Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Literary Animal

Fair warning: the following is a review of a review of a book I haven't yet read... though it sounds mighty interesting. I'm just using the review as an excuse to sound off on some ideas which occurred to me in reading the review -- ideas that seem important, though there's no hint that either the reviewer of the book or any of the authors of essays in the book seem to have considered them.

The book in question is The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Rethinking Theory), edited by Jonathan Gottshall and David Sloan Wilson (also here). (It's not scheduled to be released until November, so I have a reasonable excuse for not having read it. Perhaps the publishers will send me a review copy...) The book appears to be heavily academic in nature and consists of 12 essays by luminaries in such fields as literature, literary criticism, anthropology, biology, and evolutionary psychology.

The review is by David Michelson, a graduate student in English literature and evolutionary studies at Binghamton University. (One would presume that Michelson has been mentored, at least informally, by David S. Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton.) The review itself appears at eSkeptic.

A little context to begin with. In the past few decades university departments of literature, literary studies, "critical theory", and the like have generally fallen under the hegemony (a term often used by denizens of these departments) of scholars of a "postmodernist" persuasion. This is rather a controversial point of view (at least among those who don't hold it). Michelson, for instance, alludes to it as "the rather insular culture of anti-scientism and radical political posturing that is commonplace in most English and cultural studies departments today." Adherents of postmodernism often hold a very jaundiced view, to put it mildly, of science in general and evolutionary theory in particular. They regard most science (to use Michelson's words) as "myopically and detrimentally western, white, and patriarchal in practice."

However, I don't care to go into that debate now. (See books like Higher Superstition for more background.) I only mention it to set the context, which is that there are now many scholars and scientists who want to challenge the postmodernists on their own turf, by applying evolutionary theory to the study of literature itself. Many of the contributors to The Literary Animal are apparently in this camp. This is flagrant lèse-majesté.

But what does it mean to apply evolutionary theory to the study of literature? What might such a thing as "evolutionary literary studies" actually consist of? I can't fairly answer that, since the idea comes as a bit of a surprise to me, and I haven't read the book under review. Perhaps this, from Michelson, gives us some idea:

The Literary Animal tackles a huge topic: the nature and representation of narrative and its role in the evolutionary scheme of human affairs, past and present. Despite other essay collections on evolution, literature and the arts, The Literary Animal is the first volume of evolutionarily focused essays on the multifaceted nature of narrative, which is defined here as oral and written literature. This definition encompasses theater, film, television, novels, poetry, erotica, folktales, the narrative activities of journal writing and the hypothesized narrative processes underlying our conscious thought.

I wonder if it's fair to say that a major part of this undertaking could be described as the application of evolutionary psychology to literary studies. That might be a little too narrow, but let's run with it anyway. At this point, I have a feeling of déjà vu. There have been previous attempts to apply some form of "science" to literary studies. A few decades ago, before the rise of postmodernism, when Freudian psychology and other forms of psychoanalysis were still in vogue (and not yet discredited scientifically), there was a lot of writing about "psychoanalysis and literature". (Indeed, many postmodernists still come from a psychoanalytic background. How is that even "modern", let alone "postmodern"?)

Are we simply dealing here with the application of a rather newer (yet still controversial) brand of psychology to literary studies? Whatever the answer to that may be, it may at least help to illuminate the nature of the task here. That is, there are two important kinds of questions that any flavor of psychological theory ought to try to answer about literature.

First: What does the psychological theory tell us about how and why the people who create "literature" go about their work? What motivates their labor? What psychological processes occur in their minds in the act of composing a story?

Second: Does the psychological theory help us understand the motives, thoughts, and behaviors of the fictional characters that occur in literature? Has the author used this theory explicitly in drawing the characters, or do the characters simply serve as credible examples of the theory's predictions? How compatible, and illuminating, are the theory and the literary story at telling us something about "human nature" through the behavior of characters in the story?

And this brings up the really important question: what is "literature" anyway? Answers to this question are presumably to be found among the essays in The Literary Animal as Michelson describes it:
The editors believe their collection speaks to three major themes, each addressing a specific question:

  • What is literature about?
  • What is literature for?
  • What does it mean for a seemingly nonscientific subject such as literature to be approached from the perspective of a scientific discipline such as evolution?

At this point, I find myself wanting to know the answers as they would be given by yet another flavor of psychology: neuropsychology. It's not that I have any bone to pick with evolutionary psychology. I like the theory a lot, and find it very illuminating in explaining many things about human behavior. However, ultimately, anything that is the product of biological evolution winds up being incorporated in the material structure of an organism. So what might the facts of our neurobiology be able to tell us about some of the questions mentioned above?

