Monday, February 28, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Music, Emotions, and Literature

Here is something that won't surprise anyone here: Listening to Music is Biological. "Similarities between human and animal song have been detected: both contain a message, an intention that reflects innate emotional state that is interpreted correctly even among different species." This sounds remarkably like a good definition of literature: it contains a message, an intention that reflects an innate emotional state that is interpreted correctly by different people. It also sounds much like a good definition of language itself.

But consider the fact that, as Ortony, Clore, and Collins, in The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, argue, the emotions have a structure similar to language (and to music):

there are three major aspects of the world, or changes in the world, upon which one can focus, namely, events, agents, or objects. When one focuses on events one does so because one is interested in their consequences, when one focuses on agents, one does so because of their actions, and when one focuses on objects, one in interested in certain aspects of imputed properties of them qua objects. (18)

Subject-action/verb-object. The structure of grammar and of narrative. If there is a message, that means there is an intended audience. Music (as well as song and storytelling) in its creation has subject-action-object/receiver structure. More than this, "several behavioral features in listening to music are closely related to attachment: lullabies are song to infants to increase their attachment to a parent, and singing or playing music together is based on teamwork and may add group cohesion." So there is a social element to music-making, singing, and storytelling. Prior to writing, epic storytelling involved the storyteller's response to the reactions of the audience. If the audience showed boredom, increase action; if the audience showed they didn't like the story, shift to a different subplot. In addition, it seems that listening to music helps one with determining the emotional state of others -- something of definite adaptive advantage for a social species.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are generally quiet (bonobos less so than chimpanzees) in the wild. Some of their communication is vocal, but most is facial and gestural (visual). Gibbons, however, sing. Gibbons are members of the “lesser apes,” and move through the trees using brachiation – they swing through the trees using their arms. This gives them and orangutans both more upright stances, since their legs hang down under their bodies as they swing. To attract mates and maintain social bonds, gibbons sing. So it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest the ancestor of humans could have been a singing ape too. Especially once our ancestors became bipedal, and our larynx dropped and stretched out, giving them a wider range of sounds. This would suggest that music could have been a primary precursor to language. Certainly, music “has a generative structure similar to that of language” (Corballis, 269), and Corballis goes further to suggest as I am, that “Given the rather diffuse yet pervasive quality of music in human society, it may well have been a precursor to language, perhaps even providing the raw stuff out of which generative grammar was forged” (269). Language likely emerged from the bifurcation of ape-song into music and language. Poetry/song reintegrates the two. Which helps explains it's power as a literary art.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Nature's Patterns Form

If you want to create patterns," apply stress to a system. "Patterns arise when the symmetry of a system is broken." I discuss the connection among emergent complexity, patterns, and symmetry-breaking in Diaphysics. This article argues that symmetry-breaking occurs when stress is put on a system (that stress can occur between genetic constraints and physical constraints during development -- causing a far-from-equilibrium state). More, "The similarity in patterns from system to system occur when the systems have similar symmetry, rather than because the systems are made from the same materials." This is why we see a universality in such patterns.

Literary fiction emerges from stress being placed on the writing. Rhythms and rhymes in poetry. Repetitions of words, images, metaphors, ideas, etc. Many good rules result in the emergence of patterns. It would not be surprising if those patterns deomonstrated fractal geometry in word distribution, as do the patterns being investigated in the whort article above. Investigating such patterns and how they emerge is just as naturalistic as Darwinian investigations, though of a somewhat different kind. But I would argue that they are just as important, in the same way that self-organization, developmental patterns, etc. are as important to understanding development and organization in organisms as are puerly Darwinian explanations. They complement each other, and contribute to a more complex Darwinain paradigm.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

3 Second Rules

In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner and Ernst Poppel argued that poem line lengths were typically 3 seconds long because that fit into our 3 second sort-term memory slot, and thus represented the human present. Well, a short piece in the 4 Feb. 2001 Science argues that Hugs Follow a 3-Second Rule, a finding which "supports a hypothesis that we go through life perceiving the present in a series of 3-second windows." Further, they observe that "Crossculural studies have shown that goodbye waves, musical phrases, and infants' bouts of babbling and gesturing all last about 3 seconds, as do many basic physiological events, such as relaxed breathing." The piece argues that "The results reinforce an idea current among some psychologists that intervals of about 3 seconds are basic temporal units of life that define our perception of the present moment." As Turner and Poppel observed several decades ago, this has real consequences for literary production -- at least, poetic production. This also perhaps argues in favor of verse plays as a way of helping actors memorize their lines (and if it's rhythmic verse, the rhythm will help as well). But do these facts come into play in prose fiction? If so, how? Might we see these things at play in character interactions? If so, how?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?

