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evolutionary lit crit
October 25, 2007 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Toward a consilient study of literature (pdf) by Steven Pinker.

A critical review of Gottschall and Wilson's, "The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative".

The intro excerpted:

People tell stories. all over the world, and probably for as long as
they have existed, people invent characters and recount their ficti-
tious exploits. This apparent frivolity is no small matter in human affairs.
if one were to tally the number of hours and resources spent in enjoying
fiction in all its forms—story-telling, pretend play, myths and legends,
fairy tales, novels, short stories, epic poems, television, movies, theater,
opera, ballads, narrative paintings, jokes, comics, skits, video games, and
pornography—it would surely account for a major portion of people’s
time and a major portion of modern economic activity. Considering the
costs in time, foregone opportunities to engage in practical pursuits,
and the dangers of confusing fantasy with reality, our longing to lose
ourselves in fiction is a big puzzle for anyone seeking to understand
human beings. all the more so from a Darwinian perspective, as one
might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclina-
tion to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one.
posted by shotgunbooty (134 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
There are many reasons to believe that connecting literary analysis with evolutionary psychology is an idea whose time has come.

Dammit, I've been flogging that idea on Metafilter for years! Where's my tenure track position at Harvard?
posted by jokeefe at 1:27 PM on October 25, 2007


The anthropologist Robin Fox suggests that epics and romances (like Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Iliad, Le Morte d’Arthur, and Chanson de Rolande) explore the tension between male bonding, which unites men in aggressive coalitions, and emotional ties to their lovers, wives, and families. The common thread shown by Fox that runs across widely separated cultures and millennia is eye-opening, and it counters skepticism that any one of these works is only exploring the contingent values of a particular society.

Has this guy never read feminist literary analysis, or even Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick? Oy.

I'm cranky today. Maybe I should focus on the nice weather outside or something.
posted by jokeefe at 1:29 PM on October 25, 2007


Lit crit was bad enough. But no. Just no.

Maybe I'm just biased because I've just finished a book by Gregory Nagy which uses precisely these techniques to talk about Homer for about a hundred pages without actually talking about Homer at all.

Again, no. This won't contribute anything to the world, just like modern academia has done nothing for language and its study.
posted by koeselitz at 1:29 PM on October 25, 2007


Also, maybe I'm wrong, but hasn't this idea been around at least since Ferdinand de Saussure?
posted by koeselitz at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


In recent years, articles in major periodicals from the New York Times Magazine to the Times Literary Supplement have heralded the arrival of a new school of literary studies that promises--or threatens--to profoundly shift the current paradigm. This revolutionary approach, known as Darwinian literary studies, is based on a few simple premises: evolution has produced a universal landscape of the human mind that can be scientifically mapped; these universal tendencies are reflected in the composition, reception, and interpretation of literary works; and an understanding of the evolutionary foundations of human behavior, psychology, and culture will enable literary scholars to gain powerful new perspectives on the elements, form, and nature of storytelling.

*rips hair out*

Can I just say: fuck evolutionary "psychology" and every one of its bastard children? Thank you.

And now I will go outside for a bit.
posted by jokeefe at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


Also, maybe I'm wrong, but hasn't this idea been around at least since Ferdinand de Saussure?

It's been around for longer than that. This is a case of an uncalled for, even more useless than usual reinvention of the wheel.
posted by jokeefe at 1:33 PM on October 25, 2007


This is disgusting. I can't decide what I hate more: the pseudo-political Literary Establishment or Pinker's mount of fetid garbage.
posted by nasreddin at 1:34 PM on October 25, 2007


Oh jesus christ, what utter shit. What a fucking tool. It amazes me how stupid smart people can be.
posted by OmieWise at 1:35 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Considering the costs in time, foregone opportunities to engage in practical pursuits, and the dangers of confusing fantasy with reality, our longing to lose ourselves in fiction is a big puzzle for anyone seeking to understand human beings. all the more so from a Darwinian perspective, as one might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one.

Oh god. Poor Darwin. He really wasn't asking for this "when all you've got is a hammer everything looks like a nail" shite.

Stories, myths, narratives, are the bedrock of social relations and a necessity for a functioning human society. End of.
posted by jokeefe at 1:35 PM on October 25, 2007


Perhaps a more apt title for this tome is "Just So Stories".
posted by bluesky43 at 1:38 PM on October 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


I too am not able to muster solid reasons why this stuff is nonsense so I will just call names, use profane language, and dismiss it. Why bother to present arguements against this approach when I can instead call names? Isn't this what Metafilter is for?
posted by Postroad at 1:38 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why bother to present arguements against this approach when I can instead call names? Isn't this what Metafilter is for?

Yes.

Why don't you tell us why you think this is a good or worthwhile approach? Pinker sure isn't convincing.
posted by nasreddin at 1:43 PM on October 25, 2007


... just like modern academia has done nothing for language and its study.

This opinion is a little too precisely worded and well supported for me to parse, would you mind rephrasing? Perhaps a broader brush will do nicely.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:44 PM on October 25, 2007


At the beginning of ''Pride and Prejudice,'' Jane Austen utters a sentence to make a literary Darwinist salivate: ''It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.'' But anyone reading the book quickly comes to see that it's only the limited characters in the book, like Elizabeth Bennet's mother, who see people that way. Austen's comment is ironic. At its best, literary Darwinism offers a fresh perspective on the way fiction works. At its worst, it turns us into a race of Mrs. Bennets.--D.T. Max, "The Year in Ideas: Darwinian Literary Criticism", New York Times, Dec. 15, 2002.
posted by No Robots at 1:56 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


I have not read Pinker's piece or "The Literary Animal." They may well be crap. But I wish people weren't so dismissive of this discussion. Rants about whether or not these are original ideas are boring. Who cares? If you tell you that you invented Calculus ... sure, that's a lie, but LET'S TALK ABOUT CALCULUS!

This is like those endless, boring discussions over whether "King Lear" was written by Shakespeare, Bacon, Essex or Elizabeth. If that sort of thing turns you on, good for you. I'd rather read and talk about "King Lear." Whoever wrote it, it's a great play.

Here's what fascinates me: narrative IS a huge part of the human experience. Cave paintings suggest that it always has been. Yet for years, science has pretty much ignored the narrative drive. (Or maybe not. But I read as much science-writing as I can, and I don't remember much research or even theorizing about narrative until really recently.)

Suddenly, scientists are taking art and narrative seriously. Even if they're doing it in a misguided way (which is what I'd expect in very early attempts), at least they're doing it. They're creating a scaffolding that we can build on -- even if "building on it" means pointing out its structural weaknesses.

If a deep discussion about narrative evolves here, I look forward to taking part.
posted by grumblebee at 2:01 PM on October 25, 2007 [6 favorites]


I too am not able to muster solid reasons why this stuff is nonsense so I will just call names, use profane language, and dismiss it.

I could happily enter into the reasons why I hate this stuff, but you know what? Life is short, it's sunny out, I have work to do, and I'd rather not have my head explode.

However, I have in this thread alluded to two: one being that the passage I quoted is by no means "eye-opening" in the least, but is a restatement of themes identified and discussed at length in both old and new critical theory (to much better effect and with much a greater level of scholarship and historical awareness); and the other being the usual: that this approach, this mis-statement of evolutionary theory, attempts to jam every and any form of human behaviour into one reductive paradigm. And that reductive paradigm suspiciously resembles nothing more or less than the modern nuclear family as imagined in a patriarchal society. Whatever. I've seen it done with just about anything you can name-- why blonde hair is fashionable, why women supposedly like Byronic heroes but only once a month, blah blah-- but hands off literature, you know? Christ, "analyzing" Jane Austen as if she's describing the mating antics of two wildebeest is too much for me. (Pls resist the cheap shots kthx.)
posted by jokeefe at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


jokeefe - "Stories, myths, narratives, are the bedrock of social relations and a necessity for a functioning human society. End of."

Pinker does address this later. I believe that such narratives are necessary for the functioning of human society, and Pinker gives an argument to this effect. I don't think that stories, myth, narrative are the bedrock of social relations though - and would be curious to hear your arguments for why. (I would suggest, as Pinker does, that they serve only to enlighten the individual, not to draw the individual closer to the group.)
posted by taliaferro at 2:05 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


That's just dumb. Everybody knows chicks dig stories.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:05 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]



Here's what fascinates me: narrative IS a huge part of the human experience. Cave paintings suggest that it always has been. Yet for years, science has pretty much ignored the narrative drive. (Or maybe not. But I read as much science-writing as I can, and I don't remember much research or even theorizing about narrative until really recently.)


Look, grumblebee, you're a sensitive and intelligent poster, but you're missing something here.

We have been analyzing narrative for thousands of years, just not in the framework of laboratory science. And if scientists want to use their unique expertise to approach literary problems, they're welcome to. But swaggering into town as if no one's ever read literature properly before is grossly ignorant. Give me a sensitive treatment of a specific literary problem that engages with the existing literature, but uses science to modify and advance its hypotheses--not this blustering, closed-minded reductionism.
posted by nasreddin at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


I don't think that stories, myth, narrative are the bedrock of social relations though - and would be curious to hear your arguments for why.

One way to look at it is that our political ideas are founded on narratives and myths (the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Manifest Destiny). As are our religious ideas, of course.
posted by nasreddin at 2:12 PM on October 25, 2007


Here's what fascinates me: narrative IS a huge part of the human experience. Cave paintings suggest that it always has been. Yet for years, science has pretty much ignored the narrative drive. (Or maybe not. But I read as much science-writing as I can, and I don't remember much research or even theorizing about narrative until really recently.)

Suddenly, scientists are taking art and narrative seriously. Even if they're doing it in a misguided way (which is what I'd expect in very early attempts), at least they're doing it.


grumblebee, I agree with you regarding narrative. In fact, it is not an understatement to say that I could not agree with you more: narrative is not just a huge part of the human experience, it in many ways, IS the human experience.

When you say that "science has pretty much ignored the narrative drive" I'm not sure which branch of the sciences you refer to, but Anthropology and Sociology certainly have not. Neither has Psychology, or History. Obviously we run into problems with what discipline is considered "real science", and I know that Psychology has experienced some pains in that area.

If we say that Evolutionary Theory is "hard" science, then surely Evolutionary Psychology is attempting to garner authority for its, uh, studies through appropriating (and misusing) Darwin's theory as a way to try and understand certain forms of human behaviour. Sadly, the results are usually risable, unsupported, unexamined, and riddled with inherent flawas, the main one being the assumption that natural selection as it functions in nature still has any application to human societies in the least.

I could go on, but I'm an work... I just find the whole Ev. Psych. thing so intellectually bankrupt it makes me despair.
posted by jokeefe at 2:12 PM on October 25, 2007


The goal of explaining the human taste for fiction (a problem in evolutionary psychology) sits uneasily with the goal of improving the analysis and criticism of specific works of fiction (a problem in departments of English and other literatures).

"I have just discovered that the theory of literature interests me, and I think it is separable from the criticism of literature. I therefore wish to annex it to my own work immediately."

This in turn may require a more explicit rationale of what literary criticism itself is for, and why we attach so much importance to it—the kind of justification that many humanities scholars find philistine and demeaning, but that scientists are forced to muster every time they write a grant proposal.

"I get more grant money than my colleagues, and therefore my work is more laudable, as this means it is both more methodologically explicit and more in touch with its practical consequences."

Also, literature ≠ fiction, for chrissakes.
posted by RogerB at 2:13 PM on October 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


jokeefe, (a) you are being nicely eponypropriate, and (b) you might be tired of this argument, but that doesn't make it wrong. I'd like to note that I think we can discuss this without being reductive - this kind of evolutionary approach doesn't have to preclude other types of analysis.

Attempting such an "evolutionary" analysis on works written by homosexual authors could be interesting, as well as a test of how well such a theory might work.
posted by taliaferro at 2:14 PM on October 25, 2007


I don't think that stories, myth, narrative are the bedrock of social relations though - and would be curious to hear your arguments for why.

Myth, narrative, and legend function as ways of social identification. It can be tribal or religious. It can be Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or it can be something as simple as "The Clash were the greatest punk band ever." We all find group identification through the stories we tell. It's how we differentiate ourselves from the people who live over yonder, who have different stories and customs from us.
posted by jokeefe at 2:16 PM on October 25, 2007


nasreddin, you're approach seems to suggest that one of us (you or me) is "right". I disagree. I think you and I just have very different interests when it comes to these discussions.

