I wrote this long essay over six years ago as a response to an attack by Joseph Carroll on my pioneering work in the the field (in my book Natural Classicism, 1986, and other publications). I did not publish it at the time, as I dislike scholarly squabbles and had other fish to fry. But it contains a brief summary of the field that may be of interest, and some points that I believe still hold up well.
Evolutionary Aesthetics and Literary Darwinism: a Retrospective (Memoir
Edward O. Wilson has recently modified his views about the nature of heredity and selection, and their relationship with social behavior. Wilson was arguably the founder of sociobiology, and it behooves us to take him seriously. It may be time to look back at the emergence and history of the movement known as literary Darwinism, which is now thirty years old, and assess its strengths, its weaknesses, and its possible future successes in the study of literature. It is a movement that includes such figures as Brian Boyd, Jonathan Gottschall, Robert Storey, and Nancy Easterlin, all of whom have published books squarely in the center of the field in the last few years (as of early 2013), and many others, such as Brett Cooke, Alice Andrews, Troy Camplin, Alexander Argyros, Dennis Dutton, and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama. Other important figures have concentrated more on evolutionary aesthetics in general, such as Ellen Dissanayake, Walter Koch, Helen Fisher, Koen dePryck, Kathryn Coe, and Nancy Aiken, and major authorities from other disciplines such as Robin Fox, Semir Zeki, Lisa Zunshine, David Sloan Wilson, Harold Fromm and Gary Westfahl have had important things to say about literature from an evolutionary point of view. Ellen Dissanayake is especially important in terms of priority in concept: her early work concerned mainly other arts than literature, but was prophetic. Most recently, my own Epic: Form, Content, and History examines over sixty of the world’s grand narratives, synthesizing the new evolutionary understanding of literature with exciting developments in comparative folklore and anthropology and what I regard as the best insights of traditional literary studies.
I have been unable to find an earlier articulation of the basic principles of literary Darwinism as such than my own pair of long essays “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time” (1983) and “Performed Being: Word Art as a Human Inheritance” (1986). These two essays appeared together in my Natural Classicism. They explored the implications for literary study of Edward Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which had come out eight years before, combining it with ideas from other disciplines such as ethology, cognitive and perceptual psychology, anthropology and neuroscience.
At that time the poststructuralist and social constructionist movements, which argued that humans are basically blank slates, inscribed by incommensurable cultural structures–themselves the result of regimes of power and constructed knowledge–were still in full swing. The times were not hospitable to the novel features of literary Darwinism that I had articulated. These were: that literature was composed by an animal that had evolved and that had a nature of its own, that we could look especially to pre-human and human mating ritual as a sort of pressure-cooker for the emergence of the arts, that our nervous systems were themselves partly the result of our early cultural evolution as a genus, that we could thus find pan-human cross-cultural elements in the arts, elements whose presence had much to do with their perceived value to human beings in general, that there must be specific identifiable brain modules for the basic artforms—music, meter, visual representation, storytelling, dramatic mimesis, etc–and that aesthetic pleasure—the experience of beauty—was itself a capacity shared by humans and some other animals. This neurologically expensive aesthetic capacity must, I argued, have some objective value in assessing the threats and promises of any real world environment, since its universality indicates that it might be robustly adaptive for the survival of the species.
In the ‘eighties Ernst Pöppel and I discovered the three-second line in human poetry. For several years this was the only human aesthetic feature that was unambiguously pan-cultural, provably based on neuroanatomy, sufficiently idiosyncratic to be more than the result of coincidence or general neural function, clearly involved in ritual behavior and collective action, and obviously adaptive in terms of its powerful aid to memory. Since then music, visual pattern-making and representation, and narrative have become sufficiently well researched in terms of evolutionary features to be able to claim the same distinction.
In Alexander Argyros’ brilliant A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos (1992), the contradictions between an evolutionary aesthetic and the then mainstream social-constructionist critical consensus were masterfully outlined. I had earlier suggested that one of the ways the capacity for the pan-human experience of beauty could be explained in adaptive terms was that we are able to recognize situations in nature and each other that are ripe for the emergence of spontaneous order out of dynamical chaos, or were actually undergoing the symmetry-breaking and symmetry–reconstitution that are involved in such emergence, or were the result of such a transformation. Such a capacity might indeed be useful: a sort of general sensitivity to nascent fruitfulness, that might apply as much to a fertile landscape or a fruiting flower or a promising morning for forage, as to a good mating partner. Art and literature of high quality would share this characteristic appeal to our aesthetic instinct. Argyros took the suggestion several steps further, engaging the arguments of the deconstructionists who had, he felt, rightly recognized the semantic instability of the arts and literature but misinterpreted it as the absence of a transcendental signified rather than the signal of new growth and emergence. He was thus able to express in the terms of contemporary “Theory” ideas that questioned its foundations (or rather, its anti-foundationalist principles).
In the same year Cosmides’ and Tooby’s very important The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture appeared. In this work the strongest and most comprehensive case for the causal relationship between biological evolution and human culture was made. Certainly the authors of the various essays the book contains are picking the low-hanging fruit, and more aware of general and direct nature-to-culture elements of human life than of significant variation, cultural resistance to nature, conflicts and ingenious compromises between different evolutionary strategies, and culturally-driven changes to our genetic nature. But they were fighting a pervasive social constructionism at the time, and the point needed to be made strongly. It was for later writers to show counter-examples and demonstrate how they might lead to a subtler evolutionism. The arts and literature were not especially stressed in this book, as it is there that the complexities and conflicts that might distract from the main point are most obvious.
Two years later—and 11 years after the theory was first suggested–the next major statement of the evolutionary case for literature appeared, Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (1994). In the meantime I had elaborated many of the early propositions of the theory in Rebirth of Value (SUNY Press, 1991) and Beauty: The Value of Values (University Press of Virginia, 1991). The force of the change in contemporary notions of literature that the new perspective offered can be gauged by the difference between Carroll’s previous book, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (1987), a traditional literary study of influence, and the books that followed (including Evolution and Literary Theory (1994) and Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (2004). I felt at the time that Carroll’s new-found enthusiasm had led him into a reductionism and an obsolete biological determinism that would limit the relevance of the theory to the actual reader. But nevertheless Brett Cooke, my co-editor, and I included an essay of his in the first collection of literary Darwinist essays by various hands, Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts (1999).
In Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, Carroll strongly attacked my work, claiming that I had weakened the Darwinist case by stressing the great plasticity of the human genome, brain and nervous system, and the importance of culture in human behavior, especially artistic behavior. He dismissed what he called my “cosmic evolutionism,” ignoring the fact that in many disciplines, ranging from cosmological physics through thermodynamics, chemistry, crystallography, biology, and sociology, spontaneous order had already been shown to emerge from damped, driven dynamical systems that were subject to the essential triad of Darwinian principles: persistence and/or replication of past structures, variation, and environmental selection. He likewise dismissed my “aestheticism,” missing the point that I was attempting to take the panhuman claims of aesthetic differences in quality seriously on their merits. Essentially, like his foes among the poststructuralists, he was denying the very concept of beauty and the aesthetic as meaningful categories; like social constructionists who explain beauty away as a euphemism for class, power or economic superiority, he explained it away as a cover for reproductive, survival or status drives. If one had a completely tin ear to melody and beauty, one might well be disposed to explain away the enthusiastic transports of those who love music, art, and literature. In one’s annoyance at their supposed superiority, one might invoke, to diminish them to one’s own level, some mechanism that matched one’s own motivations. Social constructionist critics and adaptationist critics alike are in danger of permitting readers to fall into this trap.
Carroll assumed a radically determinist position in general, and did not even bother to address the logic of Ilya Prigogine, who states that “The more we know about our universe, the more difficult it becomes to believe in determinism.” Prigogine was one of many “hard” scientists whose work on the nature of cause had long been questioning traditional views of it from a variety of directions: quantum indeterminacy, irreversibility, chaotic feedback systems, the emergence of spontaneous order, mathematical difficulty and NP problems, and the constitutive unpredictability of a wide range of everyday phenomena. Prigogine’s formulation of the paradox of perfect predictability is elegant: it is possible only if all processes are time-reversible, past and future are meaningless, all time is eternally present, and cause can be reduced to logical entailment. Centuries before, David Hume had already shown the fallacy of this idea. The very causation that Carroll appeals to as the only reliable guide to understanding human behavior is, paradoxically, voided by the assumption of perfect determinacy, because that assumption also voids the reality of time, in which cause takes place. Further, Carroll’s rhetoric of appeal to “hard” science as opposed to airy-fairy unverifiable humanistic nonsense suffers from the fact that there are “harder” and much more unambiguously verifiable sciences than biology, and in those sciences the one-way cause-effect relation was increasingly coming to be seen as a relatively rare exception in a world of quantum nonlocal coherence in the microcosm, and nonlinear dynamics and self organization in the macrocosm.
Carroll rejected my skepticism about biogenetic determinism in particular, and my insistence on the plasticity of evolutionary and developmental processes and their products. I had argued that the genes primarily generate abilities and potentials and open up capacities in humans and other living organisms, rather than shutting them down. I resisted the then-current sociobiological dogma that genes “constrain” behavior, suggesting that it distorted the picture: genes enable kinds of behavior (and certainly not others), and in the case of humans, an extraordinary variety of kinds of behavior. “If genes do not constrain, Carroll asked, “what is it they could possibly do?” Well, they could express proteins, for a start, proteins that make cells, that cooperate in forming and operating organs that are well adapted to deal with the astonishing variety of unpredictable conditions this planet presents—and often deal with them in a variety of different epigenetic ways, leading eventually to the establishment of distinct ecological niches and the bifurcation of species, and further evolution.
Carroll objected to the lavish generativity of the human genetic inheritance that I proposed. How, he wondered, can we explain literature if there are an infinite number of possible explanations? An explanation in straightforward terms of inherited drives toward reproduction, survival, and status would at least be simple to achieve: a “just-so” story, in Steven Jay Gould’s words, would be better than the dizzying wealth of explanation that my position seemed to imply. What Carroll did not grasp was the idea of a very limited set of rules that, if they constituted a discrete combinatorial system (in Steven Pinker’s terminology) could generate an infinite or at least uncountable number of possible expressions, as is the case with organic chemistry, or a natural language, or Chess, or music. He feared that in stressing this abundance of possible results, I was threatening any predictive power that a genetically-based theory of literature might possess.
Quite the contrary: I was proposing a radical contraction in the number of possible generative structures, and simultaneously describing the explanatory power of that proposition in terms of a richness of possible result from those structures that matched the richness of the human and natural phenomena themselves. He missed the implication that the “constraint” was not at the level of what the human genome can do, but on the ways in which the genome could be allowed and instigated to do it (such as by deep syntax and recursion in language, and the basic genres, traditions, and technical skills of the arts). Even if when activated the human genome can do an infinite number of things, there is a finite number of ways in which that fecundity of the human inheritance can be activated. You can say an infinite number of sonnetty things in a sonnet, but if it has 25 lines and they don’t scan or rhyme, it’s not a sonnet and, predictably, can’t say sonnetty things. There are trillions of possible good chess games, but if the knight can’t jump or the pawns can move backward, it’s not chess. The market can create an infinite number of products, but without contracts and exchange and rules it’s not a market. If RNA transcription doesn’t work, or proteins don’t fold, the DNA cannot make its amazing varieties of cells and organs. I was investigating the limited conditions for unlimited expression, a rather radical program in the context of modernist and postmodernist experimentation with form and genre.
Rather than actually attempting to dispute my facts or my logic, Carroll chose to go ad hominem. He did not acknowledge the fact that all the ideas about literary Darwinism he espoused had already been discussed and critiqued by Argyros and me, and attempted to discredit our work in the growing community of literary Darwinians, for instance vetoing my inclusion in the advisory board of The Evolutionary Review. He labeled my work “poetic” and attributed what he took to be ambivalence about the adaptationist approach to my “spiritual aspirations.” In the fields of both critical theory and sociobiology this accusation would be the supreme dismissal, but I decided to let it lie at the time. I was exploring game theory and the emergence of quasi-moral sanctions in iterated nonzero-sum multiplayer games, literary economics, evolving ecosystems, self-organization, emergence, and other topics, especially epic, and did not have time or patience to publicly refute Carroll’s criticisms.
He had in fact both misunderstood and misstated my position, as well as Argyros’s, but I thought that fairly soon developments in the fields of epigenetics, neural plasticity, gene transcription and expression, the silencing and activation of genes, regulatory genetics, environmental effects on protein activity and stem cell function, evolutionary anthropology and other disciplines would be well enough understood that his notion of genes directly determining behavior would fall apart by its own weight. But unfortunately Carroll’s apparent obliviousness to what has been going on recently in the biological sciences and in the study of collective behavior seems to have gone unnoticed or at least unremarked.
