There is an interesting question as to why those in the humanities – most notably literary studies – have felt so dissatisfied with their performance as not just to re-invent themselves – which is fine and healthy – but to attempt to destroy their very rationale. I want to examine a tendency amongst some of those who study or profess or teach humanities to be attracted to approaches that question or deny their very object of study – the human being as an individual conscious agent or even man himself; to look at the way some humanist scholars wear anti-humanism as a badge of honour, seeming bent on taking the human out of the humanities. These recent developments are significant, I believe, because they are part of a much wider intellectual trend – namely the remorseless rise of the idea that humans can be understood in biological terms; that men (and women) are essentially beasts or (if that sounds too judgmental) that they are organisms; and that as such they do not know what they are or what they do.
The humanities have past form in embracing anti-humanism. There was a very strange period in the final quarter of the last century when some leading humanist intellectuals, particularly those studying literature – though other disciplines such as the law, anthropology, history and cultural studies were affected – seemed determined to eliminate the individual human subject, or to reduce him or her to a kind of node or cluster of nodes in a system of signs. In some respects, this trend, rooted in a social constructivism that questioned the objective truth of science, might seem to be the polar opposite of the biologism which is my main theme. This impression is misleading: the present embrace of biologism in the humanities is business as usual; under the surface appearance of radical change there is la meme chose. In both cases, the conscious human agent is marginalised, dismissed, or even eliminated.
The trends in the 60s onwards had many names as fashion succeeded fashion – and structuralism and poststructuralism and a variety of postmodernisms jostled for position but they reached their climax in a somewhat nebulous academic pursuit called Theory with a capital T. What is important for our present concern is that Theory, like biologism, was anti-humanist. The ‘I’ was a mere substrate for the operation of unconscious forces. This was not presented as a melancholy discovery but as a cause for somewhat malicious glee.
While Theory is out of fashion, the anti-humanist impulse within the humanities, taking the human out of the humanities, most certainly is not. Some of the drivers that led to Theory are still present and relevant to my main themes. The waning of one kind of anti-humanism left a lot of cynicism about human beings (including their claims to conscious agency, to knowing what they are doing), overstanding, jargon-hunger and so on unused and unsatisfied. Most dismaying of all is something that was evident in Theory: an uncritical credulity about the disciplines that are co-opted in the search for new approaches. This time round it is biology as applied to the human person.
The biologisation of our understanding of human life has been advocated by many writers since Darwin demonstrated that it was possible to explain the origin of humanity without appealing to God and a separate day of creation for Man. After The Origin of Species, the organism H sapiens assumed its place in the animal kingdom. This has lead to much misunderstanding. Evolutionary psychologists have, over the last 30 years, devoted themselves to re-describing human life in terms derived from the biological sciences. Heroic efforts, including the invention of vacuous concepts such as memes (units of cultural transmission analogous to genes, units of biological transmission) have gone into concealing the great chasm between life in the office and life in the jungle. Biologism has two pillars. There is Darwinitis – the assumption that Darwinian theory not only explains the origin of the organism H sapiens but the nature of the human person; not only our biological roots but our cultural leaves. And there is Neuromania, which is based on the idea that the human mind, and indeed the human person, is identical with activity in the brain and that this has been demonstrated by science. Since the brain is an evolved organ, and adapted essentially to support classical or inclusive fitness, a neuro-evolutionary approach to man and to the study of the human condition – the business of the humanities – is the proper way to study mankind. The future of the social and human sciences is to be incorporated in a vastly extended neuro-evolutionary science.
This was predicted by EO Wilson:
The humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.
Or, as he has written more recently,
It may not be too much to say that sociology and the other social sciences, including the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis.
And the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that ‘Consilience [the pursuit of the unification of knowledge] has long been enjoyed by the sciences, has recently extended to the social sciences with the help of evolutionary psychology, and it now ripe for extension to the humanities and the arts’.
