The Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other Arts

Massive Modularity vs. Cognitive Flexibility

Evolutionists insist that genes constrain and direct human behavior. Cultural constructivists counter that culture, embodied in the arts, shapes human experience. Both these claims are true, but some evolutionists and some cultural constructivists have mistakenly regarded them as mutually exclusive (D. S. Wilson, “Evolutionary”). Some evolutionists have either ignored the arts or tried to explain them away as epiphenomenal to the basic processes of life. Many cultural constructivists, in contrast, have sought to collapse biology into culture, eliminating “human nature” and thus turning culture into a first cause or unmoved mover. In the past few years, evolutionists in both the sciences and the humanities have broken through this impasse, arguing that the imagination is a functional part of the adapted mind. These new ideas revise an earlier model of human cognitive evolution—a model most closely associated with “evolutionary psychology” (EP) as a specific school within the evolutionary human sciences. Revising that model makes it possible for us now fully to integrate the evolutionary human sciences and literary study.

In the early phases of EP, theorists seeking to counter the concept of the mind as a “blank slate” committed themselves to the idea of “massive modularity,” the idea that the mind operates almost exclusively through dedicated bits of neural machinery adapted to solve specific practical problems in ancestral environments. Cognitive modules—the neural machinery dedicated to sight, for example—are characterized by automaticity and efficiency. The idea of massive modularity thus carried within itself a general sense of humans as adaptation-executing automata. To account for cognitive flexibility in this scheme, one could only “bundle larger numbers of specialized mechanisms together so that in aggregate, rather than individually, they address a larger range of problems” (Tooby and Cosmides, “The Psychological Foundations” 113). The idea of massive modularity over-generalizes from the most hard-wired components of the brain. It is a massive oversimplification of human cognitive architecture, and it is already fading into the archives of intellectual history (Geary; Sterelny). Its residual influence makes itself felt, though, in the ongoing debate over the adaptive function of the arts (Boyd, “Evolutionary”; Carroll, “An Evolutionary Paradigm” 119-28, “Rejoinder” 349-54; Dissanayake, “What Art Is”).

In How the Mind Works (1997), Steven Pinker locates the arts within an EP conception of human cognitive evolution (524-43). As he sees it, natural selection shaped human motives to maximize inclusive fitness within a hunter-gatherer ecology. Sociality and language were part of the human adaptive repertory. Imaginative culture was not. Creative imagination, whenever it appeared in human evolution, was just added on as a by-product of the cognitive/behavioral mechanisms that solved practical problems. To illustrate the by-product idea, Pinker draws parallels between art and pornography, psychoactive drugs, and rich foods like cheesecake. He acknowledges that fictional narratives might have informational content of some utility in providing game-plans for practical problems that could arise. All the other features of the arts, he suggests, reflect only the human capacity to exploit evolved mechanisms for producing pleasure. This sort of pleasure, detached from all practical value with respect to survival and reproduction, would be equivalent to the pleasure derived from masturbation. (In “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?” Tooby and Cosmides modified their own earlier view that the arts are non-adaptive side effects, but they did not modify the underlying conception of mental architecture with which that earlier view is concordant.)

The distinguished sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson offers a very different vision of human cognitive evolution. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), Wilson poses the same question posed by Pinker:

If the arts are steered by inborn rules of mental development, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution. The question remains: Were the genetic guides mere byproducts—epiphenomena—of that evolution, or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction? And if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred? (224)

Wilson’s answer to this question draws a decisive line between the mental powers of humans and other animals. Other animals are “instinct-driven” (225). Humans are not. “The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on long-term contracts” (224). The adaptive value of high intelligence is that it provides the means for behavioral flexibility—for generating plans based on mental representations of complex relationships, engaging in collective enterprises requiring shared mental representations, and thus producing novel solutions to adaptive problems. Behavioral flexibility has made of the human species the most successful alpha predator of all time, but achieving dominance in this way has come with a cost. Wilson speaks of the “psychological exile” of the species (224-25). To the modern human mind, alone among all minds in the animal kingdom, the world does not present itself as a series of rigidly defined stimuli releasing a narrow repertory of stereotyped behaviors. It presents itself as a vast and potentially perplexing array of percepts, inferences, causal relations, contingent possibilities, analogies, contrasts, and hierarchical conceptual structures. The human mind is free to organize the elements of cognition in an infinitely diverse array of combinatorial possibilities. And most of those potential forms of organization, like most major mutations, would be fatal. Freedom is the key to human success, and it is also an invitation to disaster. This is the insight that governs Wilson’s explanation for the adaptive function of the arts. “There was not enough time for human heredity to cope with the vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by high intelligence. . . . The arts filled the gap” (1998, p. 225). If instincts are defined as stereotyped programs of behavior released automatically by environmental stimuli, we can say that in humans the arts partially take the place of instinct. Along with religion, ideology, and other emotionally charged belief systems, the arts form an imaginative interface between complex mental structures, genetically transmitted behavioral dispositions, and behavior.

High human intelligence is part of a larger, systemic structure of species-typical adaptations that can be analyzed under the rubric of “human life-history theory,” that is, the analysis of the distribution of effort across the human life cycle. Human life history includes altricial birth, extended childhood, male-female bonding coupled with male coalitions, dual parenting, post-menopausal survival, longevity, the development of skills for the extraction of high-quality resources, an enlarged neocortex that enhances powers for suppressing impulses and engaging in long-term planning, symbolic capacities enabling identification with extended social groups (“tribal instincts”), egalitarian dispositions operating in tension with conserved dispositions for individual dominance, and the power to subordinate, in some degree, impulses of survival and reproduction to the formal dictates of imagined virtual worlds (Baumeister; Boehm; Flinn, Geary, and Ward; Geary; Hawkins; Kaplan et al.; Richerson and Boyd; D. S. Wilson, Evolution).

The early EP conception of the mind supposes a sequence in which automatic cognitive processes evolved to solve adaptive problems specific to Pleistocene ecology, with the arts tacked on as side effects. The alternative vision formulated by Wilson supposes that human cognitive capacities evolved specifically for the purposes of generating adaptive flexibility. (Also see Carroll, “The Human Revolution”; Foley; Irons; Mithen; Potts; Sterelny; Wade.)  In that alternative evolutionary scenario, dispositions to produce and consume works of imagination co-evolved in functional interdependence with high intelligence. The affective neuroscientists Jules and Jaak Panksepp vividly evoke this vision of an integrated, systemic evolution of human cognitive powers:

What those vast cerebral expansions that emerged during the Pleistocene probably provided was a vast symbolic capacity that enabled foresight, hindsight, and the brain-power to peer into other minds and to entertain alternate courses of action, thereby allowing humans to create the cultures that dominate our modern world. . . .

What makes humans unique, perhaps more than anything else, is that we are a linguistically adept story-telling species. That is why so many different forms of mythology have captivated our cultural imaginations since the dawn of recorded history. (126-27)

We are a linguistically adept story-telling species because telling stories is one of the chief ways we give shape to our experience and thus ultimately direct our behavior. As Terrence Deacon puts it, “We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about imagined ones, and we even make use of these stories to organize our lives. In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world” (22).

Gene-Culture Co-Evolution

Dispositions for creating and enjoying art form part of the larger evolutionary process known as “gene-culture co-evolution.” “Culture” includes technology and social organization as well as art, religion, and philosophy. Conceiving culture in this broader sense, evolutionary anthropologists often cite lactose tolerance as an instance of gene-culture co-evolution (Cochran and Harpending; Richerson and Boyd; Wade). Through natural selection, herding peoples have evolved enzymes that enable adults to digest milk. The cultural practice of keeping cattle serves as a selective force that alters the gene pool in a given population, and in turn the altered gene pool encourages the expansion of a pastoral economy. Language offers another clear instance of this kind of selective pressure. At some point in the ancestral past, humans had no power of speech. Mutations enabling rudimentary forms of “proto-language” (Bickerton) would have given some selective advantage to those who possessed them. That advantage would have increased the representation of those genes in the population at large, and the increase in those genes would have enhanced the linguistic character of the cultural environment, intensifying the selective advantage conferred by genes promoting the use of language.

A similar logic applies to imaginative culture. Developing the power of creating imaginative virtual worlds must have had adaptive value for our ancestors. Otherwise, capacities for imaginative culture would not now be human universals; artistic behavior would not spontaneously appear in all normally developing children; and humans would not display cognitive aptitudes specifically geared toward the production and reception of art—dispositions, for instance, for organizing pitched sounds in rhythmically and emotionally expressive sequences, for constructing visual designs that produce distinct moods and states of contemplative attention, and for constructing fictional narratives that generate excited, empathic responses in audiences (Boyd, On the Origin; Brown; Dissanayake, Art; Dutton; Scalise-Sugiyama; Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build”; Salmon and Symons). These three factors—universality, reliable spontaneous development, and dedicated cognitive aptitudes—all suggest that dispositions for the arts were adaptive. If that is in fact the case, dispositions for producing and consuming the arts would have served as a selective force on the population, altering the gene pool, favoring those genes that facilitate producing and consuming works of art.

Somewhere between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, there was a transformation in human culture that anthropologists designate “the Human Revolution” (Carroll, “The Human Revolution”; Cochran and Harpending; Klein; Wade; Mellars et al.; Mellars and Stringer.). Archeologically preserved forms of imaginative culture—art, decoration, ceremonial burial—appeared for the first time, and along with them, complex multi-part tools, sewn clothing, and extended forms of trade, implying more complex forms of social organization. In The Prehistory of the Mind (1996), Steven Mithen forcibly drew attention to the magnitude of this transformation and used it as evidence against the narrow-school EP conception of the massively modular mind. Countering the theory that cognitive flexibility arises from the multiplication of modules, all working automatically in response to regularities in the ancestral environment, he argued that the Human Revolution was generated by a genetically based cognitive transformation, a mutation involving language, that gave humans a vastly expanded flexibility in symbolic representation. His concept of “cognitive fluidity” is essentially a concept of metaphor: the power of linking images and ideas across diverse domains. To that power he attributes the sudden efflorescence of technological innovation and artistic production that characterizes the Human Revolution. Other theorists have argued for a more gradual evolution of human cognitive capacities (Deacon; Smail; Sterelny). I think the advocates of the Human Revolution will ultimately have the better part in this argument. In any case, at whatever pace it came about, there can be little doubt that modern symbolic culture—the culture of the past 100,000 years—differs in radical ways from the culture of the early and middle phases of hominid evolution.

The very existence of modern symbolic culture runs counter to the EP conception of human cognitive evolution—to massive modularity and the massively homogeneous character of the ancestral environment. Hence the virtual necessity, for acolytes of EP, for explaining away modern symbolic culture, treating it as merely a side-effect to the adaptive structures that solved challenges supposed constant throughout the whole of the Pleistocene.

“Human nature” means that humans share species-typical dispositions: basic motives tied closely to the needs of survival, mating, parenting, and social interaction (Carroll, “An Evolutionary Paradigm,” 111-15; Flinn, Geary, and Ward; Kaplan et al.). Cognitive and behavioral flexibility are part of human nature, but they have not eliminated the underlying regularities in basic motives. In different ecologies and different forms of social organization, the elements of human nature combine in distinctive ways, but “culture” cannot build structures out of nothing. It must work with the genetically transmitted dispositions of an evolved and adapted human nature. The arts give imaginative shape to the experiences possible within any given culture, reflecting its tensions, conflicts, and satisfactions. One chief aim for evolutionary studies in the humanities is to analyze the way any given culture organizes the elements of human nature, evaluate the aesthetic, emotional, and moral qualities inherent in that organization, and probe the way it influences—by conformist pressure or antagonistic stimulus—specific works of literature.

Making Sense of the Arts

To formulate plausible and testable hypotheses about the adaptive function of the arts, we have to satisfy three criteria: (a) define the arts in a way that identifies what is peculiar and essential to them—thus isolating the behavioral disposition in question; (b) identify the adaptive problem this behavioral disposition would have solved in ancestral environments; and (c) identify design features that would efficiently have mediated this solution (Pinker, “Towards”). We can define art as the disposition for creating artifacts that are emotionally charged and aesthetically shaped in such a way that they evoke or depict subjective, qualitative sensations, images, or ideas. Literature, specifically, produces subjectively modulated images of the world and of our experience in the world. The disposition for creating such images would have solved an adaptive problem that, like art itself, is unique for the human species: organizing motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct. The design features that mediate this adaptive function are the capacities for producing artistic constructs such as narrative and verse and emotionally modulated musical and visual patterns.

Consider the reality of our experience. We live in the imagination. For us, humans, no action or event is ever just itself. It is always a component in mental representations of the natural and social order, extending over time. All our actions take place within imaginative structures that include our vision of the world and our place in the world—our internal conflicts and concerns, our relations to other people, our relations to nature, and our relations to whatever spiritual forces we imagine might exist. We live in communities that consist not just of the people with whom we come directly into contact but with memories of the dead, traditions of our ancestors, our sense of connection with generations yet unborn, and with every person, living or dead, who joins with us in imaginative structures—social, ideological, religious, or philosophical—that subordinate our individual selves to some collective body. Our sense of our selves derives from our myths and artistic traditions, from the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the visual images that surround us.

We have all had moments in which some song, story, or play, some film, piece of music, or painting, has transfigured our vision of the world, broadened our minds, deepened our emotional understanding, or given us new insight into human experience. Working out from this common observation to a hypothesis about the adaptive function of literature requires no great speculative leap. Literature and the other arts help us live our lives. That is why the arts are human universals (Brown). In all known cultures, the arts enter profoundly into normal childhood development, connect individuals to their culture, and help people get oriented to the world, emotionally, morally, and conceptually (Boyd, On the Origin; Carroll, Literary Darwinism 65-69; Carroll, Gottschall, Johnson, and Kruger; Dissanayake, Art; Dutton; Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?”).

If it is true that the arts are adaptively functional, they would be motivated as emotionally driven needs. The need to produce and consume imaginative artifacts would be as real and distinct a need as hunger, sexual desire, maternal and filial bonding, or the desire for social contact. Like all such needs, it would bear within itself, as its motivating mechanism, the pleasure and satisfaction that attend upon the fulfilling of desire. That kind of fulfillment would not be a parasitic by-product of some other form of pleasure, nor merely a means for fulfilling some other kind of need—sexual, social, or practical. Like all forms of fulfillment, the need for art could be integrated with other needs in any number of ways. It could be used for sexual display or the gratifications of sexual hunger or social vanity, and it could be used as a medium for social bonding. Nonetheless, in itself it would be a primary and irreducible human need.


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41 comments to The Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other Arts

  • Joseph Carroll is my colleague and friend; we have corresponded and read each others’ pre-published work for more than a decade. I reviewed his first book in a substantial essay in Philosophy and Literature and wrote a response to his target article in the journal Style. He can probably predict, therefore, my reaction to this piece because I tend to say the same thing. I would like for him to say more about oral literature and be less “cognitive” in his approach–i.e., pay more attention to the tonal and nonverbal effects of literature, written as well as oral. He knows of course that literature became and was adaptive long before it was preserved in writing. In what ways is literature like music or, for that matter, petroglyphs? I’d like for him to extend some explorations in that direction.

    I am in complete sympathy with Joe’s quest to bring consilience to the academy. Once one takes an evolutionary point of view, it transforms the way one views everything. The growing public appetite for books and television programs about human behavior indicates that more and more people are accepting an adaptive view of human endeavor or at least are showing the willingness to entertain such a view. At the same time, it is clear that in most departments of English and Humanities opposition to an adaptive view remains strong. Although Joe’s arguments to this opposition are eloquent and compelling, they emerge from a view of the world that these others do not and do not care to hold. I daresay that most of these skeptics do not even read these arguments. Ironically, many researchers in departments of evolutionary psychology and anthropology who do accept an evolutionary view of human behavior themselves remain to be convinced that the arts are adaptively important. They deserve scolding as well. Ideally, some enlightened universities would come up with a modified Two State Solution, in which there would be a joint or bridging appointment for scholars like ourselves that straddle both sides of the present abyss.

  • Ellen brings up several important issues. For now, I’ll respond to just one of them–the question of the Two State Solution. I envision ultimately a One State Solution. In an essay trying to imagine what a future Single State would look like, I devote a few paragaphs to curricular matters. I’ll copy those here:

    In this third scenario, high-school students will all take introductory courses in statistics, which are, after all, less demanding mathematically than the more advanced forms of math in the standard high-school curriculum. Undergraduates, as part of their general education, will take more advanced courses in statistics and will also take courses in empirical methodology. This will not be so much an added burden as it might seem, since the whole undergraduate curriculum will be much more unified than it now is. Courses in the “social sciences” will themselves all be integrated from an evolutionary perspective—the perspective that prevails now, for instance, in journals such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The evolutionary human sciences will be closely integrated with required courses in evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and the sciences of the brain. Students in the humanities will develop basic proficiency in these disciplines in the same way virtually all European students, in all disciplines, now develop a good working knowledge of the English language.

    When undergraduate English majors write papers on Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf, Chaucer or Charlotte Brontë, they will in some ways do what they have always done—talk about characterization, personal and social identity in the characters and in the author, style, point of view, tone, the organization of narrative, and cultural contexts and literary traditions. But in other ways, all this will be different. In writing of personal and social identity, they will not have recourse to obsolete and misleading ideas from Freud, Marx, and their degenerate progeny. They will have recourse instead to empirically grounded findings in the evolutionary human sciences. In speaking of tone and point of view, they will make use of cognitive and affective neuroscience. They will consider local affects in relation to the actual brain structures and neurochemical circuits that regulate emotions, to “mirror neurons,” Theory of Mind, and “perspective taking.” In assessing style and the formal organization of narrative or verse, they will take account of underlying cognitive structures that derive from folk physics, folk biology, and folk psychology. They will still bring all their intuitive sensitivity to bear, registering the affective qualities that distinguish one work from another, communing in spirit with the author, or holding off skeptically from authors with whom intimacy for them is repugnant. They will not regard their own subjective responses as wholly arbitrary nor as somehow incommensurate with the brain structures that regulate behavior, thought, and feeling in ordinary life. When they locate literary works in relation to cultural context, they will have recourse to new forms of history, both forms that use brain science to create an ecological and psychopharmacological profile of a given era, and also forms that delineate large-scale laws of social organization deriving from elementary processes of inter-group conflict and intra-group organization. They will draw on knowledge both of the actual social and political situation and of the deep evolutionary background for that situation. We already see works of literary scholarship that answer to this description.

