The New Synthesis:
Evolutionary Approaches to the Arts
i. Origins and principles
About fifteen years ago several distinct lines of scholarly and scientific study began to come together to form a new field, variously referred to by such nonce formulations as “evolutionary aesthetics,” “biopoetics,” and “bioaesthetics”. The researchers who were discovering a common interest came from widely different fields; they included
evolutionary psychologists, human ethologists and sociobiologists who had realized the astonishing amount of time and energy humans spend on artistic activities, and wondered why they did;
psychophysicists and neuroscientists whose equipment, such as tachistoscopes, neuronal probes, computer databases, and MRI scanners, was now sophisticated enough to give meaningful information about artistic and aesthetic experience;
researchers in the psychology of art and art therapy who were dissatisfied with existing Freudian methods and wanted data to supplement their own findings;
literary, musical, art-historical, and theatrical scholars in the humanities who desired a way out of what they perceived as the dead end of poststructuralism;
philosophers of science and sociologists who were exploring the implications of new ideas such as chaos and complexity theory for understanding the social self-organization of humans and other higher animals;
anthropologists exploring the parallels between animal and human ritual;
experts in signaling theory interested in the richer forms of human communication;
games theorists studying the emergence of shared values through replication dynamics and group selection;
computer simulation experts looking for interesting nonlinear systems to model;
experts in infant development and early socialization;
scholars in myth, folkore and oral tradition seeking prehistoric roots for their data;
investigators of sexuality interested in gene-culture interaction;
aesthetic philosophers wanting new foundations for their inquiries;
and many more.
The principles of the new field might be summed up as follows:
1. It makes sense to study human arts and aesthetic experience by scientific methods and using scientific information. (This principle is not as obvious as it sounds. It assumes, for instance, that human beings have a nature; that art and aesthetics are not just inaccessibly subjective matters of opinion or epiphenomena of socioeconomic status; that there is no unbridgeable chasm between the physical and mental worlds; and that methods can be found that are equal to the sheer complexity and inherent ambiguity of the subject.)
2. Art and beauty are human universals and are features of an animal that evolved.
3. The arts and the related capacities of aesthetic experience are direct or indirect products of adaptation.
4. The evolution of art and beauty involved a feedback between biogenetic and sociocultural elements.
5. The results of that evolution should show up in specific neural and somatic functions and structures, and in the developmental process.
6. The origins and history of the arts in all cultures can be better understood using these perspectives; and may in turn cast light on the meaning of the scientific data.
7. Such knowledge may help us both in knowing our own nature, and also in the making, exegesis and experience of the arts.
Biopoetics–or whatever we want to call it–being a new field, it is presently at the stage of collecting data, checking out what methods and schemas are useful, and establishing the scope and depth of its inquiries. In this introduction I would like to sketch a sort of map of the territory, giving a sense not only of the possible shape of the field as it matures but also its general neighborhood and related problem areas. It will thus perhaps cover a rather larger landscape than the bit of it that can be usefully studied for the time being; but it might not hurt to be oriented in the wider world of human inquiry. I will locate the essays in this collection within the overall schema, as a way to illustrate the rich material and new insights to be gleaned in the new field, as a hint about where the best researchers are concentrating their energies at this stage of the game, and as an introduction to the essays themselves. Readers are welcome to quarrel with my assignment of the articles to specific classifications, for most of them cover a good deal of ground, and the relations among the categories I will distinguish are at least as interesting as the categories themselves. But it may be useful to tease out the threads of inquiry, however interwoven they must be in practice.