To do Carroll justice, there is a certain logic in his position. His view of science is akin to that of nineteenth century scientism, in which the world is a machine in which the operations of the whole are completely reducible to the operation of the parts, and in which cause is always one-way, uniquely determinative, and in theory always ascertainable by observation and experiment. Mutual causality—nonlinear processes where A causes B but B also causes A—was not a subject for science and therefore could not be said to happen. The idea that a given set of initiating causes might have more than one outcome was forbidden. Thus any suggestion that the process of gene expression might be nonlinear and thus capable of producing many different outcomes—from the activation of the gene, its transcription into RNA and thence into proteins, the self-organization of proteins into cells and cells into organs, and the development of such organs as the nervous system and brain into functional wholes—was unscientific. More to the point, from Carroll’s point of view it would tend to undermine the strict connection between genes and behavior.
What must be especially discomfiting to Carroll must be the fact that probably the most fertile general area of scientific study these days is of precisely such cases of “branchy” and “looped” causation in nature, usually in much larger systems where all the elements are causing each other, often creating runaway unpredictable positive feedback and possible emergent orders.
Carroll had in mind the prospect of founding and leading a large quasi-scientific project that would consign both traditional literary criticism and postmodern theory to the dustbin, and explain literature as the expression of survival, status, and reproduction drives, themselves genetically hardwired. Nature must determine nurture and its product, culture. Any questioning of the gene-causes-behavior dogma would be fatal to his project. If the methods of nineteenth century experimental science could not uniquely explain a given apparent phenomenon, then that phenomenon could not exist. As Noam Chomsky once observed in another context, the logic is equivalent to that of the drunk in the old joke, who had lost his keys and was searching for them beside a lamp post. A policeman comes over and asks what he’s doing. “I’m looking for my keys” he says. “I lost them over there”. The policeman looks puzzled. “Then why are you looking for them all the way over here?” “Because the light is so much better.” If you’ve got a hammer (e.g. the proposition that we are the puppets of our genes), everything looks like a nail. The ichthyologist with the one-inch mesh net claims that there are no half-inch fish in the sea. Classic scientific method, admirable and still hugely useful, has the unfortunate psychological effect on its practitioners that they tend to turn the method of investigation (reduction) into its conclusion (that the phenomenon under investigation is reducible).
Carroll had thus set up for himself unwittingly a list of propositions, the falsification of any one of which would invalidate his whole project. If at any point the complex processes of inheritance, activation, transcription, expression, histone activity, cytogenesis, embryonic and post-embryonic development, adaptation to a changing environment, reproductive mate choice, neural plasticity, socioeconomic interaction, individual and cultural choice, and learning itself could not be shown to be directly and uniquely caused by the genes (rather than by interaction with a natural and social environment, emergent forms of self-organization, feedback effects, the internal logic of trading and games, “spandrels,” autonomous self-legislating systems, holistic global patterning, etc), then his argument must be fundamentally flawed in its method, and must fail. A sticky wicket, as the British used to say.
But this memoir has more interesting game than disposing of one more oversimplification. Carroll’s work (which has its merits) will be more useful as a straw man, a convenient and understandable voice for what we might call the lumpen-Darwinist position, than as an opponent. And it will be useful to have a baseline to indicate where newly established fact or ignored established knowledge differs from pseudo-Darwinist conventional wisdom. For there has emerged a new picture of biological inheritance and of the relationship between an individual organism’s experience/activity and its genes, a picture that is of profound importance for aesthetics and criticism. It is an emergentist position, recognizing that in the real world multiple entangled causes are involved in almost any event, and multiple events can be caused by any set of causes, but noting also a common characteristic, that dynamical feedback systems of this kind are prone to cross distinct identifiable thresholds where new forms of organization and causal dependence can emerge.
The emergentist picture is not one that renders invalid the evolutionary study of the arts and literature, but rather one that begins to properly accommodate all the meanings and experiences of real artists and audiences. It emphatically does not constitute a return to the era of social constructionism. But it also does not regard human artistic culture as a veneer concealing the “brute” quasi-Freudian drives, as lumpen Darwinists seem to believe (whose work essentially revives early Freudian ideas in a new guise, simplified and purged of psychiatric evidence, and oblivious to psychological discoveries since). In fact, because the new emergentist biosocial synthesis that I and others are exploring recognizes human nature as itself having been shaped by human social and cultural factors, it makes a much more powerful argument than does lumpen-Darwinist crypto-Freudianism that the adapted mind cannot be ignored by literary criticism and theory.
Lumpen Darwinists evidently believe that, as a pre-cultural animal in the hoary old 17th Century “state of nature,” we evolved a fixed set of genes rigidly controlling drives that somehow later got crammed into a façade of symbolic culture but remained untouched by it. But the genetic, developmental, archeological, and anthropological evidence shows a different picture. Let us look more closely at the various stages that must exist between the inert gene in the chromosome within a cell and the behavior of an individual animal (including a human one).
First of all, the gene has to be turned on, and the process by which this happens immediately involves a host of feedbacks: between the maternal and paternal alleles, between the gene and its intervening intron sequences, between the gene and the regulatory genes that can command whole suites of genes to be silent or be expressed through gene methylation. For the gene to be turned on it must be transcribed into RNA, which involves further feedbacks with the environment and with the whole organism’s own actions and responses, sensitively transmitted through histone acetylation and other processes. Though usually DNA writes to RNA, RNA can write to DNA in the form of endogenous viral inserts, transposons, and other reverse processes. The RNA must make proteins, that must fold correctly to be able to function, and again both the endogenous and exogenous environment (including the result of the choices of the whole organism) can play a part in allowing this to happen or to be aborted. The proteins must find each other and organize together to make a cell, and cells must detect their local topological position relative to their neighbors and to the shape of the organ they compose, and act accordingly, again with much feedback from outside and within. Further feedbacks exist between the cell and its neighbors, between the cell and the environment (nutritional stress or abundance, temperature, chemical change, parasite attack, viral load, etc), and between the cell and its own memory of its previous states.
This whole realm has been called the “epigenome,” and its study is epigenetics: “the study of mitotically and/or meiotically heritable changes in gene function that cannot be explained by changes in DNA sequence.” Unlike the genome, whose evolution is by and large Darwinian, its means of evolution is Lamarckian—the inheritance of acquired characteristics. There is in any species an archive, often very large, of unexpressed genes, together with the potential somatic structures and behaviors they specify. Genes themselves make up only a fraction of the complete DNA complement of the chromosomes: the introns that punctuate the genes are still largely a mystery in terms of their strict function, if any. Most genes, and almost all of the intron sequences, are silent; coherent sets of genes can be toggled off or on by regulatory genes such as the HOX genes, so that the options of structure and behavior can be customized to fit the experience or choices of the individual animal (or plant, bacterium, etc). What is especially interesting is that these custom combinations are themselves significantly heritable, and thus in turn subject to adaptive selection.