I really don't CARE (in terms of a discussion of ideas) if someone is egotistical, swaggering or falsely claiming to have authored ideas. That stuff bores me to tears. I do passionately care about the ideas themselves.

I do passionately care about understanding how/why the human animal relates to (and uses) narrative. I don't buy that we have a "story gene." That's nonsense. But the fact that narrative is a cross-cultural phenomenon suggests a genetic link. Or, if not, a link to something very basic in all human cultures. To me, as a storyteller and story-consumer, this is key stuff.
posted by grumblebee at 2:16 PM on October 25, 2007


"Sadly, the results are usually risable, unsupported, unexamined, and riddled with inherent flaws, the main one being the assumption that natural selection as it functions in nature still has any application to human societies in the least."

Well, come on. I mean, a majority of people still look for a mate that they deem appropriate. And many of that group live with this mate and care for their child/children together (and even when divorced, both parents tend to be invested in their children). One reason for this investment is a desire to pass on their genes.
posted by taliaferro at 2:19 PM on October 25, 2007


nasreddin, you're approach seems to suggest that one of us (you or me) is "right". I disagree. I think you and I just have very different interests when it comes to these discussions.

No, I don't think that at all. But suppose I wanted to cure cancer. I wouldn't get right into the lab, hacking away at tumors; I would make some effort to see what has been discovered about cancer in the past, and to understand which approaches worked well and which didn't. Otherwise I wouldn't be a very good cancer researcher, would I?
posted by nasreddin at 2:20 PM on October 25, 2007


Myth, narrative, and legend function as ways of social identification.

I think you're likely to be right -- partly. I doubt well ever find out the "function" of narrative, because I doubt there's just one function. Narrative (like religion) strikes me as a human activity that has been honed to serve many simultaneous purposes.

For instance, why do I enjoy reading stories set in other times and places. I don't buy that it's (only) to compare myself with those "alien" characters and think of myself as "in another group."

Also, SOMETIMES it's important for me to share my narrative experiences with others ("I just saw this great movie.") Other times, I purposefully keep them to myself.

SOMETIMES reading a story feels like a communication between me and an author. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it feels like there is no author, and that I'm just reading facts about some parallel world. I really enjoy both those experiences, the latter more (though I think many people enjoy the former more).
posted by grumblebee at 2:21 PM on October 25, 2007


Attempting such an "evolutionary" analysis on works written by homosexual authors could be interesting, as well as a test of how well such a theory might work.

Uh, this is the evolutionary psychology that's still trying to figure out why homosexuality exists when it seems so irrational from a natural selection point of view, right?

What would such an analysis look like when applied to works by homosexual authors? Closeted or non? From which age?

you are being nicely eponypropriate,

I knew I should have chosen a different username. Bah. It's my first initial and my last name. No joke, honest.
posted by jokeefe at 2:22 PM on October 25, 2007


"Myth, narrative, and legend function as ways of social identification. It can be tribal or religious. It can be Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or it can be something as simple as "The Clash were the greatest punk band ever." We all find group identification through the stories we tell. It's how we differentiate ourselves from the people who live over yonder, who have different stories and customs from us."

True. However, I think that this is distant a secondary role. That is, I would argue that the desire for social identification coopted narrative - narrative doesn't spring from it. This is why we enjoy listening to narratives from other cultures but do not feel as though we are of that culture after consuming the narrative. If the driving purpose of narrative were to identify the group, and if humans want group identification (which I suspect we both agree is true), then people would logically dislike hearing narratives about other groups.

This is not the case. We do, however, imagine the situation that the hero is in and imagine how that might apply to us as individuals regardless of where the story comes from.
posted by taliaferro at 2:25 PM on October 25, 2007


"Sadly, the results are usually risable, unsupported, unexamined, and riddled with inherent flaws, the main one being the assumption that natural selection as it functions in nature still has any application to human societies in the least."

Well, come on. I mean, a majority of people still look for a mate that they deem appropriate. And many of that group live with this mate and care for their child/children together (and even when divorced, both parents tend to be invested in their children). One reason for this investment is a desire to pass on their genes.


That's not natural selection as Darwin theorized it.

Many societies don't allow much choice in terms of a mate, particularly for women. It's not exactly a level playing field, on which you can observe the processes of evolution, the way you might a group of differently evolved finches in disparate environments.
posted by jokeefe at 2:25 PM on October 25, 2007


But suppose I wanted to cure cancer. I wouldn't get right into the lab, hacking away at tumors; I would make some effort to see what has been discovered about cancer in the past, and to understand which approaches worked well and which didn't.

I take your point, and I agree in theory. But Science MUST operate by using The Scientific Method. Otherwise it may be research, but it's not Science.

Scientists are people who apply a particular set of tools to solve problems. It can be helpful to them to study the history of other people who have used those tools, but it probably won't help them to study people who have used an entirely different set of tools.

One can argue as to whether or not Science brings useful tools to a specific problem. And if it doesn't, then we shouldn't try to solve that specific problem with Science. But if we are going to use it, then we need to use it with the appropriate tools.

One could also argue that literary theorists have been using The Scientific Method for years. If so, then scientists should definitely listen to them. But in my experience (somewhat limited, but not totally limited), literary theorists have used a totally different set of tools.

(I am not convinced that Pinker and co are accurately using Science's tools, either.)
posted by grumblebee at 2:27 PM on October 25, 2007


Uh, this is the evolutionary psychology that's still trying to figure out why homosexuality exists when it seems so irrational from a natural selection point of view, right?

What would such an analysis look like when applied to works by homosexual authors? Closeted or non? From which age?


I am not even remotely equipped to answer this. Wish I could.

No joke, honest. Ba-dum ching! (high hat)
posted by taliaferro at 2:27 PM on October 25, 2007


Pinker's nearly unbelievable weakness for cliché, which makes his first few paragraphs a challenge to read at all, is redeemed when he is apparently arguing directly against cliché. Take a look at the conclusion here, which coming from a less clunky writer could only be read as intentional comedy:

Generic strategies for success are as useless in life as they are in chess (Buy low, sell high; He who hesitates is lost; look before you leap; and so on). The problem with these maxims is that in applying them to real situations, the devil is in the details.
posted by RogerB at 2:27 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I doubt well ever find out the "function" of narrative, because I doubt there's just one function. Narrative (like religion) strikes me as a human activity that has been honed to serve many simultaneous purposes.

Well, obviously. The group identification thing is part of how narrative functions as part of identity, but it's not its only function. Another hugely important one is the sharing of information, of course.

If the driving purpose of narrative were to identify the group, and if humans want group identification (which I suspect we both agree is true), then people would logically dislike hearing narratives about other groups.

Well, I can think of numerous occasions in which the narrative has taken the form of "those crazy murderous/barbaric people over there who aren't like us."
posted by jokeefe at 2:28 PM on October 25, 2007


True. However, I think that this is distant a secondary role. That is, I would argue that the desire for social identification coopted narrative - narrative doesn't spring from it. This is why we enjoy listening to narratives from other cultures but do not feel as though we are of that culture after consuming the narrative. If the driving purpose of narrative were to identify the group, and if humans want group identification (which I suspect we both agree is true), then people would logically dislike hearing narratives about other groups.

This is not the case. We do, however, imagine the situation that the hero is in and imagine how that might apply to us as individuals regardless of where the story comes from
.

No, you're committing the fatal mistake of EvoPsych, which is assuming that once a concept emerges, it is forever the same. Narrative demonstrably emerged as a social ritual, and the fact that we postmoderns can read about Anansi the Spider and feel good about it suggests that the role and nature of narrative changed, rather than it never having been that way in the first place.

And, anyway, different narratives serve different functions. An American might feel a surge of patriotic love when he reads about George Washington, and feel some visceral satisfaction when he watches a thriller.
posted by nasreddin at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


By the way, I DO think it can be useful to listen -- briefly -- to "upstarts." If a smart layman says, "I've never studied poker, but I think I just came up with a way to beat the casino," it might be worth listening for a few minutes before moving on. Every once in a while, a great idea comes out of left field.

In general, it's way better to have studied past thinkers than to not have done so. But both studying them and not studying them form mental patterns that are hard to break. It so happens that the studied habits TEND to be the better ones. But they aren't always the better ones. It's key to have both learned and "ignorant" voices.
posted by grumblebee at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I generally agree with the substance of the dissenting comments on this thread, but not with their dyspeptic tone. A Darwinian perspective might produce some interesting insights. I'm a touch skeptical myself, but we just won't know unless we try. At any rate, it's no more reductive than most of the literary "theories" circulating in the academe.
posted by limon at 2:32 PM on October 25, 2007


That's not natural selection as Darwin theorized it.

Yeah, you're right. I realized that after I posted it. I guess I would say that it is valid to say that the drive to pass on genes is still around, and that that would be part of an "evolutionary theory." Also, we don't have to have observable evolution in human beings to apply ideas like survival of the fittest on a micro scale (inasmuch as humans still feel pressure to select a fit and compatible mate).
posted by taliaferro at 2:32 PM on October 25, 2007


Narrative demonstrably emerged as a social ritual

I'm not 100% sure of that. When I was a little kid, I made up all kinds of stories in my head (about my stuffed animals, imaginary friends, etc.) I never told these to anybody or wanted to.

It strikes me as at least possible that some ancient "cave boy" did the same.

I'm not saying that narrative doesn't have social uses. I'm saying that it -- likely -- has many uses, and that it's hard to pinpoint which use came first.
posted by grumblebee at 2:35 PM on October 25, 2007


You got your literature in my science!

You got your science in my FUCK YOU!!!
posted by shmegegge at 2:38 PM on October 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


Well, I can think of numerous occasions in which the narrative has taken the form of "those crazy murderous/barbaric people over there who aren't like us."

Fair enough. But I don't think the primary way of bashing "those people" is narrative. The primary way is simply saying, "those crazy barbaric people over there aren't like us." We might tell a story to illustrate that point, but that story will be a form of corrupt (biased) history - not fiction (oh dear - this is what happens with loose terms). Speaking of which, I think we may differently interpret the scope of the term "narrative" - for example, saying "The Clash were the greatest punk band ever" does not, for me, amount to a narrative or story. It's just a statement)
posted by taliaferro at 2:39 PM on October 25, 2007


Well, I'm leaving work and have to bow out of this. jokeefe, thanks for responding. grumblebee, it's been a pleasure presenting an argument parallel to your own while jokeefe struggles to respond to both of us at once (and does so admirably). Goodbye!
posted by taliaferro at 2:43 PM on October 25, 2007


Did anyone actually RTFA?

In regards to one of the functions of narrative:

Intelligent systems often best reason by
experiment, real or simulated: they set up a situation whose outcome
they cannot predict beforehand, let it unfold according to fixed causal
laws, observe the results, and file away a generalization about how what
becomes of such entities in such situations. fiction, then, would be a kind
of thought experiment, in which agents are allowed to play out plau-
sible interactions in a more-or-less lawful virtual world, and an audience
can take mental notes of the results. Human social life would be a ripe
domain for this experiment-driven learning because the combinatorial
possibilities in which their goals may coincide and conflict (cooperating
or defecting in prisoner’s dilemmas, seeking long-term or short-term
mating opportunities, apportioning resources among offspring) are
so staggeringly vast as to preclude strategies for success in life being
either built-in innately or learnable from one’s own limited personal
experience. since they are products of the imagination, fictitious plots
are cheap and abundant, and can sample large regions of the space of
important human interactions. whether or not they have ever taken
place among real humans is immaterial to their instructive value, as long
as they preserve some degree of fidelity to the causal structure of the
real world. an analogy would be the way that experts in chess (another
domain with a combinatorial explosion of possible interactions) study
transcripts of thousands of actual games rather than simply memorizing
generic strategies like “get your queen out early.”


Jokeefe, is that idea really any less plausible than the ones you suggested?
posted by AceRock at 2:43 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying that narrative doesn't have social uses.