ii. General theory of natural nomogenesis
Thus, first of all, we might locate our new field in the context of a large change that has quietly been going on in the sciences over the last few decades–a change in our attitude toward the lawfulness and order apparent in the universe. The major component of this change is the idea of nomogenesis itself: the notion that the laws and ordered constants of nature–and of the human derivatives from nature–were not given from the foundations of the world, but emerged through an evolutionary historical process. Cosmological physics tells us that the regularities that seem so fundamental to the universe were once, so to speak, up for grabs, and that many possible universes beside our own could have, and maybe did, spring into existence in the wild riot of the beginning. Quantum theory deals in superposed potential realities that are actualized by an informational context. The nonlinear mathematics of fractals shows the astonishing formal inventiveness of the most apparently simpleminded recursive systems. Chaos and complexity theory show new kinds of order emerging out of chaos in a range of disciplines, from classical dynamics through chemistry to bacteriology and ecology, and even urban development, traffic studies, and the sociology of voting. In cybernetics and computer science the emphasis has changed from Turing-like programming that uniquely specifies the track by which machine logic acquires its conclusion, to such global emergentist problem-solving processes as neural networks and genetic algorithms. Such systems achieve evolutionary optima through an untraceable and unrepeatably complex process of competition, collusion, and the differential weighting of connections through the contingencies of the history of the system itself. Games theory has used the computer to get beyond the simplicities of one-shot zero-sum games to look at the results of many iterations of interactive game situations, and assess the ideal game strategies of replicating or sexually reproducing players. In the study of time it is becoming increasingly commonplace to observe that time itself evolved, paradoxically, over time. The full suite of temporal characteristics that we notice today in the activities of humans and other higher animals–alternative futures, alternative pasts, a present moment, future and past themselves, and even such apparent fundamentals as the entropy-increasing direction of time, its features of before and after, earlier and later, and its very continuity, cease one by one to be meaningful concepts as one goes back toward the origin of the universe, and as one passes the points where organisms to which such categories might apply first emerged.
One consequence of this new approach is that biological evolution, and the special relationship between biological evolution and cultural evolution in which we are interested, can now be seen in the context of a much larger process of evolutionary emergence. Thus if we are dealing–as we are in the arts and aesthetics–with informational systems, it becomes highly relevant whether and how a human patterning of information in art or in the appreciation of natural and human beauty might correspond to the actual patterning of information as it evolves in the rest of the universe. Our art and our appreciation of beauty might actually constitute a useful picture of the way things really are out there, and if this is so, such a picture might help us survive to reproduce. Another consequence is that the comfortable distinction which we used to be able to make, between mental and physical, intentional and extensional, culture and nature, nurture and inheritance, the socially constructed and the biologically constructed, study and subject, simply will no longer hold. Human beings are self-domesticated animals; our brains and bodies are not only the causes of our cultural and behavioral activities, but also their result–since reproductive success and cultural adaptation are engaged in a positive feedback system with no real governor except the drag of the generational cycle. Human art may be like those strange attractors of complex processes that seem to emerge, ghostly and fragmentary at first, as they are traced out in their characteristic phase-space.
Two essays in this collection–Koen dePryck’s and mine–address some of these larger issues, within which biopoetics as such must be located. One of the questions DePryck asks is a rather startling one at first, but is perfectly legitimate if one is an evolutionist. If human beings are creative, and humans evolved out of nature, and nature, like human creators, seems to invent new species of things, isn’t nature creative too? And if human creativity is a matter of talent, what kind of talentedness does nature exhibit? The question is somewhat unfamiliar in the context of a general modernist project that has been largely devoted to representing the physical universe as passive and deterministic, but it opens up surprising new avenues for understanding the human arts. My essay on the caduceus deals with a number of biopoetic topics, but one of them is the general process of emergence through iterative feedback of which, as I and the ancient sages take it, biological evolution is but one example.
iii. Outlining the field
Within the context of a theory of natural creativity we find the topic of biopoetics/bioaesthetics itself: an evolutionary account of the making and experiencing of beauty. This topic includes, but exerts a new leverage upon, postmodern and poststructuralist questions about aesthetics–is it indeed the function of art to make beauty? is beauty any more than a social construction? and so on. The evolutionary perspective enables us to critique in a cogent way the existing body of theory, and outline coherent adaptationist/neurobiological alternatives, while preserving the best of what has been gained by the introspective and deconstructive turn in the acadenic humanities and social sciences. In this collection Denis Dutton provides an important essay that places the new field in a philosophical context. A fine piece by Joseph Carroll, one of the most trenchant critics of poststructuralism and other non-scientific approaches in the humanities, accepts the challenge of providing a substitute for the failed ideas of the past, and outlines the main research questions of the new field. Ellen Dissanayake, who has been no less articulate about the reasons why humanists need to rethink their positions, offers an essay that confronts the chief criticism of the new paradigm–that it is reductionistic. Her hierarchy of levels of aesthetic pleasingness, from the most gene-driven to the most complex and individually-differentiated, can provide a useful guide for all of us in the future. By implication Nancy Easterlin’s article, though I would, strictly, classify it as a more “applied” than theoretical piece, agrees with Dissanayake’s, illustrating how Hans Christian Anderson imbibed but transformed the old bioadaptation-based genre of the fairytale, transforming it into high art through his personal experience and his enriching artistic skills of irony and fertile ambiguity.
