An Evolutionary/Chaotic Theory of Beauty and Meaning
For Roger Sperry and Victor Turner
This essay presents an esthetic theory based on the coevolution of the biological and cultural elements of the human nervous system. If the evolution of our sense of beauty is a nonlinear feedback between cultural and biological determinants, recent developments in the theory of chaos, nonlinear processes, and self-organizing systems can point the way to a better understanding of esthetics. The experience of beauty is redescribed as a reward analogous to the neurochemical rewards for other adaptive activities such as eating and sex. Beauty itself is broadly redefined as an objective property of the fundamental generative processes of the universe–and thus as possessing a real, not just a subjective, existence. Like our eyes, our esthetic sense is designed to perceive objects that are actually out there: systems which show promise for emergent forms of order. The ability to recognize such systems would have adaptive significance. The “natural classical” genres or “neurocharms” of the arts, such as poetic meter and visual pattern, are techniques for controlling and creating such emergence-promising systems, and are culturally universal. A new theory of meaning is proposed, using recent developments in the theory of chaotically-oscillating neural circuits in the brain. Words do not indicate the absence of their referents, as in poststructuralist theory; instead, as emergent strange attractors in the brain, they participate in complex nonlinear physical feedback relationships with their referents.
The mind-body dualism of Descartes institutionalized itself in the two cultures of Geisteswissenschaft and
Naturwissenschaft, and now exists as the great divide between the humanities and the natural sciences. Scholars of human society have been forced by the logic of the alternatives into a long struggle for self-definition–are they engaged in social studies or the social sciences? The title of this new journal, Mind, