Posts Tagged ‘evolutionary psychology’
Posted on September 16, 2010 - by David
I am working directly from the unpublished text of Liah Greenfeld’s forthcoming book, Mind, Madness, and Modernity: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. All the original ideas, and all interpretations and analysis of primary and secondary source materials used to support the ideas are attributable to Liah Greenfeld. Read the introduction to the exposition here.
From part 1
…With the recognition of the autonomous new world of life, Darwin’s breakthrough not only opened the door to advances in biology, it makes possible our escape from the dualist cage. In place of two mutually inconsistent realms, reality may be imagined as consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper layers being emergent phenomena — the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind.
The mind emerges from three organic elements – the brain, the human larynx, and perception and communication by signs. Two of these, (the brain and the larynx), are specific organs, while the third – the use of signs – is a certain evolutionary stage of the process of perception and communication of perception within a biological group.
For animals, adaptation to the physical environment means developing the ability to perceive a stimulus (e.g food, a predator, etc.) and communicate its presence to other members of the group. The more complex the environment, the more stimuli there are that signify to an organism, and thus more signs to which the organism must learn to respond to appropriately. We can describe a sign as an aspect of a stimulus, or of the encoded reaction to it, signifying the stimulus, respectively, to the perceiving organism and to members of the organism’s group.
To reiterate, an emergent phenomenon is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the sum of its elements. Therefore, the mind’s emergence was not the result of a simple combination of the brain, the larynx, and the use of signs, since these elements were in place long before the transformation occurred. While it is impossible to reconstruct the moment of emergence, we can deduce logically the general nature of this most improbable event – the discovery that sound signs could be intentionally articulated.
Intentionally articulated signs are symbols. A sign corresponds directly to the phenomenon it signifies – it is not open to interpretation, for in the animal world, reading signs correctly is a matter of life and death. Unlike signs, whose meanings are fully contained in their referents in the environment, symbols are arbitrary, given their meaning from the context in which they appear. While the number of signs was essentially limited by the number of potential referents in the environment, symbols, being arbitrary, are not bound by the material environment, instead drawing their life and meaning mainly from the context of other symbols.
Until now, we have referred to this emergent phenomenon as the mind, but this symbolic reality that emerged with the transformation of sign to symbol is a process occurring simultaneously on the individual and collective level. On the individual level, we call this phenomenon “the mind”; on the collective level, we call it “culture.” Of course, the individual mind doesn’t generate its own symbolic process. It is dependent upon the symbolic process on the collective level – culture. For this reason, the mind can be conceptualized as “culture in the brain,” or “individualized culture.” Make no mistake though – these two terms denote one and the same process occurring on two different levels. The mind constantly borrows symbols from culture, but culture can only be processed – i.e, symbols can only have significance and be symbols – in the mind.
In distinction to all other animals, humans transmit their social ways of life symbolically, rather than genetically. This means that culture – the symbolic process of transmission of human ways of life – is what distinguishes us from the rest of the living world, and in fact, makes humanity itself an emergent phenomenon. The mistaken notion that society is what makes humanity unique is quite pervasive, but society – structured cooperation and collective organization for the purpose of collective survival and transmission of a form of life — is a corollary of life in numerous species. It is essentially a biological phenomenon, a product of evolution. What makes human society unique is that it is structured not genetically, but symbolically, on the basis of culture. Culture being a dynamic, historical process, not governed biologically, the social arrangements of humans are much less rigid than those of other animal species and are subject to change.
Just as animals adapt to the physical environment in which they live, so we too must adapt to the cultural environment in which we find ourselves. If we consider this process in animals, we see that it depends not only on the ability to perceive and remember information supplied by the environment, but also on the ability to create supplementary information to complete the picture. In humans, we call this imagination. There is ample evidence that animals possess this ability also – the success of rodents in tests of transitive inference, and the countless creative solutions to problems posed by the physical environment which animals come up with make this hard to deny. This must be an unconscious process – the imaginer is not aware of the steps that lead from the perceived and stored to new information, but, so to speak, “jumps to conclusions” over these steps. Humans must adapt primarily to the cultural (symbolic) environment, and so the largely unconscious process by which we create new information out of information already stored in memory can be called symbolic imagination.
Symbolic imagination, probably, is the central faculty of the human mind, the means by which we “discover” the operative logic of each of the many autonomous yet interdependent symbolic systems which make up the cultural environment. Most symbolic systems – language, fashion, class structure, etc. – are historical, and therefore changeable, with governing principles that have little to do with logic proper – that is, logic based on the principle of no contradiction. While this makes symbolic imagination almost infinitely more complex than imagination in other animal species, we are nevertheless able to find the organizing principles of culture with remarkable success, for the most part without thinking about them explicitly.
Culture, the symbolic process on the collective level, is organized on the individual level, (the mind), by symbolic imagination through the creation of three mental “structures.” It is useful to think of these mental processes as structures, since they are patterned and systematic, and so, we can deduce logically, they must be supported by corresponding patterned and systematic processes in the brain. These structures are compartments of the self and include: 1) identity – the relationally-constituted self; 2) will, or acting self and 3) the thinking self, or the I of self-consciousness.