But the rate of this adaptive process is staggeringly faster than that of genetic change in the underlying DNA. The point is, as in the words of the Cold Spring Harbor Consensus of epigenetic experts, that there can be a “stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.”
The picture here is not one of a single cause (the gene) generating a single behavior, but of a staggeringly dendrified set of developmental options, all in nonlinear mutually causal relations with the activities of other genes and of whole ganged sets of genes. We are not the helpless product of our genes: our choices determine not just what we do, but what we are and will be, and what our descendants will be. This is not a rejection of biology, but a biological fact, and it is something that is at the center of most of the world’s great literature. Certainly the lumpen Darwinist’s genetic drives toward survival, reproduction, and status are human motivations, but they are well recognized already by literature, religion and the arts, and usually counterposed dramatically against the emergent (but equally biological and evolutionary) epigenetic drives toward self identity and fulfillment, curiosity, gratitude, love, community, creative art, and social and cultural meaning.
When Carroll was writing his earliest book on literary Darwinism in 1994, he might not have been aware of archeological research that was indicating a much greater age for Homo sapiens than was previously thought. And since he was also apparently unaware of research in epigenetics that hugely accelerated the speed of possible phenotypic change, he might be forgiven for assuming that there simply was not enough time for significant changes to happen to the genome and thus to the human behavioral repertoire as a result of sociocultural selection pressure. We were the naked ape, the trousered ape. Others, like Ellen Dissanayake, who had been keeping up with developments in the field, were already realizing that there was plenty of time for us to domesticate ourselves.
Our genus was making tools, tools that required social learning and organization, more than two million years ago; members of Homo sapiens were apparently making art as far back as the species existed, if the available evidence can be trusted (the Blombos Cave ochre markings are 75,000 years old). Homo sapiens is now thought to have been around for at least 200,000 years. Over evolutionary and geological time the major determinant of our individual survival and our reproductive success was whether we could fit into the sign conventions, cultural norms, and communicative media of the group we lived in, social systems that we ourselves were individually modifying as we went along. Certainly our physiology, including our brains, was determining what we could do culturally. But what we were doing culturally, including art, ritual, play behavior, that promoted cooperative success in hunting, gathering, mating and the creation of technology, was exerting an overwhelming selective pressure on our epigenetic inheritance, and thus changing our neurophysiology. The study of animal behavior shows the same feedback between biogenetic and socio-cultural forces.
Not that the “old Adam,” as Robin Fox describes him in his fine book The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, was ever banished: he remains still one of the epigenetic pathways we could take (though to be strictly accurate, there are probably plenty of “old Adams” themselves, depending on epigenetic factors, including even quasi-reptilian ones: sociopathy may be one of them). Given the extreme metabolic cheapness of storing genetic information, and the trouble and expense of deleting it, the chromosomes seldom throw anything away, but keep old behavioral strategies, silenced, for a rainy day when they may again be useful. Species that went to the trouble of purging their archives might not have survived environmental shocks that archival material could have anticipated and been able to deal with if activated. Cloning, or asexual reproduction, effectively prevents new material from being added to the archive, and is a risky strategy for many species with unpredictable habitats. Contemporary agronomy is now worried about precisely such issues.
What the chromosome does in “lazily” neglecting to edit its memories, many of us do with our computer archives, allowing them to accumulate as long as they can be easily retrieved and cheaply stored in a drive or the Cloud. Biologically we can still retrieve the mammalian virtues that lumpen Darwinists like. Extreme stress, especially in childhood, can activate old defensive and offensive systems, as can perceived injustice, bereavement, or sexual frustration. On the other hand, such conditions can also force more eusocial strategies to kick in, such as sacrificial love or noble generosity. It is precisely such moments that are the stuff of literary fiction.
The seven deadly sins are the seven mammalian virtues: sloth (avoidance of metabolic expense), wrath (costly sanctions against defectors), lust (reproductive quantity), gluttony (nutritional survival), envy (competition with conspecifics), covetousness (territoriality) and pride (self-reward). The point here is that their sinfulness for Homo sapiens is as biologically real as their virtuousness for mammals in general. Meanwhile, the Aristotelian virtues, of courage, temperance, liberality, self-respect, magnanimity, patience, ambition, wit, truthfulness, friendship, modesty, and righteous indignation, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, are not super-biological impositions upon brute biological drives but equally as biologically rooted as their opposites, and choices of action that epigenetically affect gene expression can determine whether an individual, and to some extent, his or her descendants, embodies them or not. Females that selected male mates with the Aristotelian or Christian virtues could have been making a better bet on the future than those that selected ones with the mammalian virtues; though the mammalian virtues ought to be there to fall back on if necessary.
Odysseus, as man and mammal (he pretends to be a sheep to escape Polyphemus’s cave and is sometimes described as like a mountain lion) experiences and enacts both the mammalian and the human virtues. But both sets are equally natural and biological. The survival of his son Telemachus, and thus of his father’s genes, depends on Odysseus’ eventual choice of the human set: he has the self-restraint to avoid the fate of his crew, the ambition to leave a public name, and the loyalty to marital friendship to not stay in the cave with beautiful Calypso. In one sense, then, the human virtues are even more natural and biological than the mammalian ones, since they better promote reproductive success. Gilgamesh must give up the practice of ius primae noctis to find the friendship of Enkidu; but their non-reproductive bond, which creates the city walls of the city, preserves all the genes in Uruk.
At every inflection point in the journey from gene to phenotype there are branch-points, where, depending ultimately on environmental vicissitudes or individual choices, a different menu of behavioral strategies is offered. Pace Richard Dawkins, those branch-points could well define a hierarchy of successively more holistic replicable units upon which variation and selection can take hold and evolution take place: the gene, the RNA strand (thought to be the original form of life), the protein, the cell, the organ, the individual organism, the biome, the ecosystem. Certainly we can describe the organism as the gene’s way of making another gene: but to be fair we should also consider that DNA was originally RNA’s archive or memory for making RNA, that a gene could be thought of as the cell’s way of making another cell, that chromosomes are an ecosystem’s way of replicating itself over time.
