Vol. LVIII, No. 4: WINTER 2006

Bruce Bawer:
Crisis in Europe

William H. Pritchard:
Dryden Rules

David Wagoner:
In Youngs Creek

Liane Strauss: Variations on Lady Suwo

Sydney Lea:
Seams Sew Easy

Davis Mason: The Inner Drama of James Wright

Dean Flower
Some Refrigerator Talk About Alfred Hitchcock

Notes on Contributors

 

ALSO IN THE
WINTER ISSUE

Joan Wickersham
Psychological Impact

Stephen C. Behrendt
Winter Cat

Deborah Warren
Night Air; The Rider

Kathleen Graber
Oracle, with Lines from Montale’s “La Farandola dei Fanciulli”

Lucille Lang Day
Grays; Figurines

Mark Vinz
Assisted Living; The Work Is All

CHRONICLES

Music
Robert S. Clark
Music Chronicle

Film
Bert Cardullo
Domesticated Violence

Art
Karen Wilkin
Gallery Chronicle

Art II
Emily Grosholz
Poetry and Painting: Two Exhibitions in Honor of Yves Bonnefoy

Dance
Siobhan Phillips
One, Many, Two

Theatre
Richard Hornby
History Plays

REVIEWS

R. S. Gwynn
Histories and Mysteries

Susan Balée
Textual Pleasures and Pet Peeves

COMMENT

Mark Jarman
Letter from Prague

 

 

HAROLD FROMM

The New Darwinism in the Humanities

 

Part I: From Plato to Pinker



It may not be too much to say that sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis.

—Edward O. Wilson in 1975 1


But the intellectual climate is showing signs of change. Ideas about human nature, while still anathema to some academics and pundits, are beginning to get a hearing. Scientists, artists, scholars in the humanities, legal theorists, and thoughtful laypeople have expressed a thirst for the new insights about the mind that have been coming out of the biological and cognitive sciences.

—Steven Pinker in 2002 2

Platonic idealism—the view that Mind is more real than Body—may have been an epochal contribution to the lifting of mankind a few notches above the savagery of the flesh, inspiring Christianity with the sense of a “higher” and less carnalized reality that led to the Cartesian establishment of Mind as autonomous and supreme. But after twenty-five hundred years of grand, self-flattering illusions about the “spirituality” and autonomy of man’s unconquerable mind, a case could be made for spirituality as another, more genteel, covert form of savagery and control, another sort of narcissistic power-ploy—which of course Nietzsche had already zeroed in on a century ago when he attacked it as (to coin a phrase) the guerilla warfare of the weak, “brought on by the violent severance from [man’s] animal past . . . his declaration of war against the old instincts that had hitherto been the foundation of his power, his joy, his awesomeness. . . . What bestialities of idea burst from him, the moment he is prevented ever so little from being a beast of action.”3 The dark side of “spiritual autonomy,” “free will,” and “the ghost in the machine” is not just a matter of Catholic priests revealing that they share the drives of other men or Jerry Falwell, as Jupiter Tonans, hurling hate-filled thunderbolts in the name of “God” at everybody he happens not to like. It’s more serious than all that.

What if the self-confidence of the “mental,” its sense of its own transcendence, its belief that it comes from above rather than from below, turned out, as per Nietzsche, to be the greatest self-deception of all, exquisitely screwing up the psyches rather than barbarously maiming the bodies of those whom it tyrannizes (though it’s also done plenty of maiming)? One would want to know what, besides Plato, Descartes, church dogma, uncompromising utopian ideologies such as Marxism and Nazism, or today’s mandarin political correctness, could have authorized the hubris that underwrites such confidence in the autonomy of the mental, its disconnection from a materiality that keeps dragging it back down to earth anyhow?

A humility-inducing lesson could be derived from a rapid review of the evolutionary calendar, which can hardly fail to astonish a generation for whom “classic” is apt to signify little more than the venerability of a soft drink. Although the time-scheme of this calendar is subject to frequent revision, a ballpark set of figures is good enough to drive home the point.

So let us say that the Big Bang, the source of all our woe, “occurred,” if that’s the word for it, fifteen billion years ago and that life—a one-celled sort of nothing-very-much—didn’t appear until twelve billion years later. Mammals we probably wouldn’t even recognize didn’t emerge until about two hundred million years ago, and it was only a mere sixty-five million years ago, after the end of the dinosaurs, that reasonably familiar looking animals entered the scene. With primates fifty million years back and hominids only seven, we are noticing a definite speedup. Still, more than another six million years had to pass before Homo sapiens took over, say fifty to a hundred thousand years ago. The most shocking realization of all is that the hunter-gatherer phase of hominids lasted for millions of years until, only ten thousand years ago, practically yesterday, the advent of farming introduced the settled communities we regard as civilization, which transformed human life in every conceivable way, setting off a rapid and conscious development of what today we call the arts and sciences.

Intellectual free-play, that is, the use of the brain/mind for purposes other than immediate needs, is a by-product of Darwinian selection that results in phenomena like metaphysics and computer games, whereas evolutionary psychologists connect the human brain’s startling enlargement with the challenges of day-to-day survival. When bipedalism brought primates down from the trees, more intelligence was required to make tools for terrestrial living, to escape and outwit predators, and to hunt down other animals for food. Eventually, human brains became so large that surviving fetuses began to be born before they were fully viable, with heads having reached a size that overtaxed removal from the womb. Anyone who has watched the Discovery Channel or National Geographic on TV has seen the young of other species walking around twenty minutes after emerging from their mothers. Homo sapiens requires years.