Robert Blumen at The Ludwig von Mises Institute wonders Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?

He doesn't answer the question, but concludes that after 100 years or so of it, the fact that it's a market failure should be an indiciation that it's time to move on.

However, there is of course an answer to the question. It's not answerable by economic theory, of cource, but by Darwinian theory. As Jonah Lehrer argues, the answer is that we have an evolved range of tastes for music. There are sounds we find beautiful, and sounds we do not. We can learn to like things we are unfamiliar with, but we cannot learn to like things we were not evolved to like.

So why keep making it? I surmise that there are those who want it made as a status symbol. The problem with the free market is that it makes all material status symbols available to the poorest among us after a while. And that "after a while" has sped up remarkably of late. So what indicates status? If the wealthy can find something that the average person doesn't even want, they can signal high status by declaring that, contrary to the hoi poloi, they do like it. Bring on the pickled sharks and 12-tone rows! So long as the free market undermines material status symbols, I suspect our evolved desire to indicate high status through symbols will drive the wannabe elites to embrace art works the average person distains. The funny thing is, though, that such behaviors may in fact have an undermining effect, as the average person isn't at all impressed by those wanting to show their high status embracing such works, but increasingly roll their eyes, or outright laugh at them. If that happens, where will the wealthy go for their status symbols? It's hard to say -- but you may rest assured that they will find them.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Darwin

Today is Darwin's birthday. The great man had an enormous effect on our understanding of the world. We are still grappling with the implications of his ideas. Only now we are coming around to understanding how correct were his insights into morality. Only now are we beginning to truly understand the connection of his ideas to social order, economics in particular (not surprising, considering how indebted Darwin was to the ideas of many economists). Only now are we seeing the full fruition of his ideas in evolutionary psychology and literary Darwinism. My interest in all of these fields is thus perhaps no coincidence. My world view is so fundamentally formed by evolutionary theory that it demands expression in a variety of fields. We are on the cusp of realizing Darwin's true vision in the world, in our sciences, in our understanding. It is an exciting time.

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?

Joseph Carroll has a new book!

Exciting news for those interested in evolution and literature. Joseph Carroll has a new book coming in March!

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

You may rest assured that it is on my short list. Especially anything described as "Essays in constructive literary theory, polemics, practical literary criticism, empirical (quantitative) literary Research, and intellectual history."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Smaller Brains in Contemporary Humans

As social complexity has increased, brain size has decreased. Indeed, this article argues that there has been a significant decrease in brain size in humans -- which probably signifies the brain is becoming more efficient. Of course, it could mean that it is becoming denser, which would result in more complexity -- something we see in cities, for example. What implications might this have for theories of human intelligence and behavior that seem to rely on a relatively unchanging human nature for the past 10,000-30,000 years? Might we expect some changes in behavior with such increases in density and/or decreases in brain size?

The Scientist and the Poet

An article by Paul A. Cantor on The Scientist and the Poet. His statement that

To the poet, the scientist seems unimaginative and literal-minded—with his head buried in the ground of facts, incapable of comprehending the larger significance of what he does. To the scientist, the poet seems to have his head up in the clouds, indulging in fantastic visions of what might be and losing sight of the way things really are.
reminds me of what Nietzsche has Zarathustra say about how the tallest trees have the deepest roots, into evil. Yet, Nietzsche's a very complex writer. For Nietzsche, the "evil" are those who challenge the status quo (thus, for Nietzsche, this is not a bad thing). And who challenges the status quo more than scientists? And in their reductionism (to pick up a stereotype of scientists that is increasingly inaccurate with the advent of the complexity sciences), we have the image of "down" and, thus, "buried in the ground." If the poets are, on the other hand, stretching ever-upward, into the clouds, then there is an argument here for what Cantor is arguing -- that the division between the poets and the scientists makes no sense. More than that, the higher the poets stretch into the clouds, the deeper their roots need to be, if they are going to last. The greatest poets will have to become more rooted in the sciences under this argument. Indeed, the more disconnected the poets have become from the world of science -- and from the world itself -- the more disconnected poetry has become from any audience other than academics and fellow poets. Of course, I have argued in my paper on The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts that this may be an expected outcome of the arts becoming indepentent spontaneous orders. But is this a necessary outcome? If so, people like Frederick Turner and me may be on the wrong track. But isn't there room for interdisciplinary -- cross-spontaneous order -- works?