In the gaze of the biologised humanities, our distinctive nature would be reduced to the properties of living matter. And given that at the cutting edge of biology, living matter is molecular biology, we humans are matter period. Why stop at biology: go for physics. If we are pieces of matter, there is no basis for our apparent freedom, our sense of self, and even our distinctive human society. The humanities, traditionally a bulwark against the encroaching tides of scientism, have proved more than willing to collaborate with the invaders. Neuro-evolutionary thought has been welcomed with garlands of flowers. Unforced marriages with the occupying forces have produced that profusion of ‘inter-disciplinary’ children bearing names that testify to the happiness of the partnership, though not to the equality of the partners. Here are a few examples: Neuro-aesthetics; Neuro-law; Neuro-economics; Neuro-sociology; Neuro-politics; Neuro-theology; und so wieter….
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Art, that most distinctive of human activities — the most remote, one would have thought, from our organic being — has been a favourite target of the biologisers. The aficionados of ‘neuro-aesthetics’ explain the effect of different kinds of art by referring to what is seen on fMRI scans. Semir Zeki, for example, explains the different impact of the works of Mondrian and Malevich by noting which bits of the brain they stimulate. The creation of art itself is an activity by which the artist, unknown to himself, behaves in such a way as to promote the replication of his genetic material. The artist is a show off, like a peacock exhibiting his tail. According to Denis Dutton, our aesthetic preferences – in particular for certain sorts of landscapes – were forged in the 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene era, rather than the mere 500 generations since the first societies.
No application of evolutionary theory is crude enough to escape praise. Dutton’s work, Steven Pinker tells us, ‘marks out the future of the humanities – connecting aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature drawn from the cognitive and biological sciences….’
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I want now to focus on neuro-evolutionary literary study as a paradigm of those animalities that are tipped to replace the humanities. I shall say something about what it is; note the meagre results it has produced; say why it is wrong about neuroscience; underline why it is wrong about literature; and finally – and perhaps most importantly – say why it is wrong about human beings. Similar criticisms apply with equal force to the other animalities that I have referred to. What they have in common is a paradoxical and perverse commitment to looking right past the last several hundred thousand years of our development to the beasts who have remained pretty well unchanged in order to understand the most advanced aspects of human culture. The key assumption is that the best way to advance our understanding of the production and consumption of literature will be to acknowledge its neuro-evolutionary basis and examine the brain activity associated with consuming it, the evolutionary benefits it may confer, and the evolutionary basis for our tastes and for the stories that make sense to us.
Brian Boyd, brilliant and sensitive critic of Vladimir Nabokov, has argued for the evolutionary approach as follows:
Art is a specifically human adaptation… It offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among more intelligent animals.
And Joseph Carroll, a leading evolutionary critic and author of many papers and several hefty volumes, has argued that ‘knowledge is a biological phenomenon, that literature is a form of knowledge, and that literature itself is thus a biological phenomenon’. He concludes from this that ‘There is no work of literature written anywhere in the world, at any time, by any author, that is outside the scope of a Darwinian analysis.’
All of this has prompted great excitement in academe and even in the media. But is the excitement justified? Well, let us look at some typical results of the biological approach to literature, beginning with an example that focuses on the neural activity supposedly triggered by reading. My first encounter with neuro-lit-crit was an article published a few years ago by one of your previous visiting scholars, AS Byatt. In an essay in the Times Literary Supplement she purported to explain why John Donne’s poetry was so effective: it provoked a certain kind of neuronal activity that resulted in the reader forming what the French neuroscientist Pierre Changeux described as mental objects. These objects are constructed from the activity of a large number of neurons in different layers of the brain that all come together. By a belt and braces approach, the neurons Donne excites are largely those ‘of reinforced linkages of memory, concepts, and learned formal structures like geometry, algebra and language’. The poems knock on the right cerebral doors and go straight to the top. Unfortunately, leaving aside the entirely speculative nature of Changeux’s theory, the mental objects his theory encompasses would hardly seem to me as a clinical neuroscientist to be restricted to up-market experiences such as those associated with reading poetry. Working one’s self up into a rage when one discovers that the milk has run out because some idle sod has failed to replace it would involve the very same processes that would generate the mental objects Byatt invokes in explaining the particular impact of the poems of a genius, if such processes do occur. For the mental objects constructed under such irritating circumstances also involve percepts, memory images, abstract concepts, and an confection-by-association of them, as one justifies one’s rage and allocates blame, and deploys sophisticated neural algebras that simultaneously locate oneself in an unsatisfactory kitchen and a careless world populated with thoughtless people.