Although the amazing hominid brain took billions of years to evolve from the beginnings of life, human narcissism, both religious and secular, has tried to cut it loose, as Mind, from its material origins and treat it as a magical self-sustaining faculty with few predispositions. Somehow defying the parameters of all other kinds of existence, it is seen as a supposedly passive agency that can be molded like clay by churches, academies, and civil laws despite the only too obvious effects produced upon it not only by its evolutionary history but by food, air, water, drugs, toxic chemicals, fatigue, moods, disease, and age. As for the evolutionary and genetic pressures on brain predispositions, the grandiose notion of “human freedom” has made that a subject almost taboo. It is increasingly the task of the “Modern Synthesis” (an amalgamation of Darwinian evolutionary science and post-Mendelian genetics), of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and now the new Darwinism in the humanities, to counter this dangerous and overweening trend of ascribing our longings, fantasies, and productions entirely to social imprints on a blank and somehow “free” slate instead of acknowledging their mortal and finite provenance in earth-generated flesh. Indeed, it is our very material limitations that enable us to be the creatures we are: without our perceptual constraints (to use a few examples that come to mind), movies would look like a series of still photographs, television screens and computer monitors would exhibit scannings and refreshings, not moving pictures, and the music on compact disks would suffer 44,000 audible interruptions per second between the digital samplings. Or as Alexander Pope put it, we’d die of a rose in aromatic pain.

The publication of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a felicitous event affording a rich account of the foundations underlying the Darwinian interventions in the humanities to be discussed in the second part of this essay. Exhibiting all of Pinker’s characteristic virtues—a lucid, demotic, incisive prose, a wide-ranging intellect, a skillful appropriation of popular culture, affability combined with straight talk, enormous learning allied with good sense—the book is destined to alter a discourse that has been held in check by political correctness and human vanity for much too long. Its founding idea, that the mind, an abstract term for the activities of a certain kind of brain—ours—is fully embedded in its matrix and not a free-floating independent entity (in fact, no “entity” at all), is hardly a new one. Even in the humanities, though scattered and fragmentary, treatments of this theme—such as Frederick Turner’s Natural Classicism, with its vision of aesthetics as expressions of primordial biological preferences—have been around for some time. But the decisive event—for Pinker and everyone else sympathetic to his stance—was the appearance in 1992 of The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture,4 a collection of essays by diverse hands, created by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. What has become the locus classicus of the field is the book’s opening essay by Cosmides and Tooby: “The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” a systematic, counterrevolutionary manifesto that established the terms and issues of subsequent discourse in this arena.

The orthodoxy that triggers revolt for Cosmides and Tooby can be represented by a remark by Emile Durkheim from 1895, a sentiment whose influence shaped the social sciences for almost a century: “Collective representations, emotions, and tendencies are caused not by certain states of the consciousness of individuals but by the conditions in which the social group, in its totality, is placed. Such actions can, of course materialize only if the individual natures are not resistant to them; but these individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms.” [Emphasis added by Cosmides and Tooby.] From this are generated the two most powerful themes of The Adapted Mind: the “Standard Social Science Model,” or SSSM, and the “blank slate”:

The Standard Social Science Model requires an impossible psychology. Results out of cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, developmental psychology, linguistics, and philosophy converge on the same conclusion: A psychological architecture that consisted of nothing but equipotential, general-purpose, content-independent, or content-free mechanisms could not successfully perform the tasks the human mind is known to perform or solve the adaptive problems humans evolved to solve—from seeing, to learning a language, to recognizing an emotional expression, to selecting a mate, to the many disparate activities aggregated under the term “learning culture.” . . . Although most psychologists were faintly aware that hominids lived for millions of years as hunter-gatherers or foragers, they did not realize that this had theoretical implications for their work. More to the point, however, the logic of the Standard Social Science Model informed them that humans were more or less blank slates for which no task was more natural than any other.

The appeal of the SSSM is that it provides a rationale for social engineering and political correctness, for promulgating such egalitarian absurdities as the doctrine that there are no substantive psychological differences between the sexes, a doctrine that has finally run its course. Or as Cosmides and Tooby put it, “A program of social melioration carried out in ignorance of human complex design is something like letting a blindfolded individual loose in an operating room with a scalpel—there is likely to be more blood than healing.” Rhetorically asking how “it is possible for pre-linguistic children to deduce the meanings of the words they hear when they are in the process of learning their local language for the first time,” they reply that infants’ powers of interpretation “must be supplied by the human universal metaculture the infant or child shares with adults by virtue of their common humanity,” in other words, their evolved nature.

Pinker’s book opens up and expands upon these issues for a general audience, a fitting sequel to his previous books, How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct. His central task is to give a fatal blow to the dying orthodoxy of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine. In the introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary republication of Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, speaking of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, writes, “They disliked the idea, to put it mildly, that human nature could have any genetic basis at all. They championed the opposing view that the developing human brain is a tabula rasa. The only human nature, they said, is an indefinitely flexible mind. Theirs was the standard position taken by Marxists from the late 1920s forward: the ideal political economy is socialism and the tabula rasa mind of people can be fitted to it. A mind arising from a genetic human nature might not prove conformable.” Pinker spends a goodly portion of his book amplifying the objections to this view:

I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because their parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way they were socialized.