    When they come to graduate study, aspiring literary scholars will have open before them a wide spectrum of methodological choices, ranging from the purely discursive, essayistic forms of commentary that now dominate the humanities to the rigorously quantitative, empirical methods that now prevail in the sciences. Some no doubt will tend more in one direction than in another, but none will think that quantitative and discursive forms of study occupy separate and incommensurate universes. They will not cast about desperately for novelty, taking recourse in superficial verbal variations ensconced in sophistical theoretical ambiguities. They will, rather, wake up like kids at Christmas, delighted with the endless opportunities for real, legitimate discovery that are open to them.

  • Kevin Cullen

    As a matriculating grad student disenfranchised and ultimately frustrated with “Lit Theory”, I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon Literary Darwinism. For some time I had been making the case to my peers that Evolutionary Psychology provided far greater insights — with far greater proof — into human nature than did the volumes inane gibberish poured forth by Derrida and his ilk, and that a rigorous study of literature, rather than relying on the bankrupt, wordgame pseudo-philosophy of poststructuralism, would benefit substantially from these insights.

    Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon Joseph Carroll, and the school of Literary Darwinism. I felt as though I had finally founded men of reason and substance after wandering for years in the intellectually-barren lands of “deconstruction” and “differance” and Judith Butler and the PMLA.

    And indeed I have.

    However, during the course of my study of human nature, evolutionary psychology, and literature, there is one thing I seem to find consistently missing in evolutionary literary studies. And that is, as Levi-Strauss phrased it, the “Evolutionary Principle”.

    Simply stated, the Evolutionary Principle posits that an organism displaced from the environment in which it evolved will inevitably become pathological.

    Surely, all literature, indeed all of the humanities, is the product of civilization. But civilization is not our natural environment. Compared the thousands upon thousands of years the modern homo sapien has existed, civilization is fairly new — roughly 10,000 years old. And it’s pathologies are manifold: mental illness, disease, oppression, repression, nationalism, fascism, communism, racism, and so forth. In fact, recent research in Evolutionary Psychology traces nearly every modern affliction back to the advent of civilization. It seems as though civilization, in order to function, either required natural, evolutionarily-conditioned instincts be repressed or rendered grotesque, morbid. Either way, the outcome was pathological.

    (Further research into the dysfunctions of civilization can be found in the writings of John Zerzan, Daniel Quinn, Derek Jensen, Claude Levi-Strauss, even Rosseau and, don’t cringe, Freud.)

    Why, then, do we not take civilization into account when assessing works? Literature, as a feature of civilization, surely must have a lot to reveal about the predicament of “civilized” man, his pathologies — as a text and as an artifact. Likewise, a thorough study of civilization, and its cognitive affects on man, would prove to be immensely illuminating with regard to the arts.

    I am currently writing a dissertation on Samuel Beckett, and the ways in which his dramatic works portray the pathologies of civilization. I am drawing heavily on EP, notably Julian Jaynes, as well as conventional anthropology and even ecology.

    Anyone care to share their thoughts on this topic?

  • JoseAngel

    An illuminating essay, Joe—and thanks for your continued publications in these open formats. You speak of “an adaptive problem that, like art itself, is unique for the human species: organizing motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” I would add, “from the immediate promptings of the actual”. I think the issue here is very much connected to the development of language as a vehicle for “de-localization” or virtualization—perhaps the virtual world we share according to Terrence Deacon is the symbolic representation of the world articulated through speech, myth, art, social symbols, and other kinds of glue which feed back on one another. That’s why I think the EP focus on art as a “by-product” still has something to it. While your critique of EP is of course fully justified, and eye-opening, it remains that the explosion of symbolism leaves lots of by-products scattered around- and recombining, and producing unforeseen by-products of their own. Once humans create a stable ecological niche called human culture, that becomes a given for later humans—and the ecological problem is how to fend for survival and prosperity in this particular niche, which moreover tends to become ever more complicated and sub-niched all around… so perhaps the final reconciliation of biology and cultural studies will be just a realization of the full extent to which culture and symbolic activity are just the human version of ecology, in a human-created and symbolically articulated environment. There may be a place even for deconstructionist, in some departmental niche!

  • Ellen, with respect to those English and Humanities departments in “opposition to an adaptive view” is it biological adaptiveness they object to, or is it consideration of cognitive, neural, and biological substrates they object to? For they are not the same thing. I’ve been writing on and publishing on the latter since the mid-1970s, but hadn’t given the matter of biological adaptiveness much thought until my book on music (Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture). What interests me are mechanisms: how does the mind work? EP metatheory not withstanding, a serious investigation of the mechanisms of the arts does not depend on settling questions of biological adaptiveness. You can set them to one side if you so desire – Brian Boyd articulated that position in the middle of On the Origin of Stories (p. 210), though that may have been a mere rhetorical gesture.

    And at the moment that’s where I stand with respect to literature (though I stick by my arguments on proto-music). Some time ago I published an open letter to Steven Pinker in which I argued for the biological adaptiveness of story telling (not literature in general). He seemed to take my point about the social function and importance of story telling without, however, explicitly conceding that my point was about biological adaptiveness. I think his caution is entirely reasonable. I still like the argument I made then (and a recent amendment to it), but I don’t think it depends on whether or not the emergence of story-telling of that kind is biologically adaptive. It’s an argument about how literature works in the social group, not about the genetic consequences of the (final) emergence of this activity.

    I agree with your point that the face-to-face nature of basic story telling is important. In particular, if you want to make an argument about biological adaptiveness, you have to consider the dynamics of that fact-to-face interaction.

    All of which is to say, if it’s the matter of biological adaptiveness that’s the problem, then we (or at least some of us) can set that aside a procede with the investigation of cognitive, neural, and hormonal substrates. But if the skittishness is about cognition and the brain, that’s a different matter.

  • Robert Storey

    Like Ellen, I, too, am a friend and colleague of Joe’s, and, also like Ellen, I have followed his work over these last couple of decades with fascination and admiration. But I, too, feel the force of her first point of reservation and would like to see Joe address it head-on. When E.O. Wilson notes that art “filled the gap” that the human abandonment of instinct opened up, he implies that the arts existed before the gap appeared. The question still remains: For what reason did they come to exist? Body-deformation and -decoration, (probably) chanting and drumming and dancing–these arts were among the earliest in ancestral life, and “cognitive” scenarios do not explain them. Like Joe (and I think Ellen), I am uneasy with Jeffrey Miller’s sexual-selection hypothesis. (If Led Zeppelin is nothing but a many-headed bowerbird, why does it attract so many pubescent boys as opposed to girls?) But apparently the very mechanism–the appeal of the exotic–that made sexual selection possible underlies the appeal of the arts, and, as I have argued elsewhere, I think that the latter appeal was strengthened immensely–and adaptively–when the incipient religious impulse of early humanity confused the exotic with the sacred. Religion no longer needed a serendipidous freak of nature–an immaculately preserved animal skull, a mountain rising startlingly out of flat terrain–as a conduit to the sacred when humanity could create such conduits in art. Ellen gave us the key several decades ago: Art is a “making special”–a translation through “artification” of the everyday into the nouminal. And that’s why (artful) narrative is so powerful and useful: not because it puts a lid upon intelligence and the imagination, but because it is one of their more resplendently gilded (because language-crowned) artifacts, radiating the potency of magic.

    However wrong-headed these ideas may be, I’m convinced that you cannot mount a persuasive defense of art as an evolutionary adaptation by starting (and stopping) at such a late–because language-dependent–behavior like story-telling.

  • Perhaps I should say a word or two about why I find the question of the biological adaptiveness so tricky, while having no problem over literature’s usefulness. Here’s what I said in my review of Brian Boyd’s On the Origins of Stories:

    The problem comes with the more specific argument that story-telling and, in particular, telling stories about fictional creatures, things, and events, that the telling of such stories is biologically adaptive. The fact that fiction has a biological substrate doesn’t make it biologically adaptive, for everything we do has a biological substrate. Nor does the fact that it is useful in many ways, which I believe Boyd has established. Reading and iron-mongering are also useful, but no one argues that either is a biological adaptation. Boyd certainly knows this.

    Further, the fact that some animal species have culture, which Boyd properly insists upon, suggests that the cultural transmission of traits from one generation to the next is itself a biological adaptation. That is certainly true of human culture as well, for it is our cultural capacity that allowed our species to spread beyond the tropics, the only higher primate to do so. Yet, this is a trivial generalization. We would not, on that account, look for a biological explanation for the origins of agriculture, easel painting, the internal combustion engine, or the sonnet. Biological substrates, yes; origins, no.

    Part of my problem, I fear, is rooted in reflexive laziness. It is easy to think in terms of some relatively narrow period of time during which humankind finally emerges. Everything before that is nature, everything after is culture. But that is not so. Biological evolution has not utterly stopped in the last 50,000 years or so. And our ancestors were certainly cultural beings long before we had finally become homo sapiens sapiens.

    That chimpanzees are cultural animals suggests that our cultural heritage may considerably older than the stone artifacts that are the oldest evidence of human culture. Perhaps, then, cultural behaviors were themselves a driving force in our evolution – an argument I associate with Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997). In particular, cultural behaviors were in place and changing before the brain had reached its full development. Boyd himself speculates that music may have been the first of the arts to emerge (76, 188) while fiction is likely the last. Increasingly rich cultural activities were thus part of the social environment to which the brain adapted and in which imaginative story-telling finally emerged. I suggest that any attempt to disentangle nature and culture on this point may prove pointless.

  • Bill Benzon

    When E.O. Wilson notes that art “filled the gap” that the human abandonment of instinct opened up, he implies that the arts existed before the gap appeared.

    Yes, this is a problem. While I once endorsed this idea (in an essay-review: Rock Art in Darwin’s Cathedral, Evolutionary Psychology, 2003, 1: 28-41 (PDF)), I’ve since realized it posits an impossible situation. Art is produced by the same mind that possesses the combinatorial richness that is a source of the problem in the first place. How did that mind outflank that blizzard of possibililty to produce and settle on the art?

  • Imagination and Art

    Evolutionary accounts of the arts are controversial. Some people dismiss them out of hand, without taking the trouble to acquaint themselves with arguments or evidence. But for the increasing numbers who accept as uncontroversial that evolution may help explain the arts, by far the most controversial and even heated topic, as Joseph Carroll knows, is the adaptive function of literature and the other arts.
    Let me turn down the heat in one room. Joe seems unfair to declare that Steven Pinker sees art as a “parasitic by-product.” “By-product” suffices: Pinker claims merely that the arts are a consequence of already evolved human cognitive and behavioral adaptations, without further evidence of special psychological design or selective benefit for art in particular. “Parasitic” involves a different biological claim: that the arts exact human costs to serve their own benefit (whatever that might mean). To the best of my recollection, this has never been a claim Pinker makes.
    Joe usefully and uncontroversially distinguishes between early (say 1980-1995) Evolutionary Psychology, with its commitment to massive mental modularity, and the growing recognition among evolutionary psychologists over the last fifteen years that the imagination, with its power to connect and reconfigure disparate mental modes and objects, has been a key human cognitive adaptation. I agree, without accepting Steven Mithen’s fanciful 1996 scenario or the claim for a human revolution sometime between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. After all there is evidence of art in the form of ochre body decoration at least 120,000 and perhaps 240,000 years ago and a very high probability of song and dance before that, since chimpanzees can hoot and dance in chorus. I agree strongly with Ellen Dissanayake and Robert Storey that Joe starts too late in the picture and that an account of art need to explain the first moves in human ancestors toward a modern human imagination and modern human arts.

    Joe follows E.O. Wilson in suggesting that the arts produce images of our world that “help organize motives designed to solve . . . the problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence.” While this sounds rather grand, it also seems extremely vague, a placeholder for unspecified content.
    How does it help organize motives to solve basic adaptive problems to paint one’s body with ocher, hundreds of thousands of years ago, or to carve an image of an ibex on a spearthrower, tens of thousands of years ago? Or now: I happen to like the music of Heinrich Biber, Frank Zappa, Mohammed Reza Shajarian, and Wu Man. Do I have different adaptive problems from others who do not share this particular combination of interests?
    As far as I understand Joe, he means that the profusion of images the human imagination produces makes it hard for individuals to know what to do, and the arts help motivate them. This does not square with my experience of art. I like Zappa or Spiegelman or Brian Eno because they do things I could never have imagined. Art produces more images, including hitherto unimaginable images, and the plethora of images becomes not confusing but invigorating. I discovered Eno only a week ago. Was there something in my makeup that was insufficiently motivated until I discovered his work—other than my new motive to find out more of his work? (For those who know only Eno’s music, try
    Emotions are evolved motivational systems. They have a long evolutionary history (three hundred million years plus) and seem to work very efficiently for most individuals in most species, unless hijacked by addictive substances or confronted with unbearable pain, loss or helplessness. They “organize” themselves with astonishing swiftness, often much faster than conscious thought, to respond to particular situations. Emotions may also be activated by art, but how do works of art direct us through the crowd of images supposedly confronting and confusing us?
    I would suggest an alternative scenario. Evidence in primates, corvids, and cetaceans shows that imagination exists, albeit in rudimentary form, in other species. So does communication, but it too remains rudimentary before human language develops. Before language our hominin ancestors no doubt had a richer repertoire of calls than chimpanzees, and then a protolanguage with a small repertoire of symbolizing sounds and a limited array of combinations, like the one- to three-word combinations of 15-to-21 month old children or language-trained apes. Imagination too takes time to emerge fully in human children, and presumably took a long time to emerge in the human species. The origins of art, in pretend play, in simple daubing and shaping, in new combinations of vocal and manual sounds and patterned movements, could have far more easily extended a limited level of imagination than have emerged to cope with the full-blown effects of a proliferation of images. Our compulsion to engage in art, including pretend play, seems far more likely to have stretched imagination than to have been applied as a balm to imaginations that have stretched somehow without the help of art. Or to switch images, as we easily can: imagination needs art to construct labyrinths in the first place, and not just to find a thread through labyrinths of images somehow suddenly bewildering us.

  • Bob Storey and Bill Benzon both raise the question as to how the arts could have filled a gap created by high intelligence. Bob says, “When E.O. Wilson notes that art “filled the gap” that the human abandonment of instinct opened up, he implies that the arts existed before the gap appeared.”

    In a recent special double issue of the journal Style, I have a “target” essay, “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” (vol. 42, #s 2/3, 2008). Thirty-five scholars wrote responses, and I wrote a rejoinder to the responses. The same question came up there, raised by Tony Jackson and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama. I’ll copy out below the paragraph I wrote in response:

    TONY JACKSON and MICHELLE SCALISE SUGIYAMA both have difficulty in conceiving how dispositions for art can have evolved to help regulate our motivational systems. In summarizing my argument, JACKSON supposes I envision a simple temporal sequence: high intelligence evolves, is disorganized and chaotic, and then, sometime after that, art evolves, like the Lone Ranger appearing on the horizon, to rescue the poor befuddled human species. JACKSON is skeptical of the causal evolutionary logic in this hypothesis, and the skepticism is well warranted. The hypothesis he describes is nonsensical. My own hypothesis is that higher intelligence—the capacity for making complex plans that involve abstract reasoning—co-evolved with the powers of imagination. Such co-evolutionary processes are a normal and necessary feature in the evolution of all complex systems. GRODAL and SCALISE SUGIYAMA correctly formulate the idea of a co-evolutionary relation between art and high intelligence. GRODAL argues that “activities like storytelling develop in tandem with the radical increase of intelligence and the ability to provide verbal representations to memorized or imagined scenarios.” And SCALISE SUGIYAMA observes, “Two million years is ample time for mechanisms mitigating the effects of high intelligence to co-evolve—which would be necessary if high intelligence did indeed impose severe fitness costs.” Though she grasps this basic concept, SCALISE SUGIYAMA is still puzzled. “If motivational systems must be organized by art behavior,” she asks, “what motivates humans to engage in art behavior?” The short answer appears in the title of Denis Dutton’s forthcoming book, The Art Instinct. Dutton argues that “the evolution of Homo sapiens in the past million years is not just a history of how we came to have acute color vision, a taste for sweets, and an upright gait. It is also a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves” (from the introduction). There is no difficulty in conceiving that artistic dispositions can be prompted directly through spontaneous impulse and still function to organize other motivational systems. Artistic behavior, like other forms of behavior, is both rooted in innate dispositions and susceptible to modulation through learning. Artists learn from other artists and absorb the traditions of their cultures, and in that sense, art is itself one of the motivational systems that art regulates. “The art instinct” does not stand outside of and apart from other motivational systems. Art interacts with other motivational systems, feeding off them, being stimulated by them, and in turn helping to regulate them.