Isn't narrative really more of a ubiquitous mental process than an activity? I think our brains are just sort of narrative generating machines. The processes of thought and perception all just sort of work together to produce narrative consciousness, don't they? And then fiction is just a very special case of our ordinary, narrative conscious processes. I don't know that narrative has any particular purpose (although it has lots of applications, in the same way that the sense of touch or smell has lots of applications)...
posted by saulgoodman at 2:46 PM on October 25, 2007


whether or not they have ever taken
place among real humans is immaterial to their instructive value, as long as they preserve some degree of fidelity to the causal structure of the real world.


By this logic, are Pale Fire or Tristram Shandy immoral, useless, or merely uninteresting?
posted by nasreddin at 2:48 PM on October 25, 2007


joe lisboa: "This opinion is a little too precisely worded and well supported for me to parse, would you mind rephrasing? Perhaps a broader brush will do nicely."

Sure. I've been practicing this on Metafilter for a while, so I've figured this out. I just hate human beings.

Yeah, you're right. It was a wild shot in left field. But it's hard not to feel this way when one reads things like this. Especially given that I search academia vainly for anyone nowadays who attempts to justify its existence or explain its purpose.
posted by koeselitz at 2:50 PM on October 25, 2007


The problem with evolutionary psychology (broadly) is that it posits a "dawn" to human existence and consciousness that has then forever influenced not only what we think and feel, but also what we produce and our very possibilities. At the same time, the conclusions that it reaches seem to stem, uncomfortably, from present day assumptions about worth. (This is most striking in the talk about what makes for an attractive matewoman.) It ends up both claiming the mantle of (pre)history and being remarkably a-historical, unable to account for variations in human behavior or culture without reducing them to motives unfelt by most people but supposedly shared across all culture and difference.

The notion that this could be a good way to approach studying either literature or the relationship between people and literature seems ridiculous on its face. What the "theory" amounts to is a very conservative estimate of human potential that cloaks its conservatism in the statement that it is merely describing the biological imperative. Everything is reduced to the urge to reproduce, without even Freud's insight that this what makes us human is precisely the way in which this urge gets transformed into other things. It's a real struggle for me to understand what it would contribute to "look at" literature in this way, and I honestly feel that only people who don't really have any feeling for human experience (in the broad sense) could support it as a project. Pinker has elsewhere demonstrated himself to be such a person. It certainly isn't scientific. I have yet to read a singe evolutionary psych paper or article that didn't argue from foregone conclusions.
posted by OmieWise at 2:51 PM on October 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


Our species lived as hunter-gatherers 1000 times longer than as anything else. The world that seems so familiar to you and me, a world with roads, schools, grocery stores, factories, farms, and nation-states, has lasted for only an eyeblink of time when compared to our entire evolutionary history. The computer age is only a little older than the typical college student, and the industrial revolution is a mere 200 years old. Agriculture first appeared on earth only 10,000 years ago, and it wasn't until about 5,000 years ago that as many as half of the human population engaged in farming rather than hunting and gathering. Natural selection is a slow process, and there just haven't been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life.

In other words, our modern skulls house a stone age mind. The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to deal with small, hunter-gatherer-band sized groups of people than with crowds of thousands; it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most American communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city. In saying that our modern skulls house a stone age mind, we do not mean to imply that our minds are unsophisticated. Quite the contrary: they are very sophisticated computers, whose circuits are elegantly designed to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors routinely faced.

A necessary (though not sufficient) component of any explanation of behavior -- modern or otherwise -- is a description of the design of the computational machinery that generates it. Behavior in the present is generated by information-processing mechanisms that exist because they solved adaptive problems in the past -- in the ancestral environments in which the human line evolved.

For this reason, evolutionary psychology is relentlessly past-oriented. Cognitive mechanisms that exist because they solved problems efficiently in the past will not necessarily generate adaptive behavior in the present. Indeed, EPs reject the notion that one has "explained" a behavior pattern by showing that it promotes fitness under modern conditions (for papers on both sides of this controversy, see responses in the same journal issue to Symons (1990) and Tooby and Cosmides (1990a)).

Although the hominid line is thought to have evolved on the African savannahs, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA, is not a place or time. It is the statistical composite of selection pressures that caused the design of an adaptation. Thus the EEA for one adaptation may be different from that for another. Conditions of terrestrial illumination, which form (part of) the EEA for the vertebrate eye, remained relatively constant for hundreds of millions of years (until the invention of the incandescent bulb); in contrast, the EEA that selected for mechanisms that cause human males to provision their offspring -- a situation that departs from the typical mammalian pattern -- appears to be only about two million years old.


Some people here may benefit from this evo-pscyh primer.
posted by AceRock at 2:58 PM on October 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


OmniWise, you in particular should read that primer and specifically the part I quoted here.

Cognitive mechanisms that exist because they solved problems efficiently in the past will not necessarily generate adaptive behavior in the present. Indeed, EPs reject the notion that one has "explained" a behavior pattern by showing that it promotes fitness under modern conditions
posted by AceRock at 3:01 PM on October 25, 2007


As a general and ignorant comment, having just printed out Pinker's article, and not having time to read all of the educated comments above, I am looking forward to reading it. Frederick Turner's Beauty,a short but riveting display of evolutionary aethetics convinced me that this was a more promising avenue of lit-crit than the last few decades have produced.
posted by kozad at 3:17 PM on October 25, 2007


It seems like dissenters in this thread are more concerned about the results or implications; a form of political correctness. Liberals tend to not like it, kind of like how conservatives don't like the "inconvenient" facts of global warming.

Having recently read Evolution for Everyone I was blown away at all the recent research - hard science stuff, and not just humans or psychology. We have a lot yet to learn about evolutionary processes. The evolution approach to literature is just one more tool to add to literary analysis that can produce some interesting and new perspectives.
posted by stbalbach at 3:47 PM on October 25, 2007


Speaking of which, I think we may differently interpret the scope of the term "narrative" - for example, saying "The Clash were the greatest punk band ever" does not, for me, amount to a narrative or story. It's just a statement)

Just peeking in: the statement "The Clash were the greatest band ever" does hold a narrative, or rather takes a position on a narrative. The narrative being, of course, the overarching one of popular music, its social importance, the valuation of one genre over another, the valuation of one exemplar of that genre being the one which embodies its values most accurately, and of course the fact that it locates its speaker within a particular time and place as well. "The Clash etc." is a statement that would be meaningless without that narrative for its context.

taliaferro, thanks for your gracious words in your earlier post.
posted by jokeefe at 3:51 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


AceRock, the piece that you quoted runs into difficulties for me me with its insistent and overwrought use of the (false) metaphor wherein the human brain is described as a computer, with "circuitry" and "problem-solving capabilities".

In fact, human behaviour is remarkably adaptable-- it's the key to our survival and dominance on this planet-- and the brain is, as recent neuroscience has demonstrated, remarkably plastic. And one thing it is not is a machine; nor can it be understood as one.

It's this urge to, again, reduce the vast complexities of humanity to one thing-- the human mind to "stone-age brain circuitry", the social customs of gender and marriage and bearing children to "mating behaviour", and so on-- that drives me crazy about EP.

Cognitive mechanisms that exist because they solved problems efficiently in the past will not necessarily generate adaptive behavior in the present.

But even within this statement that you have quoted there's room for saying that these mechanisms actually can generate adaptive behaviour: "not necessarily" doesn't mean "never".

It seems like dissenters in this thread are more concerned about the results or implications; a form of political correctness. Liberals tend to not like it, kind of like how conservatives don't like the "inconvenient" facts of global warming.

Please don't expect any argument in which you use the phrase "political correctness" to be taken seriously.

And yes, I for one certainly care about results and implications: implications because I'm interested in complexity and ambiguity, and because I don't think that there are simple answers or explanations for the world. (Outside of the laws of physics, that is.)
posted by jokeefe at 4:06 PM on October 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


This is not an attempt to derail, but I'd just like to interject that long stretches of italics are hard to read. I suggest using <blockquote>. The trick to avoiding excessive vertical space before and after the quote is to do it this way:
    Nietzsche had this to say about Pinker:
<blockquote>Logorrhea that extends for multiple
lines.
</blockquote>More of my own deathless prose.
kthxbye.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:07 PM on October 25, 2007


the human brain is described as a computer, with "circuitry" and "problem-solving capabilities".

In fact, human behaviour is remarkably adaptable-- it's the key to our survival and dominance on this planet-- and the brain is, as recent neuroscience has demonstrated, remarkably plastic. And one thing it is not is a machine; nor can it be understood as one.


Can you clarify your definition of "machine"? If you say that the brain isn't a machine, to me that sounds like you're saying it has magical properties. But you probably don't mean that. You also probably don't mean something like, "Machines are designed by creative minds. Brains aren't. They evolved via a 'dumb' process."

I assume that you mean that there's some way that the brain s fundamentally different from ALL current machines (or reasonably-possible machines).

If so, how? I'm not trying to prove you wrong (though I don't think I agree). I'm trying to understand your point.

You say that the brain isn't like a computer, because a brain is remarkably adaptable. But a computer is adaptable, too. Remarkably, so? That depends on what scale you use. Computers are WAY less plastic than brains, but they're way more plastic than any previous machines. Are brains super-advanced machines? Or do you really maintain that -- in essence -- they're not machines at all. If not, what are they?

I do agree that computer architecture and brain architecture are wildly different. But the same could be said for microwave and conventional ovens. Yet it makes sense to describe both as ovens.

To me, a machine is an object that does work "mechanically," by which I mean its work is done via natural processes -- not via magical or mystical forces. By this definition, I would call the brain a machine.
posted by grumblebee at 4:34 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


This thread is disappointing. I'm reading the "Stuff of Thought" and it's fucking brilliant. Can't wait to read this when i get home.
posted by empath at 4:42 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Isn't the burden of proof on those who assert that the brain is like a computer?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:42 PM on October 25, 2007


grumblebee: "Can you clarify your definition of "machine"? If you say that the brain isn't a machine, to me that sounds like you're saying it has magical properties... You say that the brain isn't like a computer, because a brain is remarkably adaptable. But a computer is adaptable, too."

I can't necessarily speak for jokeefe; I don't know precisely what was meant by the original comment. However, I can say that, personally, I think machines differ from the mind in this, and only this: the mind experiences. I have an experience of what it is to be a mind. I don't think there's anything that has the experience of being a machine.

At the beginning of On The Soul, Aristotle discusses two possibilities for approaching experience: one is to say that I'm angry because of a heating in my blood, which in turn was caused by a perception. Another is to say that I'm angry because my friend said something bad about me behind my back, and I feel betrayed. Aristotle asks: which one is the approach of the scientist? Is it to seek causes in what can be observed? Or is it to seek causes in the matter of experience? Or, asks Aristotle, is it both?

I can't say exactly what Aristotle's answer was, but I don't think it's very easy to nail down the root of knowledge or of our own souls. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as what can be observed, because what can be observed must be squared with the matter of our experience.
posted by koeselitz at 4:46 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Jesus. Comic Book Guy discovers literature and Explains It All.

(I am not convinced that Pinker and co are accurately using Science's tools, either.)


(Yeah, no shit.)
posted by languagehat at 5:04 PM on October 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


machines differ from the mind in this, and only this: the mind experiences.

I'm not sure what you mean by "experiences." Are you talking about consciousness?

I defined a conscious entity as one that represents itself in its map of the world. If we can get a machine to do this, will it no longer be a machine? (Will it no longer make sense to call it a machine?) In other words, are HAL9000 and C3PO not machines?

Or do you believe that we CAN'T (possibly, even in the future) endow machines with consciousness (or experiences)? If not, why not?

I'm try to figure out whether you think consciousness stems from some sort of non-material (magical?) cause. I don't. I think it's 100% rooted in the material/natural. And, as such, it's at least theoretically possible that we could build a conscious machine. And if we could, I don't see how it would be useful to re-classify it (as a non-machine) just because it had achieved consciousness.

To me, that's as arbitrary as not classifying humans as animals.
posted by grumblebee at 5:10 PM on October 25, 2007


And yes, I for one certainly care about results and implications: implications because I'm interested in complexity and ambiguity, and because I don't think that there are simple answers or explanations for the world.

I think this gets at the extremely visceral resistance to the very concept of evolutionary psychology. It cuts right through the human ego. It cuts through the idea that there is an "unknowable magic" behind the human mind, a myth we use to support the idea that we are unique, special, and more important than other lifeforms.