iv. Evolutionary psychology of the arts and aesthetics
Continuing to develop sub-categories of inquiry in our subject, we might now recognize a large intersection with the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. One can get only so far as long as we treat the psyche as a black box, relaying adaptive and genetic commands and suggestions into individual somatic behavior and perception. What is the evolutionary psychology of the appreciation of beauty? What is the evolutionary psychology of the making of beauty? Several essays in this book touch on this topic. Kathryn Coe’s article takes a classic evolutionary-psychology approach, arguing that the coherent style of traditional art objects is a way of creating a sort of artificial lineage, extending to a larger cultural group than could be justified on strict sociobiological grounds the kind of cooperative impulse nurtured by inclusive fitness. Wayne Allen’s fine piece on mythic stories shows how art can mediate between the antagonistic drives of xenophobia and exogamy/trade, allowing inter-group relationships that are neither dangerously naive nor isolationistically paranoid. Camilla Power and Christopher Knight also deal profoundly with evolutionary psychology, especially in the area of sexual relations, but I will take up their contributions in more detail under the rubric of artistic origins.
Another emerging field, the psycho-sociological study of emotion, must also be reckoned with. The emotions of love, solidarity, shame, laughter, fear, joy, and so on clearly figure hugely in our artistic rituals, stories, visual art, music, drama, and so on. Emotions are perhaps the chief way by which evolved and proven adaptive biases influence our behavior, and can thus be harnessed or cathartically purged by art. Several of the contributions to this volume discuss this connection–including those of Storey, Cox, Cooke, Kozintsev, Knight, Power, Carroll, Dissanayake, and Easterlin–though a fuller treatment must await further professional engagement among the relevant groups of researchers.
vi. Distinguishing aesthetics and art
Two somewhat different questions arise at this point, each of which requires its own sort of answer:
What is the evolutionary psychology of the experience of beauty, or aesthetics? and
What is the evolutionary psychology of the making of art?
The distinction may be illustrated by reminding ourselves of two different sorts of explanation: Darwin’s hypothesis that we like certain bright colors because they are indicators of the ripeness of fruit, and Ellen Dissanayake’s idea that we decorate ritual objects involved in adaptive ritual ceremonies in order to “make them special.” Obviously human artists recruit the natural aesthetics of color preference to ritual ends, and, going in the opposite direction, attribute by myth snd symbolism ideological meaning derived froim ritual to natural phenomena that we find attractive. But the receptors and effectors of beauty have their own integrity, and demand both a separate treatment and a more overarching natural aesthetics to bring them together. Several of the essays in this volume touch on these topics, especially those of Coe, Dissanayake, Knight, Power, Allen, Easterlin, and Turner.
vii. The neurobiology of art and beauty
However, another set of important questions now looms up before us. So far we have been looking at the evolutionary “Why” of art and beauty, but not the neurobiological “How.” What are the psychophysics, neuroanatomy, neurochemistry and, generally, the perceptual, cognitive, computational and informational hardware of aesthetic activity? What neural structures, for instance, are involved in our preference for hierarchically-organized, detail-rich, structurally explicit forms which are neither oversimple nor overcrowded? What neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, hormones, and other neurochemicals are involved in our experience and making of beauty? How does the architecture of the brain–with its greater or lesser division of function as between left and right hemispheres, frontal, lateral, parietal, temporal, occipital cerebral areas, its larger specialization among the cortical, cerebellar, and midbrain divisions, and its networked Hebbian electrochemical neural microorganization–how does this complex organ interpret and limit the adaptive assignments provided to it by its environment, in such a way as to make sense of aesthetic behavior? How does the mechanism of memory, and its connection with dreams and brain-states in general, figure into the aesthetic picture? Again, these questions tend to divide into those concerning experience and those concerning activity, and call for a synthesis of the two. In our present volume there is little direct discussion of the neurobiology of aesthetic experience, though some of us (Dissanayake, Turner, and dePryck, for instance) have begun to explore such issues elsewhere.