    Many practitioners of EP are well aware of civilization’s distortions (as well as its discontents) of the human animal. This is why they investigate EP principles in pre-modern peoples as well as in undergraduate psychology students in need of a course credit. I think EP is less concerned with the problem of civilization and its (psychological, emotional) deprivations. (Some evolutionary psychiatrists have, however, discussed this problem as “mismatch” theory). From attending conferences of educators and therapists in the various arts, I have learned about the many ways in which the arts today can make positive contributions to children’s ability to learn and socialize and, additionally, that the arts address universal fundamental emotional needs for the sense of belonging, meaning, and competence, leading to psychosocial and physical health in both children and adults. These contributions alone suggest that the pre-verbal and often communal arts have been not only useful but, at least as practiced in premodern times when they were part of life as lived, necessary. Evolutionary psychologists write about the importance of religion in premodern societies but except for Alcorta and Sosis (2005) they don’t seem to recognize that the ritual ceremonies (the manifestations of religious belief) of religions everywhere are composed of arts. It is not only the dogma or beliefs but their instantiation in participative arts-saturated ceremony that provides the psychological benefits (see further comment below)
    As for literature, I agree that modern literature, “as a feature of civilization, has a lot to reveal about the predicament of ‘civilized’ man, his pathologies — as a text and as an artifact.” To be able to write about this as a scholar, you need to know about humans “before the fall” (the ejection from Paradise is a good metaphor for what happened once humans settled into gardens and ate of the fruit of literate knowledge) as well as more contemporary writers. However, keep in mind that literature based on the oral tradition—the Gilgamesh epic, the Old Testament, Homer, etc.—shows that human psychology and its problems are ancient, not just the result of civilization. Civilization adds a few more wrinkles to these and in its most recent Western version doesn’t have the therapies of religious absolutism and unified moral systems that characterize premodern groups. For most people, reason/science doesn’t work as effectively as arts-saturated ceremonies in psychologically explaining the world and emotionally coping with it. So we have old problems, have rejected (or never known) the old solutions, and the new solutions (shopping, therapy, change, distraction and fun) don’t work all that well.
    Just some advice: I don’t think that Lévi-Strauss or Julian Jaynes consider themselves to be practicing EP and you probably should not give them that label which requires a sophisticated understanding and use of evolutionary principles from Darwin to today. By the way, Norbert Elias has some really interesting things to say (in three volumes) about the effects of civilization.
    “From the immediate promptings of the actual” is a helpful addition to Joe’s formulation, I think, in that what humans seem to have done, once they were disconnected from instinctual responses (of fight, flee, freeze) was to start inventing religious explanations and practices that were manifested in ceremonies. Ceremonies are collections of arts: take away the arts and there is no ceremony. (ROBERT STOREY makes this point). One can call the arts “by-products” since everything comes from something. But they are not only byproducts of a symbolizing ability. Pre-symbolic arts are music, chanting, moving to music, formalized laments, and other uses of language that obfuscate or disguise meaning. Presymbolic and preverbal arts come from deeper sources than symbols. This is what I asked Joseph Carroll to address in my initial comment.
    BILL BENZON addresses this point of “deeper” cognitive, neural, and hormonal (biological) substrates. Quite a few neuroscientists are interested in the arts but stop short of being evolutionary psychologists (i.e., like Bill, they don’t claim that the capacities they investigate are “adaptive” and posit why). The few who do call their field “neuroaesthetics” deal mostly with perceptual preferences for things that would have been adaptive in ancestral environments—e.g., shiny smoothness and bright color indicate ripe fruit, etc.). Yet perceptual preferences are not “art.” I agree with Bill that how artful effects are achieved (the mechanisms) is a really important subject that most EP-arts practitioners haven’t really taken up yet. Finding out how these mechanisms work (how and why we respond to the manipulations that make something art rather than non-art) will contribute to our understanding of the arts and eventually even to how we might think of the arts as adaptive. Even though he is not particularly concerned with showing adaptiveness, Bill’s work on music goes way beyond the investigations of neuroaesthetics. Again, music is preverbal and (mostly) nonsymbolic. Babies respond when they hear music by moving back and forth and vocalizing—no one teaches them to do that. Music and measured movement is deeply in our nature and some of the principles of the effects of music will probably generalize to our aesthetic responses to all the arts that unfold in time. Again, this is what I meant when I suggested to JOSEPH CARROLL that the tonal or emotional factors have to be incorporated into our evolutionary/adaptive/biological understanding of literature.
    To BOB STOREY, voice from the (my) past and wonderful to hear from you: thanks for the excellent and eloquent précis of my general stance and for reinforcing the point that evolutionary/adaptive understanding of the arts starts before language and symbolism. (Analogy is acceptable! “Music sounds the way emotions feel”; “bigger—or glossier, more resonant, more splendiforous—is better”, for good evolutionary reasons (that Darwinian aesthetics has described, even in other animals). Using these affecting things in affecting ways (i.e., making ordinary things extraordinary) shows oneself, one’s group, and whatever ancestors and spirits are watching that one really cares about the matter at hand, wants to have an effect on the world and on other people.
    BILL BENZON in his Jan. 21 posting comments that “cultural behaviors were themselves a driving force in our evolution . . . In particular, cultural behaviors were in place and changing before the brain had reached its full development.” I do not disagree with this but the cultural behaviors are based on biological substrates, as you well know (see points above), and I want to go back to the foundations for cultural behaviors. E.g., babies’ spontaneous readiness to move and lal to music, toddlers’ spontaneous decorating their bodies and possessions, making-believe, dressing up, imitating, scribbling that gradually resolves into regular forms and, when they have some words, to play with these (rhyme, alliteration, nonsense), show that a propensity to elaborate is inborn, although it will take cultural forms and cultures will further elaborate on these. The primal behavior might be called “play” but it is a kind of über-play that I have called making-special (and now “artification”) of vocalizations, movements, artifacts, anything—a behavioral predisposition that characterizes only humans. (See posting by BOB STOREY and my further response above).
    Also in BILL’s comment “Art is produced by the same mind that possesses the combinatorial richness that is a source of the problem in the first place. How did that mind outflank that blizzard of possibility to produce and settle on the art?” How did the vertebrate eye come to be? Incremental steps. I would answer that your question is why we should get back to basics (and hence my work on mother-infant interaction 1.8 mya, which I haven’t mentioned until now. But that’s another story).
    Now I know why I haven’t engaged in any of these online conversations before. It is too time-consuming. I have too much to say and most of it requires a full exposition of my work in which various pieces fit together. Additionally, I don’t have time to read all the links in others’ postings. So I am going to stop and let other people carry on in their own directions. Thanks to all you respondents for stimulating ideas. We are all on the same track, it seems to me. There’s a real field there.

  • Stephen Zachary

    I sympathize with Joe Carroll’s efforts to reconcile evolutionary theory with the observation that the arts are a universal characteristic of human nature. Nevertheless, I’d like to suggest that we are far from being able “fully to integrate the evolutionary human sciences and literary study.”

    The claim that the arts are adaptive because “literature and other arts help us live our lives” is problematic. Maladaptive behavior is a characteristic of us “living our lives,” even though it is maladaptive by definition. Surely there are some maladaptive aspects of art, even though the aggregate sum of all artistic production and consumption may in fact be adaptive. To claim that any X is adaptive because it is a part of our lives — even an integral part — is to make some sort of assumption about “adaptiveness” itself, an assumption not shared by evolutionary biology. Odling-Smee et al 2003 showed that the complex interactions and ever-fluctuating relationships between population genetics, cultural inheritance, ontological processes, and the handing down across generations of persistently modified environments can allow maladaptive behavior to be sustained across populations in space and generations in time.

    The main point I’d like to share on this forum is that a proper account of the arts’ role in evolution resists description in prose until we can create models that describe it mathematically. While gene-culture co-evolutionary models can account for direct links between cultural processes and evolutionary responses (such as the well-documented link between cattle domestication and the selection of genes associated with lactose tolerance), there exists far more complicated relationships between the activities of organisms (culture) and evolution — relationships in which the causal chain is so long that we need a more robust an nuanced theory of evolution, which is provided for in Odling-Smee et al 2003.

    While Joe’s piece is a great starting point for the discussion, I suggest that the three criteria listed likely fail to address the questions we’re grappling with. For one, the genetic, cultural, and environment landscapes are in constant states of flux due to the activities of individual organisms and populations as a whole. All these forces shift and feedback on one another, making them hard to pin down. With this is mind, we must realize that the answer to (b) shifts dynamically over time to correspond with these multidimensional changes. Changes to (b) require revisions to (a), since the “essential” elements of art will shift to correspond to the relevant adaptive problems.

    To say that “art is adaptive” ignores the fact that art’s evolutionary history is resistant to broad statements. At different points in human history, art probably served adaptive, maladaptive, and neutral roles in the process of evolution.

    Stephen Zachary

  • Stephen Zachary makes a couple of points with which I’ll take issue. The first is the general assertion that because the arts can be maladaptive we can’t make a case for their adaptive function. A couple of the people (Foy and Gerrig) who responded to the target article in Style also made the point that the arts can harm us. Here is my response:

    JEFFREY FOY AND RICHARD GERRIG grasp what it means to say that “we live in the imagination,” and they acknowledge that literature can enrich human experience. Their main point, though, is that imaginative experience can involve us in dangers and excesses. This observation is clearly correct. In its liability to danger and excess, our appetite for the arts is like all our other appetites. Our appetites for sex, food, and status, for instance, have adaptive functions but can nonetheless lead us into serious difficulties—into sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, attack from jealous rivals and the resentment of mates, food poisoning, obesity, colon cancer, the alienation of our friends, and the lethal antagonism of our competitors. A sober understanding of evolution has nothing Panglossian about it. Life is fraught with conflict. Everything comes with a cost. And there is nothing so good that it cannot be turned to bad.

    The second point on which I’ll take issue is the claim that “a proper account of the arts’ role in evolution resists description in prose until we can create models that describe it mathematically.” Of course, if by “a proper account” Stephen means a mathematical account, the point is indisputable, since it is a tautology. But the concept of co-evolutionary processes does not require mathematical modeling to make it perfectly intelligible.

    All evolutionary processes are hypothetically reducible to mathematical models, and many have already been reduced to mathematical models, but formulating intelligible and even cogent arguments does not, on the face of it, have to wait for mathematical modeling. To take a classic example, there is some arithmetic in On the Origin of Species, and the central argument on population exceeding food supply is of course arithmetical, but the larger structure of argument on descent with modification by means of natural selection is not derived from a mathematical model. It had to wait 70 years before mathematical models could definitively confirm its validity, but had the argument not been formulated at all, there would have been no occasion to model it.

    In his next-to-last sentence, Stephen makes this declaration: “To say that ‘art is adaptive’ ignores the fact that art’s evolutionary history is resistant to broad statements.” The “fact” to which Stephen refers is not in fact a fact; it is merely a dogmatic assertion. The supposed support for that assertion appears in the last sentence of his posting. “At different points in human history, art probably served adaptive, maladaptive, and neutral roles in the process of evolution.” Probably so, but this is itself a broad assertion. As I argue above, the fact that some behavior can be turned to harmful ends does not on the face of it disconfirm arguments that it evolved because it fulfills adaptive functions. Sex that gets you killed or passes on syphilis to your descendants no doubt reduces your fitness, but our desire to have sex did indeed evolve for adaptive functions, and we knew that, or could at least make overwhelmingly plausible arguments about it, before we had any mathematical models to prove it.

    Generally, we should be wary of claims that we can’t know X, Y, or Z because the factors are just too complex. Such nay-saying is usually still gathering its breath for a second blast when others have already proved it wrong.

  • Stephen Zachary

    Perhaps I should clarify. If I’ve been proved wrong while gathering my breath, this entry surely won’t be the first or last batch of hot air to ever take up the issue at hand.

    When Joe claims that “the concept of co-evolutionary processes does not require mathematical modeling to make it perfectly intelligible,” I believe he is correct. But understanding the concept does not mean that it serves us best. A well-known example may be helpful here: yam cultivators of West Africa have evolved an increased frequency for the allele that causes sickle-cell anemia. This is the story of that allele: In order to grow their yam crops, they cut clearings in the rain forest, which create large pools of standing water that promote the infestation of mosquitoes. As a result of the increase in mosquito infestation, the sickle-cell allele was selected because it protects against malaria. Biologists who question co-evolutionary theory point out the number of steps and intermediary ecological factors in the sickle-cell example as a call for theories of evolution that are more encompassing. This does not mean that they believe co-evolution is misguided – on the contrary, they hope to extend it for greater explanatory power.

    This example may or may not have similarities to art, but it does illustrate how cultural and evolutionary processes can intermingle in ways that are not as clear-cut as we would like – or theorize about. Maybe it is the case, as Joe seems to imply, that I do not understand what it means to say “we live in the imagination.” And maybe I bring up the benefit of models as a way to hide this misunderstanding. On the other hand, perhaps I’m hopeful for an account that is more descriptive. When I suggest that models will be beneficial – and even crucial – to understanding whether or not art is adaptive, I’m not engaging in criticism for criticism’s sake. Models have provided the evidence needed for co-evolutionary theories to be taken seriously — by invoking co-evolution, we remind ourselves of the usefulness of models.

    If sickle-cell allele frequency benefits through the use of models, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to claim that art – in all it’s complexity and functional possibilities – requires the same treatment. In fact, models hold the promise of parsing out the circumstances in which art accelerates or slows genetic change and how art feedbacks on the human genome. These factors, among others, should be investigated before the debate is over. I never claimed that we cannot know X, Y, or Z – I suggested mechanisms for knowing them more intimately.

    If an appeal to the imaginative nature of our existence is the most specific account of art’s adaptiveness we can hope for, then so be it. I’d like to point out that Joe’s piece is incredibly interesting and presents a very plausible explanation of art’s adaptive features — and my first response should have stated this more explicitly. As someone with a background in the humanities and the sciences, I’m hopeful that the full picture gives art a place among other, more widely-accepted evolutionary phenomena. But I suspect there is much more to learn about the story.

  • I am grateful to have Joseph Carroll’s post in our Forum, as I was grateful to have read his recent commanding summary of the state of the field of evolutionary literary study (which I will for the purposes of efficiency baptize EVOLIST), with its authoritative account of the fundamental premises, aims, and goals of this emergent—emergent what? school of thought? point of view? discipline? One of the most interesting things about EVOLIST is the fact that, without having determined what exactly it is, it is now, on Carroll’s account, poised to flood the market, and this at a time when many university presses are cutting back on their lists in literary criticism. At the very least, EVOLIST is an “approach” like Marxism, feminism, new historicism, or deconstruction; at the most, it has ambitions to change the whole “paradigm within which literary study is now conducted,” to “establish a new alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to subsume all other possible approaches to literary study.” This sounds almost apocalyptic, and Carroll’s conclusion explicitly summons up a vision of lions and lambs; but as I will suggest below, Carroll and his colleagues might wish to aim even higher, beyond literary study. They should, I will argue, want not just to exploit the account of human nature now emerging from evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, but to make their own contribution to the new synthesis, giving that synthetic account what other disciplines cannot, an explanation of the human drive to produce and consume art.

    The previous paragraph is taken from a longer essay I’ve written, “Disciplinary Fitness.” That piece concludes as follows: I look forward to having EVOLIST, a formidable arrow, in the quiver of responses to the ongoing deterioration in the status of the humanities, and literary study in particular. I do, however, have one reservation. Great literary criticism impresses us with the power, richness, and responsiveness of the critic’s mind. Reading it, we not only say, “How true!” but also, “What a genius—I would never have seen that on my own.” Great criticism has a performative, which is to say, an individual character that takes shape in the confrontation of a superior mind with a powerful text. We think of “the scientific community” as having a natural authority over the contrarian individual scientist; for the humanities, by contrast, consensus never outfaces a brilliant individual performance, and often serves as the ground against which the value of that performance stands out. Will EVOLIST, in its desire to accommodate criticism to science, still be able to generate great criticism, or will we have to surrender our appetite for critical performance along with our primitive delight in other non-adaptive behaviors?

  • Brian objects to attaching the word “parasitic” to the term “by-product” as Pinker uses it. The term is of course a metaphor. The connotations of the metaphor are, I think, appropriate to Pinker’s notion of art. By-products can be adaptively neutral. Bones are white because calcium is white; calcium provides rigidity and hardness for bones; the whiteness is a by-product, neither harmful nor helpful. The arts as Pinker conceives them, in contrast, are wastefully expensive. The consume energy and occupy attention that could more profitably be spent in activities that directly contribute to fitness. They are less like the whiteness of bone than like the use of recreational drugs, a parallel Pinker himself uses to illustrate his concept of the arts. Using recreational drugs can be likened to the behavior of rats that have electrodes implanted in the pleasure centers of the brain, with a connection to a lever that provides little jolts of pleasure when the rats press the lever. Rats so equipped will press the lever continuously, ignoring food, water, and sex. In a case like this, the brain can be said to be parasitizing itself.


    Brian, Ellen, and Bob are of course correct that some rudimentary forms of imaginative behavior had to have preceded the more full-blown kinds of artistic behavior that make themselves evident in the cave paintings and the early figurines. The same logic applies to that question that applies to the evolution of language. We still don’t know exactly at what pace language evolved, but we can be fairly certain that some form of proto-language preceded the full linguistic capacity of modern humans.

    Recognizing that full-blown artistic powers had to have had more rudimentary forms does not, however, have any very direct bearing on the question Brian raises—the question as to what adaptive function the arts might have had, either in their rudimentary or their full-blown forms. If we invoke the idea of a co-evolutionary process, that idea applies equally either to the hypothesis I formulate and to the hypothesis Brian formulates. It applies equally no matter how fast or slow artistic behavior might have evolved. And it applies equally whether we suppose that the advent of modern human cognitive powers were relatively sudden (a “revolution”) or gradual.

    A little red ochre, chimpanzees hooting and dancing in chorus—vs. the cave paintings, carved figurines, then all of modern art and sculpture. Two million years of simple stone tools, scarcely varying in shape—vs. bows and arrows, harpoons, kayaks, sewn clothing, permanent dwellings, complex trade routes, and a rapid colonization of virtually every habitable niche on earth.

    Are humans of the past 100,000 years really indistinguishable in behavior from their ancient hominin ancestors? Once we identify a little red ochre, can we declare with confidence that its users were cognitively on a par with Michelangelo? I doubt this very much, but as I said in my posting, the timing, pace, and character of specifically human cognitive capacities is an empirical question. Mithen made a brilliantly suggestive early contribution to that question. Much research has been done in the thirteen years since The Prehistory of the Mind. Nicholas Wade’s book Before the Dawn summarizes some of the more recent research, and is well worth the attention of anyone interested in human cognitive evolution.

    Brian offers no new evidence or arguments on this question. He merely emphasizes the continuity between the earliest imaginable human artistic behavior and the most complex and sophisticated modern artistic behavior. That there is evolutionary continuity is of course beyond all doubt. It is as certain as the fact that every individual living today, of all species, is a descendant in an unbroken chain of descent. Every living individual had ancestors that succeeded in reproducing. It could not be otherwise. Every modern form of behavior had antecedents. It could not be otherwise.

    Recognizing that all complex processes necessarily have rudimentary phases and continuous forms of development need not oblige us to overlook or minimize the difference between the hooting of chimpanzees and the Vienna Boys’ Choir,. Humans are in many ways similar to chimpanzees and indeed to all living things, and yet, humans are also cognitively singular. Unless we recognize that singularity, we are not going to make the kind of progress we need to make in understanding culture and art.


    Brian paraphrases my hypothesis about the adaptive function of the arts. “The profusion of images the human imagination produces makes it hard for individuals to know what to do.” A “profusion of images” gives an impoverished account of human cognitive complexity, which is, I think, better described in the formulation I used in the posting: “To the modern human mind, alone among all minds in the animal kingdom, the world does not present itself as a series of rigidly defined stimuli releasing a narrow repertory of stereotyped behaviors. It presents itself as a vast and potentially perplexing array of percepts, inferences, causal relations, contingent possibilities, analogies, contrasts, and hierarchical conceptual structures.” Cognitive complexity cannot usefully be reduced to a “profusion of images.” And indeed, if we so reduce it, we can hardly make an intelligible statement about how the arts help us live our lives. “Art produces images that counter the profusion of images” would be a senseless hypothesis. “Art produces emotionally and imaginatively intelligible patterns amid the astonishing and potentially overwhelming cognitive complexity of human experience” might or might not be correct—I think it is correct—but it is at least not senseless.