Identity refers to symbolic self-definition. It is the image of one’s position in the socio-cultural “space,” within the larger image of the relevant socio-cultural terrain itself. This “cognitive map” displays the possibilities for adaptation to the particular cultural environment, allowing them to be ranked subjectively. As soon as a child begins to (unconsciously) figure out the organizing principles of various symbolic systems, he begins to form an identity, figuring out where he belongs in the symbolic environment which is still in the process of being constructed itself. It is reasonable to suppose that identity-formation is strongly influenced by the emotional charge with which certain stimuli are delivered. Identity is likely to solidify more quickly the simpler is the (always very complex) cultural environment in which it is formed. This is a largely unconscious process – questions about identity are usually only made explicit if the identity proves to be problematic. In other words, the question, “who am I?” would most likely only occur to someone who would have difficulty answering it.
The will is, simply put, the part of our mind that makes decisions. While identity is the product a particular cultural environment at a specific time in history, the will is a product of culture in general – a function of symbols. To operate with symbols –intentional , thus arbitrary, signs – we internalize the principle of their intentionality. The will takes its direction from Identity, choosing the appropriate “operative logic” to follow given the context. Usually, this is an unconscious process – the will decides without us having to reflect on our decision – but sometimes this process becomes explicit, we become aware that we are faced with options and must exercise our will, and think about our decisions. Because the will operates on the basis of identity, problems with identity may translate into impairment of the will – the person may become indecisive and unmotivated, or, the decision making could become completely haphazard and unrestrained.
Finally there is the thinking self or the “I of self-consciousness.” This is consciousness turned upon itself, the phenomenon to which Descartes referred with in the oft quoted “I think, therefore I am.” The other mental processes described above remain hypotheses, but the existence of the thinking self cannot be doubted – it is the only certain knowledge we have. While identity and will are processes informed and directed by the symbolic environment, they are mostly unconscious. The thinking self, though, is explicitly symbolic, meaning that it actually operates with formal symbols – above all, language. This explicit, self-conscious symbolic process does not seem to be a requirement for individual adaptation in the same sense as identity and will, and there is no reason to assume it exists to the same degree in all people. Its most important function seems to be rather the continuation of the cultural process on the collective level. By thinking things through – talking to oneself using symbolic systems like language, math, and music – the mental process can be reconstructed and made explicit, packaged in formal symbolic media for delivery to other minds.
In the exceptionally rare cases when the thinking self is perfectly integrated with identity and will, true genius can appear and usher in dramatic cultural change. It seems much more common, though, that a very active thinking self is implicated in mental disease. As was mentioned earlier, problems with identity lead to impairment of the will, and without these mental “structures” working properly, the “I of self-consciousness” may become deindividualized, experienced as the explicit processing of the undirected resources of culture in general, and felt as a disturbing, alien presence within the self. This is essentially the new theory of mental illness that Greenfeld is offering. It will be developed in much greater detail over the next three posts.
Next, we’ll look at the historical development of this new form of mental disease.
9/24 – Madness: A Modern Phenomenon
Posted on May 3, 2010 - by David
The following paper was presented May 1, 2010 at a student conference at Boston University called ‘Mentalism, Madness, and the Mind.” Audio from the conference is available here. Thanks to all those who participated.
“Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause preceding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)
In the conclusion to this book – a work of undeniable importance to modern science and modern thought in general – after tracking natural selection through amazingly detailed observations of nature and logical deductions, Darwin imagined what his discoveries might mean for the study of humanity. He writes:
“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” (Darwin, Origin 476)
Empowered by the growing acceptance of his theories, Darwin himself endeavored to throw this light on human experience in The Descent of Man. His believed that there was “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties,” (Darwin, Descent 34) and attributed our sense of morality, in his eyes man’s most distinctive feature, to highly developed social instincts and advanced powers of reasoning.
Nevertheless, one can sense another phenomenon at work in Darwin’s descriptions. He notes man’s “large power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas,” and sees the central place of language in the mind, writing that “a long and complex train of thought can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra.” (Darwin, Descent 53, 55) His insistence that the difference between man and animal was one of degree and not kind is challenged by obvious differences between cultures. He attributes the lower moral sense of “savages” partly to “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and speculates that moral tendencies might be inherited traits, though he admits that there is “hardly sufficient evidence on this head.” (Darwin Descent 93, 98) In trying to account for the many “absurd rules of conduct” proscribed by various religions, Darwin makes a decidedly non-materialist observation, writing, “it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated in the early years of life, while the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.” (Darwin, Descent 95-96) This power of culture was literally right next to him, waiting to be discovered and explained, on the ship which took him around the world. He writes: “The Fuegians rank among the lowest barbarians; but I was continually struck with surprise how closely the three natives on board H.M.S “Beagle,” who had lived some years in England, and could talk a little English, resembled us in disposition, and in most of our mental faculties.” (Darwin, Descent 33-34) It seems with all his powers of observation and scientific genius, his attachment to his newly embraced theory and the predictable (and accepted) prejudices of a 19th -century Englishman would not allow Darwin to see what he was missing.