viii. Linking evolution and neurobiology
Another major set of questions involves the connection between adaptationist/genetic theories of art and beauty, and neurobiological ones. How does the feedback system of culture and genetics work? In the process of fetal development and maturation, how does genetic information encoding instructions relevant to aesthetic behavior get translated into somatic structures? What is trhe relationship between gene and brain, culture and gene? Recent games theory analysis of replication dynamics, by such researchers as Brian Skyrms, Elliott Sober, and David Wilson, has fully rehabilitated the theory of group selection: ethical behavior, cooperation, and altruism now seem to have reputable evolutionary pathways for their emergence, involving such requirements as efficient signaling, that naturalize the values that we regard as nobler, and liberate them from the narrow and questionable realm of pure social construction. Disciplines as various as paleoanthropology, embryology, homeobox gene theory, information theory, rational expectation economics, political philosophy, and contract law all have vital pieces of the puzzle to contribute. The connections that are suggested, such as the one between signaling and morality, are clearly of the utmost relevance to students of the arts. Several of our contributors touch on these subjects, including Knight, Power, Coe, Cooke, Cox, Argyros, and Turner. My work on the caduceus suggests that this topic–the iterative reproductive feedback between biology and culture–is already an extremely ancient one in human thought, indeed as old as human history itself, and much traditional wisdom on the subject is still to be gleaned. I shall return at the end of this introduction to the special challenges offered to our research by this topic.
The last major topic of the new theory would be a methodology of the neuroevolutionary study of the arts. What kind of evidence might or should biology-based literary scholars or art critics or musicologists use–textual, optical, acoustic, genetic, biographical, cultural, medical, and so on–to open up the bioaesthetic elements of an artistic work? How might judgements of quality and value flow from the new studies? How might one prove one’s point? How might one avoid the cliché of the scientist’s objective analytical stance–the wretched artist under his microscope–the same cliché that has dogged anthropologists in the past and is now so notorious a feature of literary Freudians, Marxians, discourse analysts, Foucauldians, and deconstructionists? How relevant is evidence from the study of “works without authors”–the products of folk traditions–to the analysis of art by historical individuals? How can one reconcile the largely statistical methods by which one might acquire good hard evidence about human biocultural inheritance–in such studies as Brett Cooke’s fine work on proverbs–with the highly individuated and original creations of a great artist? In this volume Carroll and Dissanayake tackle such problems theoretically, and Easterlin practically; but at this stage we have only scratched the surface, and there is much more work to be done. Cooke’s analysis of proverbs may be the first example of the use of statistically-systematic scientific observation in the biopoetic study of literature.
The existing body of traditional critical theory and aesthetic philosophy, now lying largely paralyzed under the hegemony of poststructuralism, can gain a vital new life in this sort of project. In finding ways to acquire close knowledge of an artist’s work while still preserving the respect due human genius and the delight of experiencing its work, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The new methods of humanistic anthropology, in which the anthropologist is not the detached superior analyst but the humble apprentice of the culture being studied, can also provide an appropriate model. The arts should not be the dissection corpse or even the patient of the bioaesthetic critic, but the critic’s guide and inspiration. In his works on Zamiatin and Pushkin–alas, too long to be included in this book–Brett Cooke has shown that great writers have their own piercing insights into the kind of animal we are. Certainly, any researcher should assume until proven otherwise that a major artist probably has an even better grasp of the folk tradition and even its biological implications–though perhaps in terms that are not strictly scientific–than the researcher him or herself. I hope that my own contribution, which purports among other things to establish that evolution itself is a very ancient concept, will help establish that principle.
In this context several old canards–and some genuine reproaches–that have been brought against biogenetic approaches would need to be met and dealt with. Do such approaches reduce us to biological robots? Do they not grossly oversimplify the subtle texture of artistic works, and coarsen the delicate experience of beauty? It is not a legitimate reply to point out, however accurately, that contemporary postcolonial, feminist and other social-constructionist approaches do just the same thing, turning human beings into sociocultural robots, trampling beauty into the ground, and reducing art to barren ideological tracts. We should set ourselves higher standards than those of our predecessors, and take to heart the depressing example of nineteenth century social “Darwinism” and twentieth century racial studies. But we have far better material to work with than the deterministic thermodynamic or hydraulic theories of nineteenth century economics and psychology, or the naive epistemic power theories of twentieth century poststructuralism. If biological evolution can bring about the exquisitely differentiated species of organisms, the astonishing range of behaviors, the uniqueness of biological individuals, and the intelligent autonomy of higher animals, it is surely rather a warrant for human freedom, individuality and creativity than a disproof of them. In this volume several pieces explicitly or implicitly reckon with these issues, including those of Carroll, Storey, Easterlin, Cox, Dissanayake, Turner, Argyros and dePryck. Argyros, especially, bluntly assesses the danger that the new field might turn into a new artistic orthodoxy; while dePryck, with characteristic panache, turns the issue on its head by deriving human free originality from that of nature itself.