    Brian acknowledges some cogency to the historical description distinguishing the early EP model of massive modularity and later, more complex and sophisticated models of human cognitive architecture. I’m not sure, though, that Brian does not himself remain at least half in thrall to the early EP conception of the mind. As I remarked in the original posting, that early EP conception bore within it a notion of humans as adaptation-executing automata. That same conception seems to inform Brian’s description of the efficiency of the emotions.

    “Emotions are evolved motivational systems. They have a long evolutionary history (three hundred million years plus) and seem to work very efficiently for most individuals in most species, unless hijacked by addictive substances or confronted with unbearable pain, loss or helplessness. They ‘organize’ themselves with astonishing swiftness, often much faster than conscious thought, to respond to particular situations” (emphasis added).

    Brian seems not to be conscious of the prevalence in humans of emotional confusion and ambiguity. He seems not to recognize the difficulty human often have in sorting through their feelings and making decisions about complex moral problems, conflicting desires, and conflicting demands among competing forms of allegiance to multiple social groups and multiple ethical codes. He seems instead to envision human emotions as operating pretty much on a par with those of “most individuals in most species.”

    In “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?” Tooby and Cosmides modify their own earlier view of the arts. In contrast to Brian’s sanguine vision of untroubled emotional single-mindedness, they argue that Alice in Wonderland and Hamlet both “focus on an evolutionarily ancient but quintessentially human problem, the struggle for coherence and sanity amidst radical uncertainty” (19). This vision of the human condition accords rather better both with the literary tradition and with common experience than the vision implicit in Brian’s description of the evolution of human emotions.

    Chimpanzees presumably don’t concern themselves much with moral ambiguity or with making decisions about conflicting desires and allegiances. Humans do, and in making such decisions, they often have quite conscious reference to works of imagination that provide “touchstones” for their beliefs and values. Even when they don’t have conscious reference to touchstones, it is empirically demonstrable that humans are influenced by the imaginative structures that surround them.

    Experiments are conducted every day to determine how people respond to specific kinds of imaginative cues. Were it not the case that people respond to such cues, advertising would not be a multi-billion dollar industry employing sophisticated artistic techniques to capture the imagination of people and thus sway their choices.

    The image of human nature that emerges from Brian’s commentary is something like that of the early EP conception. In this image, human emotions operate swiftly, automatically, efficiently, keying in to adaptive dispositions so firmly established that they are almost unconscious or at least operate in the kind of closed, modular way that characterizes the autonomic nervous system and highly conserved perceptual processes like those of vision.

    Within this conception, the arts indeed would have little place. They would not offer us emotionally charged images or performative sequences (dance, music) that guide our behavior. In Brian’s alternative scenario, they would still be adaptive, but only because they set us free from the automaticity of emotionally activated behavior. They would generate new possibilities, new cognitive options, liberating us from the rigid tracks laid down by massive regularities in the ecology of the Pleistocene.

    This alternative hypothesis simply doesn’t square with ordinary aesthetic experience. Some art stimulates through novelty, gives us the shock of pleasurable surprise, opens up new horizons, makes new connections among diverse domains. Though Brian deprecates Mithen’s bold and seminal speculations, that notion of how art works is in fact central to Mithen’s argument in The Prehistory of the Mind. But art doesn’t always and only emphasize novelty. As Ellen Dissanayake has often explained, art is a central component in rituals that cement traditional beliefs and values in tribal cultures. Art continues to serve similar functions in technically more advanced societies.

    If art serves to modulate behavior, it would presumably serve similar functions in proto-artistic forms of behavior. Brian mentions rhythmically coordinated hooting among chimpanzees. Would it not be the case that rhythmically coordinated vocal behavior serves an adaptive function in creating a rudimentary sense of band membership—of belonging to a social group? There seems a direct continuity between that kind of coordination and the regimented movements that create a sense of mass collective identity in human groups, for instance, the crowds filmed by Leni Riefenstahl at the Nuremberg rallies.

    Art can indeed stimulate us with novelty. But it can also reinforce old and familiar themes and feelings. The common element in these contrasting uses is that art makes emotional and imaginative sense of our experience. This idea is really not at all hard to grasp, or to confirm by consulting one’s own experience. Still, it might be useful to cite an example. I’ll use the example I also used in the target article for Style, “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literature,” as follows:

    In an essay on the changing conditions of life for African Americans, the essayist and novelist Charles Johnson designates a psychological function for narrative. When I say that we live in the imagination, I mean something very close to what Johnson has in mind:

    “A good story always has a meaning (and sometimes layers of meaning); it also has an epistemological mission: namely, to show us something. It is an effort to make the best sense we can of the human experience, and I believe that we base our lives, actions, and judgments as often on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (even when they are less than empirically sound or verifiable) as we do on the severe rigor of reason.”

    Johnson is speaking of stories on the level of master narratives, specifically here the historical narrative of African American experience from the landing of the first slave ships, through Emancipation and Civil Rights, to the present era. A story on this level is not about specific game plans for achieving local goals. It works “quietly in the background of every conversation we have about black people, even when it is not fully articulated or expressed.” This particular story has a historical basis, but, as Johnson makes clear, it becomes effective for the imagination only by being shaped into a dramatic narrative, with protagonists, conflicts, and a plot charged with emotional tension. The imaginative structure of the master narrative is constituted and constantly reinforced by more particular narratives—by memoirs, novels, plays, the rhetoric of ministers and politicians, and by the stories individuals tell of their experiences.

  • This is one of my faviourites subjects, lovely post

    ‘Evolutionary:”Dutton states that the type of painting that is preferred by most people around the globe is, of course, the landscape, and a very particular landscape — one with water, food sources, trees, hiding places, and a path to perhaps another source of food or comfort. It is, in short, the savanna, the home of our Pleistocene ancestors during the period in which we became recognizably human. Our preference for this environment is wired into our brains for “savannas contain more protein per square mile than any other landscape type” as well as offering protection from predators (quickly climb up the tree).

    On the instinct side: “I think that art might replace the
    playing activity kids do everyday and grown ups stop doing, Art has pretty similar characteristics to playing, it is exploratory, it is fun, it involves discovering, it involves learning and creating, and so on.”

    more info:

  • Re Joe’s response to “parasitic byproduct”: It seems odd to use two technical biological terms side by side, one metaphorical and the other not. And it still seems unfair to characterize Pinker as hostile to art. Pinker regularly alludes with pleasure to both popular and high art, and assumes his readers will derive pleasure from these references. I cannot see how this equates to his viewing the arts as “wastefully expensive” (Pinker’s stress in fact is usually on the cheapness of the arts, since he tends to think first of mass-produced modern art). Pinker fully acknowledges the pleasure art induces in humans, including himself, but he thinks that that pleasure is not of demonstrable survival or reproductive advantage.

    Joe asks, responding especially to me: “Are humans of the past 100,000 years really indistinguishable in behavior from their ancient hominin ancestors?” Who said they were? Not me, nor Ellen, nor Robert. I mention Zappa and chimpanzee hooting with a full consciousness how different they are from one another—or even how different Zappa is from Stravinsky, let alone Mozart.

    The difference between human behavior now and 100,000 years ago is not in itself sufficient evidence, all the same, for a cognitive revolution—although I’m pleased to see that the dates proposed for that revolution now stretch from 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, rather than being confidently pinpointed, as not so long ago, to an abrupt transition 40,000 or 50,000 years ago. Is “revolution” still the right word for something that could have happened over 60,000 years?

    Compounding at a rate of 0.01% interest per annum (or only one part in 10,000) gets you very little additional return per year but over 100,000 years produces more than 22,000 times the principal. If we reduce the compounding to once a generation, and calculate on the basis of 25-year generations in the human past, the result is still over 50 times the original sum. If we reduce the rate to 0.005%, one part in 20,000, which seems a very modest change per generation, given the annual change in fitness of, say, Darwin’s finches, we still arrive at 1.22 times the original sum. Extremely gradual and extremely minor changes would be sufficient to account for the kinds of differences we see.

    Joe writes, in apparent challenge to me, “it is empirically demonstrable that humans are influenced by the imaginative structures that surround them.” Who disagrees? That art can influence minds is the core of my own argument. But I think that art begins to influence minds at a much earlier stage, phylogenically and ontogenically, and in much wider ways, than I understand Joe to be claiming.

    I think art helps speed understanding and extend imaginations. Joe seems to think art’s prime function is to enable decisions (presumably decisions more often advantageous than not) under uncertainty. No doubt art can have this effect. But I think I am far more often interested in and moved by art than can be accounted for by its occasional capacity to contribute to my decision-making under uncertainty. In fact, in cases I can recall where I was racked for months by uncertainty, my knowledge of art—of the novels that came to mind—tugged me in contrary directions just as much as everything else I knew.

    What is it about the design of works of art that enables them to allow us to make decisions in life more often correctly than we would without them, even when different works of art can point in very different directions? How will knowing Michelangelo’s David or a Bach fugue enable me to decide what to do? About what? When I come to a decision point, I use my emotions as well as whatever other representations come to mind. If the decision is difficult, how do I speed up the decision or increase its chance of validity by searching through my pool of artistic representations to find the ones that may be relevant to my problem? How do I find the rulings of the relevant works? Artists will often strive to say something different from their predecessors or peers. How do I adjudicate between artists if they differ on the same topic? Individual works often strive for polysemy, for plurisignification, for a penumbra of implication. Which sense do I choose even within one work?


    Geoffrey Harpham wonders about the fate of individual critical acumen in evolutionary literary studies. Others have wondered in recent reviews about the fate of individual artistry in an evolutionary perspective. Nothing suggests that individual artistry or critical acumen would have a lesser role in evolutionary literary studies. Indeed in On the Origin of Stories I offer at some length an evolutionary account of individual genius, partly because I think recent critical trends have denied or underplayed its causal role. While I was talking about artists—specifically about Dr. Seuss—the arguments apply, mutatis mutandis, to critics.

    Professor Harpham’s opposition between scientific consensus and humanistic individuality reflects what I think a common misperception. Robert Root-Bernstein, in his important “The Sciences and Arts Share a Common Creative Aesthetic” (in Alfred Tauber, ed., The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996) and elsewhere, shows with numerous examples that for great scientists the standard opposition is a misapprehension. He quotes and glosses the Nobel astrophyics laureate Subramnayan Chandrasekhar: “Chandrasekhar makes abundantly clear in his book, Truth and Beauty, that imagination becomes manifested in styles of scientific creativity that are just as unique as those of any artist. No one could have written On the Origin of Species had Darwin not lived, nor Two New Sciences had Galileo turned to other pursuits. These works are, as much as any work of literature or art, individual, idiosyncratic, and historically unique” (53). He cites the great Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann: “Even as a musician can recognize his Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert after hearing the first few bars, so can a mathematician recognize his Cauchy, Gauss, Jacobi, Helmholtz or Kirchoff after the first few pages” (57) and quotes many others to similar effect.

  • Bill Benzon

    I’ve been casting about for something useful to say about the current argument between Joe and Brian about, well, about the mind. Alas, the best I can do is: You can’t get there from here. I don’t see anything in their discussion that looks like a model of imagination, decision-mkaing, motivational systems, learning, what have you, at least not as such models have been constructed in the cognitive sciences over the last four or five decades or so – a criticism Stepen Pinker offered in his review of The Literary Animal. The issues are important, but, to me at least, their argument seems to be about airy nothings.

    I tend to agree with Joe, that Brian’s decision-in-the-moment criticism of his position is beside the point. As for Brian’s belief that “art helps speed understanding and extend imaginations,” the last seems to me all but a truism that is quite consistent with Joe’s position and on the former, I want to see how the mechanisms work. We’ve certainly got various studies showing that training in the arts facilitates learning in other disciplines, so I’m inclined to believe Brian is correct. But as to whether or not that’s biologically why we practice the arts, as to whether or not that specific ability gave a genetic advantage to one population of hominids over another – I see no current way to disentangle that from from a host of other things that might have been going on somewhere between 50K and 100K years or so ago.

    I can see no way around the need to develop explicit models, models that can be subjected to mathematical analysis, embodied in computational simulation, and subjected to observational confirmation.

  • Here is a followup note on the question of empirically testing adaptationist hypotheses–this again from the on-line discussion following the conference in Auckland in December 2006:

    Any universal and reliably developing phenomenon could be casually deprecated as a by-product or “spandrel.” Even complex functional structure offers no absolutely clinching proof of adaptive design. If one is determined on a radical skepticism about adaptive hypotheses–as Gould was, for instance–the by-product hypothesis is a default hypothesis. But in mainstream evolutionary thinking, the by-product hypothesis has no default status. Quite the contrary. If a behavior is universal and reliably developing; if it also has complex functional structure; and if the behavior produced by that structure can be reasonably and usefully integrated into a larger set of serious and scientifically grounded explanatory hypotheses about human evolution, the default assumption is adaptationist. (See Ernst Mayr, “How To Carry Out the Adaptationist Program?” The American Naturalist 121 [1983]: 326-28; Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow, Introduction to The Adapted Mind, 9-10). This is the core of the theoretical argument made by Tooby and Cosmides in “The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” and they are themselves merely following Darwin, Hamilton, Williams, Dawkins, and others. Pinker’s own general theory is fundamentally derivative from that of Tooby and Cosmides, and in his main theoretical expositions of human adaptive designs, he himself propounds this conception of adaptive design.

    In a note on adaptationist hypotheses and testability, I said, “I argue that literature provides emotionally saturated images for a psyche designed to assimilate such images and use them for evaluative, affective, and ultimately behavioral orientation.”

    One essential component in testing this hypothesis is to test for whether the human psyche is in fact “designed” to assimilate such images. That kind of test would be a test of mechanism, and it would be parallel to a test as to whether human physiology is designed to assimilate sugar.

    There is already a good deal of evidence that can be used for the purpose of assessing this question in a preliminary way and that can be also be used to develop more concentrated, focused tests. Consider just the more limited case of fictional narrative. Mark Turner and others have assembled a good deal of evidence from cognitive science indicating that the mind is designed so as to process narrative forms–intentional agents overcoming obstacles to achieve goals. It is biased in favor of such forms, and tends to think in those terms. In the co-authored book we’re working on now (Carroll, Johnson, Gottschall, Kruger), we cite a number of empirical studies relevant to that issue, and Scalise-Sugiyama, in her article in The Literary Animal, cites more.

    The mind is organized in such a way that it engages affectively with depictions of intentional agents overcoming obstacles and pursuing goals. That is an empirical result of empirical studies, most of them still pretty rudimentary, but still, empirical, and with definite results. Those results are evidence in support of part of an adaptationist hypothesis about the function of narrative, specifically the hypothesis that the mind is designed in such a way as to assimilate narrative. The second part of that hypothesis is that the mind uses such images for evaluative, affective, and ultimately behavioral orientation. That seems so obvious that one might not think it even worth testing, but of course nothing is really obvious–beyond dispute–in this area, and there is a rich field open for empirical testing of the ways in which the mind uses emotionally charged images for the purposes of influencing feelings, attitudes, and actions.

    Here are two testable areas of study: the way the mind is designed to assimilate narrative, and the way narrative influences values and behavior. Each taken by itself might seem like a pointless area of cognitive research, just something someone chooses to study, but with no particular aim in mind. If one puts them together into the specific hypothesis with which I began this note, what one gets is a large chunk of a whole, testable hypothesis about the adaptive function of narrative. The one other large chunk necessary to support or disconfirm this hypothesis would involve reconstructing palaeolithic conditions and locating these two areas of evidence in relation to what we know about the evolution of the human mind. We know a whole lot more about that now than we did ten years ago, and we are learning fast. In assessing possible “scenarios,” one must of course weigh alternative hypotheses and dispassionately consider goodness of fit and explanatory adequacy. That puts this specific problem exactly on a par with all other adaptationist hypotheses, whether physical, social, or cognitive.

    So, we have three distinct problem areas that are to be put together in a clearly envisioned manner to test the plausibility and explanatory power of a quite specific adaptationist hypothesis. The three problem areas are how the mind is designed to assimilate narrative, the way narrative influences behavior, and the way both these areas can be located within our developing knowledge of human cognitive evolution. All three of these areas are wide open for empirical testing, and supporting or disconfirming the hypothesis would requires complex combinations of evidence from all three areas.

    This is the sort of thing I had in mind in talking about conceiving of the adaptationist problem as a complex, multi-part problem. It is not by any means an unsolvable problem, nor has it been posed in ways that render solution impossible.

    To make substantial progress toward empirical validation of hypotheses in this area, what we really need is just a dozen or a few dozen highly capable people concentrating on the problem. These people would have to identify specific design features of the arts (arts individually and collectively). They would have to identify the specific structure of the psychological processes involved in producing and consuming artistic constructs, and they would have to identify the specific formal features of the arts that mediate the production and consumption of these constructs. We need people who understand how to identify the formal features and correlate them with psychological structures, and we need people who are able to make constrained connections between these formal-psychological structures and palaeolithic conditions.

    Actually, we already have people who are doing all of those things. We just don’t have enough of us to make very rapid progress at the present time. But we’re working on it, and not in vain.

    The main point I’d make is that the problem itself is ripe for solution; it just needs the resources, in people and attention, necessary to work out the details of a solution.


    I had one further revelation, or so it seems to me, about the whole adaptationist issue with respect to the arts. Pinker fundamentally misunderstands the concept of “by-products” or spandrels, and that misunderstanding throws a monkey-wrench into the whole discussion. If we get rid of the monkey-wrench, we can see the problem clearly, and it is only by seeing the problem clearly that we can approach it in ways that admit of “testing” and of empirically valid solutions..

    The idea of a taste for cheesecake as a “by-product” of the human taste for fat and sugar is fundamentally misleading. A by-product is an adventitious aspect of some adaptive characteristic–for instance, the color of blood. The redness of blood does not contribute to its functional capacities but is rather an adventitious aspect of its functional capacities. The taste for cheesecake, in contrast, is not an adventitious aspect of the human mechanism geared toward consuming fats and sweets. The tastiness of cheesecake is a hyper-stimulus for an adaptive mechanism.