Please don't expect any argument in which you use the phrase "political correctness" to be taken seriously.

And here is the other half of the resistance: political inconvenience. For conservatives, it damages the concept of free will and individual responsibility (by making it more complicated), for liberals, it cuts into the idea that the universe is an inherently egalitarian place with human will being specifically responsible for inequality rather than the (approximate) reverse being true.

In a world of very immature political discourse, I can understand a lot of the resistance. For example, claiming that rape can function as a reproductive strategy won't get debated on its merits in the public sphere when less than scrupulous folks will twist the concept for their own ends.

I think the resistance is fascinating, especially when atheists say, with a straight face, that evolution doesn't touch the human brain. It's a stunning claim. It puts a lot of people in the same boat as religious folks - you have to reject science in favor of the ideology you adhere to. I'm still waiting for the scientific evidence that male and female brains are exactly the same.
posted by MillMan at 5:16 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I will say this though - I think Pinker makes a lot of claims that aren't remotely testable with current technology or need an enormous amount of further study before they can be considered reasonable assumptions.
posted by MillMan at 5:23 PM on October 25, 2007


I haven't read the other responses to this question carefully; I'm just popping in briefly before getting back to work, but:

Or do you really maintain that -- in essence -- they're not machines at all. If not, what are they?

Well, the simple answer is that no, a brain is not a machine. Because it's an organic hunk of meat sitting in our skulls. Machines, being literal, are manufactured. Brains aren't.

Where we are talking past each other, I think, is in our choice of metaphors. There is a history of metaphorical descriptions of the brain in Western throught over the past few centuries which tend to fall in line with whatever is the dominant technology of the era. For a while there, the brain was an example of divine clockwork, as was the universe (see the 18th century). Then the brain was constructed as a kind of battery, or a conduit for electricity, with electricity representing a type of life force (see Frankenstein, and the 19th century) and a bit later on the telegraph becomes the grand metaphor for thet the nervous system and thought itself (late 19th century). Today, the brain is described as a computer. But the problem arises when metaphors are not longer a matter of explaining things in an elegant way, but become a matter of limiting ideas.

So: the brain is not a machine, because machines are by definition constructed by human hands; it's not a computer, because it is self-aware (among other reasons); and it's not powered by electricity.

I defined a conscious entity as one that represents itself in its map of the world. If we can get a machine to do this, will it no longer be a machine? (Will it no longer make sense to call it a machine?) In other words, are HAL9000 and C3PO not machines?

Well, no, because they're fictional creations. Let me know when a genuinely self-aware computer is built; I don't see it happening any time soon, if ever.
posted by jokeefe at 5:27 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Here's my take on a POSSIBLE (probable?) origin of narrative: humans (and some other animals with complex brains?) model the world. These models have many uses, but one of the main ones is for making predictions: "if I drag that woman away from her tribe, her brothers will come after me..."

Already, we have narrative. A narrative is "if" tied to a modeled timeline. It's pretty easy to rephrase my example as "Once there was a man who kidnapped a woman. Her brothers came after him."

If I'm right -- if that's the origin -- then we need to explain why/how people started using this technique for non-survival purposes. But here's a stab:

If you combine this technique with communication, you get me trying to tell you why you should or shouldn't do something (for survival purposes): "if you go into that cave, a bear will kill you."

One can't prove speculations like this. But I think it's useful to come up with simple scenarios as to how human traits and rituals MIGHT have arisen. The problem with (some?) Evo-psych people is that they come up with stuff like this and then say, "See, I've proven it!" Which is when they rightly get accused of telling just-so stories.

But we don't need to toss out the baby with the bathwater. Occam-based hypothesis useful. They help us sharpen our models. We can never know exactly what happened in the past, but we can come up with useful theories -- theories that are predictive. My theory is predictive in that if we develop conscious machines, it predicts that they will start telling stories.

I do feel pretty strongly that any theory that posits the origins of narrative in complex social rituals is thinking at too high a level. Yes, narrative is hugely useful for things like group identification, but I find it hard to believe that this was its first use. To me, that feels like saying the mouth's first use was for singing opera.
posted by grumblebee at 5:27 PM on October 25, 2007


I like evolutionary psychology because it kind of serves as a check on "human exceptionalism." It considers human beings as we would any other animal. It's not supposed to be science, and I don't think any of its proponents have characterized it that way. It's nothing more than a set of ideas applied to human behavior.

The problem, I guess, is that these ideas tend to describe all of our behavior as extremely elaborate attempts to get laid. I personally don't take any issue with that--if a human being is an animal, then its behavior is going to follow from that must-reproduce principle. Yet we usually want more meaning from things.

I just don't think it's an easy thing for most of us to accept. But to paraphrase something I remember hearing: just because you can reduce love down to a series of chemical processes doesn't make your feeling of love any less legitimate and real.
posted by palidor at 5:33 PM on October 25, 2007


for liberals, it cuts into the idea that the universe is an inherently egalitarian place with human will being specifically responsible for inequality rather than the (approximate) reverse being true.

I can't speak for the Conservative POV, but I suppose I can venture something on the "liberal" side. (Here in Canadia, "Liberal" has a bit of a different meaning than it does down south.) I actually agree with you on this, more or less-- not that the universe is inherently egalitarian (5 minutes thought will undo that) but that human will being responsible for inequality: sure, I'll bite.

One of the big issues that I have, however, where my resistance as you call it fire up is because the so-called conclusions of EP resemble nothing more or less than a status quo which serves already existent power relations, particularly in the matter of gender. The "conclusions" seem to fit those inequities just a little too neatly; and I'm sure we're all aware of various not-so-glorious moments in the history of science where other such claims have been made to butress things-as-they-are: demonstrations of the "inferior" IQs of Africans for one notorious (and sadly reoccuring) example.

Nobody can claim that the "evidence" for such assertions is good science. And as far as I can tell EP is in the same boat with regards to dubious methodologies, risible experimental protocols, and questionable results.

In short: the day that EP comes up with some model of that "stone age brain" and society that doesn't resemble fever dreams of the Playboy Mansion, I'll take another look at it.
posted by jokeefe at 5:41 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Well, no, because they're fictional creations. Let me know when a genuinely self-aware computer is built; I don't see it happening any time soon, if ever.

Do you honestly think I wasn't aware of that?

My question is that IF we create a HAL9000, will it -- by your reasoning -- not be a machine? One shouldn't need to wait for AI to actually exist in order to answer this question. Fire-breathing dragons don't exist, but I feel justified in saying that if they did, you'd be wise to keep your distance from their nostrils.

I'm very aware that the brain has been likened to various sorts of machines. And that these metaphors have been insufficient (and sometimes downright wrong). That doesn't mean that brains and machines (when abstracted) aren't similar objects.

You might also say that it's not fair to call a steam locomotive and an iPod both machines, because they are so different. But surely we can abstract them to a point where they're not so different. And surely doing so is useful.

To me...

1) it's not useful to define a machine as something that is man made. I don't care whether my TV was man made or not. (And I'm only taking it on faith that it was.) In terms of my relationship to a machine, I'm only interested in how it works and what it does.

But if you really want to say, "Machines, being literal, are manufactured," I could counter that the human brain is manufactured, too. It's manufactured by sex.

2) I think it's really odd to define a machine as something that uses electricity. A wind-up toy doesn't use electricity. Isn't it still a machine.

Also, the brain DOES use electricity -- extensively!

3) To me, the main difference between C3P0 and a human is that we're made of biological material and he's made of metal. But that's a boring difference. That's like saying that a Sony Reader isn't a book. Okay, if you want to define a book as this very specific object, made of paper, you can. But to me the KEY aspect of a book is its contents. I don't really care what it's made of our how it was produced.

We don't have C3POs, and like you, I'm skeptical that we will any time soon. If you told me that we never will, I wouldn't fine that strange, either. But I do think we'll one day produce machines that are self-aware -- depending on how you define "self-aware." At that point, will it no longer make sense to call them machines?

Why is self awareness so important?
posted by grumblebee at 5:45 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I do feel pretty strongly that any theory that posits the origins of narrative in complex social rituals is thinking at too high a level. Yes, narrative is hugely useful for things like group identification, but I find it hard to believe that this was its first use. To me, that feels like saying the mouth's first use was for singing opera.

Well yes, I'm sure the origins of narrative lie in planning and cognition and the ability to correalate actions and consequences and an understanding of past and future (my theory *the theory that is mine* is that language evolved because we all wanted to gossip about our neighbours, but whatever).
posted by jokeefe at 5:45 PM on October 25, 2007


Dammit, grumblebee, now I'm having to work late to compensate for spending so much time here today. Stop posing interesting counter-arguments!

1) it's not useful to define a machine as something that is man made. I don't care whether my TV was man made or not. (And I'm only taking it on faith that it was.) In terms of my relationship to a machine, I'm only interested in how it works and what it does.

But if you really want to say, "Machines, being literal, are manufactured," I could counter that the human brain is manufactured, too. It's manufactured by sex.


That's conflating the biological and the artificial a little bit too much, I think... At this point I would still define a machine as a constructed object that wouldn't exist without sophisticated intervention and manufacture by human hands. We can't just say that the biological process of sex and the artificial and cultural one of object creation is the same thing, can we?

2) I think it's really odd to define a machine as something that uses electricity. A wind-up toy doesn't use electricity. Isn't it still a machine.

Also, the brain DOES use electricity -- extensively!


Yes, that's true-- which is why those metaphors were so powerful at the time. I didn't mean to define a machine as something which uses electricity-- that would rule out astrolabes and the abacus, for a start.

Do you honestly think I wasn't aware of that?

Apologies; that was flippant.

Why is self awareness so important?

Well.... ask a stone what it thinks, I suppose.
posted by jokeefe at 5:53 PM on October 25, 2007


A few thoughts:
From AceRock's quote:
fiction, then, would be a kind
of thought experiment
Freud: thought is trial action.

Grumblebee:
I defined a conscious entity as one that represents itself in its map of the world. If we can get a machine to do this, will it no longer be a machine? (Will it no longer make sense to call it a machine?) In other words, are HAL9000 and C3PO not machines?
This is called, I believe, "process consciousness." All life, argueably, represents itself in its map of the world. The question is, is it conscious of the process of representation, which is called "access consciousness."

Pinker's Stuff of Thought is interesting for its view of the Aristotelian physics of thinking. Here is Douglas Hofstadter's review. Pinker is a materialist, though apparently a humble one, and one should expect physicalist thinking from him. It's a good thing that evolutionary psychology (so-called) is working on the evolutionary advantages of attachment ("male-bonding" and love).

Personally, I prefer Harold Bloom.
posted by psyche7 at 5:57 PM on October 25, 2007


jokeefe, maybe I can help you get back to work (who am I kidding, right?) by saying that I don't think anything is or is-not a machine in some cosmic sense. There's no such thing as a machine in the same sense that there's no such thing as a mammal.

"Mammal" is a human-generated category. It's less sensible to talk about whether mammals exist than it is to talk about whether or not the classification "mammal" is useful. And, if so, what traits should be included or excluded from that classification. If we call all animals mammals, then what's the point of the word? If we only call dogs mammals, it's similarly pointless.

So at best, I'd say one of our definitions of "machine" might be more useful (to what?) than the other. Personally, I think "machine" is one of those fuzzy terms that is only useful if you don't think about it too hard. It's like when I say, "hand me that red thing." That's useful, but not if you start demanding very specific definitions of "red."
posted by grumblebee at 6:00 PM on October 25, 2007


Nobody can claim that the "evidence" for such assertions is good science. And as far as I can tell EP is in the same boat with regards to dubious methodologies, risible experimental protocols, and questionable results.

This is a bit flippant. Good science has nothing to do with the politics of the outcome.

It boils down to the burden of proof. As far as I can tell you are claiming that EP is wrong as long as it comes to conclusions that you don't like, as you feel that your philosophy is correct until proven wrong. This goes right back to the "egalitarian universe" claim.

It's an argument over methods. It's only been in the past few decades that we've been able to examine the brain in a particularly serious manner (and it's still very limited). Thus, previous to this era, philosophy of mind rhetoric didn't need scientific support to be taken seriously - other rhetorical appeals were all that were needed.