Pinker describes all of these as “preposterous.” Bellicosity, cravings for sweets, sexual ornamentation, and male promiscuity have been well established as mating, kinship, and survival maneuvers not only among hominids and primates but to some extent among other animals as well. Far from being socially constructed, they shape the institutions of society, and far from perverting the goodness of noble savages, they are the raw materials of unreflective animal behavior. “A thoroughly noble anything,” Pinker reports, “is an unlikely product of natural selection, because in the competition among genes for representation in the next generation, noble guys tend to finish last.” Along with face recognition, aversion to incest and snakes, and language acquisition, they are members of an enormous list of cross-cultural behaviors that Pinker appends to the end of this book as “Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals.” Pinker describes the predispositions on the list as “a universal complex human nature . . . of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating.” They are “difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.” As for the Ghost in the Machine, better known as the “self,” this presents a touchy subject indeed, since it entails the concept of free will, a notion for which Pinker has little regard, though he avoids a set piece on the subject and gets by with passim remarks. But his view is clear enough: unless you accept the idea that there is an immortal human soul injected into the human body by God at the time of birth, there is no conductor of the psychological orchestra, so to speak, just billions of neurons forming systems that feel like a self. The absence of such a conductor even as we experience changes in our psychological outlooks undermines the belief that we (i.e., through a controlling self) “can change what we don’t like about ourselves.” But, Pinker asks, “Who or what is the ‘we’? If the ‘we’ doing the remaking are just other hunks of matter in the biological world, then any malleability of behavior we discover would be cold comfort, because we, the molders, would be biologically constrained. . . .”5 For the “self” tends to be thought of “as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user—the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the ‘me.’ But cognitive neuroscience is showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems.” And, I would add here, even if there were a magical little homunculus running the show from inside us, unless it were self-created it would be simply another collection of données that “we” didn’t choose. And how could anything be self-created? Can a “free” and “undetermined” blank create a richly featured and desiring self? To create anything one must have drives, needs, goals, longings, emotions, preferences, in other words, a shaped character that generates behavior. Nothing can come from nothing. It’s not that we “don’t have free will,” it’s that there’s nothing actual or potential that could correspond to it. It’s an unthinkable thought that reveals its emptiness as soon as you try to focus on it. In sum, we’re as “free” as we need to be, since the flexibility and available options for expression are immense. Witness the myriad human cultures that populate the world. It is this infinite variety that has concealed the underlying universal human predispositions. From these varied possibilities, choices (to use the passive) are made—if not by a “we” then by an unconscious system that makes like a we. But as motivationless “free” blanks we’d be as inert as stones, having nothing to express. It’s one thing to lament not being able to fly like birds, since there are birds that actually fly. It’s something altogether else to lose sleep at night about not being “free,” when nothing in the universe (except perhaps for the Big Bang) is without constraining antecedents. To exist is already to be a defined and characterized something. It’s too late to create a self ex nihilo (which couldn’t be done in any case).

Pinker devotes much of his book to dealing with the fears and objections behind resistance to a critique of this trinity of obsolete metaphysical ideas—of blank slates, noble savages, and ghosts in machines. But he also wants to be clear about the dangers of rejecting one extreme in order to embrace another: “The idea of ‘biological determinism’—that genes cause behavior with 100 percent certainty—and the idea that every behavioral trait has its own gene, are obviously daft.” If culture does not inscribe human nature upon a blank slate, neither do genes prescribe the forms in which culture realizes the genetic drives, forms that are varied beyond reckoning.

The fears that Pinker describes stem from the supposed threats to “progressive ideals” that served as platforms for the radicals of the sixties who are now the establishment. They feared inequality, differences in intelligence, differences between the races (which may or may not require quotation marks, depending on your political orientation). They feared imperfectibility, “a permanently wicked human nature” that predisposed men to promiscuity and rape, to violence and war, to selfishness—and the hysterical and distorted responses to recent books on rape and on adult-child sexuality (mainly by unreflective moralists who didn’t read the books) testify to the persistence of noble savage fantasies about human drives (which, as Pinker reminds us, also have their altruistic side). As for the fear of determinism, it is just a variant of the question of free will discussed above. In reply to which, Pinker’s choice of a passage from Hume, like so many of his illustrative references, is wonderfully apt: “Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them.” And, finally, the fear of nihilism is a fear that biological explanations of the mind “may strip our lives of meaning and purpose.” Pinker’s chapters on these fears are so discursive and nuanced that it is impossible to do them justice here.

Pinker’s examination of brain development suggests that many human problems “may come from a mismatch between the purposes for which our cognitive faculties evolved and the purposes to which we put them today.” What we once called the soul consists of the information-processing activity of the brain, a process that can be adapted to the contemporary world by education rather than reliance on intuition, since our intuitions are too implicated in our animal history. And the education Pinker recommends for living in our high-tech society steers us toward the sciences, toward economics and biology, and away from the classical liberal arts, an ironic twist, given Pinker’s own well-stocked mind.

In a section called “Hot Buttons,” Pinker dwells on politics (one of the best chapters in the book), gender, violence, children, and the arts. (Again, too many riches to outline here.) “My own view,” he concludes, “is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life.” Yet, despite his lack of optimism about violence, human morality, unequal heritability of intelligence, ethnocentrism and so forth, this does not come off as a pessimistic book. His own vital character as a person militates against it.