    The human gustatory and digestive system is not designed specifically for the consumption of cheesecake, but it is designed specifically for the consumption of fats and sugars. Cheesecake is merely a special instance of fats and sugars. In a modern ecology, the consumption of too much fat and sugar is harmful, but the human psychological and physiological mechanisms geared toward the consumption of fat and sugar are nonetheless adaptations. In a long-enough evolutionary span, those adaptations might prove maladaptive. (So it goes with most species, the vast majority of which have become extinct. All their adaptations, by definition, became maladaptive.) In given ecological contexts, even at present, the mechanisms geared toward the consumption of fat and sugar are still beneficial and thus, presumably, “adaptive.” Adaptiveness can be measured only by inclusive fitness, and we can seldom assess the long-term fitness consequences of a current behavior.

    If one compares art to cheesecake (the arts in general or literature specifically), the obvious parallel to draw would be between cheesecake as a “hyper-stimulus” and the oral antecedents of literature as hyper-stimuli. Even if one accepts the cogency of the parallelism, neither cheesecake nor literature could most accurately or plausibly be designated as “by-products.” (Ellen has a good article on hyper-stimuli. I’ll talk here mostly about literature, but I think parallel arguments apply to all the arts.)

    If literature and its oral antecedents were to be interpreted as hyper-stimuli for adaptive human cognitive dispositions, the question as to the adaptiveness of these hyper-stimuli would have to be left to long-range evolutionary history, and atomic technology will probably render all such considerations moot. Enjoy while you can. If the Bomb doesn’t get us, human genetic technology will in any case probably complicate and confound all “natural” adaptive tendencies beyond all recognition.

    Again, once we have cleared away basic confusions, the chief question we have to answer is this: can the oral antecedents of literature best be understood, within an evolutionary context, by segregating them into component parts, as hyper-stimuli? Or can they best be understood by regarding them as an integrated set of features that in their integrated form constituted a distinct suite of adaptively functional mechanisms–that is, whether they are themselves an “adaptation”?

    When the question is posed in this way, we are back to the question of adaptive “design,” and that question can be analyzed, as I suggested in an email a couple of days ago, into three problem areas. I restricted the question specifically to narrative, but again, I think parallel arguments can be made for all the arts, and for art in general. The three problem areas are: (1) how the mind is designed to assimilate narrative, (2) the way narrative influences behavior, and (3) the way both these areas can be located within our developing knowledge of human cognitive evolution. As I said in the previous email, all three areas are wide open for empirical testing.

  • Bill Benzon

    Joe has now identified me with a rather narrower conception of cognitive science than I have. Since I have been referring to Pinker’s review of The Literary Animal, that is perhaps not unreasonable. However, I now feel the need to say a little about what has been my practice for over three decades.

    In 1978 I filed a disseration on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory.” Since cognitive science was a rather new development at that time – the term itself was coined by Christopher Longuet-Higgins in 1973 – I devoted a chapter to explaining what cognitive science was. My account was necessarily idiosyncratic as cognitive science has never been more than a loosely associated congerie of themes and interests ultimately impelled by the idea of computation. In particular, I produced an account that was as much about what I needed to account for literature as it was a generalization over the loosely organized literature commonly associated with that term. I argued that cognitive science was about investigating a five-way correspondence between: (1) computational mechanisms, (2) behavior, (3) neuroanatomy and physiology, (4) ontogeny, and (5) phylogeny (for a very preliminary sketch of such a psychology, look here; note that feeling is foundational in that model).

    Note that I included (3) not only to acknowledge the need for a physical substrate for (1), which is obvious enough, but because I needed to deal with emotion, also obvious, but not central to cognitive investigation. I should also add that, while the affective considerations taken up by, e.g., Damasio or Panksepp may be outside the bounds of computation, narrowly conceived as an imitation of what digital computers do, they certainly are not outside the bounds of computational modeling considered as a general mode of investigation.

    Two years completing my disseration I had published an article in MLN in which I constructed a cognitive model of the semantic structure of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129.* That model showed how the sonnet took advantage of an abstract structure over the basic materials of sensorimotor perception, action, desire, and emotion. As such it could be taken as a detailed example of the position Joe has been advocating. For that matter, I suppose the same could be said for my more recent work on “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”

    I stick by my assertion that much of Joe’s dispute with Brian is over matters that would benefit from clarification through explicit computational models.

    * Benzon, W. L. (1976) “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics.” MLN, 91, 952-982.

  • Robert Storey

    This will probably change no one’s mind, least of all Joe’s, but the retired have a lot of time on their hands, so here goes anyway.

    Joe writes (in a paragraph that, tellingly, seems reminiscent of the young Wordsworth waxing eloquent about the consolations of Nature) that art “guides and influences us” and, in an earlier post, that it “makes emotional and imaginative sense of our experience.” That it does, without a doubt. But to good or bad ends? Being the confirmed Victorian that he is, Joe—recall his account of HARD TIMES in the Pinker review—would opt, without hesitation, for the former. But I have my serious reservations.

    Hitler called Wagner’s PARSIFAL his “Bible.” “A clear misunderstanding of the opera!” the Wagnerians would sniff. It is not. The catastrophic consequences of mingling bad blood with good—i.e., the fluids of the swarthy Kundry with those of the Grail Knights—are manifest in PARSIFAL, and the lesson was not lost on the young Hitler. Hemingway’s SUN ALSO RISES inspired, as we all know, veritable legions of a lost generation, and it did so by dividing the Code-breakers (most prominently the dumb Jew Robert Cohn) from the Code-respecters. Who can read T.S. Eliot today without squirming over his depiction of women? Ditto Hemingway. Even the transcendent Goethe is not above suspicion: What can the end of FAUST I mean except that Gretchen was a necessary (if unfortunate) speedbump on the road to Faust’s enlightenment? I don’t have to multiply examples, do I? What a colleague of mine calls the P.C. Police have been doing that in their critical articles for a good number of years now. Show me a writer that you think passes muster, and I’ll expose all the skeletons in his or her closet. It’s not hard to do: writers are, after all, human, they’re not gurus (at least most of them do not think of themselves in that way), and their job is not to “guide” impressionable youth or their elders but to produce pictures of their world (all writers think of themselves as realists, Robbe-Grillet has said) in an artful way. Like Brian (as Joe would have it) and the rest of us, they cannot see beyond their limitations, although they try, like the rest of us, to be as honest as they can. Such an enterprise is necessarily an historically bounded one and consequently doomed from the start. When I was in my Jack-Kerouac Period, I thought there was no greater truth than being on the road. When I discovered Thomas Mann, I pulled down all the shades and sat before my candle-lit desk with sacred pen in my consecrated hand.

    Joe I think would answer that we can expect such minor blemishes on the great tapestry of art and that the experienced reader will give them no mind. But literature doesn’t merely indulge such ethical lapses; it invites them. Comedy, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, can make palatable ANY human behavior—even the murder of the innocent (v. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE). What an irony it is that comedy has been taken to be a “corrective” genre. And then of course there is the very worrisome problem of interpretation. Joyce thought that Buck Mulligan would ultimately strike the mature reader as “tiresome,” but Stephen does that to a lot of his readers as well. If literature is a “guide,” then it is, as Brian says, a very confusing one. Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe. And why should we do that? Because Carlyle tells us to? That eccentric old fart? Only connect. This from a guy who wrote only porn at the end of his life. Literature is not a guide. Or, if it is, it is one only for the naïve, or the willfully self-blinded (whose library contains no other books but D’Annunzio’s, for example), or the confirmed crank, like the older Tolstoy (who thought that Chekhov’s plays were abominations—though not such abominations as Shakespeare’s). Yes, it broadens our understanding of ourselves as a species, advertently or in-. But is this understanding adaptive for the individual? Not necessarily. It’s not adaptive to discover, over and over again, that your understanding, not of the species but of Number One, is very, VERY imperfect. Because after the Mann Period, look out: the Beckett Period is on the horizon.

    These may seem odd words from someone who has defended the idea that art, including literature, emerged as an evolutionary adaptation. But we need to separate ART from NARRATIVE. I think that Joe confuses the two. I squirm over the narrative behind THE WASTE LAND (beware Woman, that Belladonna); I can’t read a line of the poem without knowing that I’m in the presence of a very great artist. Ditto Wagner. Ditto Hemingway. Art—literary art—makes narrative “special,” to use Ellen’s term. It makes us ignore all the blemishes and omissions and lapses because—in the greatest art—we have been made to feel awe. (Awesome art needn’t be ethically responsible; anyone who has ever visited Spain’s Valley of the Fallen and seen the art of Franco’s regime can testify to that.) And I think that awe is, at bottom, what we have been genetically predisposed to want from art. What does the phrase “High Art” mean but the purest of the pure? PARADISE LOST, Chartres Cathedral, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Sistine Chapel: these are the yardsticks by which we unconsciously measure other art—that art in which we rejoice when we feel awe descending. (I recall the narrator’s remark in a novel by Sebastian Faulks: “Think of Sibelius Five, when the earth’s weight seems to shift on its axis in the closing moments.”) In its headlong rush to postmodernism, art has in great part lost this drive to the sublime (though not completely: witness the irresistible force of Anselm Kiefer’s work, or of the breath-taking splendor of the Gehry museum in Bilbao), but I think that early art was our ancestors’ blind groping towards it. They painted and scarred and tattooed their bodies, they drummed and danced and chanted, and the earth shifted on its axis. Why did they need this shift? I’ve spelled out my own conclusions elsewhere, so I won’t rehearse them at length here; but since it may be instructive for those involved in the debate, I’ll give my grounds for disagreeing with other explanations.

    The grounds of my disagreement with Joe should be clear. With Brian and Ellen (and the hitherto silent Jeffrey Miller) I have not so much disagreement as the need for an extension of their arguments. Yes, play—especially mother/infant play—was essential in the acquiring of an art instinct, and, yes too, without the valorizing of the exotic that sexual selection bequeathed to the species no art could ever have arisen. But other species play and respond to the exotic without the need for art, and they don’t seem to lack ways of ensuring cohesiveness within groups. Thus my conclusion: art must have arisen out of a human need that couldn’t be met in any other way, and that need must have been something very serious and urgent. Where did I read the reflections of a chimpanzee researcher who was held back, as he (or she?) said, “on ethical grounds” from divulging to his language-educated laboratory brood that each and every one of them would eventually die? I can’t remember, but the remark has stuck with me. Surely that realization must have scared the daylights out of early humanity, and only those who found ways to cope with it—i.e., to deny it, with religion—could have survived happily (and therefore adaptively) to live and reproduce another day. The arts were key in this coping process, since without the arts there could be no ritual, and without ritual (as the anthropologists Alcorta and Socis argue) there is no religion.

    As I’ve said before, I may be wrong—all of us may be—but I’ve tried to open my mind up as wide as it can go, and this has been the result. It’s not PARADISE LOST, but it’s a narrative along the same lines. Maybe more along the lines of PARADISE REGAINED: when the earth shifts on its axis (even a little bit—say, in Alice Hoffman), Eden has been recovered, and for some of us that is enough.

  • Robert Storey

    Aha. Now I see, Joe, what it is you’ve been getting at. I had mistaken your assertion that literature is a “guide” to mean that literature is a MORAL guide. No, that isn’t what you had—have—in mind. But I also see that what you have in mind rests upon a fallacy-inducing ambiguity.

    When you (following Charles Johnson) assert that human behavior rests upon “the stories that we tell ourselves [about ourselves],” you are getting the (inappropriate) benefit of saying two things at once: (1) our behavior rests upon the stories we, as a species, tell about ourselves as a species; and (2) our behavior rests upon the stories we, as individuals, tell about ourselves as individuals. But (1) does not imply (2). As you point out in your last reply to my last response, literature indulges, even sanctions, behavior much more reprehensible than I myself seemed to imagine (Nabokov, Burgess). In fact, you agree there, as you have agreed elsewhere, that, like human life, literature runs the complete gamut of behavioral possibilities, from those in Sade to those in, say, the New Testament. These are all the stories that the species tells itself, and they’re all fanned out for it, in the mature reader’s imagination, like a large hand of playing cards, murmuring Take and Benefit. They’re all available for the “total vision” of life that “guides” us. This is in fact what I meant in my last response when I said that literature “broadens” the species’ understanding of itself—precisely because it offers a card, as it were, for every behavioral possibility of that species.

    But the stories that we as individuals tell ourselves are not synonymous with the ones we tell ourselves as a species. As individuals, WE GUIDE LITERATURE, not the other way around. Let me give you an example: Sam Beckett, being a scholarly type as a youth (and blossoming writer), had a plethora of imaginative possibilities available to him as “guides” in the forms (among other things) of Continental and American philosophy. And yet, as a thinker assembling a “total vision of life” (to be found by his readers in his PROUST and his early stories and [eventually] his novels and plays), he quite young seized upon one philosopher, and one philosopher only, whom he never abandoned: Schopenhauer. Why is that? After all, everyone from John Dewey to (heaven forbid) Ayn Rand (and beyond) was at his disposal. He chose one. Why? Because the “stories we tell ourselves” as a species do not come with differentiated emotional valences: like playing cards, they’re in themselves emotionally neutral. In other words, they offer no inherent reason for our choosing one of them over the other. What differentiates them and gives them emotional weight, one AGAINST the other, is the temperament of the “player.” Beckett chose Schopenhauer because Beckett was Beckett, that intractable individual, and the philosophical “story” of human life most congenial to that particular individual was Schopenhauer. And this is the reason that literature AS A SOURCE OF VARIEGATED NARRATIVES cannot be regarded as “adaptive”: those narratives no more “guide” the individual adaptively toward enhanced survival and reproduction than anything else in that individual’s life—his brute experiences, his reading of the newspaper, his overhearing of chance remarks. To say that literature, in its cornucopia of narratives, guides life is tantamount to saying that life guides life. It’s saying nothing. In the end, we’re back to the mysteries of personality-formation—and the vagaries that the life-history funnels that personality through. In my youth, personality dictated that I choose Jack Kerouac over Milton; in my early manhood, it threw over Kerouac for Mann; later it was Beckett that my blind hungry temperament sought. Literature was not “guiding” me; it was simply offering in strong light the behavioral possibilities that I, in my unconscious but temperamentally headstrong way, was stumbling through.

    This, as the late Jacko would say, will be my final curtain-call.

  • Thanks to all who have participated in this discussion. I see some broad areas of consensus. Humans naturally, universally generate imaginative, artistic representations. Those representations engage evolved cognitive dispositions and fulfill deep emotional and cognitive needs. Imagination is in some form an integral part of functional human cognitive equipment.

    Each of these simple propositions leaves open multiple possible formulations with different implications. We are at the point now where we all need to be thinking hard about how to bring such formulations within the range of testable propositions.

    In synoptic overview, that’s what looks like consensus to me. But I’m sure that if this thread were to go on indefinitely, every item in my own impression of the consensus view would be disputed with energy and conviction. Hence the need for integrating empirical methods to reduce the scope of possible plausible formulation—“narrowing possibility space,” as Jon Gottschall would have it. The literary people need to continue moving in the direction of empirical methodology, and the people with social science backgrounds need to recognize the crucial significance of the imagination and its works. They need to bring this subject area into their active research agenda, not leaving it to the formulations of purely speculative commentary.

    The weakest aspect of “biocultural” theory so far has been the “cultural” part. Getting past this limitation is the single most important challenge facing the evolutionary human sciences. Collaboration between people with humanities expertise and people with expertise in scientific methodology will be almost indispensable in taking the next major step toward turning the evolutionary human sciences into a truly comprehensive explanatory framework for all things human.

    We have seen a little of that kind of collaboration so far—far too little. The literary people are afraid of scientific methodology, and the scientists are afraid of moving into areas of culture that seem to them nebulous and mysterious. There is a lot of resistance based on prejudice and the comfort of routine practices—with the literary people harboring a distaste for the impersonal and technical character of scientific methods and the scientific people harboring a distaste for the messiness and imprecision of literary thinking.

    I understand the resistance—have felt it all myself, from both sides. But we are now at something like a bottleneck, an impasse. Until we break through the routine of our current practices, our habitual attitudes and methods, we aren’t going to get a comprehensive, integrated theory of culture. And until we get that, the evolutionary human sciences are going to be spinning their wheels just below the point at which they can begin to explain specifically human nature, and the humanists are going to be spinning their wheels in endless theoretical discussions, exercising their rhetorical ingenuity but not getting very far with positive results, just as we have been doing here. (I note that this discussion included perhaps just one evolutionary human scientist. That is bad for us, and bad for the evolutionary human science.)

    So, the two cultures are still with us. And within at least one of those two cultures, there are subcultures that scarcely speak to one another. Reading over the discussion that followed Katherine Hayles post, I was once again struck, rather depressingly, with the Balkanization of studies in the humanities. The folks in that other discussion speak a different language, with different references and different assumptions. I don’t think there is much hope for “conversion” between these two sects. As with the evolutionary humanists and evolutionary human scientists, everybody is pretty comfortable with their routines. I do think change will come—how swiftly, I can’t predict. And I think it will come by grandfathering or grandmothering out the whole population that relies fundamentally on continental speculative theory divorced in principle from the evolutionary human sciences.

    Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I do think, without forcing the issue in my own mind, that truth and reality will ultimately carry the day against entrenched institutional ideologies. The biggest barrier to the development of the humanities in the direction of the evolutionary human sciences is that bright young people are systematically prohibited from taking up this line of research. But a few small chinks have occurred in the armor of resistance and suppression. Purely defensive fortresses can never hold forever against the pressure of sustained friction. Cliffs wear away under the grinding of the waves.

    Perhaps optimistically, then, the chief factor that will ultimately determine the future direction of the humanities is the potential for the development of knowledge. Despite routine, fear, prejudice, and entrenched interests, I am myself confident that in that one crucial factor, the “biocultural” approach is the only possible road to the future.

  • Many thanks to everyone for this exciting and productive exchange. Especially to Joe for challenging us to aim at an explanatory framework joining the humanities and sciences. Several have registered concerns about the general goal and there evidently are hurdles in the way of those heading that direction, but Joe’s energy and vision provide plenty of reason for optimism about the possibility of collaborative discovery.

    We end the conversation at this venue now, but not without first encouraging everyone to continue in the Facebook group ( ).

