Saturday, January 31, 2009
Steven Pinker Reviews The Literary Animal
Steven Pinker reviews The Literary Animal. Pinker is right that Joseph Carroll is at his worst when criticizing others and at his best when analyzing literature. I fear the former turns many people off from learning about the latter. However, Pinker shows his propensity to be too literal with literary works (something Denis Dutton makes fun of in his latest book The Art Instinct) when he criticizes the evolutionary psychological approach to understanding Pride and Prejudice: "Today, a depiction of a contemporary middle-class family that worried aloud about finding wealthy husbands for the daughters, and about their being disgraced by a daughter running off with the son of a steward, would elicit guffaws, not a flash of recognition." Let me rephrase his statement: "Today, a depiction of a contemporary middle-class family that worried aloud about finding wealthy husbands for the daughters by sending them off to college, and about their being disgraced by a daughter running off with a high school dropout would indeed elicit a flash of recognition." Same plot, slightly different details. The point is the plot, not the details of the plot, for which historical and cultural analyses are indeed appropriate. Pinker also goes on to claim that the arts have no adaptive function at all, something which Dutton addresses in his new book. I also had addressed it in my dissertation Evolutionary Aesthetics to some degree. In short, Pinker forgets about sexual selection, and he forgets about other animals in this criticism. Why do humans make music? Well, why do birds and whales and gibbons sing? Protohumans likely, like gibbons, were singing apes, and uses those songs for mating demonstrations. Music and language were likely byproducts of a bifurcation of that mating song, with poetry and songs a reunification of language and music. Why do humans dance? Well, why do territorial fish, displaying birds like the Cock-of-the-Rock and deer dance/display? They are showing off their physical fitness. And so are dancers. Fiction allows for the creation of "what-if" stories that people can use to make better choices in the future, which is certainly adaptive in the sense of natural selection (as Pinker does at least acknowledge) -- even if language and storytelling probably had their origins in sexual selection. There is a natural tension and back-and-forth between sexual and natural selection, after all. Pinker then goes on to suggest that literature's ability to instruct is indeed adaptive, but its ability to delight is a mere byproduct. But what is delight? The feeling of delight is produced by the brain, and is a reward to itself for engaging in adaptive behaviors. The feeling of delight is how the brain rewards itself for seeking out instruction that will help the organism to survive in the future. Delight is thus not a by-product, but is itself an adaptation. Those who delight in storytelling will seek it out, and gain the educational benefits; those who do not delight in storytelling will not seek it out, and will not gain the educational benefits. Even a slight benefit will be selected for over time. So how is delight not adaptive? However, Pinker is right that there needs to be a broader consilience in regards to bringing the sciences to the study of the arts. I would also add to his list the inclusion of Gravesean psychology.