As he moves toward the finish line, Pinker turns his attention to the arts. Unlike many public intellectuals, he does not see them as going through a period of unusual trouble. Rather, he sees them flourishing more than ever. “Art is in our nature—in the blood and in the bone, as people used to say; in the brain and in the genes, as we might say today.” But as he reviews conflicting theories about what art is for, he does find problems. Although one of these stems from the desire for status, in the artist as a striving for novelty, and in the audience as an instance of conspicuous consumption, his main culprits are modernism and postmodernism. He corrects Virginia Woolf’s jocular remark that human nature (actually, she wrote “human character”) changed in 1910 by explaining that “Modernism certainly proceeded as if human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside.” Taking cues from Frederick Turner regarding preferences built into our natures over millions of years, Pinker accuses modernism and postmodernism of being “based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate.” They “cling to a theory of perception that was rejected long ago: that the sense organs present the brain with a tableau of raw colors and sounds and that everything else in perceptual experience is a learned social construction,” which, needless to say, modernism and postmodernism have tried to shake up and disorient. But the visual system of the brain is hardly so passive: it irresistibly organizes sense data “into surfaces, colors, motions, and three-dimensional objects. We can no more turn the system off and get immediate access to pure sensory experience than we can override our stomachs and tell them when to release their digestive enzymes.” Beyond this, the visual system “colors our visual experience with universal emotions and aesthetic pleasures,” so that people prefer savannah landscapes, beautiful faces, consonant sounds, narrative fiction, and so on. The attempts by modernist writers and artists to “make it new,” to cut the connections between biologically sanctioned forms and aesthetic response, have been only a partial success, as the failure of serial music has demonstrated. Piss Christ and Tilted Arc, to name two against-the-grain visual artifacts that come to mind, did not enchant their viewers, however self-satisfied their creators seem to have been. Although Pinker enthusiastically commends a wide range of modernism’s products, he is not happy with its disdain of “beauty” and its desire to frustrate our in-built nostalgia for the mud from which we spring. Moreover, the need to succeed in a market-driven society has encouraged artists to push things very far for their shock, media, and commercial values. Pinker has a warm spot for the primal directness of “middlebrow realistic fiction” because, as he believes, there is no necessary connection between the pretensions of elite high art and moral enlightenment. Quoting George Steiner to the effect that the Nazis could listen to Schubert in the morning and gas Jews in the afternoon, he is less impressed with the ethical claims of radical artists than with the unconscious psychobiological nourishment provided by more or less archetypical art forms. “The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship.”

I can already hear voices attacking Pinker as a Philistine, but I believe they would be wrong. Pinker and E. O. Wilson are virtuoso science thinkers who have mastered the basics of contemporary humanistic culture. To accuse them of not speaking with the more subtle and complex voices of critics and theoreticians from inside the humanities would be unfair—they aren’t insiders. They speak as super-intelligent polymath outsiders, and they do a pretty good job of it. As Paul Gross and Norman Levitt kept telling us in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science,6 humanists in general are totally ignorant about the sciences, and their facile references to Einstein and Heisenberg make scientists laugh. Pinker and Wilson do a much more impressive job with the humanities than any humanist I know has been able to do with the sciences. They practice the consilience they recommend to others. While valuing their insights, we don’t have to accept their aesthetic judgments as the last word, since the matter of “beauty” in the arts is complex. We know that late Beethoven, late Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky, Picasso, some of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, etc., were at first regarded as “ugly” and now are so naturalized as to present few problems. What hasn’t been assimilated—Finnegans Wake, Moses und Aron—may be the sort of artifacts that affirm Pinker’s judgment.

As he concludes his overview, Pinker remarks: “Within the academy, a growing number of mavericks are looking to evolutionary psychology and cognitive science in an effort to reestablish human nature at the center of any understanding of the arts.” It is unnecessary to reproduce his list of luminaries here because I will turn to several of them in the second part of this account.



Part II: Back to Nature, Again

Between the year 1997, when How the Mind Works was published, and 2002, the year of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker’s treatment of art seems to have undergone a certain amount of refinement. In 1997, far from seeing the arts as “adaptive,” in the Darwinian sense of conducive to fitness for survival and reproduction, Pinker described music and fiction as “cheesecake” for the mind that provided a sensual thrill like the feel of fat and sugar on the taste buds. With a view such as this, there wasn’t much difference between the psychological impact of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and pornography off the Web. Pinker made things even worse by adding, “Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.”

Whether the passage of time has caused him to reconsider or whether harsh critics such as Joseph Carroll7 have had a chastening effect, by the time of The Blank Slate, Pinker remarks, “Whether art is an adaptation or a by-product or a mixture of the two, it is deeply rooted in our mental faculties.” In other words, our response to art is a component of human nature and, even if he still considers it a pleasure-technology or a status-seeking feat, Pinker now seems to see it as more deeply connected with being human. “Organisms get pleasure from things that promoted the fitness of their ancestors,” he writes, and he mentions food, sex, children, and know-how as well as visual and auditory pleasure. Not quite “adaptive” but serious nonetheless. If he has not already done so, I figure it is only a matter of time before he abandons the implausible view that nobody would profoundly miss music if it were simply to disappear. The number of totally music-insensitive people I have met during a lifetime would not use up the fingers of one hand.