Among many of the leading lights in the field of selection and evolution, the concept of multi-level selection has become the new paradigm. In a sense, the field is as old as Darwinism itself. Darwin was fascinated by symbiosis and commensality: a commensal pair of species (or by extension a larger interdependent ecosystem of many species, as James Lovelock points out) would itself be a replicating unit capable of variation and selection, upon which evolutionary adaptation could work. Group selection concepts—ranging from kin selection through reciprocal altruism to cooperative trading communities policed by costly signaling, reliable recognition of in-group members, group sanctions against defectors, and deceit detection—have proliferated. William D. Hamilton, building on the ideas of J.B. S. Haldane and Ronald Fisher, proposed a testable theory of kin selection as long ago as 1964. Robert Trivers first proposed the concept of reciprocal altruism in 1971, though strong opposition from the likes of Dawkins for a while held back the development of the field. But Trivers has been vindicated, if the recent proliferation of research and theory building out of group selection and multi-level selection is any witness. Richard Lewontin on the mutual causal relationship of an organism with the environment, David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober on the logic of group selection, Brian Skyrms on replication dynamics, and Robert Wright on “nonzerosumness” have profoundly and coherently complicated the field of evolutionary biology.
Skyrms’ work is especially interesting. His computer models of multiplayer iterated nonzero-sum games among replicating computer programs that can exchange “genes” specifying elements of strategy have provided a profoundly illuminating picture of the emergence of signaling, group sanctions, and even a sort of proto-ethical social contract. If even mindless computer programs can–through competitive/cooperative/coalitional interaction–generate something that looks a lot like values and mores, how much more plausible is it that intelligent animals could do so. The point is that even strict deterministic computation can produce emergent properties that do not resemble their own microstructure and past stages of development, and that are causal in turn.
But the plasticity of behavior does not cease here. Neural Darwinism asserts that the brain builds itself in the first place, in a succession of competitive/cooperative processes ranging from inter-cellular through dendritic to synaptic interactions. The passage of information itself, as Donald Hebb pointed out, alters the shape of the synaptic cleft. As Eric Kandel (in learning and molecular memory studies), Robert Turner (in functional MRI brain mapping), Lorimer Moseley and Peter Brugger (in phantom limb studies) have shown, the brain is capable of significantly changing itself, even on the scale of observable gross anatomy. Turner’s team at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in Leipzig has demonstrated robust differences between the growth patterns of the motor cortex of pianists and violinists in training. This plasticity extends to quintessentially cultural activities. In an unpublished paper, “Ritual Action Shapes our Brains: an Essay in Neuroanthropology”, delivered at Cognition, Performance, and the Senses, a Wenner Gren sponsored workshop, Turner concludes:
“Thus ritual symbolism provides sensory experience that powerfully links autonomic activity with conscious thought, in a highly structured way relevant to important societal concerns. It induces physical responses that are experienced as complex emotions, which render particularly salient and memorable the conscious reflections or teachings made at the time that the ritual symbols are brought into play. The collective representations comprising a particular culture become embedded as neural representations in the brains of the participants. As such, they are embodied in enduring material changes in the structure and connectivity of brain tissue.”
In the field of psychology examples of the astonishing versatility of the human brain are everywhere. Roger Sperry pointed out that we normally function with two potentially separable centers of perception and judgment, the left and the right. More radically, dissociative disorders demonstrate that the same brain tissue can support up to sixteen distinct personalities. We are sometimes strangers to ourselves during mood-swings occasioned by stress, change, or falling in love.
Nevertheless, we are not protean beings (though the results of our activities within such constrained generative systems as language and music can indeed be protean). We have a nature; we are recognizably human to each other across the globe and the centuries. The work of the literary adaptationist is to fully acknowledge the apparent paradox and to set about the hard work of identifying the rules of the games by which we achieve our multifarious individual and cultural achievements. What we find, I argue, is that we are not alone in this work: human culture, religion, arts, philosophy and religion themselves have already been at this for millennia. Indeed, the very inquiry as to our nature has itself been one of the adaptive forces preferentially affecting our survival and reproduction, and great literature is aware of this.
In Carroll’s attack on my work he pooh-poohed my aphorism: “We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical” as an empty paradox. But it is exactly what contemporary anthropology, neuroscience and archeology are discovering. The requirements of social functioning—the social emotions, the political skills, the ability to recognize individuals and predict their behavior, the awareness of one’s own role in the group, the ability to perform ritual actions, accurate signaling, signal recognition, deceitful signals and deceit detection—were as determinative of the direction of adaptation as were the need for the right sort of foot and pelvis for bipedalism. The mind is adapted, but it is adapted by earlier culture.
Even in the study of the psychology of social animals cultural differences between groups of conspecifics are significant, differences that over time could lead to bifurcation between available habitats, and eventually the separation of strains, genetic incompatibilities in cross-breeding, and speciation. No “mystical” “poetic” or “spiritual” explanation is necessary to understand the astonishing multiplication of birds of paradise or bowerbird or monkey species, all based on females’ arbitrary individual preference for a certain sort of color, motion, rhythm or structure, and males’ skills at presenting their real or illusory advantages and talents. Meerkats, chimps, macaques, dolphins, whales, and many species of birds have different local or temporal dialects, rituals, and technologies. The social and behavioral tail regularly wags the genetic dog.
The human brain, then, is as domesticated as is a Chihuahua’s body or a wheat plant’s ear. Again, the point is not that the brain can be anything it likes (leading, as literary lumpen Darwinists fear, to a voiding of any kind of natural explanation for what happens in literature), but that what it is is the result of its interaction with its own past cultural choices. It is not a “blank slate,” as Pinker rightly observes. But what is written there–and in the proteome and genome that present it for adaptation to the world–is already social and cultural. Our nature is not a blank slate, but a three billion year old palimpsest of inscriptions, the most recent and most vehement being the ones written by our ancestral cultures.
Dozens of scholars and scientists, both before and after the birth of literary Darwinism, have recognized one aspect or other of this naturally “branchy” way of looking at human nature and the nature of social animals in general. Konrad Lorenz notes how the displacement activity occasioned by the conflict of two drives, territoriality and reproduction, can in the form of mating ritual, often of great beauty, be itself inscribed in the genes. It can become a drive of its own that can actually compete, in the parliament of behavioral motivators, with its own territorial and reproductive origins. Especially telling is his account of the monogamous greylag geese that do not mate again after the loss of their life-partner in the triumph ceremony. Even more to the point is the occurrence of homosexuality in many social species (including the geese that Lorenz observed). Homosexual pairs must be useful enough to the breeding group as defenders and adventurers, unburdened by family responsibilities, to be worth keeping in the genetic repertoire despite their failure to reproduce.
Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Lorenz’s successor, was one of the founders of human ethology, and an active member of the Werner Reimers Stiftung Biology and Aesthetics group that he and others, including myself, founded in 1981. He insisted that diversity, individual and cultural, was itself a heritable and adaptive feature of the human inheritance. That is, the multiplicity of developmental outcomes–that lumpen Darwinists complain about as complicating a nice neat program of causal explanation–is a reality, and a reality that is provably adaptive for species that must cope with a variety of environments and cannot adapt fast enough through traditional Darwinian selection by elimination.
Perhaps the most radical rebuff to the mechanistic unidirectional cause theory of the relationship between gene and behavior has been the recent change of mind on the part of Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology itself. His book Eusociality: The Social Conquest of Earth shows a world-class scientist, having recognized the value of the sociobiological approach and thoroughly explored the possible unidirectional and invariant causal aetiologies of animal behavior, coming to accept emergent properties of sociobiological processes, eusociality in this case, as taking on causal power of their own.
Lumpen Darwinists are in the uncomfortable position of those medical geneticists who promised to pin particular diseases on particular genes, and by gene therapy to effect a cure. With a few exceptions, this program has been one of the big disappointments of recent medical research. Ignoring the many-branched pathways and even loops and outside interference on the way from gene to pathology was a failed strategy—looking for the keys under the lamp. The experience proved that the task was much more complicated than first believed. To point this out is not to discredit evolutionary biology in general.
Indeed, the field of literary Darwinism has on the whole come to avoid the “lumpen Darwinist” reductionist position. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005), edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, goes a long way toward a more sophisticated approach. Brian Boyd’s fine book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction is aware of the rich interplay between nature, culture, and history. So too are Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (which is explicit about how the cultural tail of storytelling has come to wag the biogenetic dog), and Nancy Easterlin’s A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation (a subtle and refreshing work of integration between the best of traditional critical theory and practice, and the new evolutionary paradigm).
But some of the more automatic mental habits of lumpen Darwinism still persist. One of the reasons for the reluctance of people in the fields of evolutionary sociology and aesthetics to tackle the conceptual problems offered by the failure of the straight “gene causes behavior” model is, I believe, a fear of teleology—or more precisely, a fear of being thought of as having teleological assumptions. What I mean by teleology here is the idea that the organization of the parts of an entity is for the purpose of dealing with a future situation or achieving a future goal or realizing an as-yet-unrealized abstract quality that is a function of the organism as a whole.
There are many reasons for this fear of teleology, some good, some less so. One is the lingering culture of strife between religion and science, in which any hint of design—even sometimes, absurdly, in conscious human productions—is taken as a betrayal of the cause of anti-Creationism. Intentionality must either be denied altogether (except as a human illusion about ourselves) or attributed only to humans (which begs the question of our animality). Here is a cultural case of an immune response—the abandonment of the possibility of the emergence of natural design—that is worse than the infection.
Another reason for “teleology avoidance” is the sometimes-horrifying history of social Darwinism with its triumphant vision of the march of progress and Hegelian transcendence, often attributed to forerunners like Herbert Spencer and Ernst Häckel. Any language that might hint of goal-orientedness or higher purpose must be avoided. Even the word “function” has become slightly questionable, though it is pretty much impossible to avoid when discussing the behavior of living organisms, and still remain comprehensible at all.
A third and much more admirable reason is that scientific probity, as well as Occam’s razor, requires that we exhaust all possible reductive explanations in terms of parts before assuming that properties of the whole may be responsible. Hypotheses non fingo. Science prefers bottom-up to top-down explanations; but this preference, though often the best way of finding the facts of a situation, and always the best way of eliminating unnecessary assumptions, is a method of procedure but not a conclusion. As we have already seen, biology is full of top-down whole-to-part causes (in feedback with bottom-up part-to-whole ones). It is indeed to the credit of the reductive method that they were discovered, but to do so biologists had to eventually overcome their reluctance to accept facts that seemed to question their method. New methods of investigation, especially dynamical modeling in information-rich computer simulations, have less of this traditional scientific bias: the failures of reductive explanations are more immediately obvious when the model crashes, and the successes of holistic explanations stand out by their elegant and exquisitely measurable departure from mere chance.
Likewise, such research as Diane Fossey’s and Jane Goodall’s on primates, in which the scientist actually includes herself in the behavioral situation she studies, makes up in richness of results what it lacks in reliable objectivity. But it may well be that this inclusion of subjectivity is not a problem in the study of conscious beings, but an inescapable feature of the real object of study, and to eliminate it is to eliminate the phenomenon one wishes to study. The politics of a primate group is all about intentions, estimates of others’ intentions, purposes and designed plans. The observer problem is not just a hindrance to accurate knowledge, but a constitutive feature of the object of knowledge. Even on the level of quantum physics the state of knowledge of a system is part of its reality: the emergent features of physicists’ intentions (if that is what they are) cannot be expunged from the matter out of which physicists emerged.
Richard Lewontin and Steven Pinker coined the term “spandrel” for such phenomena as art and religion, and it is not only ingenious but useful. But I suspect that the concept may itself be partly a defense against the imputation of teleology to their work. Pinker and Lewontin are well aware that natural organisms trumpet function, purpose, and anticipation everywhere (and are almost impossible to even describe without such concepts) and will defend them against diehard deniers of them. The very term “spandrel” presupposes functions and purposes. As long as those characteristics of life—function, purpose, goals–can be shown to lead to reproductive success, Pinker and Lewontin can secure their flank. The spandrel concept is designed to deal with the problem that the arts, religion, and philosophy, and such odd phenomena as humor, dreaming and mystical experience, are pervasive in, and even characteristic of the (very successful) human species, yet they cannot be assigned a direct function in the approved suite of individual survival, sexual reproduction, and social dominance. Their apparent inutility is indeed part of their strong appeal.
The spandrel is a convenient category to dispose of such apparently impractical features of the human makeup. They can be explained as by-products of competing functional structures and drives governed by genes, as the architectural spandrel is supposedly the by-product of two opposed practical requirements—covering an uninterrupted space and transmitting the thrust of a massive covering safely to the ground. But the spandrel’s ingenuity as an escape from ascribing functionality to the arts, religion, etc, cannot stand up to an examination of the linguistic mechanism of the spandrel concept itself in the light of evolutionary anatomy.