This isn't a case of "proving" "things as they are" with what amounts to false science. It's quite the opposite: this is science probing an area that it hasn't been able to in the past, and the current "guard" (philosophical community) is not interested in giving that up their status to the scientific community.

God is dead, and the last redoubt of our myths are locked up in the mystery of the brain.

The left has two choices - go the way of religion by rejecting science in favor of ideology, leaving the science to truly be contorted by the right (taste the irony there), or accept the concept and look for ways to create fair societies with the tools we have at our disposal (consciousness and culture).
posted by MillMan at 6:09 PM on October 25, 2007


Millman huffs:
Nobody can claim that the "evidence" for such assertions is good science. And as far as I can tell EP is in the same boat with regards to dubious methodologies, risible experimental protocols, and questionable results.

This is a bit flippant. Good science has nothing to do with the politics of the outcome.
Uh, yeah, jokeefe, try not to be so flippant. We're talking about serious science here. Good grief. And in the same comment, he says "[i]t's an argument over methods."

So nowadays I suppose it's "scientific" to make the most astounding assertions (such as "...the last redoubt of our myths are locked up in the mystery of the brain", or that the human mind is equivalent to a finite-state automaton), supported only by vigorous handwaving. Looks like somebody misplaced that "burden of proof" thingy. Maybe I can help. The last time I saw it, some of you were beating a theist over the head with it. Risible, indeed.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:42 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is called, I believe, "process consciousness." All life, argueably, represents itself in its map of the world. The question is, is it conscious of the process of representation, which is called "access consciousness."
[emphasis added]

It's so hard to discuss this stuff without self-referential definitions, but we have to try really hard not to do this, or ultimately our talk is meaningless. Is IT conscious? Is WHAT conscious? The little man that lives inside and watches the big man? Is there a littler man inside that little man?

How about this? [Conjecture, of course] Many animals have a token in their models that represent themselves. And these animals are "rigged" to ritualistically react when things happen to that token. If the token in the model is attacked, the animal flees. There's nothing going on there that seems like self-awareness of "consciousness."

But it's a matter of degree. Link the emotional system to the token and it seems a bit more consciousness-like. The animal feels pain when something bad seems to be happening to the token...

Link symbolic reasoning and problem-solving to it, and it seems even more like consciousness: if the token goes into the cave and gets attacked by a bear, then pain will happen.

Now, add language so that "we" can give the token a name: "I".
posted by grumblebee at 6:46 PM on October 25, 2007


This isn't a case of "proving" "things as they are" with what amounts to false science. It's quite the opposite: this is science probing an area that it hasn't been able to in the past, and the current "guard" (philosophical community) is not interested in giving that up their status to the scientific community.

In what sense is evolutionary psychology "science"? Has it produced a single testable hypothesis? It seems to operate more like early psychoanalysis:

1. "Researcher" describes a thought pattern s/he has experienced.
2. "Researcher" assumes that everyone else has the same thought pattern.
3. "Researcher" invents explanation, indicating that this thought pattern is a permanent fixture of all human consciousness.
4. "Researcher" runs through crowded city centre, screaming: "Did I just blow your minds, or are y'all too chicken to engage with my research?"
posted by stammer at 6:48 PM on October 25, 2007


stammer, I agree with everything you say. There's a lot of bad "science" that operates like that. I am very concerned, though, that the strong anti-EP feelings (shared by many scientists) will lead to a baby-with-the-bathwater attitude towards experimental psychology in general.

There are some ways that I can alter the methods you outlined above that would make them -- I hope -- much more reasonable:

1. Researcher describes a thought pattern he has experienced.

2. Researcher WONDERS whether other people experience the same thought pattern. He then does research to figure this out. He pulls in people from all sorts of cultures and walks of life and has them do X, Y and Z while their brains are being imaged.

3. Researcher then makes a prediction: if people indeed have these patterns, they will do B when confronted with A (this must be falsifiable). He confronts many people with A and observes whether or not they do B.

4. Having seen that they do, in fact, do B (and that they come from many different groups and cultures), he then makes the same prediction about, say, chimps. He subjects chimps to A and watches to see if they do B.

After all this, the best he may be able to say is, "We have a compelling reason to believe that..." But that's still science. Science doesn't always have to result in "We know it's true that..."
posted by grumblebee at 6:58 PM on October 25, 2007


saulgoodman: I don't know that narrative has any particular purpose (although it has lots of applications, in the same way that the sense of touch or smell has lots of applications)...

I am not a scholar but I have read the whole thread with interest and I thought that 2 points would be at least mentioned about narrative: first, the existence of mirror neurons, which seem to give a biological basis to narrative; and second the role of narrative as memory device for the transmission of knowledge.

Since there has been arguments about the scientific nature of some affirmations, I am curious to know why such available hard facts don't seem to be relevant.
posted by bru at 7:14 PM on October 25, 2007


the strong anti-EP feelings (shared by many scientists) will lead to a baby-with-the-bathwater attitude towards experimental psychology in general.

EP isn't the same as experimental psychology.

I'll admit to being surprised grumblebee, I've seen you argue in other threads that you don't like it when people talk about universals to human experience, that you almost find it offensive when someone like Susan Sontag talks about "how people experience a photograph." And yet EP is all about making those kinds of statements in the most reductive possible way. Proponents don't just say that people experience things in a particular way, they say that that's pretty much the only way they can experience them (because it's hard wired and set by evolution), and that any variations in the way you might think you experience things is an illusion disproved by their version of brain biology. It's a very reductive set of theories.
posted by OmieWise at 7:19 PM on October 25, 2007


bru, I think they're very relevant. Without a Theory of Mind, we might be able to have stories, but they wouldn't be very interesting. Same if we didn't have empathy. Mirror neurons may be key in explaining why we have these abilities.

I also suspect you're right about stories and memory. Stories are all about causal link. They're not "just one damn thing after another" (we tend to think of those as bad stories or weak stories or pointless stories); they're "one damn thing causes another (which causes another)."

Causation (or the illusion of it) seems pretty basic to the way we think. It's really hard to remember things that aren't causally linked. Stories are like sets of causation.

But one has to be careful, because stories are also emotion-generators and idea-generators. Sometimes these facets of stories conflict with stories as memory devices. In other words, you can attempt to use a story to help yourself remember something but wind up getting so emotional (due to the story) that you don't remember what you wanted to remember -- you just remember the feeling.

I've been think a lot about this lately. For instance, I've always thought that stories -- in analogy form -- are a good way of explaining something. And they can be. But this pedagogical approach can backfire.

If I say, "You don't understand the situation in Iraq. Let me explain it to you with an analogy. It concerns my childhood, growing up in Indiana..." I'm asking people to hold both Iraq and Indiana in their brain at the same time.

When I'm done with this (partly based on my skill, partly based on the thinking patterns of the person I'm talking to), I sometimes see a lightbulb go on ("Oh, now I get what's going on in Iraq! Thanks!"). At other times, I realize I just confused matters horribly. ("Wait? You grew up in Indiana? Cool. I have a friend from there. What part of Indiana?")

I actually think it's sort of silly to tell a story -- unless it's a really really simple story -- with a goal of affecting someone (including yourself) in a very specific way. Stories are complex and the way they interact with individual listeners/readers/views are even more complex.

My belief that this is so -- that I can't force an interpretation on my audience -- has been instrumental to how I've learned to work as a storyteller.
posted by grumblebee at 7:30 PM on October 25, 2007


This isn't a case of "proving" "things as they are" with what amounts to false science. It's quite the opposite: this is science probing an area that it hasn't been able to in the past, and the current "guard" (philosophical community) is not interested in giving that up their status to the scientific community.

I don't think this is true. I pay a fair amount of attention to EP because I think it's dubious and bullshitty, and I'm a psychologist (small p) by trade. EP theorists consistently seem to assert that the status quo is validated by their findings. Big tits, money and power, intense competition for resources that leads to horrible inequality are all validated by recourse to human pre-history. Now this is where I think you didn't read jokeefe's comment very carefully: she didn't suggest that those conclusions should be rejected because she disagrees with them a priori, she suggested that EP proponents haven't presented evidence for what must be taken to be extraordinary claims by intelligent well-meaning people. We should be rightly suspicious of claims which reassert such anti-democratic ideas as fundamental to a human nature relentlessly rooted in unchangeable biology. Stating that isn't a rejection of science, it's a demand for it.
posted by OmieWise at 7:31 PM on October 25, 2007 [2 favorites]



I'll admit to being surprised grumblebee


That's because you're not listening to me or (more likely) I'm not being clear.

I'm NOT a fan of EP.

I know it's not the same ting as experimental psychology.

But I'm worried that other people might confuse the two. What makes me worried is the way people dismiss the QUESTIONS asked by the EP folks. I dismiss their methodology (and, naturally, their conclusions), but not necessarily their topics, interests, hypothesis and questions.

It's VERY important to me that people ask these questions about narrative. I wish more people here were saying, "those are important questions. Let's steal them from the EP people and analyze them with more sound methods."
posted by grumblebee at 7:34 PM on October 25, 2007


I wish I had a good link to share, but V. S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist (not an EP), is doing some very interesting research into Art and the brain.
posted by grumblebee at 7:36 PM on October 25, 2007


You're right, I didn't understand that you weren't defending the EP approach. Sorry. I don't share your fear that cognitive psych is going to get thrown out with this bathwater. I think most everyone recognizes its value.

It's VERY important to me that people ask these questions about narrative. I wish more people here were saying, "those are important questions. Let's steal them from the EP people and analyze them with more sound methods."

I think you should do it. I'm not saying that because I don't think the questions are that interesting, certainly not as interesting to me as questions about particular narratives, which may well be a result of limitations in my imagination. I often find, when reading psych research, that I'm as amazed and thrilled by the imagination it took to ask a question and design and experiment as I am by the experiment. That just shows me once again that it's good that I didn't go into cognitive psych.

Off to bed. Cheers.
posted by OmieWise at 7:45 PM on October 25, 2007


I think that the application of that universalizing tendency in EP is what is most offensive about the article itself. Especially since much of the project of critical theory has been to repudiate that same impulse.

With that snide undercurrent of academic politics, the fact that they can come in an propose this theory without any damn sense of history feels like nice, warm fuck you to the humanities and Literature departments in particular.
posted by Weebot at 7:51 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Academic Politics is stupid and anyone who partakes of it for even a second more than they have to is a waste of space. I'm sorry if that offends anyone, but I strongly feel that to be true.

Academics SHOULD be working to teach and further knowledge. That's it.

I realize that they need to get paid, and they the money is all tied up with politics, but shame on an academic who isn't expending great energy on separating that aspect from the ideas/research of their discipline. They are acting immorally. They are letting political concerns cloud their teaching and their research.

I say this as a child of academics (my dad retired as chair of his department) and as someone who spent a couple of decades in academia.

If you don't like the political game someone else is playing, then do your damnedest not to play into it! Rise above it and talk about the ideas instead.
posted by grumblebee at 8:02 PM on October 25, 2007


I thought Pinker's book The Language Instinct was great, but this piece is deeply weird.

"aspects of mental life that preoccupy human beings but that had been almost entirely neglected by academic psychology -- topics like beauty, love, status, food, sex, religion, war, exchange, morality, music, art, and, as we shall see, fiction."

Does Pinker really think psychologists don't think about, talk about, and do research about beauty, love, status, food, sex, religion, war, exchange, and morality?
posted by escabeche at 8:57 PM on October 25, 2007


In science a theory never becomes fully accepted until it can be verified experimentally. In literary studies a theory never becomes interesting until it is used to produce an interpretation of a work of literature that is startling, non-obvious, exciting. Evolutionary lit crit fails that test wildly. I was quite intrigued by the idea for a while and hunted down articles that used its methodology. They were all very boring. Essentially they said things like "epics and romances (like Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Iliad, Le Morte d’Arthur, and Chanson de Rolande) explore the tension between male bonding, which unites men in aggressive coalitions, and emotional ties to their lovers, wives, and families."

Really? You don't say. Who'da thunk! I mean, isn't that immediately obvious to 90% of readers when they read any of these works for the first time?

Also: "To encounter erotica designed to appeal to the other sex is to gaze into the psychological abyss that separates the sexes."

Really? I'm a guy. I have testes. I like the ladies. I still get a raging boner reading Anaïs Nin. Or maybe it's a case of where I'm staring into the psychological abyss and the abyss stares back sexy!