I shall return to Byatt in due course but I want to focus on another example. In the course of my response to Byatt’s piece, I somewhat ironically remarked that I would be interested, given that she had embraced a new discipline that made empirical claims, to know what experiments she might devise to support them. Did she envisage a generation of white-coated literary critics, dissecting rat brains with one hand and texts with the other, and congresses on experimental neuroaesthetics? I did not realise that moves were afoot in that direction until my friend Philip Davis drew my dismayed attention to work he was doing, and I am now aware that there is a huge quasi-experimental body of work in this area.
Davis argues that the impact of Shakespeare’s verse depends upon the specific effects certain syntactic constructions have upon the nervous system. When, as often happens, Shakespeare uses a noun as a verb or an adverb as a noun (a technique known in the business as ‘functional shift’) as in the phrase ‘he godded me’ from Coriolanus (a verb my spell-checker chokes on), or ‘the dark backward’ of time in The Tempest, we are surprised and are pleasurably aroused. Davis suggests that this is due to ‘heightened brain activity’ and this ‘may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such a dramatic effect on their readers’. Davis has gone beyond mere speculation and (with apologies to Dr. Johnson) feeling ‘the strong contagion of the white coat’. He has collaborated with neuroscientists on studies examining brain electricity with EEG. Using a group of sentences, one of which contained a functionally shifted word, he found an increase in the amplitude of a wave called p600 – registering syntactic violations – but no change in the N400 which is associated with semantic processing. The brain, he argued, was allowed to know what the word meant before it understood its function in a sentence and was thereby forced to work backwards before it fully understands what Shakespeare is trying to say. He concluded from this that Shakespeare’s language is so powerful because his grammatical transgressions pressure the brain ‘into working at a higher adaptive level of conscious evolution’. This is literature as brain-teasing.
So much for the neuro- half of neuro-evolutionary literary studies. What about evolutionary theory? How good do the results look there? Why don’t we go to the top and see how Joseph Carroll delivers on his rhetoric. Carroll examines Wuthering Heights not for its style or descriptive power, for its literary virtues, but for its plot, after he has subjected it to a Reader’s Digest digestion. He concludes that the motor of the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is the fact that they were raised as siblings and so were ‘genetically programmed to find sexual relations distasteful’ and this would make evolutionary sense. With respect, I don’t think that tells us much about the particular genius of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece. And I don’t think that we needed Bronte’s genius to point that out to us. (And besides, it is not always true: the transition from childhood friendship to adult sexual relations is often negotiated without the kind of agonising storm and stress that characterises the evolving relationship between the two protagonists.)
In Mimesis and the Human Animal, Robert Storey focuses on the roots of tragedy and comedy. He examines ‘laughter and smiling – universal reactions of human beings to specifiable classes of stimuli – as evolved responses of an apparently adaptive kind’. His imaginary reader is linked with the crab-eating monkey, in whom ‘any sudden, startling, or incongruous situation… may lead to laughter and smiling’. A gaze that assimilates such monkey behaviour to the appreciation of Shakespearean comedy would, it seems to me, be more than somewhat blurred. After all, a crab-eating monkey doesn’t even have the concept of a crab-eating monkey.
That the results are meagre is exactly what one might expect. Let us go back to Byatt. By adopting a neurophysiological approach, she loses a rather large number of important distinctions, at least as many as Theory abolished: between reading one poem by John Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and another Metaphysical poet; between reading the Metaphysicals and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash; between reading and many other activities – such as getting very cross over missing milk in the fridge. That is an impressive number of distinctions for a literary critic to lose. It is hardly surprising that distinctions are lost, given that the works are looked at through a wrong-ended telescope. As with Theory with a capital T, it does not come close to the singularity of works of art, providing neither the reader nor the critic with any way of distinguishing between the Venerable Bede and Jane Austen or between Jane Austen and a cookbook describing a very tasty recipe. I want to return to that in a moment but what about the experimental approach? Does it give us new or interesting or valid insights into the distinctive powers and significance of individual works of literature?