Take the evolution of the lung, for instance. Thought to be originally a simple sac or pocket extruded from the gut to hold oxygen-rich air swallowed in anaerobic waters, it evolved into the lung found in lungfishes and in the ancestors of land vertebrates, and into the swim bladder of teleost fishes. Sharks have no such structures, and maintain the lift required for swimming by a special fin. The point is that this sac structure can be taken as a belch retainer, a breathing apparatus, or a buoyancy control, or even as a useless appendage, depending on which function (or purpose) we are considering. If without knowledge of its future evolution we were able to study the original species—some kind of prehistoric dweller of littoral margins, perhaps—we might well be tempted to call this air-filled sac a spandrel. For the world of the teleost fish, one of our hypothetical species’ descendants, the lung is a spandrel; for the world of the terrestrial mammal, another descendant, the swim-bladder is; for the shark’s world the structure itself is. Adaptation is always fluid, always making do with what it has got, repurposing older structures as it does so; the olfactory bulb becomes an emotional center, the lens of the eye and the otolith of the ear arise from the same ancestral structure, the harmless expression of territorial aggression by mating geese becomes the triumph ceremony, with its own supporting epigenetic and genetic base. Intermediate stages of the process at any point include less-than-functional remnants of earlier purposes and spandrel-like opportunities for new ones. Architectural spandrels may have evolved as a by-product of the functional need to support a dome upon arches, but as sites for ideological messages or images they became a large part of the function of a cathedral, as anyone may see who visits the Hagia Sophia and considers the huge Arabic inscriptions that replaced the former Orthodox mosaics on the spandrels.
Of course, the specter haunting the issue is design, and the putative Designer. But perhaps the problem is not with the concept of design itself but with the implication that design needs a designer, or at least a conscious intentional one. Design, like function and purpose, is a useful concept in analyzing the behavior and structure of living organisms. Instead of abandoning design altogether, why not explicitly deny any necessary requirement for a designer?
Bruno Clarke reminds me that there is a perfectly good concept, “autopoiesis,” coined by Francisco Varela and Umberto Maturana, that signifies a kind of second-order cybernetics in which an organism (which need not necessarily be conscious) controls itself by continually refashioning itself. As long as enough iterations are permitted, design can result from differential reproductive success, from the requirements of a task that ensures survival, from the inherent constraints of instinctive behavior such as foraging or mating, or—yes–from the intentions or desires of designers. Designers such as tool-using chimps and potato-washing macaques might well evolve if being a designer promotes reproductive success. If teleological behavior—behavior that anticipates a future that might be altered by actions in the present—is helpful to survival, why should it not evolve? Any reproducing species is already operating under the enormous if tacit metaphysical assumption that there will be a future for its offspring to survive and reproduce into (an assumption sometimes proven wrong by such events as the Chicxulub meteor event).
Suppose that the (spandrel-like) values and purposes made possible by a plannable future were complete nonsense, but were some species to operate as if they were real—by nurturing its young, cooperation, emotionally valuing one outcome over another, self-sacrifice, attachment, ritual and the like—such a species would be at a competitive advantage with others, and its genes would reflect the resultant adaptive pressure. In all the games that nature provides for us to play, teleological cooperators, if they are clever enough to detect and sanction defectors, can outbreed non-cooperators. In order to keep up, other species would in turn be forced to develop teleological behavior, and thus also the core assumptions of teleological behavior, such as relative value, goals, signals, and even theory of mind, as a guide to preserve consistency. Eventually every part of the ecosystem would be filled with organisms and structures that acted as if the universe were meaningful, differentiated in value, and full of intentional design.
Concede still that all of those value-abstractions are still complete nonsense, like Park Place in the game of Monopoly. But that concession is now a purely metaphysical one, with no practical or scientific relevance. Those abstractions will have become laws of nature. If teleology works as a survival strategy, why not see it as emergent, like wetness if you put enough water molecules together? This universe may not be telic, but it is certainly teleogenic.
As Robert Wright points out, the very fact that there cannot be less than zero organized complexity implies that any random walk of biological organisms over all possible structural and behavioral alternatives is bound to result in a net increase of organized complexity that looks an awful lot like progress. Paraphrasing Steven Jay Gould, no friend of teleology, Wright amusingly illustrates this idea:
Consider a drunken man walking down a sidewalk that runs east-west. Skirting the sidewalk’s south side is a brick wall [the impossibility of less-than zero organized complexity], and on the sidewalk’s north side is a curb and a street. Will the drunk eventually veer off the curb, into the street? Probably. Does this mean he has a “northerly directional tendency”? No. He’s just as likely to veer south as north. But when he veers south the wall bounces him back to the north. He is taking a “random walk” that just seems to have a directional tendency.
If you have enough drunks and give them enough time, one will eventually get all the way to the other side of the street…
–and maybe end up finding his keys. Wright’s word for this non-tendentious tendency is “nonzerosumness.”
Any species that does not possess “spandrels” of one sort or another, whether temporal (remnants of earlier function behaviors) or spatial (gaps between existing functions that need to be filled with something or other), can have no evolutionary potential. Spandrels are at least the drunkenness of the drunk in the illustration, and depending on the organized complexity of a species, which may be able to use them in a more and more coherent way, can be much more. Silent genes are spandrels too, and they are, as we have seen, an enormously adaptive archive of alternative behaviors. They are the free play on which evolution can go to work. Spandrels are functional, even if their functionality is second-order rather than first-order.
Spandrels are spaces for future inscriptions, necessary jotting-materials for alternate strategies. This dynamic potential can be a competitive advantage for a species, a space where the behavior of its competitors, within and outside it, can be modeled, predicted, and dealt with.
Clearly we have here the glimmerings of a role for the arts and literature that might match their staggering prevalence in human behavior. Such writers as Lisa Zunshine, Brian Boyd, and Jonathan Gottschall have already hinted at such a role. Essentially, the arts and literature are to the replicative unit of a human culture what epigenetic variability is to a species, what sexual recombination is to sexed species in general, and what preserved mutation is to all life.
We might therefore speculate that a new paradigm for evolutionary literary studies and aesthetics is on the point of emergence. Its principles might include the following concepts:
Literature and the arts describe, deal with and even initiate the emergence of new kinds of function, purpose, and goals. Emergence presupposes of course a base from which the emergence arises and a continued bottom-up causality that now competes with new top-down causes. A new paradigm of literary study would include the idea of the arts and literature as generators of value through emergence within strongly autopoeietic cultural craft systems based upon innate genres and incorporating their own biological history.
Understanding literature and the arts is a matter not just of assigning causes for the presence of the parts of their constitution, but also designing, modeling and tweaking models of the whole, and trying new models if the tweaks don’t work. Storytelling itself is model-making, the construction of parallel spatio-temporal structures that, though fictional, are isomorphic with or even predictive of real events. Criticism might then become a second-order storytelling, the creation of a parallel structure modeling the work of art or literature it describes, whose deep systemic resemblance to the original is productive of insight into its meaning.