I don't trust literary critics who don't know put any thoughts into their metaphors. Critic, interpret thyself!
posted by Kattullus at 9:17 PM on October 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


I get it now. Everyone in this thread is reading Anaïs Nin.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:47 PM on October 25, 2007


Except the eunuchs.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:48 PM on October 25, 2007


In literary studies a theory never becomes interesting until it is used to produce an interpretation of a work of literature that is startling, non-obvious, exciting.

[Please understand that I'm not making an anti-lit-studies argument here. I'm just responding to a specific claim in your post.]

What do you mean by "becomes interesting"? Interesting to whom? If I personally don't think some theory is exciting, has the literary theory failed? Or is there some specific group of people who have to find it exciting in order for it to be a good/interesting theory -- e.g. a group of influential professors? If so, doesn't just mean the theory interests the people who are interested in it? Which makes Lit Crit a very trend-based discpline.

It certainly seems to me like the history of lit-crit is very trend based: the New Criticism trend gives way to the Post Modernist trend, or whatever.

Which is fine if people are honest about this, as they are in the Fashion world. No one in fashion (I hope) claims that todays fashions are "right" and last years were "wrong."

My problem with Lit Crit, back when I studied it (maybe things have changed) is that it wasn't a science -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- but the people who were teaching it to me pretended that it was. Which I think had much to do with -- ugh -- Academic Politics. People in the Sciences got more respect and the Lit crowd wanted that same respect. They thought they could get it by acting as if their field has the same objective-truth value as science.

I don't remember anyone EVERY saying, "this isn't necessarily true (in fact, truth and falsehood aren't what we're talking about here), but it's a really interesting way of looking at things." But maybe I just had bad teachers.
posted by grumblebee at 10:22 PM on October 25, 2007


grumblebee: But maybe I just had bad teachers.

In my opinion, yes, you had bad teachers. The sensible lit crit attitude is essentially Animal Farmish:

All interpretations are valid, but some interpretations are more valid than others.

If I personally don't think some theory is exciting, has the literary theory failed?

The crucial point I was trying to get across was that doesn't really matter how interesting the theory is but rather how interesting the interpretations that are produced with the theory are. In lit crit, like in everything, the proof is in the pudding, not the recipe. To give an example, I'm not terribly excited by Marxism, but there's been a lot of exciting Marxist literary interpretation. Say what you will about Freud and Freudianism, but a lot of very startling, non-obvious and exciting literary interpretations have been made by using its tools.

Yes, lit crit isn't science. People who pretend or act like it is are fools. Lit crit is one of the humanities. The humanities are a different thing altogether from the sciences. I think that the sciences and the humanities benefit immensely from each other, much like any relationship between equals, but forgetting that they are fundamentally different leads down blind alleys.

It certainly seems to me like the history of lit-crit is very trend based

That is true. I think this is essentially a human thing. When someone thinks of a shiny new tool, be it an iPhone or deconstruction, a lot of people are going to want to play with it. I don't think it's a bad thing, in fact, it's one of my favorite aspects of human beings.

And of course, a new lit crit tool doesn't obsolete older tools. People still use Aristotle to understand modern texts. Lit crit is in some ways just a big mental toolbox, it's not strange that the new, shiny ones attract more attention than the scratched, old tools.
posted by Kattullus at 10:48 PM on October 25, 2007


"And yes, I for one certainly care about results and implications: implications because I'm interested in complexity and ambiguity, and because I don't think that there are simple answers or explanations for the world."

I think this gets at the extremely visceral resistance to the very concept of evolutionary psychology. It cuts right through the human ego. It cuts through the idea that there is an "unknowable magic" behind the human mind, a myth we use to support the idea that we are unique, special, and more important than other lifeforms.


I'm sorry, but this is a terribly specious conflation, and therefore a most egregious error. Insisting that we should not be seduced by easy answers, that we should be skeptical about reductive models and explanations, that we must be open to complexity and ambiguity, is in no way a form of egoism, anthropocentrism, or hubris. Such insistence is not fucking about making me feel or function better (rather it can be quite disheartening or annoying, actually). It is to the contrary about a form of scientific responsibility, in the best sense of 'scientific' - placing a value on truth, because as iterative revisions of knowledge in history (and experience) show time and again, truth is very hard earned. One could hardly find a sharper critic of anthropocentrism than Spinoza, yet that commitment was in no wise in contradiction with his fidelity to the complexities and ambiguities of the relation of the mind and the body, and indeed of all interaction between entities in any system (be they causal, mental, or what have you).
posted by rudster at 12:11 AM on October 26, 2007


No one is going to read this anyway, but I love a good EP bashing thread.

The problem with evolutionary psychology isn't that it relies on "just so" stories. That is merely a symptom of its deeper problems. Evolutionary psychology arguments basically follow this pattern:

Point out a complex feature of human psychology or culture
Explain this feature through properties of the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness"

The problem with this argument is that at the present time we don't know shit about how complex features of human psychology work, and we don't know shit about the environment of evolutionary adaptedness".

We have nothing close to a complete theory of how we produce narratives, either on a psychological or neurological basis. This is an incredibly complex process and we will need to understand much more about the basic processes of the brain than we do now.

Same goes for the early evolution of humans, the out of Africa hypothesis has only recently gained broad acceptance, we still don't know where in Africa we originated. We have no idea how early humans interacted or interbreed with other early Homo groups and we do not know how major cultural changes such as the advent of agriculture affected our gene pool. Despite the claims of evolutionary psychologists we have no idea if early humans lived similar lives to current hunter gathering societies.

It would be like if someone if the 18th century made a theory about how star death effects planetary geology. In fact, star death does have a lot to do about some aspects geology. However in the 18th century they didn't know shit about astronomy or geology so any theory they made combining the two would have been crap. In the same way, for us to have an interesting and useful evolutionary psychology we will have to wait for the fields of evolution and human psychology to mature a great deal. The practitioners of evolutionary psychology pretend like this isn't true, which makes them such a pain in the ass.

That being said, I don't think biology is ever going to have anything interesting to say about literary criticism. You might as well base it on quantum physics.
posted by afu at 2:55 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]



The critics of evolutionary psychology here are critiquing a straw man. For one, evolutionary psychology doesn't just pick a piece of human nature and randomly explain it with relevance to evolution. You are missing the third step: it tests the theory to see if it makes reliable predictions. If not, it is discarded.

This is why evolutionary psychology is not just "just so" stories. And I find this critique pretty rich coming from people who buy into psychoanalysis and Freud-- most of which is exactly that and never even bothers with testing or deliberately confounds testing (Ie, if you say you want to fuck your mother, you are right; if you say you don't, you are in denial).

Futher evolutionary psychologists have thought a lot about homosexuality-- there are a number of different theories, one of which involves the idea that having a nonreproductive member of a family makes the offspring of the members who do reproduce more likely to survive. There is some evidence for this theory in terms of menopause and the role of grandmothers as well. But again, if it doesn't produce testable hypotheses, it's just an idea.

Evolutionary psychology is basically the Occam's razor of psychology-- it tells you which ideas are complete nonsense. For example, the idea that we are driven by desire for sex with our parents and the incest taboo is simply cultural. Not so-- such people would rapidly be outreproduced before a cultural taboo could be emplaced by those without such a handicapping reproductive bias.

Virtually all neuroscientists accept evolutionary psychology as given (including Ramachandran, I believe)-- we evolved, our neural systems are there to serve evolutionary purposes and are best understood in this light.

And evolutionary psychology has far from conservative, nuclear family-supporting implications. For one, nuclear families are a very recent innovation-- most of evolutionary history was spent in extended families. Second, in the environment in which we evolved, women didn't sit at home alone with babies-- they worked, with kids with them. Their labor actually provided most of the nutrition. So ev psych does not support the ideal of dad goes out to work and mom sits home with kids in suburbs.

Ev psych searches for the defaults of human nature and the next project is determining how culture exacerbates or minimizes our tendencies...
posted by Maias at 6:44 AM on October 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


As usual, this thread seems to be a hell of a lot better than the linked book review. I'll have to check it out over lunch.
posted by koeselitz at 7:28 AM on October 26, 2007


Pinker's review confirms what "many observers" (to borrow his phrase) had suspected: the idea of a Darwinian literary criticism appeals mostly to people who find pontificating about human nature more interesting than reading books.

Vapid critiques of the "current stagnation of literary scholarship" always make me think of Defoe: "I believe there are an 100000 stout Fellows, who would spend the last Drop of their Blood against Popery, that do not know whether it be a Man or a Horse."
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:16 AM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


... Not so-- such people would rapidly be outreproduced before a cultural taboo could be emplaced by those without such a handicapping reproductive bias."

This is precisely the sort of thing people have criticizing here. Do you even pause for a moment when you parse human behaviors into such perfectly logical little processes?

I find the most problematic assumption in what you've said to be the following; human behaviors, motivations, intentions are static, functional properties of the human entity, akin to those other static, functional properties like 'claw that scratches deepely' or 'tooth that is sharper.'

This forgets one very simple things - behaviors are dynamic. They are expressions of the predispositions which are themselves the manifold expressions of one's genes. The fact is that many things along the way can affect that expression of the predisposition - not only environment, but also feeling and self-awareness (without yet thowing the question of will and choice into the mix) can change or even mistranslate that very predisposition, sending it off in a different direction. Not to mention the further problem - who the fuck ever proved that all the predispositons that express one's genes are in perfect harmony?

Freud for one was honest enough to recognize this - scientific observation (and no 'just so' story) led him to his thesis that the biological disposition toward nursing had a certain crucial offshoot, in which the sensation of suckling grew into a disposition in its own right, developing to such an extent that it could be found to be at odds with the biological need in which it was grounded (anaclisis). Say what you will about Freud, but this seems like a much more nuanced manner of sutidying the relationship between biology and behavior, than simply reducing behavior to static properties and then just seeing which ones play out better in terms of the functions of reproduction and nourishment.

And please don't try to tell me that the EP sees behaviors as anything other than static properties of entities. All that EP does, in accordance with its Darwinian tenets, is allow for a dynamic change of genes over time (through selection, mutation), but can make no room for a dynamic process in the gene's expression itself. It must presuppose a perfect translation of the gene in its expression; otherwise its explanatory power would be utterly overwhelmed.
posted by rudster at 8:26 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


I never could finish a book (or a chapter) By Pinker. He doesn't know how to tell a story.
posted by nicolin at 8:54 AM on October 26, 2007


rudster, please read this EV primer before you claim to know what "EP sees behaviors as".

From that primer:
Every aspect of an organism's phenotype is the joint product of its genes and its environment. To ask which is more important is like asking, Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, the length or the width? Which is more important in causing a car to run, the engine or the gasoline? Genes allow the environment to influence the development of phenotypes.

Indeed, the developmental mechanisms of many organisms were designed by natural selection to produce different phenotypes in different environments. Certain fish can change sex, for example. Blue-headed wrasse live in social groups consisting of one male and many females. If the male dies, the largest female turns into a male. The wrasse are designed to change sex in response to a social cue -- the presence or absence of a male.

With a causal map of a species' developmental mechanisms, you can change the phenotype that develops by changing its environment. Imagine planting one seed from an arrowleaf plant in water, and a genetically identical seed on dry land. The one in water would develop wide leaves, and the one on land would develop narrow leaves. Responding to this dimension of environmental variation is part of the species' evolved design. But this doesn't mean that just any aspect of the environment can affect the leaf width of an arrowleaf plant. Reading poetry to it doesn't affect its leaf width. By the same token, it doesn't mean that it is easy to get the leaves to grow into just any shape: short of a pair of scissors, it is probably very difficult to get the leaves to grow into the shape of the Starship Enterprise.
The more I read about the criticm's of EV, the more obvious it is that its detractors misunderstand the ideas in the field.
posted by AceRock at 9:58 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


oops, no apostrophe in criticisms. and thanks for the blockquote tip, crabby!
posted by AceRock at 10:00 AM on October 26, 2007


Is this the same primer that conflates brain and mind, thereby foreclosing any possible discussion of the phenomena it claims to be investigating?

In other words, our modern skulls house a stone age mind. The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors[...] In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city.