Carroll, an English professor at the University of Missouri who can plausibly be regarded as the leading thinker among Darwinian humanists, has recently produced a brief overview of developments in this new field. He writes:

In the past decade or so, a small but rapidly growing band of literary scholars, theorists, and critics has been working to integrate literary study with Darwinian social science. These scholars can be identified as the members of a distinct school in the sense that they share a certain broad set of basic ideas. They all take “the adapted mind” as an organizing principle, and their work is thus continuous with that of the “adaptationist program” in the social sciences. Adaptationist thinking is grounded in Darwinian conceptions of human nature. Adaptationists believe that all organisms have evolved through an adaptive process of natural selection. . . . They argue that the human mind and the human motivational and behavioral systems display complex functional structure, and they make it their concern to identify the constituent elements of an evolved human nature: a universal, species-typical array of behavioral and cognitive characteristics . . . genetically constrained . . . and mediated through . . . neurological and hormonal systems that directly regulate perception, thought, and feeling. . . . They are convinced that through adaptationist thinking they can more adequately understand what literature is, what its functions are, and how it works —what it represents, what causes people to produce it and consume it, and why it takes the forms it does.8

Carroll’s magnum opus, Evolution and Literary Theory,9 is a powerful polemic against the poststructuralist dogmas known as textualism and indeterminacy as well as their leading exponents, Derrida, Foucault and their many disciples. Textualism is the belief that what claims to be knowledge of a world is only knowledge of a text, including the “rhetoric” of science, and that the attempt to make contact with a reality outside of texts is doomed by one’s inability to produce anything beyond another text or rhetorical strategy. Indeterminacy, which follows from the logic of textualism, refers to the supposed impossibility of arriving at truth when all you can hope for is to produce more conflicting or self-contradictory texts disconnected from any independently existing world. In such a universe of discourse, one opinion is as good as another since none has foundations any stronger than the claims offered by each other’s rhetorical cheering squads, thus leaving everything “indeterminate.” The anti-poststructuralist stance of Carroll’s book is a counterpart to Cosmides and Tooby’s assault on the Standard Social Science Model, which sees almost everything human as a product of culture, minimally grounded in the evolved physicality of all existent things. In Carroll’s case, his repudiation of the poststructuralists addresses their similar belief that everything is ultimately mental, the product of the self-enclosed human mind cut off from any constraining reality (such as “human nature” or a world). Carroll reviews in erudite detail all of the major post-structuralist theorists and, as far as I can judge, reduces them to a pile of shreds.

The positive core of Carroll’s book consists of his accounts of Darwinian adaptationism and his view that “the subject matter of literature is human experience,” which “is continuous with that of physics and chemistry” but which has, however, “cognitive properties that emerge only at levels of organization higher than those with which physics and chemistry are concerned, and it is these higher levels that are the appropriate subject matter of literature.” This human world is not only the product of culture and rhetoric, the actions of which no Darwinian would deny, but it is principally driven by the three billion years involved in the making of the human brain and is thus generated from the ground up rather than from the heavens down. “Consider,” Carroll writes elsewhere, “that the vast bulk of fiction consists in personal interactions constituted primarily by combinations of motives involving mating strategies, family dynamics, and social strategies devoted to seeking status and forming coalitions.” Among humans, this basic behavior is complicated by the peculiar human proclivity for creating elaborate cognitive models of the world and our activity in that world. For Carroll, artistic representation is a natural extension of an adaptive human capacity for creating cognitive models. In other words, “All formal literary structures are prosthetic developments of evolved cognitive structures that serve adaptive functions.”10 In still another essay, Carroll examines in concrete detail the ways in which sex, nurturing, kinship, and a multitude of evolutionary adaptations instantiate themselves in novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, and Willa Cather.11 And in one of his most brilliant essays he sums things up like this:

I would argue that the primary purpose of literature is to represent the subjective quality of experience. In opposition to the post-Kantian notion that cognitive and linguistic categories are autonomous forms that constitute their own objects, I maintain, in company with Karl Popper, Konrad Lorenz, Tooby and Cosmides, John Bowlby, and other evolutionary theorists, that cognitive and linguistic categories have evolved in adaptive relation to the environment. They correspond to the world not because they “construct” the world in accordance with their own autonomous, internal principles but because their internal principles have evolved as a means of comprehending an actual world that exists independently of the categories.12

Although Darwin had a massive impact on a wide range of disciplines shortly after the appearance of The Origin of Species in 1859, his influence waned during the first half of the twentieth century. The resurgence of Darwinism after World War II did not really begin to transform the social sciences and humanities until, perhaps, E. O. Wilson’s explosive conclusion to Sociobiology appeared in 1975. (That its final chapter now seems entirely unsurprising is a tribute to the extent of its naturalization over the course of twenty-five years.) And by the beginning of the nineties, the writings of Cosmides and Tooby produced their own startling impact, which continues even today. What seems particularly to have generated the humanistic turn was the increasingly poisonous effect of poststructuralism in its brushing aside of the material foundations of existence along with a human nature derived therefrom and its insistence that almost everything is “constructed” by an autonomous intellect as channeled by society. Carroll’s uncompromising polemic against textualism and indeterminacy in his 1995 book seems to have produced an extremely strong humanistic influence, though even before this landmark work Frederick Crews had made his own highly critical remarks in a brief preface to After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory, a collection of oppositional essays.13 And even before him, in 1992, Ellen Dissanayake combated these orthodoxies in Homo Aestheticus (see below). More such attacks against poststructuralism followed, most notably Robert Storey’s caustic dismissal of poststructuralist delusions of grandeur in the “Pugnacious Preface” to Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation,14 with an avowed indebtedness to Carroll.

