humans possessed. In this scenario most modern humans are just like Neandertals, lacking vision, drive, and proximate insanity.
Another way of saying this: shamans and artists created mankind. Nietzsche had a different name for the makers of mankind, of course.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Against Literary Darwinism -- and a Reponse

Jonathan Kramnick wrote Against Literary Darwinism." Joseph Carroll responds. I will note that the brain has several levels, and the presence of modularity at one level hardly an argument against general intelligence. In fact, general intelligence in humans allows for a fuller integration of the modules, allows for their overlap, and allows for considerable mental flexibility such that we have been able to adapt to almost every physical environment on earth. However, there are instincts and modules (are there overlaps?) that do restrict the kinds of social environments we can live well in, and it is thus important to understand the human brain at both levels.

As far as literature is concerned, it seems likely that literature -- storytelling -- is emergent through our general intelligence that synthesizes much of what goes on in our brains. Imagination combined with narrative (which is pre-human, existing in anything that hunts or tries to escape from hunters) and language (which itself has narrative structure in its grammatical structure) are all present in the human brain, and are combined to create stories at the level of general intelligence. In turn, as Carroll argues, "literature is adaptive precisely because it is a medium for cognitive flexibility."

The one thing Carroll does not make explicit, though it is implied, is the fact that when critics such as Kramnick use "history," they mean there is no biological basis, that it is entirely socially constructed, which in turn implies the blank slate theory of the brain. Literature is not considered by people like Kramnick to be "natural," but only historically contingent. Which makes it hard to understand the presence of stories in every culture throughout all of human history. A lot of energy is put into telling stories, and a lot of time and energy wasted in listening to them. If there is not some sort of adaptive benefit to stories, those cultures that did not tell them would have wiped out the rest -- or at the very least, we should be able to find a culture where stories don't exist.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011