Consider Philip Davis’s study and its claim that it gives us helpful insights into the unique potency of Shakespeare’s verse. Let us leave aside the fact that we neuroscientists do not know how to interpret changes in p600 even in neurological terms and the fact that there are many other surprising experiences that might influence the height of p600. Instead, let us ask ourselves whether examining a particular linguistic trick or tool in isolation as a kind of stimulus will allow us to see more deeply into Shakespeare’s genius. Firstly, the grammatical anomaly would be of interest only in the service of an observation or an utterance that carried especial potent meaning. ‘Godded’ adds only a little to the impact of the line in Coriolanus. Secondly, this kind of functional shift is used widely and it is not confined to literary language. A common example would be the assertion that someone or other had ‘ballsed something up’. Thirdly, the line itself makes sense only as part of its revelation of character, its contribution to the unfolding of the plot, to the dramatic interactions on the stage, and to the effect of the play as an illustration of human life. Fourthly, the greater part of Shakespeare’s verse does not rely on such grammatical transgressions. They are few and far between and they are usually absent from some of the greatest lines ever set down by a human pen. The syntactic tricks may add to the energy of the language but they do so only as auxiliars to a deep unfolding sense. Only where language is disconnected from the purposes it serves – in the degenerate prose of, say, John Lyly of Euphues – does it make sense to examine it in isolation, when it takes on the character of a trick or an ornament to hide what might be rhetorical emptiness. And that’s just for starters. Neuro-lit crit leaves out a variety of other dimensions, not the least the historical. Also, Shakespeare as brain-teasing doesn’t distinguish his verse from other literary and non-literary texts. Consider the linguists’ favourite example of re-evaluation: ‘Rapidly righting with his uninjured hand, he diverted the canoe from the rocks’. This must surely create a p600 so strong it would burn the hair off the head. And there is little point in re-reading, as the surprise element would have vanished.
Evolutionary theory can be the basis for literary studies only if critics want to abandon thinking about what makes great works of literature special and what is differently special about different works of literature. Perhaps that is not the intention of evolutionary criticism – in which case, it hardly amounts to literary criticism. Writing that is any good will rise above the off-the-shelf automated perceptions, unreflective judgements, and narrow consciousness of ordinary gossip. Magnanimous, ironical, questioning, wide awake in every respect, it is profoundly different from everyday story-telling which often blunts our social sensibilities by simplifying other people and their worlds, encouraging competition and envy and conflict, and fostering imitation. A broad brush theory of literature, which narrows the gap between pub prattle and War and Peace, will hardly sharpen literary criticism. There is, however, another problem with any approach which sees literature, as evolutionary critics do, as a tool for survival. It is this: it is doubtful that sophisticated, more challenging, works of art contribute to social solidarity of the kind that would optimise the chances of the genome replicating. Worse still, an organism that devotes many hours to the solitary pastime of reading, and reading-inspired daydreaming, would surely be less fitted for the hurly-burly of the jungle than one satisfied by the one-sentence paragraphs of the tabloid newspapers. Another evolutionary loser, in short. And, by the way, other animals don’t tell stories or narrate their own or other’s lives. Even if story-telling promotes survival, it is unique to humans, creatures who lead their lives rather than merely live their bodies.
Joseph Carroll’s assertion in The Literary Animal that ‘There is no work of literature written anywhere in the world, at any time, by any author, that is outside the scope of a Darwinian analysis’ will in a sense be self-fulfilling: blunt instruments are not troubled by pernickety distinctions – such as between good writing and garbage – that have detained unenlightened earlier generations of critics. Indeed, Carroll’s founding assumption that literature is ‘a form of knowledge’ suggests that he is committed to looking straight past what is distinctive about literature. Is poetry usefully described as ‘a form of knowledge’? It is certainly not knowledge in the way that a maintenance manual or a telephone directory or a scientific paper is a form of knowledge. There is a world of difference between Shakespeare’s Sonnets and a book of fishing tips or an exhaustive list of the causes of chronic cough.