3. Freedom as nonlinear feedback, anticipation, and mutual causation.
The issue of freedom—Kant’s and Schiller’s question —is this: how can anything be meaningful (beautiful, morally significant, veridical) if it is not freely created and intended? The problem can be resolved into a different question, concerning prediction. Paradoxically, all you need for freedom is prediction, if prediction itself can alter behavior. A good predictor can choose a different path if he or she is reflexive enough to predict his or her own behavior in the first place and see where it leads. A community of predictors, all trying to predict each other—e.g. a human culture–constitutes an infinitely complex dynamical system. Its future (within the parameters of the game that makes prediction possible at all) is constitutively indeterminate. The trick then becomes understanding the game or genre of the system, an understanding that can give at least a sense of the range of possible outcomes. An understanding of our genetic and evolutionary history—how the game was played to date—can make us better anticipators, better literary or art critics.
4. A new conception of individuality.
The lumpen Darwinist model of the individual as the unit of variation and selection is clearly a distortion of the facts as presented by the new sciences of epigenetics and commensality. That model was of a “selfish” independent actor internally sanitized by the immune system and externally predating upon the rest of the world. This model has now been exploded by a torrent of new evidence, some of it indicated in this essay. We now understand that the human body, for instance, is a bag of billions of more or less genetically connected organisms, living together in a community—or better, perhaps, a market. The immune system is, so to speak, a citizen police force to keep the peace among diverse inhabitants, not an army of ethnic cleansing, and we need probiotics as much as antibiotics. The bag itself is selectively permeable and requires for its maintenance not only internal but also external cooperators. Pure selfishness would be a thoroughly bad idea, since it would deprive the individual of both the resources and the challenging admixture of different agencies that maintain individuality itself. What destroys individuality is a tropism toward uniformity that loses in adaptiveness what it gains in mere numerical multiplication. Individuality relies on continuously maintained sources of internal and external diversity, and, as both source and beneficiary of interdependence, is the opposite of independence.
This does not mean that individuality itself is passé. On the contrary, individuality is the result and chief agent of the “holobiont” of self-organized commensality on both sides of the skin. Individuality is an enormous and beautiful achievement, the autopoiesis of billions of symbionts, mitochondria, and epigenetic gene-combinations into a functioning and purposing whole. It is also the locus where the relatively less intentional flows of biogenetic determination and social construction emerge into conscious insight and tragically self-aware intention, and can there be reflexively tinkered with and altered—again, the stuff of all fictions and artistic surprises.
In one sense we could say that the change in our view of the individual is that it has changed from being an essence into being a self-maintaining interface; from a thing into an autonomous process; from brain into skin; from the alive entity to the life of the entity. Individuality is one of the great inventions of evolution—invented both through Margulis-type genetic exchange and through sexual recombinative reproduction. In the dynamic hierarchy of motion, from location, to motion, to speed, to acceleration, to jerk, to control, individuality is where control happens and control is controlled. Individuality is the cyber, the steerer, the pilot; and the pilot can only be a pilot at all because of its inclusion of multitudes of agencies.
The uniqueness of the individual could not be the result of cloning, however docile such a community might be. Indeed, the image, common nowadays, of cancer cells as rugged individualists or Idaho survivalists, bucking the conformity of the law-abiding cellular community, is exquisitely wrong. Rather, cancer cells are cells that have “chosen” to abandon the differentiating choices offered by cellular specialization and the vital flexibility provided by the epigenetic archive, and to ignore their ultimate dependence on the many other organism in the symbiont. They have pulled out of the open marketplace of the body, so to speak, and commandeered the local vascular system to provide themselves a welfare system in their own ministate of clones. They have chosen against individuality and made themselves enforced faceless dependents rather than cooperative individual traders.
Thus any form of literary and art criticism must recognize the unique agency of the individual, the author. Significantly, both poststructural literary theory and literary Darwinism attempted to take down the author as individual chooser and moral center—whether as “author function” or as genetic puppet. If art is the potential of the species, taking place in the free space of a “spandrel,” it happens as the work of an individual or a team of individuals in their own unique feedback system. That is the kind of function evolution designed individuality for in the first place. The use of statistics, or the invocation of general social or biological forces, or assuming a generic artist, reader, or audience, can be useful, but they can only be ancillary to the act of individual anthropology and personal meeting that is the core of critical understanding. They miss the whole point of art and literature, which are the ultimate critics of such forces and generalities themselves.
5. The artist or writer as collaborator with the critic, not the object of observation or experimental subject.
The questions—about nature and human nature—that the evolutionary critic faces are no different from the ones that artists and narrators face themselves. Their methods, of storytelling, construction, melodic development, visual symbolism and so on, are often as revealing in their way as the evolutionist’s genetic and archeological science. Archeologists can often learn more about our remote ancestors from the inside, so to speak, by mastering the art of flint-knapping, than from the outside by analysing shards of bone, and to learn knapping they must apprentice themselves to the ancestors they study. The arts and literature indeed display the universals of human adapted nature, but they do so not so much as the unconscious puppets of our “drives” but as both an expression of our nature and as a sagacious description and critique of it. In my recent book Epic: Form, Content, and History I show how the epic theme of the “wild man” and his defeat by cultured man or his fall into the state of cultured man is used to discover our peculiar emergence as the animal that unlike all other animals knows that it is an animal.
6. True “constraints” were staring us in the face all the time: they are the genres and rules and techniques and skills of the arts.
What those genres, rules, techniques and skills do is, in 10,000 hours of practice (as the saying goes), epigenetically turn on sets of genes that might otherwise have been silenced, and silence others. This epigenetic modification of gene expression may even be heritable—the frequency of family excellence among the Breughels, Bachs, Bellinis, Wyeths, Amises, Wollstonecrafts and Brontës (not to speak of the Darwins) may be better than chance. Their forte is skill in a craft, and it is those ancient human crafts, with their limited rules and techniques and unlimited powers of expression, that are the true “constraints” of human nature. After over a century of modernist and postmodernist dismantling of the traditional forms of the arts, not only artists themselves, but critics too, need renewed attention to those ancient genres, methods and concepts of literary and aesthetic creation. A shaman needs to make her shamanic drum, a very constrained and particular activity, but what she uses it for can be very various. The anthropologist/critic must sit at her feet to learn what she is doing and how it reveals our nature to us.