Two collections of essays from the past few years provide a sense of the way in which this movement has been developing. The first, published in 1999, Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts,15 was assembled by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner. “The evidence is steadily mounting,” the editors remark in their introduction, “that if we wish to understand our profound and long-standing impulse to create and enjoy art we are well advised to attend to our evolutionary heritage. . . . Even if art is for art’s sake, it follows that we seriously consider what that purpose means in Darwinian terms. Not for nothing, we assume, as have many before us, is art found in every society, living or dead.” Thus the origins and rationale for the production and consumption of art are represented here by a wide, if uneven, range of essays, all of which have some connection with Darwinian adaptation and its physical and cultural consequences. Among them, the editors have collected into a mini-anthology E. O. Wilson’s passim remarks on art (some very marginal) from several of his pioneering books, and Cooke has written a commentary upon them. Another contributor traces the generation of aesthetic emotion to shamanistic ecstasy biochemically produced by toxic herbs or mechanically induced by drumming, chanting, fasting, pain, all sharing aspects of sexual arousal. Yet another defines art in its most primitive manifestations as “color and/or form used by humans in order to modify an object, body, or message solely to attract attention . . . to make objects more noticeable.” Cooke himself, a scholar in Russian literature, provides one of the collection’s few concrete readings of a literary work in adaptationist terms, examining how the treatment of women as property in Pushkin’s “The Snowstorm” reflects epigenetic (i.e., the superimposition of culture upon genes) patterns of social behavior. Although these patterns are transmitted by society, the actors involved have little if any awareness of the evolutionary mechanisms that are expressed by their society’s (and their own) enactment of conventions.

For example, Cooke gives us the generally accepted Darwinian description of the radically different sexual behavior of males and females in most cultures:

With gendered species, the great differential between the reproductive investment made by the two sexes in their offspring influences differences in their behavior. The female generally has much less reproductive potential than the male, and she invests significantly more time and energy in each offspring. The male usually makes little investment and, theoretically, has a vast reproductive potential. It then follows that the female will carefully select her mate, so as to optimize her limited reproduction. Males of most species may . . . try to be as promiscuous as possible so as to have more offspring. Some of these differing strategies are expressed in human behavior, such as the common age differential between husbands and wives.
Many of the underlying drives behind reproduction and nurturing may seem to be “common sense” or “logical,” but evolutionists find their pervasiveness across cultures to be more than just a funny coincidence. Of course, it is possible for people “to buck the often obsolete trends of biological adaptation, but they usually will pay an emotional price for doing so,” given the lingering power of atavisms. Cooke applies these and other forces that operated during the long Pleistocene period in which we were formed to account for the essential twists and turns of the marital action in Pushkin’s story—and he is pretty convincing.

Thus far, however, the number of aesthetic evaluations of works of art from a Darwinian perspective has been small, and it is hard to say how fruitful such an approach will turn out to be. There is always the danger of forcing a variety of artifacts through a critical grinder that makes them all come out looking like the same dust. Though the range of Freudian and Marxian criticism has been great, once certain basic formulae had been applied again and again, there was an increasing tedium and self-parody involved, eliding the most distinctive aspects of art works, while distorting their character. So far, Darwinian approaches have tended to be more historical, anthropological, psychological, biological, sociological than aesthetic, so Darwinian art criticism is still in its earliest phase. Of course it is not possible to reduce complex art works to total conformity with any scientific paradigm, and at least one of this volume’s contributors, Nancy Easterlin, has established a role as an adversarial Darwinian who tries to demonstrate ways in which culture and art works go against the Pleistocene drives that to some degree have misfitted us for contemporary life (as Pinker insisted in The Blank Slate, although he regarded this going-against as more deleterious and frustrating than Easterlin does). Thus she takes the contrarian position that “works that are considered valuable and timeless are not those in which normative cognitive patterns are most closely reproduced.” Unlike Pinker, she is not ready to write off postmodern literary techniques and, to some degree, sees them as playing themselves off against the adaptationist norms that generate our unwitting everyday predilections.

The second collection of Darwinian essays (and there are a number of others), edited by Easterlin herself, was a special issue of Philosophy and Literature, a symposium on evolution and literature.16 In it, Michelle Sugiyama writes on one of the most recurring themes in Darwinian literary study, the function of narrative: “An understanding of why and how humans create and consume narrative requires an understanding of (1) features of ancestral environments and (2) features of the mind that made the emergence of this phenomenon possible.” Tracing the origins of narrative far back into human prehistory, she reports on the view of anthropologists and psychologists that ritual, art, and narrative “may be conceptualized as means of exchanging information relevant to the pursuit of fitness in local habitats [during the Pleistocene].” Moreover, the same themes pervade narratives worldwide, “social relations (e.g., kinship, marriage, sex, social status, morality, interpersonal conflict, deception), animal behavior and characteristics, plants, geography, weather, and the cosmos.” And coming much closer to home than the Pleistocene, many of these themes were already traced by Joseph Carroll in his examination of Victorian novels mentioned above. In this collection, however, Carroll (who appears in both) interconnects literature not only with evolution but with ecology as well, in “The Ecology of Victorian Fiction.”

No organism can be understood except in its interactive relations with its total environment. An organism is never an isolated thing. By definition and in brute reality the world that an organism inhabits is part of that organism. The organism carries that world embedded and moulded [sic] into every inmost fold of its physiology, its anatomy, and its psyche. . . . The felt quality of experience within a natural world is one of those fundamental conditions of experience. It should also be one of the fundamental categories of literary analysis.

This joint consideration of Darwinian adaptationism and ecology has, in fact, produced the discipline of behavioral ecology. One can see how its insights might have great bearing on the creation and interpretation of literary works, given the role of place not only in nature-writing but in poetry and fiction as well.