I consider this extended Darwinian introduction justified, because despite the fact that these ideas were published nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, they are, with many of the same troublesome claims and implications, still very much alive today in the various strains of evolutionary psychology.
Before going any further, I must turn to mentalism, as developed by Liah Greenfeld, so that the basis for my objections to evolutionary psychology is clear. In her yet unpublished work (to which this conference is directly related), Greenfeld actually demonstrates how Darwin’s work made her own theories possible. Here I quote Greenfeld directly:
“On the basis of meticulously constructed circumstantial evidence (that is, pieces of empirical evidence, gaps in empirical evidence, considerations of scholars in other fields, specifically geology, certain beliefs regarding the nature of reality, contradictions in other beliefs regarding it, etc., that were fitted perfectly together, creating a logically watertight argument) Darwin proved that there was a law pertaining to the development of life on earth that had nothing whatsoever to do with laws of physics, and yet was logically consistent with them, because it operated within the boundary conditions of the physical laws. That is, in distinction to philosophical materialists, Darwin proved that life indeed could be irreducible to inanimate matter, but, in distinction to philosophical idealists, or vitalists, who claimed that life was independent from the material reality studied by physics, he proved that laws of life could only operate within the conditions provided by physical laws. By proving that life was an autonomous reality, Darwin made biology independent from physics: biologists now could take physics for granted and explore the ways biological laws operated.” (Greenfeld 69-70)
In short, rather than create “a unified framework in which everything could be understood,” Darwin made it possible to see the world in terms of emergent phenomena. Greenfeld defines an emergent phenomenon as “a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the sum of its elements, a case in which a specific combination of elements, which no one element, and no law in accordance with which the elements function, renders likely, produces a certain new quality (in most important instances, a certain law or tendency) which in a large measure determines the nature and the existence of the phenomenon, as well as of its elements.” (Greenfeld 71)
Unlike Darwin or the evolutionary psychologists, we see humanity as distinguished from all other forms of organic life by the emergent phenomenon of culture. Culture can be defined most generally as the symbolic transmission of human ways of life across generations and distances. In ‘Nationalism and the Mind,’ Greenfeld describes it like this:
The products of this cultural process are stored in the environment within which our biological life takes place, but the process itself goes on inside us. In other words, culture exists dynamically, develops, regenerates, transforms only by means of our minds – which makes culture a mental process. Let me reiterate: culture is a symbolic and a mental process. The fact that it is a mental process means that it occurs by means of the mechanisms of the brain. The fact that it is a symbolic process means that its logic cannot be reduced to the logic of the brain mechanisms, that it is an emergent phenomenon and a reality sui generis. (Greenfeld “N&M” 213)
Greenfeld has therefore described the mind as “individualized culture,” or “culture in the brain,” making the mind, like culture, an emergent phenomenon. Again I quote from her current work, to make clear that culture and mind should not be taken separately:
“These are not just two elements of the same — symbolic and mental — reality, they are one and the same process occurring on two different levels — the individual and the collective, similar to the life of an organism and of the species to which it belongs in the organic world. The fundamental laws governing this process on both levels are precisely the same laws and at every moment, at every stage in it, it moves back and forth between the levels; it cannot, not for a split second, occur on only one of them. The mind constantly borrows symbols from culture, but culture can only be processed – i.e., symbols can only have significance and be symbols — in the mind.” (Greenfeld 81)
In On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection (2008), Jonathan Turner and Alexandra Maryanski provide a theoretical description of how our nature as individualistic apes has shaped the evolution of human societies. In the conclusion to the first chapter they make the following statement: “All societies, we argue, go against humans’ ancestral ape propensities for weak ties, individualism, and mobility, but some social formations impose greater conflicts with our ape ancestry than others.” (T&M 27) They hypothesize that the development of an emotional language would have played the most important role in creating solidarity among our ape ancestors. They imagine an almost infinitely deep pool of complex emotions that could have been formed through combination of the four primary emotions – happiness, fear, anger, and sadness – which they say “all researchers agree” are hardwired into our brains. These emotions would have been communicated through vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions to forge stronger social ties. Symbolic communication through language is given a kind of secondary status to this primary language of emotions. They tell us that, “sociality is enhanced by speech because inflections of voice and substance of sentences can add extra layers of emotional content to interaction.” (T&M 117). The chapter titled ‘The Emergence of Culture,’ is mostly devoted to describing the adaptations they believe would have been selected for to create an individualistic ape who forged social ties via an emotional language but also possessed the brain capacity for verbal, symbolic communication. Culture and its development, therefore, are just products of natural selection, though they admit the rules seem to change a bit once culture emerges. They outline five “forces of the social universe” which generate selection pressures – population, production, distribution, regulation, and reproduction. (T&M 125) Equipped with a theoretical image of our progenitors and these five forces, they proceed to explain the rest of human history, which for Turner and Maryanski consists of emotional, individualistic apes moving from one “sociocultural cage” to another.