Yup.
posted by OmieWise at 10:29 AM on October 26, 2007


well a "stone age brain" wouldn't make sense.
posted by shotgunbooty at 10:33 AM on October 26, 2007


And evolutionary psychology has far from conservative, nuclear family-supporting implications. For one, nuclear families are a very recent innovation-- most of evolutionary history was spent in extended families. Second, in the environment in which we evolved, women didn't sit at home alone with babies-- they worked, with kids with them. Their labor actually provided most of the nutrition. So ev psych does not support the ideal of dad goes out to work and mom sits home with kids in suburbs.

Oh, how I wish that were true. Because I find some truth in the idea (perhaps a fantasy) that we did indeed evolve in, and are constitutionally happier in, small tribal groups and extended families with densely networked community support, etcetera. However, I am also aware that this slides very close a pastoral pre-lapsarian utopic view of humanity, as well.

If, in fact, EP was busy talking about these things, I might have more sympathy for it as an intellectual exercise; but all I seem to hear from it is junk like "blonde hair evolved as a way to attract the menz omg". Nothing to do with a drop in melanin to assist with Vitamin D production or anything. So excuse me if I don't give it the time of day.
posted by jokeefe at 10:44 AM on October 26, 2007


AceRock, the EV primer that you cite displays yet another flaw in EP's premises: human beings are not birds, or plants (or insects). The use of those examples as metaphors for human behaviour is laughably inadequate. And yes, I have seen them used elsewhere as models for human behaviour-- most recently the idea that humans are naturally polygynous, like elk! and deer! because in some 75% of the species selectively picked for examination in this particular "study" which are polygynous, the males live for a shorter period of time than the females. Like men! I mean, the conclusion is obvious, amirite?

(Also, tangentially, it's interesting that the model used is always "one male with a harem of females" instead of the alternative model of "females select one male, ignore others". Again, it's this weird Playboy Mansion view of human nature.)
posted by jokeefe at 10:51 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


nicolin: "I never could finish a book (or a chapter) By Pinker. He doesn't know how to tell a story."

Well, I don't know what you can expect from somebody arrogant enough to title a book How the Mind Works.
posted by koeselitz at 12:37 PM on October 26, 2007



Um, Freud didn't actually do any scientific experiments. He observed a very select group of middle class people in Vienna and extrapolated human nature from that.

Frankly, I find it much more plausible to take a view of the human nature based on the fact that we share 99% of our genes with other primates and that the brain systems seen in other mammals are critical in ours, too. One that looks for cross-cultural universals-- not that extrapolates from one, tiny biased sample (that he didn't even observe correctly-- he got lots about his patients wrong-- like mistaking the aftermath of a quack surgery he'd recommended in which gauze was left in a woman's nose for hysteria).

And the fact that behaviors are dynamic doesn't in any way undercut the point that a group of people with a predisposition that makes them more likely to have sex with relatives than with nonrelatives is going to rapidly be outreproduced by a group of people with the opposite predisposition.

Doesn't matter that the predisposition isn't always followed or changes with circumstances-- if the people with it are overall more likely to engage in the behavior than the people who don't, that's all that's needed. The genetic risks of inbreeding are so high that those which don't practice it have a massive advantage. And evolution works on these seemingly small differences over a long time scale.

And Ev Psych does claim that we are adapted for a small-group/extended family-living lifestyle-- but it doesn't claim that this was idyllic by any means because intergroup conflict resulted in murder rates much higher than we see today, at least from what the research shows so far.
posted by Maias at 12:57 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Louis Menand:
Pinker doesn't care much for art, though. When he does care for something—cognitive science, for example—he is all in favor of training people to do it, even though, as he admits, many of the methods and assumptions of modern science are counter-intuitive. The fact that innate mathematical ability is still in the Stone Age distresses him; he has fewer problems with Stone Age sex drives. He objects to using education "to instill desirable attitudes toward the environment, gender, sexuality, and ethnic diversity"; but he insists that "the obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education." He thinks that we should be teaching economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics, even if we have to stop teaching literature and the classics. It's O.K. to rewire people's "natural" sense of a just price or the movement of a subatomic particle, in other words, but it's a waste of time to tinker with their untutored notions of gender difference.
posted by OmieWise at 1:06 PM on October 26, 2007


And Ev Psych does claim that we are adapted for a small-group/extended family-living lifestyle-- but it doesn't claim that this was idyllic by any means because intergroup conflict resulted in murder rates much higher than we see today, at least from what the research shows so far.

But it does claim that it is a biological imperative. Say what you will about EP lacking explicit endorsement—that's almost completely immaterial—the end effect of EP is a kind of don't-look-behind-the-curtain-ism. It obscures the idea that perhaps, to play with your example, the nuclear family is produced by coercive economic, political, and social norms. The problems of the nuclear family have nothing to do with systemic forces—it's all biology! We don't have to worry about looking critically at those pesky norms! And that's still working under the assumption that EP tells us that the nuclear family (or whatever other phenomena being theorized about) is less than idyll.
posted by Weebot at 3:01 PM on October 26, 2007


That essay was fantastic, OmieWise. Thanks so much.
posted by jokeefe at 3:05 PM on October 26, 2007


Maias: "Um, Freud didn't actually do any scientific experiments. He observed a very select group of middle class people in Vienna and extrapolated human nature from that."

Look, I'm certainly no unabashed admirer of Freud, but that's a pretty narrow view of his work. A better explanation would be: he believed that experiment couldn't reveal anything about the psyche, but that consideration of its historical treatment and observation of it in others and oneself could. I have a feeling he was right, and I have a hard time believing that it's possible to see into consciousness through experiment, since the consciousness of the experimenter is impossible to eliminate.

The only way to get around this would be to perform experiments on oneself. The only person I can think of who's discussed this possibility in those terms is Nietzsche, but that's a can of worms I'd rather not open.
posted by koeselitz at 3:07 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


And it would make sense to talk about Nietzsche when talking about Freud. Freud is probably just a natural outgrowth of Nietzsche. I doubt that Freud himself would disagree with me on this point. This fact might shed some light on why Freud is so, as you say, "unscientific."
posted by koeselitz at 3:12 PM on October 26, 2007


I agree, Freud was a philosopher of the mind. Much of the "scientific" trapping of his work, including all the greek and latinate roots for his concepts, was added during the translation of the work into English. Freud and Man's Soul by Bruno Bettelhiem is a good introduction to the issue of Freud translation.

He did propose a theory of mind, he did build his model through naturalistic observation. Some aspects have been disproved (radical repression), others (the unconscious) are darlings of even the Evo Psych people, who talk about unconscious processes in their computer mind/brains all the time. He also formalized talk therapy, which many many studies have proven works, and which meta-analyses indicate has an effect size of 0.80.
posted by OmieWise at 4:06 PM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


All that stuff has nothing to do with literary criticism. Ev Psy are just trying to expand their "market" (in the sense Bourdieu uses this term) by using their methods in a new field. To me, it's almost as if someone was to analyse music with the laws of acoustics and try to prove that all that music has to offer is enclosed in a few set of acoustic rules and the way the ear perceives sounds. Literary criticism is nurtured by historical, sociological, biographical knowledge, by studies of the texts in their different written stages. Literary criticism is a form of literature itself, and it focuses a lot more on trying to find something new in a text, a piece or body of work than to try to demonstrate that something everybody knows is present.
posted by nicolin at 1:05 AM on October 27, 2007



Weebot, you completely missed my point (and that of EV psych)-- ev psych *doesn't* say that the nuclear family is what we evolved to function in, it says it was the extended family.

In fact, that is one of the best ways for making the case that coercive economic systems have pushed us into living in a situation to which we are not adapted.

Ev psych looks at the mismatch between the environment of evolutionary adaptation and the modern world and tries to explain some of our difficulties as a result. Many evolutionary psychologists argue that widespread depression results from the lack of social support common in the modern West.

Regarding Freud, yes, he got some things right but the only way we know that is via experimentation!! His version of the unconscious is completely different from ev psych's-- ev psych's idea about unconscious motivation have to do with the workings of lower brain regions (which we can study in primates), not a force that plays tricks on people by making them late to therapy due to "resistance."

The most important factor in effective therapy is therapist empathy-- which is not what classical Freudian analysis highlights at all.
posted by Maias at 2:59 PM on October 27, 2007


The most important factor in effective therapy is therapist empathy-- which is not what classical Freudian analysis highlights at all.

Jeez, I'm glad Freud didn't write anything about "unconditional positive regard" or anything nutty like that. Don't confuse Freud with Ego Psychology.
posted by OmieWise at 3:36 PM on October 27, 2007


Not only is that primer a thousand strokes of genius; it also allows me home in on precisely my point.

Granted, there is no denying that EP would like, no, love to account for the dynamism of behaviors and, more generally, the dynamism of changes in an organism. The question is whether it does so well at all.

As is so wonderfully telling with the Blue wrasse example and that of the arrowleaf plant, the only dynamism that EP (or EV) appears to be willing to recognize is that which is introduced by the environment; the already suspicious-sounding 'social cue' discovered by the blue wrasse or, more straightforwardly, the introduction of an aqueous environment to the arrowleaf seed. The genes constitutes states or predispositions (what the primer calls quite optimistically 'competencies,' as if RNA-encoded protein chains are just a small step away from practices) and await the introduction of change From The Environment.

What's missing from the picture? Is all dymanic, all change, solely derived from the environment, which then triggers x, y, or z deviations in the genetic disposition? Certainly not - the organism is also subject to change from within itself, under the form of (its) sensation (perception) and appetites.

These are, no doubt, preconditioned by the genes. However, as the very dynamic expression of the genes, they in their turn also influence and have an effect on the genes, firstly, because they are characterized by deviations and incompleteness, and secondly, because it is in them, and not in the genes, that changes in the organism and in the environment are reflected. Case in point; the blue wrasse again. How does EP get from a 'compentency' to change sex when 'factor z' is missing to an active pursuit, driven by appetites and perceptions in the organism, to seek to organize itself in a certain social group? Forgive me, but I just don't see it. All the wires of a computer and none of the electricity.

If this is correct, it seems to complicate the picture considerably, and allows one to object, for instance, to the view that behaviors (not to mention, in humans) can simply be understood as genetically determined predispositions to x or y. My problem above was not with which disposition would win. It was with the basis for that sort of analysis in the first place. (Incidentally, the best I can make of the warrant behind that little thought experiment is the following; the fact that human beings exist now shows that there was never anything like a self-defeating or self-comprimising tendency in the human species. That warrant seems, in my view, wholly ungrounded.)

Finally, after the briefest perusal of my Freud, I'd like to second the view that he never studied neurology, psychology, or medicine, and never cited, let alone read, works and scientific articles by other prominent psychologists and neurologists of his time. And he certainly never wrote letters to anyone except his idiot Uncle Otfried. Oh yeah, and I also second the view that you can only be a scientist or be scientific if you have a lab and shit.
posted by rudster at 4:58 PM on October 27, 2007


Freud is a genius. Darwin is a genius. Darud or Frewin aren't.
posted by nicolin at 9:13 AM on October 28, 2007


A part of this discussion comes down to this:

Literary Theorists often view literature through lenses originally devised for non-literary purposed. For instance, Feminism wasn't crafted as an academic tool to explore literature. Presumably, theorists feel that, by grafting other disciplines onto literary study, something new and interesting will pop out.

Since there are an infinite number of lenses we could use, the question is "why choose one over another?" Why do we apply Feminist ideas to literature and not ideas from heart surgery or origami?

Presumably -- since literature is concerned with the Human Experience -- we want to apply ideas and tools to it from other fields that are interested in the same thing (but that look at it from their own unique angle). Given this, Feminism makes sense. So does History, Race Studies, Freud, etc.

So does Darwinism. Since Darwin's theory is deeply tied in with what makes us human, why WOULDN'T we apply it to literature, assuming that we like tying things like Feminism and History to literature?

But I don't think things work so cleanly. We don't just choose tools because, objectively, they make sense. Tool choice is, alas, deeply mired in politics -- world politics and (worse) academic politics.

EP have rubbed many other academics the wrong way, so it's going to be hard getting traditional lit-crit people to accept EP tools.