Although a Darwinism newly infused with insights from cognitive neurosciences is spreading rapidly, humanist academia so far remains a bastion of doctrinaire resistance, now that the formerly young poststructuralists are in control of English and history departments (not to mention the social sciences). The political correctness that forms the bedrock of their fundamentalism depends for its authority on the belief that people are mostly blank slates almost entirely fleshed out by culture. This belief implies that just about anything can be changed if culture so dictates. And it has been doing a lot of dictating—to a human nature that is not always very obliging. The Darwinians are seen by this opposing camp as conservatives, since their belief that the core of our being has been given rather than chosen seems restrictive and limiting, even though this human nature is expressible in infinite ways that result in individuals who are far from identical. Culture, of course, retains great force no matter what ontology is assumed as operative: any woman living in the year 1800 in England who happened “by nature” to be athletic had little chance of satisfying athletic yearnings in a culture that forced women into a domesticity underwritten by God. Such a woman living then would have been prime material for psychiatry, a misfit neurotic who at that time could only turn to priests who reinforced the neurosis. Today, such a woman would be regarded as a model of health and would be welcomed into the world of women’s sports, no psychiatrist needed. This phenomenal (in the philosophic sense) expression of the genes as culture is now being elaborated by yet another Darwin-related discipline, that of cultural biology, whose empirical investigations of brain growth reveal that both individual choices and cultural practices alter the actual physical components of hominid brains, which remain open to development throughout a lifetime (but can never be cut loose from “human nature”).17 It is only a matter of time before even humanist academia will be forced to admit that the doctrinaire truth of a truth-doubting poststructuralism is on its last legs.

I have saved Ellen Dissanayake for last because her work is the most difficult to characterize. Just before Lingua Franca folded at the end of 2001, Caleb Crain wrote a long account of her that began with the following summary paragraph:

Suppose there were a person who saw, before almost anyone else, that the most important concept in modern biology could be applied to the arts. Suppose, however, that this person studied biology only as an undergraduate, never took a class in anthropology, and never received a Ph.D. Suppose, in fact, that she were a homemaker for a dozen years and then spent fifteen years in the Third World, where it was difficult for her to gain access to the research libraries and social networks that most professors take for granted. Nevertheless, over the past two decades—with no more institutional support than a few years of adjunct teaching, several grants, and a couple of visiting professorships—she has managed to publish three books setting forth her ideas. And today a new field of study has sprung up where she pioneered. Suppose, in addition, that some people think a scholarly framework based on her insights will displace much of current aesthetic theory—that future generations will understand literature and the arts as she does, thereby reconciling the humanities to the science of human nature.18
This heterogeneous, offbeat life is deeply relevant to Dissanayake’s independent thinking and research, since she falls in neither with the orthodoxies of academic departments nor the preferred themes of the cognitive sciences, starting out with a broader experience of felt life, of the affect of behavior, than most theorists whose information depends largely on books. A Darwinian adaptationist, she connects also with human ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, biopoetics, developmental psychology, and much else, and her chief interest, aesthetics, takes account of a wider range of human behavior than the traditional approaches.

A passage from her 1992 book, Homo Aestheticus, could well serve as starting point in an account of her work. Writing about the “scriptocentric” bias of modern life, she remarks:

It seems more accurate to view thought and experience as occurring behind or beneath spoken words, as being something that saying helps to adumbrate and communicate and that writing (or rewriting) falsifies to the extent that it turns the natural products of mentation—fluid, layered, dense, episodic, too deep and rich for words —into something unnaturally hard-edged, linear, precise, and refined. We “think” like logicians primarily on (and because of) paper. If we assume that thought and experience are made wholly of language it is only because, as twentieth-century hyperliterates, we read and write reality more than we live it.
If writing has been around for only 6000 years, and if people perform such complex activities as driving cars and playing the piano with minimal conceptualizing or attention, there’s a great deal of cognition going on before the mind gets around to the discursive orderliness of speech, let alone writing. Or to put it more extremely, there’s another life going on beneath the life we think we are living. And perhaps that other life is the really real one even if, or because, it can’t be expressed in words. Expression not in words is the starting point of Dissanayake’s biological conception of where art comes from. In the punningly titled “Aesthetic Incunabula,” both the cradle of aesthetics and the cradle of an infant (see note 16), Dissanayake presents her foundational theme of baby talk as the primordial expression of the arts (developed further in a series of articles and in her most recent book, Art and Intimacy). “Babies in every culture show the same or similar cognitive abilities and preferences.” The interactive baby talk in the mother-child relationship may use words, which of course the infant cannot understand at all, but it is not the words as meanings that produce the interaction; rather it is the words delivered as a form of music/poetry/dance performance, a primal aesthetic experience for both mother and baby, a duet, as Dissanayake calls it, fostering emotional connection. Examining in detail a transcription of a mother’s baby talk to her infant, Dissanayake reveals that beyond the infant’s inborn capacity for face recognition, preference for humans, responsiveness to colors and sounds, and the adult’s unpremeditated musicality of utterance to the baby, the foundations of the basic ingredients of art works are being established:
I suggest that what artists do in all media can be summarized as deliberately performing the operations that occur instinctively during a ritualized behavior: they simplify or formalize, repeat (sometimes with variation), exaggerate, and elaborate in both space and time for the purpose of attracting attention and provoking and manipulating emotional response. “Artification,” like ritualization, attracts attention and shapes and manipulates emotion. Just as infants recognize, attend to, and respond to regularization and simplification, repetition, exaggeration, and elaboration in vocal-visual-gestural modalities when interacting with adults, so do adults attend to and respond to these features as presented to them aurally, visually, and kinaesthetically in the various arts.
What Dissanayake calls “artification” here, she elsewhere characterizes as “making special.” And what she consistently means by “art” is rarely elite high art of the West so much as a type of behavior. “By calling art a behavior, one also suggests that in the evolution of the species, art-inclined individuals, those who possessed this behavior, survived better than those who did not.”19 Her sense of art as “making special” was heightened by years in countries such as Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea where customs and rituals were not as heavily overlaid by the Industrial Revolution’s transformations of contemporary life in the West. Beyond ancient cave drawings, ornamentations on stone tools and handles, and the production of artifacts more beautiful than utility demanded, she calls to our attention that “each of the arts can be viewed as ordinary behavior made special (or extra-ordinary).” This is easy to see in dance, poetry, and song, which share the salient features of play and ritual, forms of exaggerated stylization of ordinary behavior. To illustrate one instance, “In song, the prosodic (intonational and emotional) aspects of everyday language—the ups and downs of pitch, pauses and rests, stresses or accents, crescendos and diminuendos of dynamics, accelerandos and rallentandos of tempo—are exaggerated . . . patterned, repeated, varied, and so forth—made special.”20 There is more here than a rapid survey can convey, but the force of her argument and the particularity of her evidence grow on you as you read a book like Homo Aestheticus.