x. Origins of the arts and aesthetic experience
Flowing from more general and synchronic theories of the relations among art, aesthetics, and biology–and acting as testable hypotheses to prove or disprove them–are theories of the specific origins of the arts in human prehistory. Did the arts, as Knight and Power argue so persuasively, come out of female collusion in a sex strike? Or did they originate, qua Coe, as ways of extending the signals that indicate kinship to a larger community, recruiting drives belonging to biological inclusive fitness into the service of political coalition-building? Or are both theories part of the same complex and idiosyncratic pathway, by which human artistic capacities and inclinations emerged? One overarching issue here is whether that historical and in a sense contingent pathway, whatever it was, was uniquely necessary to the emergence of modern human artistic activity, or whether the inter- and intra-specific adaptive pressures that came to a head in human evolution would inevitably have found some way or other to blossom into the arts. Were there several different pathways, in different parts of the prehistoric human world? Were there several phases of development, each requiring a specific breakthrough? In general, is the emergence of the arts more like the unavoidable crystallization of a cooling supersaturated solution; or like the butterfly effect, in which a tiny and local swerve in the normal course of things can snowball up into a hurricane? Or is the process really a combination of the two, the particular human aesthetic psychology being rooted in idiosyncratic events, while the tendency toward art in general is a function of the emergence of any highly encephalized, neotenic, bipedal, social primate? The serpent or dragon, which is something of a minor theme in this volume, is the “natural symbol” of feedback processes in general–Benoit Mandelbrot, for instance, possibly aware of the identical symbolism of the Chinese good-luck serpent, calls his iteratively-generated fractals “dragons.” It could perhaps be taken as an emblem of the feedback of nature and culture, and the meandering flow of the river that flows from that wellspring.
Theories of origins, unlike more general theories of human nature, are testable, though not without difficulty. We cannot yet go back in time and observe the origins of the arts. The work of Knight and Power is an exemplary demonstration of how one might begin to go about testing such theories, showing the large interdisciplinary scope that would be necessary to conduct the inquiry. One would have to consult various fields: paleoanthropology, the biology of human sexual reproduction, archeology, art history, economics, political anthropology, primatology, the craft of hunting, folklore, oral tradition, kinship studies, and comparative religion, to name but a few. And one would need to offer the kind of predictions that they do, that are hostage to clear empirical support or deconfirmation. Perhaps we will end up with a reasonably robust historical tracing of our entire aesthetic path from primate ritual, through early human ritual, oral tradition, myth and folk art, to self-conscious and specialized contemporary art genres.
xi. Theory and practice
Before we go on to the next major area of research that is suggested by biopoetics, that is, practical art criticism, we need to consider what kind of work is required to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Even if we have shown that a given emotional inclination or craft genre or artistic capacity or archetypal theme is 1.) congruent with the natural aesthetics of the universe, 2.) created by biocultural coevolution, 3.) rooted in our neurobiology, 4.) exemplified in human artistic practice, and 5.) demonstrably generated from some point of origin, we will still need a body of part-theoretical, part-craft tradition that will teach us how to apply our knowledge to specific sculptures, dramas, poems, pieces of music, and so on. Here the study of those transition points where anonymous folk art begins to transform into a “high” art, featuring the individuated and trademarked productions of name artists, is especially important. The Homeric epics and Icelandic sagas, where for the first time a Homer or Snorri emerge out of a nameless mass of storytellers, are good examples. The kind of pioneer scholarship that Lord and Parry did on the oral epic, or Child on the ballad, or the Grimms on the fairytale, or Nagy and Burkert on Greek ritual performance, or the work in other genres that has been done by the ethnomusicologists, medieval drama scholars, mythologists, traditional quilt collectors, and film and Jazz historians, will become increasingly relevant. In this volume several essays demonstrate ways of going from biopoetic theory to practice: Easterlin’s, Allen’s, Storey’s, and Turner’s quite explicitly, others less so.