In the final chapter, they defend individualistic modern society because it is less constraining than most of the “cages” we have lived in throughout history. They say that sociologists who see pathological elements are confused about our heritage. “Humans are not the descendants of monkey ancestors, as most sociological criticisms of modernity imply.” (T&M 316) I can’t rightly say what “most sociological criticisms of modernity imply,” but I know that it wasn’t confusion about our primate ancestors that led Émile Durkheim to first describe anomie; rather, it was the study of a real phenomenon, the fact that people in modern societies seemed to be killing themselves at an alarming rate. Likewise, Liah Greenfeld’s current work aims to address a similar phenomenon: the emergence of mental illness with the rise of modernity and its increasing prevalence in particularly individualistic and anomic societies like America.
For me, the most frustrating part of this book was the misuse of Durkheim. At one point, they give a one paragraph summary of his work in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and then guess, on the basis of occasionally observed gatherings of groups of chimpanzees, that “there may be a hardwired basis for this propensity to symbolize social relationships with sacred totems.” (T&M 148) Durkheim’s name is sprinkled throughout the book, and– in what appears to me an attempt to give sociological weight to a book more concerned with apes than humanity – they conclude by quoting Durkheim on the importance of turning to the past if we want to accomplish something useful. What they effectively do is turn all the way back past the emergence of the very thing that makes us human, which allows them to make such insightful speculations as, “Contemporary humans enjoy travel perhaps because they are evolved apes.” (T&M 307)
Unfortunately, Durkheim’s own mistake of making a god out of society allows his ideas to be easily misappropriated, such that Turner’s and Maryanski’s congregation of chimps howling out their innate emotions doesn’t seem a far cry from the effervescence of a religious ritual. We can summarize Durkheim’s misstep using Greenfeld’s words from an essay written 15 years ago: “…Durkheim imagined the emergent phenomenon of society as, fundamentally, physical energy generated by the physical proximity of individual biological organisms,…” (Greenfeld “Praxis” 132) It is nevertheless clear that when Durkheim talks about society, he is describing something other than a material force, namely, the emergent phenomenon of culture and mind. The following comes from The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, interestingly enough, from his chapter on ‘The Notion of the Soul’:
“… there really is a part of ourselves that is not immediately subordinate to the organic factor: namely, everything inside us that represents society. The general ideas that religion or science imprint in our minds, the mental operations these ideas presuppose, the beliefs and feelings that are at the basis of moral life – all the higher forms of psychic activity that society awakens and develops in us – do not follow in the wake of the body, like our sensations and our bodily states. This is because, as we have shown, the world of representations in which social life unfolds is overlaid on its material substrate and does not originate there.” (Durkheim 201)
This “world of representations” is a world of symbols. We can define symbols as intentionally articulated signs. What I see described in the Origin of Societies is a kind of gradual emergence of culture, and kind of effortless slide to symbols from signs. Statements like “we know that symbolic capacities were enhanced as the brain grew,” and “with the first push for a larger brain in Homo habilis, it became possible to construct a more symbolic culture,” give me the impression that symbolic processing was occurring in the brains of our ancestors before the emergence of articulate speech. (T&M 113,110) But how could symbolic thought take place without symbols to be processed?
The elements that made possible the emergence of symbols (and therefore culture and the mind) were a highly developed brain, the use of signs, and the larynx, but this combination in no way made the emergent phenomenon likely. Greenfeld writes:
“The biological species of homo sapiens had completely evolved — brain, larynx, and all — hundreds of thousands of years before the mind made its first appearance among its members. This means that it was not caused by the organic combination that made it possible, but a result of a most improbable accident — the transformation (a complete change in character) of one of its elements.” (Greenfeld 77-78)
This transformation of sign to symbol – however exactly this incredible accident occurred – was the point of emergence for culture and the mind. I quote Greenfeld again, because I believe highlighting the difference between signs and symbols is necessary to distinguish mentalism from evolutionary theories describing a weak, gradual emergence of culture:
“The meaning (the significance) of a symbol was not given in the phenomenon it was signifying – its referent, or genetically; it was given to it by the context in which it was used, and increasingly this context became mostly the context of other symbols. Thus the significance of symbols constantly changed. Unlike signs, which could be very many, but whose number was essentially limited by their referents in the environment, symbols were endlessly proliferating. (The very introduction of a symbol would change the environment and initiate a symbolic chain reaction.) Unlike signs, which exist in sets, they, from the first formed systems, ever changing and becoming more complex and connected by constantly transforming ties of inter-dependence. Symbols, in other words, constituted a world of their own; an autonomous, self-creative world in which things were happening according to laws of causation which did not apply anywhere else.” (Greenfeld 78 -79)
I feel it’s important to state, despite how obvious this may seem to some of you, that this symbolic reality was made possible only by some collectivity. The homo sapiens who first discovered the ability to intentionally articulate a sign would have had to intentionally articulate to someone in order to spark the symbolic process which has created the world we live in today. Therefore, while the symbolic process occurs only in individual brains, to see it as a product of individual brains is a mistake.