My point, when I originally came to this thread, was "who cares -- for THIS discussion -- whether EP is science or bullshit? The point is that it might be useful to apply Darwinism to literature and see what happens!" But I think I was naive to do so. I was speaking as if politics doesn't exist. It was like I was saying, "Why vote for Hillary or Obama when there's this guy in New Jersey who would make a much better president?" Maybe so, but politics doesn't work that way.
posted by grumblebee at 10:26 AM on October 29, 2007


grumblebee-
I understand what you're saying, but also want to suggest that EP is itself political. It isn't as if it's just tool, a hammer, with which one can do one thing or another. It's pretty much already a tool which contains within it its own agenda. The arguments upthread about whether or not we should pay attention to that political agenda are germane when we're considering the scientific contributions EP has to make, but they certainly also fail when we're just thinking about tools to apply to something like literature. If you're interested in why EP is inherently political, and conservative in its premises, you could read something like Biology as Ideology by Richard Lewontin, which is both short and sweet, or Alas Poor Darwin by Steven Rose, which is a bit longer. Both argue, convincingly to my mind, that EP does not have scientific support for how much and how it privileges genetics, and hence does not have support for the extent to which it dismisses (present) environment and the possibilities of learning. (See the Menand paragraph about Pinker for an example of the selection I'm talking about.)

In other words, dismissing EP isn't an unfortunately biased dismissal of a neutral intellectual project, it's a reasoned response to a project steeped in its own political agenda, and hence a dismissal of that agenda.

Also, I have to apologize to Maias, of course Freud didn't write about unconditional positive regard, Carl Rogers did. He was not a Freudian, by any means. I do think, however, that Freud's therapy was much more empathic than the ego psychologists who came after, and there is plenty of Freudian therapy now that takes empathy as its watchword.
posted by OmieWise at 11:30 AM on October 29, 2007


I understand what you're saying, OmieWise, but I'm sad about something. I should probably just accept (sadly, if I have to) that man is a political animal and move on. But here's what saddens me:

I agree that EP has many problems. But I WISH that given a discussion like this, people would say, "So EP has problems. Whatever. Let's not talk about those problems, because they are boring to talk about." [To me, obviously. Not to everyone.] "Instead, let's take up the fascinating nugget that one might learn some interesting things via a mashup of Darwinism and Literature."

But whenEVER politics enters a discussion, it's like everyone drops everything else and gets political. As if the political angle is THE most important thing to discuss. THAT'S what saddens me, because I think there's something much more interesting to discuss. We're not discussing it.

It reminds of reading Franz De Waal's books on chimps and bonobos. I love De Waal, but I wish he wouldn't waste (in my view) so many pages refuting the way primates are used as political symbols. I realize that he sort of HAS to do that. But it saddens me that, as a scientist, he can't avoid being pulled into a moronic debate. It's like all the biologists who have to -- of feel they have to -- debate with Intelligent Design people. We get so mired down in us-vs-them, political swamps, the science suffers.

I don't care about Intelligent Design or primates as political symbols. I care deeply about learning more about primates as animals and the biological process. And I really don't care much about EP. I care about real science and I care about literature. And it interests me to see a mashup of the two.

I'm sure many people will disagree with this -- and think I'm insane to say it -- but DARWINISM (as opposed to EP) is NOT political. Sure, people use it for political ends. And those people should be ashamed of themselves. Darwin's Theory is something that's just true. It's fascinating, to me, to apply this truth to something like literature and see what happens.
posted by grumblebee at 2:06 PM on October 29, 2007


grumblebee, even if we grant what you've said--where's the nugget? The burden is on the EPists to demonstrate that it's valuable or interesting. Pinker's article is pure politics, no interpretive meat at all.
posted by nasreddin at 2:52 PM on October 29, 2007


Well, I'm going to bow out, because I think I'm having a different conversation that everyone else here. I don't want to place the burden of proof on EPists, because I don't really care what they have to say. I DO care about literature, and I DO care about Darwinism. But maybe that's best left for another thread.
posted by grumblebee at 3:22 PM on October 29, 2007


grumblebee: I think I'm having a different conversation that everyone else here. I don't want to place the burden of proof on EPists

Well yes. If you don't want to place the burden of proof on the ones who are making grandiose claims then yes, we are very much having a different conversation. I care about Darwinism and I love literature. But if someone says "this will revolutionize the study of literature" they better offer some proof.

So far evolutionary lit crit hasn't offered anything in the way of proof. In fact, it hasn't brought anything of interest to the table.

Oh, and grumblebee, you might be interested in Jerry Fodor's broader critique of Darwinism that appeared in the London Review of Books recently.
posted by Kattullus at 4:24 PM on October 29, 2007



Btw, the idea that EP thinks that everything is genetic is absurd... anyone who has ever read anything by the actual researchers in the area knows that it looks at gene by environment interactions-- for example, the research finding that certain genes are linked to antisocial behavior if someone is abused or traumatized as a child but are not linked to any kind of problems if the person does not have those experiences.

Neuroscientists virtually universally take an ev psych perspective because they recognize that the brain is a product of evolution and therefore every system in it must be a product of natural selection. And in fact, the research on the role of nurturing in development supports at least one group of psychologists who took off from Freud, the attachment theorists. The rats that receive the most maternal licking during infancy become better moms and more resilient to stress-- and this is not genetic because it occurs if you cross-foster the rats from very attentive moms to less attentive ones and vice versa.

But ev psych as literary criticism is problematic at this stage because it is not yet very developed in terms of specifics, I think and the literary relies on the specific.
posted by Maias at 4:44 PM on October 29, 2007


If you don't want to place the burden of proof on the ones who are making grandiose claims then yes, we are very much having a different conversation.

I didn't express myself clearly, I guess.

I DO think the burden of proof belongs to those who make grandiose claims -- if you care about those claims. Sure, if someone says Bugs Bunny is real, the burden of proof lies with him. But life is short. I'm not going to stick around and listen to his "proof" because I don't care. Similarly, I don't care much about EP. I care about Darwin.

Which is why I claimed that I'm having a different conversation that others in this thread. Most here seem more interested in discussing EP (pro or con), which I guess IS the subject of this thread. So perhaps I'm off topic.
posted by grumblebee at 5:25 PM on October 29, 2007


Neuroscientists virtually universally take an ev psych perspective

What's an "ev psych perspective"? Does that mean that most neuroscientists accept all the theories of EPs as truths -- or does it mean something weaker.

Yes, of course the mind is a physical process produced by the brain. Yes, of course the brain evolved via Natural Selection.

I have not read any papers written by EPs for the scientific community. I've just read some of the stuff they write for laypeople. So maybe they mis-represent their own ideas when they "dumb them down."

But here's what turned me off: the "reverse engineering" stuff that Pinker writes about in his books. I 100% believe that everything the mind does it does because it evolved to do it. But I can't extrapolate specific causations from fact. EPs think they can -- or present themselves like they can. Maybe the don't all do this. If not, the good ones are being misrepresented by a few bad apples.

Those bad apples fall into the same trap that snares so many histories -- the type that tells you they know things like the "cause" of World War I.
posted by grumblebee at 5:33 PM on October 29, 2007


Neuroscientists virtually universally take an ev psych perspective because they recognize that the brain is a product of evolution and therefore every system in it must be a product of natural selection.

I don't for a second doubt any of the second clause in that sentence, but I don't think that's really what we're talking about here. There's a big difference between believing in natural selection and the influence of biology on psychology, and the stuff spouted by EP (note the caps). I'd love to see some cites from mainstream neurologists who think EP is the right perspective from which to study cognitive psychology. (Seriously, I couldn't find any, and I'm obviously interested. I'd read them.)

Certainly cog psych doesn't think much, in the aggregate, of EP:
There are two senses of the label "evolutionary psychology," [...] The first, broader sense, includes any psychology that takes evolution seriously, or includes evolutionary considerations in its explanations of psychological phenomena. The second, which is generally associated with Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, David Buss, and Steven Pinker, includes only those evolutionary psychologists who adhere to a certain set of tenets, including massive modularity, assumptions about the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (or the EEA), and a belief that the modern mind evolved in the EEA. To distinguish this second sense from the first, I will use Buller's convention or referring to it with capital letters (Evolutionary Psychology, Evolutionary Psychologists), and using only lowercase letters for the first sense.

If you've read through my archives (I can't imagine anyone has), or have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I am no fan of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). I'm not alone in feeling that way. Most cognitive scientists aren't fans. And we have good reasons not to be.
That site, by the way, has some very convincing arguments about why EP hasn't produced any science of note. He argues in particular, that brain plasticity (something anathema to EP proponents) likely has much more to do with human cognitive achievements than does the modularity that EP ties to their fairytale of the EEA.

grumblebee-I'm very interested in Darwin, too. I care about evolution, deeply. It's why I'm so incensed by the oversimplifications of EP. I do think that you've been having a different conversation. Evolutionary Psychologists are only Darwinian's only after deciding on the fairy tale they want to authorize about human pre-history.
posted by OmieWise at 6:20 PM on October 29, 2007


Since Darwin's theory is deeply tied in with what makes us human, why WOULDN'T we apply it to literature, assuming that we like tying things like Feminism and History to literature?

Quantum Mechanics is also deeply tied to what makes us human. We are all just big conglomerations of wave/particle interactions are we not? Would a Quantum Mechanical Literary Criticism be interesting?
posted by afu at 10:36 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, if someone said, "would it be worthwhile to examine literature via QM?" I'd at least pause and think it over for a second. Ultimately, though, I'd reject QM (for Lit studies) for the same reason that I don't get out a microscope when something is wrong with my car -- even though my car is affected by microscopic forces.

I'm not convinced that Darwinism is macro enough to apply to literature. But it's way more macro -- and way more directly tied to human affairs -- than QM. So it seems worth a shot.

But I'm really putting up a false front here. To be honest, I don't find any of the Lit Crit methods if interacting with literature very interesting or compelling. Most of them are tipped towards viewing narrative intellectually, rather than emotionally. To me, that's cockeyed and not fun. (Let me stress the "to me" in that last sentence.) Unless Darwinism differed in kind from the more typical approaches, I probably wouldn't like it much, either.

But if you're going to apply fields like Feminism to Literature, Darwinism seems just as apt, to me.
posted by grumblebee at 11:43 AM on October 30, 2007


Unless Darwinism differed in kind from the more typical approaches, I probably wouldn't like it much, either.

What exactly do you envision an "emotional" Darwinian lit crit looking like?

"Madame Bovary kisses Leon and the reader can't help feeling Yes! Yes! She has found a compatible mate suited by evolution for fathering new children for her! Oh, the rapture!"
posted by nasreddin at 12:42 PM on October 30, 2007




grumblebee: I don't find any of the Lit Crit methods if interacting with literature very interesting or compelling. Most of them are tipped towards viewing narrative intellectually

You might be interested in reader-response criticism: "David Bleich had begun in the 1960s collecting statements by students of their feelings and associations. He used these both to theorize about the reading process and to refocus the classroom teaching of literature. He claimed that his classes "generated" knowledge, that is, knowledge of how particular persons recreate texts. Michael Steig and Walter Slatoff have, like Bleich, shown that students' highly personal responses can provide the basis for critical analyses in the classroom. Jeffrey Berman has encouraged students responding to texts to write anonymously and share with their classmates writings in response to literary works about sensitive subjects like drugs, suicidal thoughts, death in the family, parental abuse and the like. A kind of catharsis bordering on therapy results."
posted by Kattullus at 1:54 PM on October 30, 2007


Kattullus, thanks for the overview of emotion-based criticism.


What exactly do you envision an "emotional" Darwinian lit crit looking like?

I was unclear. I don't expect Darwinian Lit Crit to evoke or be centered around emotion (though Darwin DID had things to say about emotions). I made -- or tried to make -- to separate points. You conflated them into one, which leads me to believe I muddled my explanation.

My points -- which are not connected to each other -- are this:

1. Darwinism is likely to be valid/invalid/useful/useless as other lenses used to view literature, such as Feminism. The choice of which lens gets used seems, to me, to be less about which is more useful and more about force-of-personality, academic politics, and fashion. I don't want my education -- or choice of tools -- to be based on fashion, politics or personality cults. But that's just me.

2. I would ultimately reject ANY form of criticism -- including Darwinism -- if it was intellectually based, rather than emotionally based. I don't care much what a work of fiction "means." I care about its power to evoke feeling.
posted by grumblebee at 3:52 PM on October 30, 2007


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