  • Ellen reiterates her point that “the tonal or emotional factors have to be incorporated into our evolutionary/adaptive/biological understanding of literature.” Yes, I agree. I’ve argued that case in a number of places. When Ellen says that “preverbal arts come from deeper sources than symbols,” I’m not sure whether I agree or not. It all depends on how that phrase is construed. In evolutionary sequence, the elemental passions precede the power to produce symbols, for sure. “Music, chanting, moving to music, formalized laments” do not, however, “obfuscate or disguise meaning.” “Meaning” can mean different things, and it need not mean only verbalized concepts. It can also mean imaginative states that are stimulated by and responsive to music and dancing. Music and dancing are imagination in action. They certainly aren’t merely automatic, physical processes, carried out in a comatose state, blank of mind and feeling. And of course Ellen would never say that they are. Literature uses both the verbalized concepts that we typically regard as “symbols” and also the performative and emotionally expressive and evocative aspects of words. Indeed, music seems a fairly easy case, since it so clearly engages the feelings, modulates them, organizes them in ways that evoke deep patterns in human emotional experience. I think abstract art a more difficult, challenging case, but my own experience there makes me think of it as a fairly close parallel to the performative aspects of dance and music. I saw a Jackson Pollock exhibit recently and was struck by the way my own experience of the paintings took place in time, dramatically, tracing the interaction among the layers of patterns, turning two dimensions into three (four, counting time), and all along the way having the sensation of dramatic emotional excitement and pleasure that I associate with music.

    Thoughts such as these were in my mind when, in “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study,” I wrote these lines:

    We do not have the option of living outside our own imaginative constructs. “Meaning” for us is always part of some imaginative structure, and art works constantly at forming and reforming those structures. Used in this way, the word “meaning” does not of course signify only didactic lessons and thematic patterns. Meaning in art works through imaginative effects—through emotional and aesthetic impact—as much as through mimetic content or thematic abstraction. In literature, it works through representations, through emotionally charged images of ourselves, our cultural identities, and the forces of nature.

  • There have been several fine performances produced by evolutionary literary critics. One of the best is Jon Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy, recently published by Cambridge UP. Brian, Jon, and I excerpt passages from that book along with many other works in the intepretive section of an anthology we have coming out within a year, Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (Columbia UP). There will be many more pieces that display the kinds of performative virtues Geoff celebrates.

    Alice Andrews and I are just now harvesting the contributions for the first issue of a new journal, The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, and Culture. Here is a statement of editorial policy that we’ve been giving our potential contributors:

    The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, and Culture provides a forum for evolutionary critiques in all the fields of the arts, human sciences, and culture: essays and reviews on film, fiction, theater, visual art, music, dance, and popular culture; essays and reviews of books, articles, and theories related to evolution and evolutionary psychology; and essays and reviews on science, society, and the environment. Essays in The Evolutionary Review implicitly affirm E. O. Wilson’s vision of “consilience,” i.e., the unity of knowledge. They also give evidence that an evolutionary perspective can yield a richer, more complete understanding of the world and ourselves.

    Criteria for selecting essays include depth and seriousness in evolutionary thinking, imaginative force, and excellence of style. Potential contributors should establish a distinct, individual point of view, avoiding academese and neutral summary. The editors value incisiveness and clarity, energy, wit and humor, vivid language and striking imagery, tonal nuance, and a knack for engaging the interest of readers.

  • Prof. Harpham: I’m not sure just what you’re asking about in reference to critical genius, but your comment seems reminiscent of a remarks that have been made about cognitive criticism. By way of “calibrating” you own remark, would you comment on these remards. Here is is a comment by Tony Jackson:

    Tony Jackson, “Literary Interpretation” and Cognitive Literary Studies, Poetics Today 24 (2) 191-205:

    That is, a literary interpretation, if we are allowed to distinguish it as a distinct kind of interpretation, joins in with the literariness of the text. Literary interpretation is a peculiar and, I would say, unique conjunction of argument and literature, analytic approach and art form being analyzed. [p. 202]

    Given all this, apart from the questions I have asked along the way, here is my central question for those who would bring together the cognitive sciences and literary study. Can you make a legitimate use of the science without requiring literary interpretations to be judged by the criteria of scientific method? Said differently, how can cognitive science be blended with the study of literature in such a way as to preserve the dialectical meaning of literary interpretation? For if this blend cannot be achieved with that basic dialectic intact, then work may get done, some publication may happen, and a new kind of criticism may occur; but it will not appeal to most literary scholars. I do not see how it could begin to revolutionize the critical scene. On the other hand, if this blending can be done and the dialectic preserved, then it may well be the turning of a new tide in the study of literature and the humanities. [204]

    * * * * * *

    Here is are remarks by Hans Adler and Sabine Gross, “Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature,” Poetics Today 23:2 (Summer 2002, pp. 195-220):

    Literary analysis is much less predicated upon correctness or provability of findings or the incontrovertibility of evidence. Instead, its “success” relies on such parameters as originality, appropriateness, inventiveness, or “insight value”: it may be measured by our degree of satisfaction with what is revealed or illuminated about a text. Most of all, literary interpretation generally does not aspire to the once-and-for-all-ness implied by the term solution. On the contrary, it is often unabashedly nonfinal, inviting supplementation or revision, in other words: conscious of its own historicity. [p. 214]

    p. 215: Literary texts are designed to open up spaces for interpretation: different readers in different contexts weigh elements and fill gaps in different ways that complement the common ground of comprehension that is determined both by the text and by shared assumptions and contextual knowledge. In a sense, the positioning of noncognitivist and cognitivist literary studies reenacts the discussions about predictability/determination versus subjectivity/individuality in reader-response theory in the 1970s and 1980s: how much freedom do readers have in filling in gaps and creating the actual text or interpretation; to what extent do written text and interpretive communities (substitute here: the cognitive apparatus common to all readers) determine individual readings? Models of language comprehension and mental operations have barely begun to bridge the chasm between what may go on in the brain and an actual reader’s response to a literary text: the reasons for reading it, the sources of the interest and pleasure it provokes, the relevance of personal, situational, contextual elements. [p. 215]

  • William Flesch

    Hey Geoff — long time. I’ll have to weigh in on this whole shebang when I have a little while, but there you were, so….

    And, have you seen Comeuppance? –Billy

  • And it still seems unfair to characterize Pinker as hostile to art.

    I agree. I don’t know what he really and truely and deeply believed back when he wrote How the Mind Works, but this is what he said in 2007 in response to my open letter to him:

    First, I’m grateful for the central insight of your letter that mutual knowledge might be a critical ingredient of explanations of why our species enjoys fiction. You’re right that I did not mention this in either of my discussions of fiction (my review of the The Literary Animal, and the discussion in How the Mind Works), nor in The Stuff of Thought, where I argued for the importance of mutual knowledge in explaining indirect speech. It’s an idea well worth pursuing. When people read or listen to a story that they have reason to believe is widely available in their culture, they are gaining mutual knowledge about the content of the story and the intent of the writer or narrator for it to be told. . . . It explains why fiction is given so much importance in so many cultures – why myths and legends bind a people together, and Salman Rushdie can be given a death sentence about a make-believe story, and why there can be canon wars and culture wars over what one might think is a minor part of the college curriculum.

    That doesn’t sound like he regards fiction (at least) as being parasitical in any meaningful sense of the word.

  • Brian suggests that it is unfair to characterize Pinker’s theory of the arts in How the Mind Works as “hostile to art.” Let the reader judge:

    “Some parts of the mind register the attainments of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure. Other parts use a knowledge of cause and effect to bring about goals. Put them together and you get a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world. . . . Now, if the intellectual faculties could identify the pleasure-giving patterns, purify them, and concentrate them, the brain could stimulate itself without the messiness of electrodes or drugs. . . . Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. Pornography is another pleasure technology. In this chapter I will suggest that the arts are a third” (How the Mind Works 524-25).

    Pinker describes the arts as frivolous forms of self-exploitative pleasure-seeking, activities on a par with using recreational drugs, watching pornography, and indulging in rich foods. Brian disputes the claim that this view of the arts can fairly be characterized as “hostile.” We could argue that point, but the point itself seems trivial to me. In the original posting, I raised more substantive issues. I asked whether Pinker’s characterization of the arts was or was not correct. I argued that it is not correct, explained its derivation from an incorrect and now obsolete concept of human cognitive evolution, outlined an alternative concept of human cognitive evolution, and correlated that alternative concept with an alternative concept of the way the arts enter into our psychological economy. Making heavy weather over the semantic boundaries of the term “hostile” is merely a distraction from these more substantive issues.


    Brian raises another semantic point: whether in the span of hominin evolution—somewhere between five and seven million years—a period of radical change taking place over a period of some 60,000 years (from 100,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago) can properly be termed a “revolution.” I think it can, but I’m much less interested in quibbling over a single term than in recognizing that there is massive evidence pointing to radical differences between the “culture” of the past 50,000 years or so and the whole previous span of hominin evolution. Just how “gradual” these changes were, how incremental, and how much they depended on relatively sudden tip-over events like mutations in the FOXP2 gene remain a matter of intense empirical research.

    Brian wishes to emphasize the idea of gradual change, but it is not clear in what way that emphasis would bear on the question of the adaptive function of the arts. Whether we characterize the change as sudden or as incremental, the fact is that there was massive evolutionary change. As I say in the original posting, “In any case, at whatever pace it came about, there can be little doubt that modern symbolic culture—the culture of the past 100,000 years—differs in radical ways from the culture of the early and middle phases of hominid evolution.”

    The chief substantive implication I would draw from the cognitive difference between modern humans and earlier hominins is that there is a significant difference between the human mind and the minds of other animals. Brian tends to emphasize the continuity between human and animal cognition. I think that in talking about the function of the arts, this emphasis can be profoundly misleading.

    Brian seems half-consciously to revert to an early EP conception of the mind characterized by automaticity. Falling back into bad habits like this makes it very difficult to understand how the imagination enters into human motivation. The model of the mind and art that emerges from Brian’s comments is that of a motivational system that works in humans with the same narrowly channeled efficiency with which it works in other animals. The arts are then attached as a sort of outboard motor to propel an otherwise mechanically functional mind into creative get up and go.

    This vision of the mind has the merit of being distinct enough so that it can at least be put to the test of evidence. I think even the simplest tests decisively falsify it. Brian himself mentions periods of profound indecisiveness. His own experience thus falsifies his model of the mind.

    I think it is hard for Brian to see outside the false model of the mind he has constructed. Since he can’t see outside that model, he can’t envision the alternative model that I propose. As a result, whenever he tries to characterize the model I propose, he gets it wrong, and usually in very much the same sort of way. For years now, I’ve been explaining to Brian that I don’t think what he thinks I think, but I haven’t had much success in getting through.

    In his most recent comment, Brian argues against the idea that art’s prime function is to enable us to make decisions at specific moments of uncertainty. He attributes this idea to me, but in fact it is not an idea I hold or have ever held. This whole question came up also in the responses to the target article for Style. Responding to Brian’s comments there, I explained at some length why this view of my views is simply mistaken. I’ll quote the relevant paragraphs here:

    I think I can put my finger on the chief reason BOYD has trouble understanding the adaptive hypothesis formulated in the target article. I argue that the emotionally saturated images of literature feed into the interface between instincts and behavior. In his reply, BOYD misconstrues my notion of how these images work to influence human behavior. He evidently supposes that when I speak of imaginative verbal constructs I am thinking of specific tactical plans like that of Odysseus trying to escape from the Cyclops’ cave. The idea to which he is responding, and that he confuses with my idea, is that literature provides us with a set of model behaviors, like model chess games. According to this idea, when we are faced with a situation requiring a choice among alternative strategies, we would consult our library of game plans, quickly thumbing through relevant plot lines, and select a course of action that would enable us to achieve our goals. DAVID MIALL also mistakenly conflates my propositions with this idea. As I note in the target essay, this hypothesis for the adaptive function of fictional narratives has been advanced by various theorists, most prominently by Steven Pinker. It appears also in SCALISE SUGIYAMA’S declaration, in her response to the target article, that “narrative is planning.” When I speak of the adaptive function of imaginative verbal artifacts, it is not this sort of game-planning for specific practical goals that I have in mind. Literature influences our concepts, values, and feelings in a much more basic way.

    By providing emotionally saturated images of the world and of our place in the world, literature works through the imagination to regulate our motivational systems. All our local, practical game-planning takes place within a structure of feelings and values that constitute our individual identities. Literature is one of the chief cultural media that influence our feelings and values. The contrast between basic values and local game-planning can be likened to the difference between the head of a government and a junior military officer operating in the field. The head of a government is responsible for the broadest policies affecting international relations, including policies of war and peace. The junior officer is responsible for executing small-scale operations such as conducting a patrol or leading a platoon. SWIRSKI makes the right distinction in contending that literary scenarios “should not be understood literally as a context-specific database of action scenarios but rather a contingent library of behavioural attitudes, emotions, and disposition.”

    I doubt that our small-scale practical plans are usually determined in any very direct way by our experience of art. Occasionally, someone might say to himself or herself, “I’d like to commit suicide today. Shall I take arsenic, like Emma Bovary, or jump under a train, like Anna Karenina?” (Presumably, this choice of an example would be congenial to FOY AND GERRIG.) Usually, though, art works at a level much more fundamental than that of offering practical guidelines for achieving specific practical goals. Art works through the imagination, shaping our feelings and values, our sense of our own identities and the nature of the world. When we make practical choices—the arsenic or the train—those choices take place within a context of motivation and feeling informed by art. When Hamlet asks, “To be or not to be?” he is posing a question on the level of basic motivation—a broad policy issue. Whether to use a bare bodkin, though, is a more simply practical question—an issue of small-scale tactics. In some of his formulations, BOYD also seems to envision art working on the imagination at a level of basic motivations. For instance, he argues that “the play of art” strengthens neural pathways “in the patterns that matter most to us—especially, in story, patterns of agency and action.” [[End of excerpt from Rejoinder to Responses to the target article]]

    In the rejoinder to the responses to the target article, the passage that followed these paragraphs was the paragraph in which I cite Charles Johnson’s description of the role narratives have played in the lives of African-Americans (“I believe that we base our lives, actions, and judgments as often on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves [even when they are less than empirically sound or verifiable] as we do on the severe rigor of reason.”) Since I already quoted that passage from Johnson, I’ll omit it here, but the example should clarify how I understand art to operate in influencing our behavior.

    Art does not merely step in when we have moments of uncertainty. It is an all-pervasive part of our total vision of the world. It guides and influences us even when we are most certain of what we feel and how we should act. It is with us when we are quiescent, peaceful, contented, almost inert. It is with us when we are driven by passionate conviction, and it is with us when we are tormented by doubts and uncertainties.

    I’ve said all this many times, in many published venues, including the target article, the rejoinder to the responses to the target article, and the original posting here at On the Human. I hope these formulations strike responsive chords in some readers–that they give the satisfaction of corresponding to actual experience and offer another angle of illumination on the fascinating question of specifically human forms of cognitive evolution. We know vastly more about that subject now than we did even ten years ago, and ten years from now, I think, we can very reasonably expect to understand still more.

  • Bill speaks to the need to develop models that can be subjected to mathematical analysis, embodied in computational simulation, and subjected to observational confirmation. All that would of course be immensely useful. Still, it is not the only way in which we have made real progress in understanding human cognitive evolution. The basic theoretical work in identifying human phylogeny was done with the tools of theoretical biology, paleontology, archeology, comparative anatomy, primatology, and eventually genetics. Nicholas Wade’s book on the evolution of human cognition makes use of all those disciplines and adds in geology, paleoclimatology, and comparative linguistics. Sociobiology uses the logic of inclusive fitness and differential parental investment. Human ethology uses the techniques of cultural anthropology and comparative (human and animal) psychology. Human life history theory uses ethological techniques coupled with sociobiology and comparative psychology. “Evolutionary psychology” in the broadest sense includes all those elements and adds in cognitive science.

    Bill refers to Pinker’s review of The Literary Animal, a reference that should remind us of the limitations in the kind of modeling Bill advocates. In that review, Pinker recapitulates in brief his computational conception of the mind. As I’ve argued at some length in the original posting, that model is fundamentally flawed.
    Cognitive science is not in itself sufficient to provide us with the materials we need to assemble a usable working model of the human mind, nor even to test the models that we do produce. It is one of many possible forms of producing and testing concepts. The more we are able to integrate it into the larger conceptual structure, the better.

    Though I disagree with Bill’s faith in the matrix value of cognitive science, I do agree on the need for producing models that can be tested. That is the basic motive behind the work that Jon Gottschall, John Johnson, Dan Kruger and I have been doing for the past five years or so. We created a model not just of the computational mind but of human nature—of motives, emotions, and personality. We “operationalized” that model by turning it into a questionnaire about characters in novels and soliciting participation from readers. We got about 1,600 responses, enough data to give us robust statistical results. We produced specific predictions that tested various features of the model and also gave us evidence on their adaptive function. We have a book manuscript from the study currently under submission and have published a couple of articles, with a couple more forthcoming. The two that have been published already (a technical one in Evolutionary Psychology and a more discursive one in Philosophy and Literature) are available on my website:


    At the time Pinker published his review of The Literary Animal (December, 2006), Brian was hosting a symposium on evolutionary studies in the arts. Ellen Dissanayake, Jon Gottschall, Denis Dutton, and others were part of the symposium. I was there, too. We followed up the symposium with a lengthy on-line discussion of Pinker’s review and the general question of the adaptive function of the arts. I’ll copy out below part of my contribution to this discussion. FAIR WARNING: This is a long set of paragraphs, and most of the arguments have already been presented more concisely. I copy this out here only because Bill brings up the review. Unless you have an insatiable appetite for this topic, you might well choose to skip the paragraphs excerpted below:

    The main focus of his review is the subject of the adaptive function of literature. In taking up this subject again, he makes no advance beyond what he originally said on it in How the Mind Works, and what he said on it then, in 1997, was not very deep or illuminating. Since then, he has often been criticized, and other people have made serious and interesting arguments on this subject. Pinker has listened to no one and has learned nothing. He makes no effort whatsoever to give a fair and reasonable presentation of the views that have been put forward in correction of his own, or to state the actual arguments that have been made in favor of the adaptive function of literature. Briefly, those arguments are that (1) literature or its oral antecedents [and all art behavior, more broadly] are universal; (2) that they emerge spontaneously in all normally developing humans; and (3) that they display complex functional structure. Each of these contentions could be disputed, no doubt, and illuminating results could emerge from a conscientious discussion of them. Pinker does not dispute them. HE IGNORES THEM. He operates exclusively within the closed universe of alternative hypotheses that presented themselves to him when he first discussed the subject back in 1997.

