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Interdisciplinary Relations: On Consilience

[ 3 ] December 23, 2009 | Ben Ehrlich

441160a-i1.0Harvard University has a praiseworthy policy: faculty authors put their published articles online.  So Steven Pinker’s essay “Toward a Consilient Study of Literature,” [PDF] a review of the new work The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Rethinking Theory) is available to all.  Edited by Jonathan Gotschall and David Sloan Wilson, The Literary Animal is a collection of essays from a number of authors whose method is either called “Literary Darwinism” or “evocriticism.”  “Literary Darwinists” apply insights from the field of human evolution to the study of the literary arts.  A major declarative work from Nabokov biographer and professor Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories came out earlier this year.  The new theory could be considered an example of E.O. Wilson’s idea of “Consilience” from his book of the same name: the unification of the humanities and the sciences such as exists in the sciences themselves.  (Wilson wrote a “Foreward” to The Literary Animal).  But as though the disciplines were great nations, there is a good bit of diplomacy required.

The central issue is the phenomenon of human art and its development in the natural world that we currently understand.  In his book, Boyd argues that art is an adaptive trait, a form of cognitive play that encourages social cohesion and engages attention.  Pinker, on the other hand, believes that art is an evolutionary by-product, “cheesecake of the mind,” a pleasure technology born from inessential accident.  Not surprisingly, many people in the humanities have taken issue with Pinker and his views.  But do they matter?  It seems like a fight for academic selection.  And there need be no fighting.  I found nothing but thoughtful, respectful, and constructive criticism in Pinker’s essay.  He is excited by a new direction of thought and disagrees only with specific theories—he does not reject the possibility of art as adaptation.  My only qualm is that Pinker spelled Jane Austen’s name wrong (“Austin”).  She is a literary goddess for many in the humanities.  But we must forgive faux pas and accept the fact that in interdisciplinary relations, some things are lost in translation (or spelling, as it were).

For example, according to Pinker, some misunderstand or misinterpret the theory of evolution itself.  This is not surprising—its temporal vastness is often difficult to grasp and its logic is prone to circular reasoning.  Pinker suggests that using engineering analysis to grease the wheels of the question of fictional mechanism, a hardly intuitive approach for the traditional humanitarian who bristles at the notion of a computational machine between the flesh of our ears. “Will robots have literature?” Pinker asks, quoting the artificial intelligence researcher Jerry Hobbs, whose book Literature and Cognition applies to literature insights and methods from the analysis of discourse and facts of cognitive science.  In other words, would a designer want to build fiction into an intelligent being that had to survive in a humanlike ecosystem, in our world?  I think we are hard-wired for narrative, as there are regions of our brain (particularly the poster parietal cortex and the hippocampus) which seem to be involved in the maintenance of a concept of self and the construction of an autobiography.  Story has a neurobiological humanity about it.  Our own lives are stories that can be extremely thrilling or despairing, rich or barren, lovely or loveless. Instructive fiction includes realistic other selves whom we can identify.  Researchers of “mirror neurons,” which fire while we observe the behavior of others, are trying to understand empathy and should examine the potential role in reader response.   The Literary AnimalStories sharpen and strengthen our understanding of reality and therefore merit, selectively speaking, our engaged attention.  At the mere cost of words (cheap, as the newsman knows) people can conduct thought experiments, mental training that will improve the chance of survival and reproduction.  Seeing, listening, and reading are certainly essential skills.

But as readers of Proust could point out, literature can be pure delight.  My senior colloquium in college read Swann’s Way, the first volume of the Frenchman’s modern epic In Search of Lost Time, together.  During the 7-10 days of reading the novel, I had rare dreams about my childhood 2-3 times.  Another student reported the same thing.  We all entered class embarrassed to admit that the prose had made us sleepy.  Not to worry, our professor said, this is been happening to readers for years.  The rhythm and flow of the prose (I wish that I knew French) convey the feeling of bedtime, where the narrator’s consciousness is focused in the beginning of the novel.  The sublime “madelaine moment,” where Proust discovered involuntary memory with his pen.  These are indulgences, rich treats of for the mind.  Reading part of Proust was one of the most pleasurable experiences I have ever had.  So despite its lessons about childhood and Dreyfus affair-era France, I would concede that it is essentially (delicious) cheesecake.  But the poet Horace said that the purpose of literature is “to delight and to instruct.”  Perhaps art is a by-product and an adaption.  I agree with Pinker’s idea here.

In the end, Pinker offers advice to the young field of Darwinian literary criticism.  I share his excitement for what will come from this book.  The next 5-10 years in literary theory should right the course misguided by the last 40 years.  I studied comparative literature in college and had a very distressing experience with contemporary theory.  It seemed so dry and meaningless.  George Steiner, author of the classic work of literary criticism Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, reminds that “criticism ought to arise out of a debt of love.”  Lovers of literature will enlighten its study by incorporating the truths discovered by physical science.  This will undoubtedly help protect and defend the discipline in the future.  But the focus should never leave the treasure: the extraordinary texts produced by human beings.

I do not know whether art and fiction are adaptive traits or just happy accidents.  Who can really know that?  We have our theories and beliefs and we should allow them to change if they must.  Nothing can erase the profound influence that art, fiction, and literature have had on human civilization.  So let’s not be afraid of explaining it. I applaud the Darwinian literary critics.  I look forward to input from researchers of consciousness, because this state underlies the mental process of reading, living, and understanding story.  Which leads to a great philosophical question: why do humans have subjective experience that accompanies neural activity?  Why are we artistic, and not automatic?

Ben Ehrlich is a freelance writer and a contributor to The Beautiful Brain. He graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 with a degree in comparative literature. His blog, which tracks his ongoing research into the life and work of the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, can be found here.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jeremy says:

    I know you focus mostly on literature in this essay, but it would be worthwhile to look into dance and not simply ‘written’ art.
    There’s quite a bit of evidence that various ancient societies used primitive ‘dance’ forms to simulate hunting situations, increase communal bonds, train people physically and engage in shamanistic ceremonies. There is much less of that today, but those connections still exist.
    I’m not quite sure how that ties into what you wrote, but it made me think that moving the body around is one of the most fundamental artistic things that we do.

  2. Ben Ehrlich says:

    Great point, Jeremy. I’m fascinated by what you say about dance. I wish I knew more about the subject. I chose to focus on literature, specifically fiction, because of the recent theoretical developments and my own background. But by no means should the conversation be limited to this medium. I agree that an examination of dance would be worthwhile.

    Brian Boyd’s book “On the Origin of Stories” involves some examples of dance and storytelling, the oral tradition of fiction. Those two seem to me to be a sensible pair. Literature, as it is considered, is a modern invention, born from technological, social, and other changes. I’ll look around and see who writes and theorizes about the more basic art forms. I get the sense that they have an evolutionary primacy about them, as you imply.

    If you are interested in the future of reading, I would direct you to a great post at Keith Oatley’s blog OnFiction:

    Perhaps dance will outlive literature because it is the reconciliation of a person with the situation of having a body. There is a fundamental humanity about that. Or perhaps technology will affect it all in unforeseen ways. In any event, this has been a long and rambling response but I appreciate your comment and thanks for reading! We can discuss this further in person.

  3. [...] effort towards a specific goal. Keeping in heart and mind my friend Ben Ehrlich’s post on (to quote a paraphrase from editor, Noah Hutton) whether art is “and adaptive trait or a [...]

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