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 ( ).

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