Friday, November 18, 2005

Literary Darwinism and the brain

The November 6 issue of the New York Times Magazine ran a piece by D.T. Max on a new literary theory called ”Literary Darwinism” (LD). LD is the most prominent part of a larger movement called Biopoetics, dedicated to investigating the evolutionary background of the human capacity for producing and consuming works of art. As is well known, the emergence of anatomical modern homo sapiens is associated with a “creative explosion” some 50.000-75.000 years ago – exactly when is still hotly debated by archaeologists and paleontologists – which included, among other things, the first appearance of works of art. (Again, some experts argue that the first works of art appeared earlier, and, indeed, we cannot be completely certain that older hominids didn’t produce non-fossilized art such as, for instance, songs or stories; we can, however, be pretty sure that art, in any meaningful sense, was invented by some member of the homo lineage, and not too long ago.) Thus, the existence of art seems to depend upon some neurocognitive mechanisms that are only found in the human brain. It is of obvious interest to understand not only what these putative mechanisms amount to, but also why the human brain ended up being equipped with them. Biopoetics is dedicated to answering this last question.

If you are at all convinced that humans are biological organisms, this endeavour shouldn’t upset you much. I personally find it pretty obvious that any true understanding of the phenomenon of art calls for a concerted examination of the three old questions: what, how, and why? Without a description of the kinds of language constructions that make for a metaphor (what), a break down of the neuronal processes “running” these constructions (how), and an explanation of why the human brain – perhaps in contrasts to brains of other species – has picked up these processes (why), a theory of what a metaphor is cannot really be considered complete. Yet, as it turns out, most scholars studying art and language only focus on the what-question and disregard the question of how behaviour is grounded in neurobiology. Indeed, many (for reasons I won’t speculate on here) even find this question orthogonal to what a real inquiry into art or language should be about. There are therefore a lot of humanistic scholars to whom any introduction of biology, such as exemplified by Biopoetics and LD, into the study of human behaviour will be like a red rag to a bull.

No doubt this is main the reason New York Times Magazine find LD important enough to warrant a whole exposé. (I don’t think that I offend anybody by saying that LD is still very much in its infancy: Max tells us that there are in fact “only 30 or so declared adherents [of LD] in all of academia”, and most of the work done on LD to this day is of the sort that Joseph Carroll, the theoretical leader of LD, calls “Darwinian literary criticism” – interpretations based on insights gleaned from evolutionary science. Actual attempts to answer the why-question, “why did the human brain come to be able to produce and consume literature?”, are few and far between.) The main story of Max’s article is certainly that here is something new, something different from mainstream postmodern theory. That’s ok. But I think it should be stressed that Max’s introduction to LD is very cursory and doesn’t go much into its theoretical assumptions at all. (For instance, it doesn’t discuss LD’s heavy reliance on Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and EP’s hypothesis that the mind is massively modular, with each module having been adapted for some specific task. Both the notion of a massively modular mind and the human mind as adapted can be criticized; I will return to this discussion in some later post when I get my hand on The Literary Animal, the anthology of papers on LD that prompted Max’s article.) For a more in-depth presentation the reader should really go to Joseph Carroll’s homepage where it is possible to download a sizeable part of Carroll’s papers, albeit not his most recent introduction to LD which can be found in David Buss’ new Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology.

Max’s article does, however, raise an interesting and important point: that LD would benefit immensely from incorporating brain science into their evolutionary framework. I think this suggestion is a very apt and timely memento. The fact of the matter is that, until recently, both LD and Evolutionary Psychology as a whole have more or less completely neglected the what-study, i.e., how brains actually process literary language. And the reason for this negligence has not only been a pragmatic division of labour, but a problematic commitment to a functionalist stance that goes back to John Tooby and Leda Cosmides manifest “The Psychological Foundations of Cuture” in The Adapted Mind; a functionalist stance that deems that genes and neurobiology are not really relevant to understanding biological functions. This stance is problematic since evolution not really works on “functions” but on genes and, consequently, on the cell biology of the brain. Also, as Marc Hauser has stressed, comparing how “functions” are instantiated in different brains is actually a very powerful way of getting at the evolutionary why-question…Comparing chimpanzee to human speech, for instance, will tell us something about how the speech system has changed in hominids since chimps and humans parted way some 6 million years ago. It is therefore very gratifying to now read that no less a figure than Edward Wilson, the doyen of adaptionist studies, points to neuroimaging as a way of advancing LD and evolutionary studies in general. Writes Max:

Edward Wilson told me that he is confident neurobiology can help confirm many of evolutionary psychology's insights about the humanities, commending the work to "any ambitious young neurobiologist, psychologist or scholar in the humanities." They could be the "Columbus of neurobiology," he said, adding that if "you gave me a million dollars to do it, I would get immediately into brain imaging." In fact, you won't always need a million dollars for the work, as the cost of M.R.I. technology goes down. "Five years from now, every psychology department will have a scanner in the basement," says Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist. With the help of those scanners, Wilson says that science and the study of literature will join in "a mutualistic symbiosis," with science providing literary criticism with the "foundational principles" for analysis it lacks.

It should be noted, though, that, due to various technical limitations, much of what is interesting about literature will be very difficult to investigate in a MR-scanner. Long stretches of discourse doesn’t really make for good experimental stimuli, and we really need a good model of “literary cognition” before being able to design interesting fMRI experiments. But, it is definitely the way to go, and I hope that we will soon see some of the people working within LD take a more keen interest in the brain.


D.T. Max (2005): The Literary Darwinists. New York Times Magazine (November 6).
Joseph Carroll (2005): Literature and Evolutionary Psychology. In D. Buss (ed.): Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. John Wiley.


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