Steven Pinker, in the The Stuff of Thought (2007), puts forth the theory of conceptual semantics, the idea that the true “language of thought” is a set of innate concepts, closely corresponding to the Kantian categories of space, time, causality, substance, and so on. Like Turner and Maryanski with their emotional proto-language hypothesis, Pinker tends to treat language itself as a kind of secondary phenomenon, almost coincidental to our innate conceptual processes. In a section of the book arguing against linguistic determinism, he writes:
“One reason that the language we speak can’t be too central in our mental functioning is that we had to learn it in the first place. It’s not hard to imagine how language acquisition might work if children could figure out some of the events and intentions around them and tried to map them onto the sounds coming out of their parents’ mouths. But how a raw stream of noise could conjure up concepts in the child’s mind out of nothing is a mystery. It’s not surprising that studies of the minds of prelinguistic infants have shown them to be sensitive to cause and effect, human agency, spatial relations, and other ideas that form the core of conceptual structure.” (Pinker 149)
But is Pinker saying that humans are the only animals sensitive to cause and effect or spatial relations? To demonstrate the existence and operation of this innate “language of thought,” he has to actually break down language itself. In other words, it is only when confronted with a system of symbols that these innate capacities or tendencies can have the sort of explicit work to do which Pinker describes. Apart from culture, we probably only possess these biological sensitivities to a slightly greater degree than other very intelligent animals.
At points, Pinker’s resistance to the idea of mind as a symbolic process is very clear, and rather weak. Using the example of Shakespeare, he argues that “a name really has no definition in terms of other words, concepts, or pictures,” but rather “points to a person in the world in the same way that I can point to a rock in front of me right now.” I understand that the thoughts that occur to me – what I know or feel about Shakespeare, – are not a definition of Shakespeare. However, the flow of ideas and images which begins when I hear his name is much more than a connection to “the original act of christening” as Pinker puts it – it is steeped in the cultural context in which I learned about Shakespeare, and includes innumerable strands of connection to other ideas which, removed from the context of the symbolic process happening in my head, bear no relation whatsoever to the sound Shakespeare’s parents decided would signify their newborn child. (Pinker 12)
Pinker’s theory still leaves us with the problem of the emergence of culture, and seems unable to account for the development of cultural differences apart from the idea that they are merely the result of the peculiar interplay of a set of biologically programmed concepts.
In Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1992), it seems to me there is also no strict emergence of culture in terms of a transformation from signs to symbols. He mentions “communicative (or quasi-communicative) acts” in which hominids would have shared useful information with one another -“asked” and “answered” each others questions – and hypothesizes that a hominid would have discovered that he could ask and answer his own questions, this over time becoming a silent internalized cognitive process. Again, like in Turner and Maryanski’s retelling, signs slide into symbols without much notice. (Dennett 194-197)
Once culture does exist, (I don’t feel I can say “emerge” and remain consistent with Dennett’s rendition), the law that governs its evolution is natural selection. Dennett subscribes to idea of the meme, defined by Richard Dawkins as a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.,” (in Dennett 202) Dennett tells us that Dawkins meant this to be taken literally: “Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, not just a process that be metaphorically described in these evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly. The theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates.” (Dennett 202) Memes spread (and mutate), not necessarily because they are good for the individuals whose brains they infest, but simply because they are good replicators. Meme-vehicles are essentially physical – books, recordings, buildings, etc. – but, “memes still depend at least indirectly on one or more of their vehicles spending at least a brief, pupal stage in a remarkable sort of meme nest: a human mind.” (Dennett 206) Memes therefore are in competition for residence in a limited number of minds – memes may aid or block or be neutral to other memes.
It is definitely possible to see the meme story as culture in the brain, but lest we get confused, we should remind ourselves that culture is a symbolic process. A meme is an artificial chunk, chopped out of the process, removed from the mind, the only context in which elements of culture come alive. Attempting to explain culture by a law that supposedly governs the transmission of discrete units of culture necessarily does violence to the idea of a symbolic process. It seems to me that with the mental gymnastics required to extend natural selection to units of culture – constantly grasping for analogies from biology to provide justification – there would be little time to even attempt a true historical analysis.
In an article published last year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Dennett and Ryan McKay look at ‘The Evolution of Misbelief.’ Dawkins’ cultural evolution says that memes, (and both true and false beliefs would be memes), are selected because they are good self-replicators and not necessarily because they enhance fitness. But here Dennett and McKay take a much more biological approach, working from the general assumption that “evolution has designed us to appraise the world accurately and to form true beliefs.” (M&D 494) Not surprisingly, they dismiss psychotic delusions rather quickly as “instances of biological dysfunction,” and spend a good deal of their time addressing “religious (mis)beliefs.” (M&D 493) When Yorick Wilks makes an insightful response to the paper, asking why the discussion of misbeliefs which are not genetically heritable is “taking place in the context of natural selection and Darwinian evolution,” they seem to duck behind the cover of the cultural evolution claim which they advanced with very little force or substance in the original article. (Wilks 539) If they can simultaneously apply the law of natural selection to two very different orders of phenomena – memes, as they call them, and genes – then it looks like they get to have their cake and eat it too. “Gene-culture co-evolution” looks to me like a seductive catch-all that explains very little.