    To answer adaptive questions, one has to consider ancestral conditions and ask whether a given form of behavior efficiently solved fitness-related problems in ancestral environments. That’s what all reasonable adaptationists try to do, in the arts as in other areas of behavior. The basic logic is fairly simple and straightforward, but in Pinker’s formulation this logic becomes unintelligible. “One has to show—independently of anything we know about the human behavior in question—that X, by its intrinsic design, is capable of causing a reproduction-enhancing outcome in an environment like the one in which humans evolved. This analysis can’t be a kind of psychology; it must be a kind of engineering.” The idea that an adaptive behavior must be examined “independently of anything we know about the human behavior in question” is nonsensical; and the appeal to “engineering” designs that are somehow not also psychological designs is also nonsensical. If we are analyzing behavior intelligibly and adequately, it is not possible to talk about the behavior without talking about motivating systems and affective responses–that is, about “psychological” features of behavior. Reference to “engineering” in human adaptive behavior has no meaning except in the context of psychological structures. An appeal to engineering is merely an appeal to some hypothetical degree of efficiency in fulfilling an adaptive function within the constraints of pre-existing structures and relatively stable ecological conditions.

    Adaptationist theories about the arts have not limited themselves to the observation that the arts are fun or that they have beneficial effects, but the pleasure we derive from adaptively relevant behavior and the beneficial effects of social and cognitive adaptations are integral and indispensable components of any adaptationist analysis of human psychological mechanisms. No explanatory hypothesis that ignores these aspects of the arts can be adequate to its subject.

    In his own theory of literature, Pinker has separated out the pleasure, as by-product, from the adaptive benefit. That is an arbitrary and erroneous move, and it is not a move Pinker would himself make with respect to sex, sugar, or other phenomena that fall more within his scope of understanding than the arts. Pinker’s theory that literature is adaptive only in so far as it provides adaptively useful information is psychologically thin and weak, but it is still a psychological theory that appeals to the effect of a behavior. In this respect, it is like all other adaptationist hypotheses about behavior.

    There are no fool-proof litmus tests for the validity of adaptive hypotheses. One has to weigh the alternatives in given cases. For instance, arguments could be made on both sides for the adaptive status of alcohol and for art. Making and consuming alcohol is now at least nearly universal; most people at some point in development tend to get drunk at least once; making alcohol is a complex process; and consuming alcohol has definite effects on behavior. Nonetheless, making and using alcohol can more plausibly be interpreted as a form of hedonistic self-exploitation than as an adaptation. Alcohol use is not in fact universal or reliably developing; it is a technology that appears very late in human developmental history (post-agriculture), and there is no plausible adaptive scenario that would make this technology into an adaptive design feature lodged in human evolutionary history. Alcohol making is an acquired skill, but drinking alcohol does not involve complex functional structures adapted specifically for the purposes of consuming alcohol. In this case, then, the by-product hypothesis is more plausible than the adaptationist hypothesis.

    The design features that are specific to the arts include the production and consumption of art and also the rudiments of the formal properties that mediate production and consumption. For the commentators who explicitly recognize these design features and do not merely slide past them and explain them away, making and using art can be interpreted less plausibly as a by-product than as an adaptive feature of the human psychological economy. As Ellen shows in her studies of mother-infant interaction, the fundamental features of musicality emerge reliably in infants, and those interactions have features of oral utterance closely linked with poetry or verse. Playing with the sounds and meanings of words, joining them in cadenced sequences, and constructing imaginative narratives are all also reliably developing, universal features of human nature. The forms of narrative, now being deciphered in detail in cognitive narratology, constitute complex functional structures. (I know less about verse than about narrative, but smart money would not bet against the complex functional structures of verse forms.) All these proto-literary structures have clear and distinct psychological effects. Various adaptively functional features of those effects have been identified, and the question among adaptationist scholars of the arts is mostly a question of the relative hierarchical status of the various functional elements that have been identified.

    Note that in assessing the question of adaptive function, theoretical “constraint” does not work in only one direction. Adaptationist hypotheses are constrained to give a parsimonious account of design features; but non-adaptationist accounts are also constrained–constrained both by parsimony and by the stipulation that they not leave out design features that are integral to the nature of the behavior in question. It is in this latter form of constraint that Pinker’s explanation breaks down most dramatically. He segregates out the whole affective and figurational dimension of literary experience from the purely mimetic or informational dimension, and he eliminates all non-informational aspects as irrelevant to adaptive function. If one looks into the implications of this argument, as Pinker himself has never done, the explanation of both adaptive and non-adaptive aspects is non-parsimonious, and the concept or image of art that emerges is distorted and thin.

    Most art does not work efficiently as a system for storing and disseminating information; art universally contains aesthetic and figurative (“symbolic”) elements that appear to be essential to the structural features that constitute the design of art, but in Pinker’s conception, these two aspects–the adaptive and the non-adaptive–have no integral relation to one another. The supposedly adaptive features function poorly in themselves, and the non-adaptive features parasitize or piggy-back on the adaptive features. The bits and pieces are parceled out into unintegrated adaptive and non-adaptive aspects; and the adaptive aspects prove to be radically uneconomical and inefficient for their purposes. Neither Pinker nor anyone else has given any reason for supposing that all the affective and figurational features that distinguish art would be more plausibly explained by reference to some other adaptive feature than by refernce to the forms of art that are integral to art.

    The larger context for Pinker’s appeal to the by-product hypothesis is a specific concept of human adaptive history that reduces the human mind to an affect-free information processing device. As is common in the cognitive science literature of his day, Pinker’s own favorite metaphor for the mind is the computer. On the basis of affective neuro-science (Damasio, LeDoux, Panksepp, et al.), we know the mind doesn’t work that way and did not evolve in that way.

    Pinker’s explanation is simply not a good explanation. It fails to account for the most distinctive and structurally integrated features of the behaviors in question, and it gives a non-parsimonious account of the features it does explain. Moreover, it locates itself in a wider concept of human evolutionary history and of human mental architecture that is inadequate to our current knowledge of both.

    Pinker does not give a fair and honest account of the adaptationist hypotheses he disputes, and his appeal to testability is a red herring. His own favored instances of adaptationist hypotheses are neither more nor less testable than the adaptationist hypotheses he disputes. He argues that sugar provides energy for a metabolism designed to process it. Ellen and Brian argue that the arts fix attention on adaptively salient concerns and promote social cohesion. I argue that literature provides emotionally saturated images for a psyche designed to assimilate such images and use them for evaluative, affective, and ultimately behavioral orientation. At this level of explanation, all these arguments are structurally parallel. To make further progress in understanding, we have to move from that level of conceptual parallelism into the contexts of paleoanthropology and of psychological mechanism. At the present time, metabolism is better understood than cognitive processing, but a theory of psychology that limited itself to the metabolic processing of sugar would not get us very far into the workings of the human psyche. There is no prima facie reason for supposing that the workings of the human psyche are ultimately any more inaccessible to specific analysis than the workings of metabolism.

    Jon is unhappy with what he takes to be the un-testability of current adaptationist hypotheses about the arts, but that theoretical discontent reflects a concept of empirical testing that is too narrow for most questions of major interest not just to the arts but to all complex human behavior. The discontent seems integral with a concept of testing that limits itself to a one-to-one relationship between question, test, and answer: one question, one test, one answer. To get a better feel for the gratuitous limitation involved in this conception of empirical testing, try this thought experiment: Read the introductory and concluding chapters of On the Origin of Species, specifically bearing in mind three questions: (1) what constitutes a significant problem? (2) what constitutes empirical evidence? And (3) how can complex and inter-related sets of evidence can be used to test complex empirical hypotheses?

    Darwin’s argument is a complex, multi–part argument involving interlocking pieces of evidence from multiple overlapping or contiguous fields–from embryology, anatomy, palaeontology, biogeography, ecology, climatology, animal domestication, geology, and other fields. The adaptive function of literature is not so complex a question as “the origin of species,” of course, but still, it is complex enough so that several component hypotheses are needed to approximate to an explanation adequate to the subject itself.

    Darwin’s example should give us warning that the complexity of a problem is no warrant for limiting our explanatory scope to simple, one-step solutions for simple, one-step problems. To solve complex problems, we have to put all the pieces together into a complex design. By doing that, we can, to use Jon’s own terminology, shrink the space of possible explanation. Actually, that’s already happening. Even Pinker has done us an inadvertent service. He has introduced useless confusions, but analyzing those confusions enables us to reject a certain range of hypotheses that lack adequate explanatory power, and they thus enable us to narrow the scope of plausible adaptationist argument. As that scope narrows, we move ever further into the range of problems that can be solved, one by one, with simple appeals to quantified evidence from empirical tests.

  • Now, Bob accuses me of being a Victorian, but it would never occur to me, as it does to Bob, to apply a primarily moral standard in assessing whether literature influences us “to good or bad ends.” For one thing, I don’t think my own ethical beliefs are nearly so clear-cut, firm, and exclusive as those that seem to be manifested in Bob’s list of literary evil-doers. I have to confess that I tend to draw the line at molesting children, so have never been able to appreciate Lolita in the way Brian does, and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which strikes me as wickedly fiunny, also strikes me as simply wicked. In the final chapter, originally excluded from the American edition, Burgess tries to cover his ethical derriere with some patently fallacious “I take it all back; I was just young and heedless” kind of rhetoric. I don’t buy that any more than I buy the idea that we can enjoy Lolita without indulging in some latent if unacknowledged vicarious pleasure in having sex with pubescent children. I don’t think we can enjoy A Clockwork Orange without indulging in some latent vicarious pleasure in psychopathic cruelty. Do I approve of molesting children or beating women nearly to death? Not even a little bit, but the imagination is wide, nihil humanum mihi alienum est, etc.

    I don’t claim that literature makes us good people according to this or that ethical code, certainly not in the post-WWII and post-Vietnam and post-second wave feminism liberal humanist ethical code implicit in Bob’s judgments on the works he mentions. If literature made us good people, why would English professors be among the most intellectually craven and ethically opportunistic of all academic populations? Why would our faculty meetings include so many people no sane person would wish to take with him to a desert island?

    All I claim is that literature and other forms of imaginative construction powerfully and inescapably influence our total vision of the world and that our total vision of the world powerfully influences our behavior. So far as I can tell, no one contributing to this discussion has yet seriously questioned that basic proposition–which should be something of a relief. It means that we aren’t just constructing another Tower of Babel here but can in fact reach reasonable consenus of some matters of real importance.

    For no better reason than that Bob brought up Victorianism, and that I just finished writing a concluding section of an essay on Hamlet in which I compare it with Victorian, ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern literature, I’ll copy out that section below. Bob and Brian have both also written on Hamlet (I discuss their commentaries in the literature review section). Actually, I’ll also include a few paragraphs preceding the final section, since they concern Hamlet’s personality, which if not quite up to the standards of malevolence set by Bob’s evil-doers, to say nothing of child molesters and psychopaths, still offers occasion for some serious ethical reservations:

    Hamlet’s Personality

    As Hazlitt, Bradley, and many others have recognized, Hamlet is both profoundly introverted and intellectual. He thus has a naturally meditative personality. He engages not directly with persons and situations but rather with his sense of them. He is conscientious and thus tormented by his own inability to function effectively. He is emotionally unstable, a trait that renders him particularly susceptible to depression—to being overwhelmed by stress, unable to cope. As a depressive, he is characteristically vacillating, indecisive, and ineffectual. In this respect, his emotional instability converges with his introversion. All of this is captured in Goethe’s concise characterization in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship:

    “A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.”
    (Boyd gives a similarly concise verbal portrait of Hamlet’s personality [“Literature” 18].) There remains the question of Agreeableness. Is Hamlet a nice, warm, friendly person? His admirers would like to think so. Hazlitt tries to palliate his behavior to Ophelia. I think Samuel Johnson is closer to the truth in speaking of Hamlet’s “useless and wanton cruelty” to Ophelia. And it isn’t just Ophelia, embodiment of frail womanhood. More often than not, Hamlet is verbally caustic. He finds his vocation in witty put-downs. He delights in mocking Polonius, even after he has killed him. He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths with no flicker of remorse or sadness. Quite the contrary, he exults in the success of his cunning stratagem. He tells Gertrude that he must be cruel only to be kind, but such rationalizations are common. Children readily detect the hypocrisy that so frequently lurks behind the phrase, “It’s for your own good.” Add all this up, and it seems unlikely that Hamlet would score even at the average on the factor “Agreeableness.”

    Protagonists tend to be agreeable, since readers do not readily cotton to disagreeable characters. But Hamlet never quite loses his audience, even when they flinch from his cruelty. There are at least five reasons for this. First, he is, after all, mightily put upon, struggling against crime and depravity that dwarf mere unpleasantness. Second, he pre-empts readers’ resentment by being as brutally hateful to himself as he is to others. If in his accounting Ophelia is Representative Woman, fickle and false, Hamlet is himself Representative Man, “proud, revengeful, ambitious” (III. i. 122). Third, he is a satirist as well as a protagonist. He entices the audience to participate with him in exposing folly, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, treachery, venality, sycophancy, and foppishness. He is not merely depressed. He is angry, and because he is also driven to disguise, his anger finds vent in satirical wit. Hamlet is not a “tragi-comedy” precisely, but it is a very funny tragedy. Ophelia fails to see the humor in her father’s death, but most readers are irresistibly entertained by the patter of wicked puns that follow the good old man to his dinner, not where he eats but where he is eaten. Fourth, Hamlet never succumbs to mere egoism or cynicism. He is capable of filial affection, admiring friendship, and romantic love. And finally, perhaps most importantly, Hamlet’s relations to other individuals are almost incidental to his central motive—to articulate his own imaginative sense of his situation. The high moments in Hamlet, the moments most remembered, are the soliloquies. Even in his tirade against Ophelia, she is scarcely more than a prop, an occasion for a monologue denouncing human nature. His one bosom friend, Horatio, is merely a sounding board for Hamlet’s reflections. Hamlet speaks to himself, and we but overhear him.

    Early evolutionary psychology deprecated the significance of individual differences and focused exclusively on human universals. This was a serious theoretical mistake (Carroll, Literary Darwinism 190-91, 200, 206; MacDonald, “A Perspective”; Nettle, “Individual Differences”). Moreover, it lends support to the false charge that literary Darwinism cannot cope with individual texts because evolutionary psychology concerns itself only with human universals (Deresiewicz; Smee). Individual variation is integral to the evolutionary process, and differences of personality allow individuals to occupy different niches within variable social ecologies (Nettle, Personality; Sulloway). Hamlet occupies a niche in the literary canon in good part because Hamlet’s personality makes it possible for him to define a range of emotion—morbid, unhappy, bitter, angry, resentful, contemptuous, disgusted—that touches powerfully responsive chords in his audience. He articulates his condition as a general human condition, and while that representation is not the whole truth, it is enough of the truth to fix our attention and win our grave approval.

    Just How Universal Is Hamlet?

    Tooby and Cosmides are right, I think, in declaring that Hamlet’s condition symbolizes an evolutionarily ancient adaptive problem: “the struggle for coherence and sanity amidst radical uncertainty” (19). The way that problem manifests itself, though, depends very much on cultural, historical circumstance. Hamlet could not have existed either in Periclean Athens or in medieval Europe. His mind roams free over the whole scope of human experience, probing all questions, finding no clear answers, no firm structure of belief and value. Oedipus, in contrast, is always certain—first of his own rectitude, and then of his guilt. Socrates questions everyone else’s beliefs and values, but Plato has the ideals of The Republic always comfortably in reserve for himself. Dante’s inferno has its precise hierarchy of guilt and torment. Hamlet is different. Matthew Arnold registers this difference in describing Hamlet as a truly “modern” figure. In the 1853 Preface to his Poems, Arnold explains why he has not included in the volume his one most ambitious poem, the closet drama Empedocles on Etna. Though wearing ancient garb, Empedocles is a voice of Arnold’s own time, expressing all the doubts and perplexities—philosophical, moral, and social—that characterize the intellectual life of the Victorian period (Carroll, The Cultural Theory 1-37).

    “What those who are familiar only with the great monuments of early Greek genius suppose to be its exclusive characteristics have disappeared: the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared; the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.” (1)

    Doubt and discouragement do not first appear in human experience in the 17th century, much less the 19th, but there is no age before the Elizbethan in which doubt and discouragement achieve a supreme form of articulation, and no age before the Victorian in which they come to dominate the imaginative life of a whole culture. The three great philosophical poems of the Victorian period, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Arnold’s Empedocles, and Browning’s Bishop Blougram’s Apology, are all meditations on religious and philosophical doubt, and to this canon one can add, as an appendix, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, the collected poems of Arthur Hugh Clough, and Pater’s Marius the Epicurean. In the postmodern period, we have stopped tormenting ourselves, for the most part, with religious doubt—not because we have solved the problems with which the Victorians struggled, but because we have given up on them and have resigned ourselves to the existential conditions they still hoped to avoid. The descendants of Hamlet in the modern period are works such as The Waste Land, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Waiting for Godot, La Nausée, The Seventh Seal, and Crow.

    One can hardly imagine what Sophocles or Dante would have made of Hamlet, or even what Chaucer would have made of it. We have made of it one of our very few most essential texts. We have taken it to heart and made it an anthem for our own imaginative lives. By assimilating the insights of the humanist tradition to an evolutionary understanding of human nature, we can now gain a better understanding of what that choice means.

    Hamlet is a long, magnificently articulated cry of emotional pain and moral indignation. Mortally hurt in his inmost feelings, Hamlet clings to an imaginative ideal of courage, honor, dignity, and chivalrous love. That ideal is embodied in a ghost—“such a questionable shape” (I. iv. 44)—and that shape is almost all that stands between Hamlet and an actual world given over to bestial indulgence, false shows, treachery, and foolishness. He is slow to act, and when he does act, he brings cataclysmic ruin to himself and most of those who are closest to him. And yet, he is not a failure. He learns to look at death with clear and open eyes, accepting the frailty and transience of life. He is sensitive enough to register our worst fears in our most vulnerable moments and still in his own person give unmistakable proofs for the nobility of the human mind.

