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.


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    1. You ought to read Randall Collins' "The Sociology of Philosophies" -- if overeducated adults didn't categorically impugn each other's life work, etc., there would BE no history of philosophy. :-) 'Tis the eternal Nietzschean dialectic.

  2. I actually amended that comment, but it seems that I can't reliably post to blogger from work. "Overeducated" was the wrong word. What I meant was "narrowly overcultivated."

    I understand dialectic and the ubiquity and necessity of conflict. I just find the conversation itself often strikes me as stale, tendentious, and irrelevant.

    Rarely do I observe a humanities scholar changing another's mind with a superior rational argument or a fresh bit of evidence. I sometimes see humanities scholars agreeing to disagree in mutually condescending terms. I often see humanities scholars react with total apathy and indifference to the content of each other's research, although the political animus of that research will provoke sympathy or hostility as the situation warrants.

  3. "Overeducated" was the wrong word and a stupid thing to say. "Narrowly overcultivated" is what I meant. Joseph Carroll's term "perverse preciosity" could also apply.

    (I've tried to post this like 5 times.)

  4. One converts the young, not the old.

    "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." -- Max Planck

    Or, science advances one funeral at a time.

    Moreso, the humanities.

    I once wrote a story in which the protagonist left the sciences for the humanities because his biolgoy professors were bullheaded and wouldn't change the way they understood things to work no matter how much evidence you brought them. Needless to say, he was equally disappointed when he went into the humanities.