While I feel I’ve only had time to briefly sketch the differences between mentalism and evolutionary psychology, and I especially regret not being able to address the specific structures of the mind as Greenfeld describes them, I felt it was important to first deal with this symbolic reality in general. The original title of this paper, ‘Evolutionary Psychology: A Stone Age Mindset,’ emerged simply out of the need to create a title for the conference program, but now that it’s all said and done I’m not sure it’s the most fitting. Still, it reflects my frustration with an approach that is stuck in the past, looking at humanity from tens of thousands to millions of years away from where we are now, telling us what we are based on what “science” seems to say we should be, dogmatically drawing authority from the name of Darwin, floundering out of its depth in a symbolic reality it has not even begun to explain. Humanity, a most worthy subject of study, deserves better.
Posted on April 18, 2010 - by David
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article on the “Next Big Thing” in English, discussing the growing movement of scholars looking to incorporate science, or more specifically, theories of evolutionary psychology, into the study of literature:
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded.
A student of literature myself, I was required on more than one occasion to read these ridiculous works of criticism and reference them in my own critical essays, so I can certainly feel Mr. Gottschall’s pain. But does rejecting the useless modes of interpretation that were popularized over the last few decades mean that Darwin becomes the authority on the modern novel?
At about 5 and half minutes in to this video, part 3 in a series of 6 interviewing scholars “on literature and science,” listening to Gottschall made it clear to me that some people in the humanities are pretty much fed up and ashamed of the failure of literary study to provide the kind of objective, enduring knowledge that science has been able to give us, and they feel it’s high time to start sharing in science’s success.
…the ideas of one generation of literary scholars can rarely survive the critique of the next generation of literary scholars, and it’s a very different model than what you find in the sciences, where again, in the sciences, they’re mostly wrong too, but there is also this slow accretion of information, knowledge, concepts, that most reasonable people have to admit are probably true, and so my hope is that we can retain the best aspects of our traditional modes and supplement them with new tools from the sciences.
Soon after the initial article was published, a debate titled ‘Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities’ appeared on the New York Times website, with a number of authors and English professors contributing their opinions. There was nothing resembling unanimous agreement about the value of this new approach, but there was a general consensus that the humanities are suffering from a serious lack of funding and lack of interest. Without even considering the interaction of various social and institutional forces leading to this state of crisis in the humanities, I can say from experience that most people who don’t study literature (and plenty of us who do) are very skeptical about its usefulness. I remember this embarrassed, can’t-look-you-in-the-eyes-or-speak-clearly feeling that would wash over when someone asked me what I was studying and I had to admit that I was an English major. The response to my confession was usually, “so what do you wanna do, you wanna, like, be an English teacher?” and I would mumble something about wanting to write. What I wrote were poems, and a lot of my marginal work (i.e poems scribbled in the margins of the notebooks I was supposed to be filling with pertinent information from class) was dedicated to the frustration and disillusionment of studying literature.
So I can understand the element of personal crisis that leads a literary scholar to look for a more solid foundation to stand on. In last few minutes of the video posted above, Joseph Carroll describes how his frustration with the condition of literary scholarship drove him to a kind of intellectual breaking point:
“I need something more wholesome, more adequate, more coherent, closer to the truth, and then I went and read Darwin and I had a sort of cleansing vision of deep time, humans emerging out of millions of years of evolution, it just cut through all of the… intellectual confusion at superficial levels that prevailed in literary study, so I set about trying to reconstruct literary study… working from the ground up…using an evolutionary vision of human nature as the basis for reconstructing all the concepts that we need to understand literature”
So what does this kind of work actually look like?
One example is The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, a collection of essays from the evolutionary perspective published in 2005, with contributions from Gottschall and Carroll as well as several of the other authorities. I think this review, by Travis Landry of the University of Washington, published in Evolutionary Psychology, (an obviously friendly audience), is telling:
On the heels of these dueling forewords [by E.O. Wilson and Frederick Crews] comes the editors’ anecdotal introduction, highlighted by a rather unremarkable recounting of the misunderstood Darwinian graduate student, Jonathan Gottschall (“Jon’s Story”), who finally meets his open-minded, maverick mentor, David Sloan Wilson (“David’s Story”). They state the collection’s three guiding questions: What is literature about? What is literature for? What does it mean to apply a scientific perspective like evolutionary theory to a non-scientific subject like literary studies? An attempt to resolve these queries begins with part one, “Evolution and Literary Theory.” This section aims “to grapple with some of the problems and opportunities presented by the collapse of the constructivist foundations of contemporary literary theory” (4). Perhaps someone should tell the constructivists (apparently all literary critics who are not naturalists) about this “collapse.” In any event, the editors are quick to qualify: “a more restrained version of social constructivism is fully compatible with the emerging evolutionary models of human nature” (4). Such disclaimers, grounded in the reassurance that “the nature-nurture dichotomy is a false one” (4), represent a recurrent strategy used throughout The Literary Animal to ease imagined misgivings about takeover, but they do little to temper an all too often pedantic tone and the unmistakable, unapologetic imbalance of power, evident each time it boils down to which side holds the knowledge key.