“Back to Nature, Again” is, of course, sheer irony. You can’t return to something you can’t leave. Siamese twins, although they may not be an ideally viable life form, are as “natural” as you and I, produced by the same “laws” of chemistry, biology, and physics. There aren’t any others. All of “us” who survive are “mutations” who have been turned into members of a species because of the serendipity of “our” adaptability. I envision a cartoon in which a group of chimps, our closest cousins, behold the first Homo sapiens and exclaim, “WOW! Like weird, man!” The view that we are not, in some respect, “weird” but that everything else is—as they all strive to evolve into paragons like us—is simply human arrogance and blindness. All life forms are the most natural of freaks. And our own particular freakishness is the raw material of the arts and humanities. Because they are so aware of all this, the Darwinians strike me as more “religious” than conventional religions, lacking the narcissism and hubris that can for a moment suppose that fifteen billion years of the universe and quintillions of creatures born and dead—millions at this very moment crawling all over my exterior and interior, without whom I wouldn’t even exist—were produced in order to immortalize my “transcendent” little soul. (Does the universe really need my soul around forever? Do I need it?) Everything is “nature,” produced from the finite materials of our planet and shaped by an aimless history with no favorites. Culture is just nature in artful and elaborate drag. In reminding us of our origins, in connecting ourselves and our arts to our biological development instead of to the heavens, the Darwinians, for me at any rate, are engaged in a long overdue hubris-crunching mission of natural piety.






1 Although this remark first appeared in the original 1975 edition of Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, I quote it here from the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this work, published by Harvard University Press in 2000, where it appears on page 4.


2 THE BLANK SLATE: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. Viking. $27.95. Page 134.


3 Quoted passim from The Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Francis Golffing (New York, 1956).


4 The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, ed by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York, 1992).


5 I have eliminated a few layers of quotation marks here for the sake of readability.


6 I discuss this book in "My Science Wars," The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 599–609.


7 Joseph Carroll, “Steven Pinker’s Cheesecake for the Mind,” Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1998).


8 “Adaptationist Literary Study,” Style 36 (2003). See also Carroll's website: http://www.umsl.edu/~engjcarr.


9 Joseph Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory (Columbia, Missouri, 1995).


10 Joseph Carroll, “Wilson’s Consilience and Literary Study,” Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1999). This is an especially brilliant and densely substantiated review of E. O. Wilson’s book.


11 Joseph Carroll, “Human Universals and Literary Meaning,” Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol. 2 (2001). Unfortunately, lack of space makes it impractical to include specimen readings of literary texts here. Forthcoming from Routledge, however, is a collection of Carroll’s essays, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. At present, many of these essays may be viewed on Carroll’s website. See note 8. In his new edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Broadview Press, Ltd., Carroll provides an almost book-length Introduction to Darwin and his subsequent history.


12 Joseph Carroll, “Pluralism, Poststructuralism, and Evolutionary Theory,” Academic Questions 9, No. 3 (Summer 1996).


13 After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory, ed. by Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Riebling (Evanston, IL, 1993).


14 Robert Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation (Evanston, IL, 1996).


15 Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts, ed. by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner (Lexington, KY, 1999). Cooke has recently published a book-length application of adaptationist biopoetics in Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin’s We (Evanston, IL, 2002).


16 Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 25, No. 2 (October 2001).


17 For an account of cultural biology see Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are, by Steven R. Quartz and Terrence J. Sejnowski (New York, 2002).


18 Lingua Franca, October 2001. Dissanayake’s books are: What Is Art For? (Seattle, 1988) and subsequent paperbacks; Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (New York, 1982), paperback edition (Seattle, 1995, 1996); Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (Seattle, 2000).


19 Homo Aestheticus. (See note 18.)


20 “‘Making Special’—An Undescribed Human Universal and the Core of a Behavior of Art,” in Biopoetics. (See note 15.)



Part I: The Hudson Review Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 2003)
Part II: The Hudson Review Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer 2003)
Copyright © 2003 by Harold Fromm