    If this is not a tragedy for all times and seasons—not the kind of thing that would fulfill the deepest imaginative needs of Sophocles, Dante, or the Tiv—it nonetheless fulfills a tragic potential originating in the basic features of human nature. Perhaps at some point, possibly centuries from now, we shall no longer regard Hamlet as one of the voices that speak most intimately to us, probing our fears, winning our fervent sympathy, voicing our outrage, making us laugh, and giving us an unsurpassed standard of meditative power. If that ever happens, we shall know that we have truly entered into yet another phase in the development of the human imagination.

  • Bill Benzon

    Robert Storey: Where did I read the reflections of a chimpanzee researcher who was held back, as he (or she?) said, “on ethical grounds” from divulging to his language-educated laboratory brood that each and every one of them would eventually die? I can’t remember, but the remark has stuck with me. Surely that realization must have scared the daylights out of early humanity, and only those who found ways to cope with it—i.e., to deny it, with religion—could have survived happily (and therefore adaptively) to live and reproduce another day. The arts were key in this coping process, since without the arts there could be no ritual, and without ritual (as the anthropologists Alcorta and Socis argue) there is no religion.

    Yes. From my Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic, 2001) pp. 89-90:

    Intelligence allows humans to anticipate the future, to imagine what might happen in this or that circumstance, to imagine what we might do, and to thus prepare for things in advance. This surely is useful and adaptive. But it has disconcerting side-effects.

    What do we do about possible events over which we can assert little control? What if we have seen a calamitous storm or an earthquake or a fire devastate our group, injuring many, destroying our animals, our dwellings? The group knows, though experience passed down through generations, that we can neither predict such things nor do anything to prepare for them. While the scope of these possible disasters draws our attention to them, our inability to do anything constructive makes this attention useless at best. At worst, it is dangerous, as it may distract us from beneficial activities.

    There is one disaster we may be sure will occur, though we cannot anticipate just when. Our intelligence allows us to know that we will die, and the rituals though which we mark death are among the most important and intense we perform. I suggest that without such rituals, death threatens to become a psychological trap for the living. Periodic participation in ritual musicking reduces one’s sense of isolation and attaches one to the group, as Freeman has suggested, making one’s individual fate a matter of less concern. When we lose a parent, spouse, or close friend, ritual helps us mourn the loss and strengthen our ties to the living. It helps us, literally, get the deceased out of our (nervous) system.

    Yet the same ritual that gives us comfort in the group has its dark side. If we are immortal in the group, why fear death? And if there is no fear of death, why not wage bloody war on those not in the group? The last century has seen violence on a grand scale perpetuated by people who gathered together in large groups, marched to military music, and sought meaning and belonging in war.

    The difference between using music and being used by it would thus seem to be a subtle one. The price for relief from death anxiety can be high. But we should not think that music’s pleasure is merely the obverse of anxiety. Even when we have dealt with our anxiety through other means, there will be purpose in musicking. Perhaps only then can music’s pleasure set us free.

  • Bill Benzon

    All I claim is that literature and other forms of imaginative construction powerfully and inescapably influence our total vision of the world and that our total vision of the world powerfully influences our behavior. So far as I can tell, no one contributing to this discussion has yet seriously questioned that basic proposition–which should be something of a relief.

    Yes. But this strikes me as a truism. If evolutionary criticism couldn’t support this idea, evolutionary criticism would be in trouble. But it can hardly claim it as its special and unique accomplishment.

    As for Hamlet, it so happens I’ve given some thought to him, or rather, to the difference between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the earlier Amleth of Saxo-Grammaticus. I’m not so much interested in Hamlet as a universal figure as I am in how he and his story is remade to suit cultural needs. This discussion is from an old paper on The Evolution of Narrative and the Self; it starts with a comment on the biochemical difficulty of achieving a coherent self-image, moves to a consideration of the Winnebago Trickster tales, next to Homer and Sophocles and then to Shakespeare. This discussion is followed by a consideration of The Winter’s Tale and then Pride and Prejudice.

    From one age to the next, Amleth to Hamlet:

    . . . It is all well and good to talk of literary evolution and to demonstrate one type of structure at one point in time, and a different type at a later point. It would be even better to show how a particular story is told at one time and then becomes modified at a later telling. In this case we can look at what remains the same, and what changes, attributing the changes to evolution. We had a taste of this in the difference between Homers’s and Sophocles’ Oedipus, but we can do much better with Shakespeare, for almost all of his plays are based on stories which survive in several earlier versions. So, I want to begin with the story of Hamlet, dealing with the difference between a medieval treatment of the story and Shakespeare’s proto-modern account. . . .

    We begin with Hamlet. While Shakespeare’s version is the one we know best, the story is considerably older. The version in the late twelfth century Historica Danica of Saxo Grammaticus (reprinted in Hoy, 1963, pp. 123-131) is different from Shakespeare’s. The cultural level is low Rank 2 or, perhaps high Rank 1–the Dark Ages really were dark and not until the twelfth century did Europe manage to work its way back to Rank 2. Amleth–for that is how Saxo named him–faced the same requirement Hamlet did, to avenge his father’s death. His difficulty stems from the fact that the probable murderer, and therefore the object of Amleth’s revenge, is his uncle, and thus from the same kin group. Medieval Norse society had legal provisions for handling murder between kin groups; the offended group could seek the death of a member of the offending group or ask for the payment of wergild and a public apology. But there were no provisions for dealing with murder within the kin group (Bloch, 1961, pp. 125-130; cf. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1974, p. 226). Thus Amleth faced a situation in which there was no socially sanctioned way for him to act. In fact his situation was a less extreme version of the problem faced by Orestes in its most extreme form–how to exact vengeance on one relative for the murder of another relative. Both men are bound to avenge the death of their father; and both are similarly bound to the person they must kill. Amleth exacts vengeance against an uncle, whereas Orestes exacts it against his mother. Amleth deals with his problem by feigning madness. Being mad, he is not bound by social convention, a social convention which binds him both to his murdered father and the father’s murderer. Amleth’s madness allows him to act, which he does directly and successfully. He kills his uncle, the usurper, and his entire court and takes over the throne.

    Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not so fortunate. He is notorious for his inability to act. When he finally does so, he ends up dead. And whether his madness was real or feigned is never really clear. What happened between the late twelfth century version of the story and the turn-of-the-seventeenth century version? The change might, of course, be due merely to the personal difference between Saxo Grammaticus and William Shakespeare. However, European culture and society had changed considerably in that interval and thus to attribute much of the difference between the two stories to the general change in culture is not unreasonable. Saxo Grammaticus told a story to please his twelfth century audience and Shakespeare told one to please his audience of the seventeenth century.

    Something had happened which made Amleth’s madness ploy less effective. An individual can escape contradictory social demands by opting out of society. But if the contradictory demands are within the individual, if they are intrapsychic, then stepping outside of society won’t help. If anything, it makes matters worse by leaving the individual completely at the mercy of his/her inner contradictions, with no contravening forces from others. That, crude as it is, seems to me the difference between Amleth and Hamlet. For Amleth, the problem was how to negotiate contradictory demands on him made by external social forces. For Hamlet, the contradictory demands were largely internal, making the pretense of madness but a step toward becoming, in reality, mad.

    The difference between the story of Amleth and Shakespeare’s Hamlet parallels the difference between the Oedipus story as it was in Homer’s time and as it came to be in Sophocles. Just as the superego evolved between thirteenth century Greece and fifth century Greece, so it had to be recreated between twelfth century Denmark and seventeenth century England. The Elizabethan audience demanded defense against their dark impulses while the Medieval audience settled for some slight of hand which let the impulses work toward a happy ending.

  • Kevin remarks, “Simply stated, the Evolutionary Principle posits that an organism displaced from the environment in which it evolved will inevitably become pathological.”

    Well, actually, that isn’t true. Modern humans evolved in Africa. They left about 55,000 years ago (Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn). Is all of modern human culture pathological? That is of course one of the implications of early EP doctrine. Thus, “mismatch” theory was one of the most prominent elements in early EP. There is something to mismatch, a little. But like the idea of “modules,” the gradual, tacit relegation of the idea of mismatch from Primary Theoretical Principle to Minor Modulating Effect discloses the inadequacies in the early EP conception of human cognitive evolution.

    Denis Dutton (I think) prominently displays a cartoon in which two cavemen, sitting before a fire in a cave, are shooting the breeze. One says to the other (quoted from memory), “I just don’t get it. Everything we eat is organic; the atmosphere is clean and pure, the water unpolluted. And yet, the average life expectancy is only 35 years.”

    The point of this joke is that nature isn’t all it is cracked up to be. It admits of improvement, at least from the perspective of human well-being.

    Kevin remarks, “Evolutionary Psychology traces nearly every modern affliction back to the advent of civilization. It seems as though civilization, in order to function, either required natural, evolutionarily-conditioned instincts be repressed or rendered grotesque, morbid. Either way, the outcome was pathological.”

    Darwin traces afflictions to a deeper source. In the conclusion to The Descent of Man, he says, “We must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” (2: 405)

    conflict is built into the very nature of life. Natural selection is a struggle. More are born than can survive—that is an integral piece in the logic of selection. In sexually reproducing species, males and females share fitness interests but also have conflicting individual interests. Parents must make choices between effort devoted to mating and effort devoted to parenting. Parents and offspring share some fitness interests but in other interests diverge. The same principle applies even to siblings; and it applies to all individuals who form parts of a social group.

    Life is hard. Everything comes with a cost. Every fulfilled impulse stands victor over some other impulse left unfilfilled.

    The contrast between the Pleistocene and Civilization is just another instantiation of the contrast between The Noble Savage and The Corruptions of Civilization. It is a myth, more false than true. What is the truth beneath and obscured by the myth? Flexiblity, emotional, cognitive, and ecolgical, built into the most peculiar adaptive specializaton of Homo sapiens. Working out the exact relations between the heavily conserved featues of hominids and the adaptive cognitive flexibility of Homo sapiens is perhaps the central, most promising area of research for the coming generation, the genertiona personfied by Kevin Cullen. I await with tranquil expectation what they will find. (Here’s a clue, one that worked wonders for me: look into a single article by a person you might otherwise never have occasion to consult, Arnold Buss, in a handbook put together by three personality psychologists:

    Buss, Arnold. “Evolutionary Perspectives on Personality Traits.” Handbook of Personality Psychology. Ed. Robert Hogan, John Johnson, and Stephen Briggs. San Diego: Academic Press, 1997. 346-66.

  • Correcting Bob’s supposition that I think literature makes us better people, I said, “All I claim is that literature and other forms of imaginative construction powerfully and inescapably influence our total vision of the world and that our total vision of the world powerfully influences our behavior.” Overgeneralizing from this limited context, Bill remarks, “Yes. But this strikes me as a truism. If evolutionary criticism couldn’t support this idea, evolutionary criticism would be in trouble. But it can hardly claim it as its special and unique accomplishment.”

    No, this isn’t the special and unique accomplishment of evolutionary criticism. The arguments for adaptive function are of course more substantive than this. And the aims and accomplishments of evolutionary criticism in general extend well beyond arguments about adaptive function.

    Here’s a paragraph on the kinds of literary criticism the Darwinists have been practicing:

    The Darwinists have been using evolutionary psychology to examine the motivations of characters in novels, plays, and (less frequently) poems, concentrating chiefly on the sexual aspects of reproductive success but taking in also family dynamics, social dynamics, and survival issues such as acquiring resources and avoiding predators. Several studies have located individual works or literary traditions in relation to an evolutionary analysis of specific ecological and cultural environments. Cognitive science has been used to assess form, and basic emotions have been combined with basic motives to analyze tone and genre. Personality psychology has been used to assess individual differences in characters and authors. A few studies have analyzed authorial intent and the emotional responses of readers, considering not just characters and plots but also relations among the differing perspectives of authors, characters, and readers. Most studies so far, though, have been “thematic.” That is, they have focused on the motives of characters and the organization of characters into plots. Reproductive themes include differences between males and females in the criteria for selecting mates, competing male and female reproductive interests, the neurobiology of romantic infatuation and monogamous bonding, sexual jealousy, conflicts between investments in mating and parenting, paternal uncertainty, maternal bonding, attachment theory, the emotional and cognitive development of children, parent-offspring conflict, and dispositions for favoring kin. Basic social dynamics include the tension between dominance and affiliation in the organization of social groups, the interplay between intra-group cohesion and inter-group conflict, reciprocal altruism and the morality of contractual obligation, the evolution of egalitarian behavior, tribal instincts, group-selection, tit for tat, cheater detection, the adaptive function of religion, and gene-culture co-evolution. Ego-psychology and interpersonal relations include Theory of Mind, manipulative deceit, self-delusion, and costly display. In most literary studies drawing on evolutionary ideas, human universals play a large part, since species-typical characteristics imply genetically mediated dispositions constraining cultural formations (hence the inherent conflict with cultural constructivism).

    And here is a synoptic description of what a comprehensively adequate Darwinist reading should take into account:

    Practitioners of the more sophisticated forms of evolutionary literary criticism recognize that literature does not simply represent typical or average human behavior. Human nature is a set of basic building blocks that combine in different ways in different cultures to produce different kinds of social organization, different belief systems, and different qualities of experience. Moreover, every individual human being (and every artist) constitutes another level of “emergent” complexity, a level at which universal or elemental features of human nature interact with cultural norms and with the conditions of life that vary in some degree for every individual. Individual artists negotiate with cultural traditions, drawing off of them but also working in tension with them. The tension derives from differences in individual identity, the pull of universal forms of human nature, and the capacity for creative innovation in the artist. Individual works of art give voice to universal human experience, to the shared experience of a given cultural community, and to the particular needs of an individual human personality. Literary meaning consists not just in what is represented—characters, setting, and plot—but in how that represented subject is organized and envisioned by the individual human artist. Moreover, literary meaning is a social transaction. Literary meaning is only latent until it is actualized in the minds of readers, who bring their own perspectives to bear on the author’s vision of life. A thorough interpretive effort would subsume represented subjects and formal organization into an overarching concept of literary meaning, and it would expand the concept of meaning to include its transmission and interpretation. Still further, instead of looking only at intentional meanings and the responses of readers, a thorough evolutionary critique would look at the kinds of psychological and cultural work specific literary texts actually accomplish—the functions they fulfill—and it would locate those functions in relation to broader ideas of adaptive function, thus bringing the interpretation of individual works to bear as evidence on the larger, still controverted question of adaptive function.

    Here’s a similar description applied to the issue of interpreting a single specific work, Hamlet:

    To generate adequate interpretive commentary from an evolutionary perspective, we must construct continuous explanatory sequences linking the highest level of causal explanation—inclusive fitness, the ultimate regulative principle of evolution—to particular features of human nature and to particular structures and effects in specific works of art. It is never enough to say, for instance, that people seek survival, sex, and status, or that artistic works depict people seeking those things. We have to be more specific both about human nature and about the nature of artistic representation. In “human life-history theory,” we now have a set of ideas that link inclusive fitness with a fully articulated model of human nature. Life history theory concerns itself with the distribution of effort across the life cycle of any given species, weighing the different portions of life effort given over to birth, growth, somatic maintenance, mating effort, and parenting effort (Hill; Hill and Kaplan; Kaplan et al.; Low, “The Evolution,” Why Sex Matters; Lummaa; MacDonald, “Life History Theory”). The model of human nature that emerges from human life history has numerous distinctive features: altricial birth, extended childhood, male-female bonding coupled with male coalitions (Flinn, Geary, and Ward), dual parenting, post-menopausal survival, longevity, the development of skills for the extraction of high-quality resources (Kaplan et al.), the growth of the neocortex to enhance powers for suppressing impulses and engaging in long-term planning (Hawkins; MacDonald, “Evolution, Psychology”), the evolution of egalitarian dispositions operating in tension with conserved dispositions for individual dominance (Boehm), the development of symbolic capacities enabling identification with extended social groups (Boyd, On the Origin; Deacon; Dissanayake; Dutton; Richerson and Boyd; D. S. Wilson; Wade), and the power to subordinate, in some degree, all direct impulses of survival and reproduction to the formal dictates of imagined virtual worlds (Baumeister; Carroll, “An Evolutionary Paradigm”; MacDonald, “Evolution, Psychology”; Mithen; E. O. Wilson).

    All these features together entail distinct motives, emotions, dimensions of personality, and forms of cognition that have a bearing on literary meaning. To link human nature with literary meaning, we have to recognize that universal, species-typical characteristics form a common framework for understanding. Individual and cultural differences define themselves as variations on the basic, universal patterns of human nature. In recognizing the importance of a common framework, we implicitly conceive of the arts as communicative media. Consequently, we think of individual artists and readers as centers of consciousness, capable of formulating and understanding intentional meanings.

    A comprehensively adequate interpretive account of Hamlet would take in, synoptically, its phenomenal effects (tone, style, theme, formal organization), locate it in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), register the responses of readers, describe the socio-cultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate all those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal structures, affects, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.

  • Bob says that “the ‘stories we tell ourselves’ as a species do not come with differentiated emotional valences: like playing cards, they’re in themselves emotionally neutral.” This seems like an odd thing to say. Works of literature are like stimuli with certain qualities. They don’t always evoke the same response in different individuals, but there are broad overlaps. Audiences tend to laugh at the funny parts. Few people giggle cheerfully at scenes of horror. Most people are disgusted at depictions of feces or entrails. Scenes of children being tortured and raped would be unlikely to seem amusing or pleasant to most people.

    The statement that specific texts are emotionally neutral seems clearly false, and it also seems out of accord with Bob’s subsequent statement. “Beckett chose Schopenhauer because Beckett was Beckett, that intractable individual, and the philosophical ‘story’ of human life most congenial to that particular individual was Schopenhauer.”

    Now, If Schopenhauer were neutral, why would he be more “congenial” than anyone else to Beckett? Presumably, Beckett wanted a philosopher who was pessimistic, and Schopenhauer fitted the bill. David Hume, though epistemologically skeptical, was very cheerful, so presumably he would not have been nearly so “congenial” to Beckett.

    Offering his own experience as an illustrative case, Bob says, “In my youth, personality dictated that I choose Jack Kerouac over Milton; in my early manhood, it threw over Kerouac for Mann; later it was Beckett that my blind hungry temperament sought. Literature was not “guiding” me; it was simply offering in strong light the behavioral possibilities that I, in my unconscious but temperamentally headstrong way, was stumbling through.”

    I don’t think we need quibble over the meaning of the word “guide.” If Bob picked the authors he did because they fulfilled his imaginative needs, helped articulate the vision latent in his “blind” temperament, that’s good enough for me. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind.

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