While Landry does find some things to praise in The Literary Animal, he’s clearly turned off by the air of superiority running throughout the work, and he restates this criticism in the final paragraph of his review:
There is little doubt that this text contains enough quality ideas to merit an attentive read, and its intended public, both in the humanities and the sciences, should take advantage of this resource in order to become better informed about a legitimate discourse that does not seem likely to fade away anytime soon. Nonetheless, one repeatedly gets the sense that these naturalist critics would be better served without their ‘us against the world’ mentality. The empirical chest thumping and emblazoned rhetoric that permeate this work quickly wear thin and may ultimately alienate the very literary critics these scholars hope to convert. In the final analysis, greater humility and a more respectful voice are certain to be more persuasive and will ultimately allow the interpretive fruits of this evolutionary enterprise, which is strong enough to stand on its own, to do the talking.
Landry, I’m afraid, misses the point. All the talk about an evolutionary perspective complementing existing approaches, about taking both culture, (whatever they mean when they use that word), and biology into account seems to amount to little more than a strategy of temporary appeasement before the final takeover. If that sounds paranoid or harsh, consider what Joseph Carroll has to say about the brand new journal, the Evolutionary Review, of which he is a founding member and co-editor:
…the aim of the journal is to give evidence that evolutionary perspective, “this view of life,” one of Darwin’s phrases, is adequate to encompass every aspect of human concern…
…the idea is that the evolutionary perspective is an ultimate, encompassing, final, absolute, total perspective… this is what makes people most nervous outside the field… you start talking about thousand year reich, you know, and you think “well you’ve got global, imperialist ambitions intellectually,” and it’s true [chuckles], it’s absolutely true… there’s a wager, the wager is that the evolutionary perspective is adequate… as the central linking conceptual framework that forms a genuine scientifically established foundation of knowledge for everything in the social sciences and the humanities, we think that’s true…
This attitude renders empty all their talk about “consilience” and “emergent properties” (see pt. 4 of the “on literature and science” series). In short, culture is seen as determined rather than constrained by biology. It’s difficult for me to understand how the theory of evolution and ideas about the behavior of stone-age man are adequate for understanding the humanities, which Joseph Carroll himself calls “the highest level of emerging complexity.”
William Deresiewicz, in an essay called ‘Adaptation: on Literary Darwinism’ published in The Nation last year, gives a strong critique of this movement, providing good background on the history and nature of its goals, and summarizes the dismal state of affairs which allowed the evolutionary perspective to enter the discussion. By touching on the work of a number of the prominent figures in this emerging field, Deresiewicz is able to address some of the most glaring problems with the evolutionary psychological approach. It’s definitely worth reading; I can say that he states some of my own criticisms in more detail and in better context than I am able to do here. Towards the end of the essay, he gets to what is, as far as literary scholarship is concerned, perhaps the most important point:
Seeking to displace Theory, literary Darwinism may end by becoming it. Each is reductive. Each leads in outlandish directions that make sense only to initiates. Each has a penchant for hero worship. (For Dutton, the father of natural selection is not “Darwin,” but “Darwin himself.” Carroll makes a trinity of Darwin, Wilson and Pinker.) Each is predictable. If Marxist criticism is always about the rise of the bourgeoisie, literary Darwinism is always about mate selection or status competition. Each looks to literature only for confirmation of its beliefs. Shakespeare, it turns out, agrees with Darwin, as he once agreed with Freud and Frye. (Though if science is the exclusive standard of truth for the Darwinists, it’s not clear why it matters whom Shakespeare agrees with.) Authors who won’t get with the program–who don’t deal with mate selection or status competition, or refuse to solicit our attention in evolutionarily correct ways–are demoted in rank. (Darwinian aesthetics exhibits a strong antimodernist animus, as if it were unnatural to prefer Conrad to Kipling, or Rothko to Rockwell.) That so many of the greatest works of literary art–the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Hamlet, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Faust, Moby-Dick, the novels of Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Woolf and Coetzee–are ultimately concerned not with mate selection or status competition, however seriously they might consider such matters, but with the human place in the cosmos; that such a commitment is precisely what begins to distinguish these works from the kinds of things that are better studied with polling data and cheek swabs; that the finest books demand a criticism that attends to what makes them unique, not what makes them typical: these are not possibilities that literary Darwinism envisions.
From what I can see, evolutionary psychology used in the study of literature functions in essentially the same way as the theories which Carroll and Gottschall are so critical of. It is just another game for clever people to play, but the authority of the name ‘Darwin’ and the use of buzz-words like “selection” “adaptation” and “fitness” create the illusion that this is somehow a more empirical, ‘scientific’ approach.