It seems in principle unlikely that we should find a distinct biological basis for the production and consumption of complex discourses such as the poetry of John Donne in the differential activity of bits of the brain that evolved even before discourse began and which, size apart, were evident in our shared primate kin 5,000,000 years ago. The a priori expectation that evolutionary criticism, which looks at literature from as remote a distance as one could imagine – even more remote than Theory – would be unlikely to advance the task of interpreting, evaluating, and illuminating individual works (and serious works of literature are individual to the point of singularity) or, more broadly, of mediating between the reader and the writer, is confirmed. No wonder, then, that as William Deresiewicz says, ‘Darwinian criticism sets out to say something specific, only to end up telling us something general’. He discusses Brian Boyd’s endeavour to explain Shakespeare’s pre-eminence. Boyd tells us that he portrays the socio-biological dynamics of small groups. So, too, do the vast majority of novels and plays, including the great number that are worthless; The Valley of the Dolls as well as Middlemarch. As Irving Massey observes, ‘no matter how many neurobiological universals we identify as contributing to our general response to art, they never determine our particular response to any particular work’.
To Shakespeare we bring not just a stand-alone brain attuned by evolution to tricks but ourselves, our experience, our knowledge of the world and of ourselves, our lives which neuroscience, that examines the general properties of neural tissue, cannot examine. Our response is remote from the energisation of a brain by syntactic anomalies causing extra tingles. What’s more, the reduction of the impact of Shakespearean language to such tingles leaves two things unexplained. Firstly, why do all those who encounter Shakespeare’s language not tingle in the same way? If we respond to Shakespeare’s language with neurological universals, why is the response not universal? Secondly, why is the experience of great language, with or without syntactic anomalies, different from that of other stimuli such as drugs, alcohol, nasty surprises or loud music, which are not regarded as worth teaching to young people in Departments of English Literature? Steven Pinker, by the way, argues that there isn’t any difference: with commendable consistency he compares art in How the Mind Works (1997) to drug-taking and auto-eroticism.
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Neurally-based study of literature is buoyed up by a blissful ignorance of the current state of neuroscience – what we know (or more importantly don’t know) about how the brain works and how brain activity is related to human consciousness. There are both metaphysical and empirical gaps – the theme for another paper.
But there is a deeper problem and it is relevant to what the humanities ultimately are about: acknowledging, reflecting and reflecting on, the nature of the human person and of the human world. A mode of literary studies that addresses the most complex and rich of human discourses, not with an attention that aims to reflect or at least respect that complexity and richness, but with a simplifying discourse whose elements are blobs of the brain (and usually the same blobs), wheeled out time after time is the kind of contempt that, along with the mobilization of other disciplines half-digested, in this case bad biology rather than bad philosophy and worse linguistics that we saw in Theory. If literary criticism is to serve any worthwhile function, it won’t be concerned with putative mechanisms of grotesquely reduced and traduced neuralised reader responses or Darwinised authorial motives but with helping readers to make sense of, and put into larger context, a work that repays careful attention. And, yes, with evaluation: asking the traditional questions that we ought to ask when thinking about a work of literature: What was the author intending to do? How well was it done? Was it worth doing? Neural pathways are not interested in this kind of thing, never mind the background to the work and its relationship to other writing, and the niceties of hermeneutics, and the ethics of what is written. Even less are they concerned with aesthetic judgement. As Nicholas Carr says, ‘Whether a person is interested in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same’.
To neuralise the experience of art, reducing it to succession of separate experiences, a series of bonbons for Bonobos, is to traduce it. Surely art is more than this: is it not about bringing together things from the four quarters of our consciousness, and to link the small facts that detain us with the great facts that enclose us? Art speaks to needs – such as, for example, to make a larger and more complete sense of our world, of our lives, of our destiny – that are remote from those that felt by apes and centipedes, who are not even aware of their own mortality, that great poser of the kinds of questions that art – and philosophy – address.
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Biologism in the humanities may seem a harmless idiocy but harmless idiocies have a habit, as the 20th century told us, of turning fluffy little puppies into Rottweilers with sharpened teeth that may shred their owners to death. Even if this does not happen, the suicide of the humanities is a disaster to be mourned if we believe, as I do, that they have something central to contribute to the conversation humanity has with itself. The challenge of humanism, which is indeed the great adventure of humanity, at which the humanities should be at the heart, is to make sense of human possibility without appealing to the idea of God as a source of our meaning and destination. If the humanities capitulate to biology, this challenge – to see ourselves clearly, as creatures who are not solely part of nature but also apart from it – will be all the more difficult.