xii. Practical criticism: from evolutionary anthropology to art
Turning toward practical criticism, again several different directions of research offer themselves. The first would go, so to speak, from anthropology to art. How do we understand a given work better, for instance, by knowing that it is playing off some ethological kinship problem? If the situation is problematic in the given human society of the work’s locale, is the artist contrasting that problem with a less problematic human norm, or showing it as exemplary of a universal comic or tragic paradox in our nature? This branch of biopoetic criticism might focus on the heritable elements of either the formal characteristics of the arts, or their content. It might be aimed at establishing to what extent the melodic form or pictorial composition or rhyme-scheme of a work can be understood in terms of inherited and evolved human aptitudes; or it might, for instance, sharpen our understanding of in-law jokes within a given drama in the context of the more general chokepoints in human reproduction protocols. Are there contradictions between genetic and cultural imperatives? In this volume Kozintsev’s insightful and mordant piece on Russian humor provides a good example of how we may understand the work of major novelists in the light of biopoetics. How, he asks, do Russian novelists cope with what he regards as a dysfunctional social adaptation of our natural human tendency to divide the world dualistically into good and bad? In the course of answering this question, he is able to offer a remarkably original explanation of the difference between Russian and Western forms of satire. Again in the Russian context, Gary Cox’s essay offers some fascinating speculations on traditional Slavic kinship systems and their disruption by Asian political and military conditions, and the cultural and linguistic forms that have resulted.
xiii. Practical criticism: from neuropsychology to art
The second major direction of study would go from neuropsychology to art, and would address such questions as how our awareness of the neurosensory roots of a specific artistic form or genre–theme and variation in music, beginning-middle-end structure in story and drama, a rich hierarchy of detail-frequencies or dazzling colors or expressive figurative scale exaggerations in visual art, or the like–might deepen our understanding of a work whose technical virtuosity both stretched and reaffirmed those structures. Here the questions and answers would involve the structure and chemistry of the acculturated brain, rather than the selective pressures on savanna hunter-gatherers, but the two kinds of explanation would be complementary. Ellen Dissanayake’s piece in this book touches on this subject, and some of the work that she, Argyros, dePryck, and I have done elsewhere goes further along these lines; but for the most part we have had to postpone this aspect of the work until there is a greater infusion of expertise from mother fields.
xiv. Practical criticism: from art to anthropology and neuropsychology
The third direction would, reversing the flow, go from art to anthropology, and would be radically future-oriented. Given human nature in general as we are coming to understand it, and human aesthetic nature in particular, what effects on culture and behavior might we predict of a given development in the arts? How have past works of art catalyzed aspects of human nature for good or ill? Consider the role of the Kosovo oral epics in the religious bloodfeuds of the Balkans, or, on the other hand, the effect of Shakespeare on generations of relatively cooperative and negotiation-oriented Anglo-Saxons. The fourth direction would go from art to neuropsychology: how has art recruited or deflected or retrained our inherited mental and emotional makeup? How might it do so in the future? Does film cutting, for instance, recalibrate our visual appreciation of dance, storytelling, even sculpture? Along these lines Alex Argyros’ provocative essay speculates on the effects on society if our own views were generally accepted.
xv. Practical criticism: differences in sensory media
A fifth direction of practical criticism might be a renewed attack on an old problem: how to evaluate the differences among the sensory-cognitive and informational modes of the arts. Knowing what we hope we will know about the human aural, visual, kinetic, tactile, and olfactory systems, their organization in the brain, their evolutionary provenance and biological history, and their traditional uses in human culture worldwide, what can we say about the value of works in different media, and how can we help audiences appreciate them better? What are the criteria for experiencing mixed modes, from the illustrated poems of Blake, through the Lieder of the great German composers, to the Gesamtkunstwerken of the Peking Opera, Wagner, traditional Indian and Balinese drama, Diaghilev, Kabuki and Robert Wilson? Again, can skating or cuisine or dog-breeding or internet web design muster the sensory-cognitive resources to produce true great art? Storey’s delightful piece on laughter, which moves interestingly between different artistic media–surrealistc painting and TV sitcom especially–comes into this category.
xvi. Practical criticism: bioaesthetic content in the arts
A sixth direction of practical criticism would be to turn the mirror backwards, so to speak, and ask what the arts can tell us, in their explicit content and implicit modus operandi, about our own evolution and neurobiology. For after all the deposit of the human arts is also a deposit of the most brilliant thinking and perceptive noticing that has ever been done by human beings, created by people who were neurobiologically our equals, gifted in addition far beyond most of us, and with access to lifetimes of experience no less rich than ours. My own piece on the meaning of the caduceus is an example of this kind of critical emphasis.
xvii. What works in the arts?