In part 2 of the series, Philip Kitcher, philosophy professor from Columbia, criticizes the general and haphazard way in which a few pieces of evolutionary theory get applied to humans:
“It always amazes me the ease with which people who have spent years of their lives as it might be working on some other organism, social insects for example, very well studied, E.O Wilson has an amazingly deep and detailed knowledge of the behavior of social insects, people think “well you know I’ve done social insects and now it’s just a matter of applying the same principles to human beings,” but you know we aren’t actually that similar to the social insects, there are quite a lot of differences and those need to be taken into account…”
I’m obviously very skeptical not only of this approach to literature, but of evolutionary psychology in general. If biology studies life, and physics studies the laws governing the physical world, what does evolutionary psychology study? It can’t study so-called “evolutionary man,” because he’s not around for us to talk to, nor has he left records by which we can know him. Furthermore, the assumption that the human mind is a product of evolution over millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of years means that historical comparison over the past few thousand years probably won’t tell us much. What emerges then is a universalistic view of the mind which looks at the complex, diverse, symbolic behavior of human individuals and societies and tries to pinpoint the more basic, animalistic drives that are working underneath to determine the behavior. Under the multitude of dramatically different cultures, they find a set of motives/traits common to all man, destroying the possibility of a culture possessing its own internal logic that may not have developed towards “evolutionary fitness.”
As I said earlier, the occasional reassurances that they are not trying to replace or override discussion of culture, but to complement it, seem pretty hollow. When they use the word culture, they are talking about the shared practices of a particular society, not the general symbolic process of culture, Culture with a capital C, if you will. If there is no accounting for the appearance of particular cultures other than as products of biological evolution, as adaptations to specific physical environments (i.e no theory of culture as an emergent phenomenon, something more than biology) then obviously Culture as such is reduced to evolution/genetics/the functioning of the brain, and with such a view, there is in fact no reason that evolutionary psychology should defer to, or even consider, any other approach to the humanities.
My own approach to literature changed when I began to study with Liah Greenfeld in 2004, as a sophomore English major at Boston University. Those of you who have been reading this blog are hopefully becoming acquainted with her work. The following is a very brief summary of some of the fundamental principles of her view which lead me to reject the position of evolutionary psychology.
- Humans lack a genetically given order necessary for survival
- We derive this order from society
- Society is structured symbolically, on the basis of culture– the process of symbolic transmission of human ways of life across generations .
- This symbolic process occurs simultaneously on the individual and collective levels, with individual human minds as the only the active elements of culture.
- Culture is an emergent phenomenon and a reality sui generis. As Greenfeld writes, “the neural processes by means of which the cultural process occurs serve only as boundary conditions outside of which it cannot occur, but are powerless to shape the nature and direction of the cultural process.”
True ‘consilience’ would take full account of the emergent nature of culture. As the characteristic which distinguishes humanity from all other forms of life, culture is the proper subject for the empirical study of humanity in all its aspects, and it is precisely such a science that Greenfeld is attempting to establish. Up until now, her published work has dealt most directly with modern culture, but her forthcoming book seeks to establish the theoretical groundwork and philosophical justification for the empirical study of humanity, while examining a particular phenomenon which she believes is culturally caused, (mental illness).
I think it’s evident to anyone who watches those videos that there is a highly personal aspect to the work these people are doing. Like myself, I bet they entered college with a passion for literature and a notion that they were embarking on a quest for deep truths – that they would, in fact, learn something about human nature. But the humanities, as an institution, could not live up to our hopes. So, Carroll and Gottschall and the rest of them turned to science, and it’s easy enough to see why. Science enjoys a privileged place in modern society, and though part of this can be explained culturally and historically, (Greenfeld has written extensively about the emergence of science as a social institution in 17th century England), the fact remains that science has given as more objective knowledge of reality than any other method of inquiry. In ‘Literature and Science as Social Institutions,’ Greenfeld writes, “However indirect and imperfectly systematic and effective, science, one has to conclude in all fairness, is the most direct, systematic, and effective way to objective, valid empirical knowledge available to mankind.” The thing is, evolutionary psychology is not science. It is a set of theories (and not a particularly coherent one) that some people are using to understand the world around them, in effect, to provide the mental order that nature neglected to encode in our genes. For me, it is not a satisfying view of the world. It does not help me understand the society I live in, it does not explain why I think the way I do, it does not ring true with my experience. Science, at its most basic, is a method, and when a particular science is developed and equipped to study specific aspect of empirical reality, valid and valuable knowledge can be gained. Because culture does not constitute merely a more complex level of a biologically given nature, but a qualitatively distinct layer of reality, a new science is called for. With the construction of the ‘New Humanities,’ these scholars literally want to take us back to the Stone Age. My goal is to help build the alternative.
These thoughts are being developed into a longer piece comparing evolutionary psychology to mentalism – the name given to the theory Liah Greenfeld has developed, to be presented at a student conference at Boston University on May 1, 2010. Details will be posted soon.