I don't know how to answer that, but I think I do know where to start looking. One thing we know (or think we know) is that the frontal cortex of the brain is the place where most of the planned, deliberate behavior of humans seems to be generated. Unlike most other animals (as far as we can tell), humans think, deliberate, plan, and scheme a great deal before undertaking a course of action that has some conscious goal in view (presuming they have sufficient time, of course). It may be that humans are not so unique within the animal kingdom as they think they are, but that's not important. What matters is that neuroscience seems to know at least a little about how this sort of planning occurs in the frontal cortex.

Frontal lobes have been found to play a part in impulse control, judgement, language, memory, motor function, problem solving, sexual behavior, socialization and spontaneity. Frontal lobes assist in planning, coordinating, controlling and executing behaviour. People who have damaged frontal lobes may experience problems with these aspects of cognitive function, being at times impulsive; impaired in their ability to plan and execute complex sequences of actions; perhaps persisting with one course of action or pattern of behaviour when a change would be appropriate (perseveration).

It seems to me that the creating of literature is an example of this kind of planning in action. Whenever we are faced with an important decision, certain kinds of thoughts go through our minds. For example, consider a decision about taking a new job. We think about the kinds of people we will be working with and dealing with on the job. We think about how we will fit into that situation, about what sort of challenges we will face, and how or whether we might be able to respond. We think about the kinds of things that can go right or go wrong if we take the job. We think about our exit strategy if things do go wrong. But these are precisely the sort of things that an author thinks about in plotting a story! And the frontal cortex is where this kind of thinking takes place. Whatever mechanisms exist in the brain to do this kind of analysis, they are at the service of an author who is creating literature. Presumably it matters little whether one is applying this kind of analysis to one's own life or to the lives of fictional characters.

And all this is just as true for the consumers of literature as well as for the creators of it. Practically everyone with a functioning frontal cortex should be able to enjoy exercising that part of the brain as applied to a set of hypothetical characters in hypothetical situations as they do to theirselves, other people they know, and real-life situations. It's the same process whether it's "real life", a TV soap opera, or a Shakespearean tragedy. There is pleasure in exercising our physical selves, whether it's our leg muscles (in running or biking) or our frontal cortex. In the latter case, there are various older name for the activity: pretending, "make believe", or vicarious experience. In theater, one calls such a thing a "play", for very good reasons.

I can be even more specific. I think that the frontal cortex implements "models" of the real world. That is, we have complex theories about the things and actors that are found in the real world, and about how those constituents of the real world interact causally with each other. When the actors are other humans, we even have theories about how their minds work (Dennett's intentional stance). We are continuously running such models, just as models programmed on a computer are run to predict the evolution of everything from hurricanes to the expansion of the universe. Presumably there is a lot that neurobiology can, or will eventually be able to, say about how such models are implemented in the frontal cortex.

That, in turn, should tell us an enormous amount about how literature is created and enjoyed.

Every story is a kind of thought experiment. What will happen if we take some set of characters, place them in a certain environment, and present them with various challenges? Running such thought experiments (when one has time off from dealing with problems in the real world) is a form of play that almost all humans enjoy. It's a form of play that few, if any, other animals can enjoy. And it's obviously a useful adaptation that evolution has provided us with. But it's much more useful to know exactly how this works in the brain than simply to know we have this ability.

Why is the ability to create and run such models of the real world such a useful adaptation? Probably that's obvious, but one can be more specific. I think that an individual's success, in whatever complex task the individual is trying to accomplish, is directly related to how accurately the individual's model reflects the "real world". Is it a good model, or a false one? And success is further related to how well the brain can run this model against a range of varied inputs.

The model, for a primitive human, might deal with the behavior of a particular type of prey animal that the individual is tasked to hunt. For a modern human, the model might deal with a certain occupation, like running a restaurant. In the latter case, there are a variety of important submodels dealing with behavior of potential customers, behavior of employees, handling financial transactions with suppliers, the preparation of food that the expected customers will enjoy, and so on. How accurate those models are as a whole will determine the prospective restauranteur's success or failure. (The latter is much more common.)

The model itself is not provided by evolution. Evolution gives only the ability to run the model in one's brain. The model itself is a form of software provided by an individual's culure. A primitive hunter learns to hunt by being taught, preferably by the most able hunter of the older generation. (Though a few basic skills, like strong and accurate throwing ability, can be provided by evolution.) A modern prospective restauranteur learns the craft from a good culinary academy and (hopefully) from apprenticeship to a talented mentor.

And what is one of the largest collections of off-the-shelf models that a culture can provide? Literature. The intelligent prospective military officer reads Homer or Sun Tzu. The prospective politician reads Machiavelli or Sandburg's Lincoln. The prospective scientist reads Watson's Double Helix. The prospective master of the art of living reads Shakespeare or Lao Tzu. (There may be as much "fact" as "fiction" in some of these examples, but "fiction" can be just as useful, as long as it's true to the "real world".)

Any decent theory of literature should tell us something about how the best examples of such literary models are constructed and how to most effectively run such models in our frontal cortices. Perhaps even about how we might implement such models ourselves.


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