Let us now turn to the last major division of the subject as I envisage it: a working arts aesthetics. What works in the arts, and what doesn’t? Given what we know about human nature, its emergence, the traces it retains of its own history, the neuropsychological predispositions and abilities it gifts us with, its traditional interplay with cultural systems–and given, too, the awareness we will have gained from biopoetic criticism of how artists have made art out of the raw materials offered by our nature–what advice and principles can be offered to the artists of the future? Would “smellivision” or interactive Digital Videodisk narrative plug in to our inherited aesthetic aptitudes? Given the apparent failure of serial music, what resources of timbre, rhythm, electronic distortion, cultural content, and so on, caqn be added to the existing tonal vocabulary–and how can that vocabulary be further developed? How can the traditional visual arts deal with the challenge of photographic reproduction, other than, as has been the case in modernism, by full-scale retreat? What are the limits of human memory, that provide a syntax for poetic and musical rhythm, and a natural pulse for narratives? At what point does the identification of an audience with a dramatic character break down? If we tinker with human nature itself by means of genetic engineering or neural-cybernetic prostheses, how might the resulting changes affect our ability to make and appreciate art? The essays by Carroll, Dissanayake, Easterlin, and Argyros are especially relevant to this line of inquiry, and it has been a constant issue in much of my own work.
xviii. New artistic movements
Related to this last topic is a project that has just commenced–the creation and study of new movements in the arts based on the ideas explored in this volume and in the other biology-based studies of the arts that have begun to emerge. As we now know from anthropology, individuals and societies do not keep still under scrutiny or ignore the assessments that scholars and scientists make of them. And as Foucauld has yet again reminded us, there is no way of keeping knowledge and action from contaminating each other. We might as well accept and as good citizens attempt to guide the new movement or check it according to our best understanding of what is good, true, and beautiful, and with due respect to others. Ideas about human nature are always and rightly fraught with real consequences; but the twentieth century has proved to us in blood that to deny the existence of human nature altogether is no solution. Manifestoes attended the birth of the Renaissance (Erasmus, Rabelais, More, Sidney, Ficino, Vico), Romanticism (Wordsworth, Shelley, Schiller, Schlegel) and Modernism (van der Rohe, Pound, Artaud, Breton). They have already begun to appear as the twentieth century turns over into the twenty-first, signaling the growing impact of the new scientific approaches towards the arts, and the rapprochement between the arts and the sciences, the humanities and the sciences, Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft, that has started to take place. More manifestoes will be written, and they will need good criticism and careful scholarship to place and evaluate them. Argyros’ essay boldly takes on many of the issues that will arise as the new artistic movement gathers momentum.
xix. The usefulness of biopoetics
We challenge any school of poststructuralist scholarship to come up with a set of questions as interesting, challenging, or important as the ones I have reported in this introduction. The collapse of humanities enrollments is widely, and I believe accurately, attributed to the sense of dead end, irrelevance, foundationlessness, and arbitrary ideological drift that characterizes the late phases of the poststructuralist turn. Many students, and even many professors, are bored with the strident just-so stories of radical feminist, gay/lesbian, and postcolonial criticism. Without discarding the real insights that those schools provided–reminders, really, of the eternal and unremarkable requirement that we place anyone’s opinions in their political context–the new movement can revitalize the whole area of the humanities and the social sciences, and inject a vigorous shot of new content and new method. The stakes are high; there is a growing realization, for instance, that education is in a state of crisis, and that much of the problem is due to the deep inadequacies of our model of the human mind. What is the nature of the human animals we educate? What potentialities for moral and aesthetic motivation do that nature offer, that can be put at the disposal of their own free selves and channelled into productive lives, rather than the pursuit of gang acceptance, drugs, violence, and promiscuous sex? The arts, too, which are a growing and important part of the economy and give employment to millions, could use a shot in the arm; and the new field could provide a nourishing connection between popular and highbrow art that has been lacking since the rise of the modernist avant garde. The new field of biopoetics offers, as one of my colleagues joked rather cynically, a splendid meal-ticket for researchers in the humanities and social sciences for the next hundred years. What is reassuring about this is that the research will not only keep scholars off the streets but also be useful to society.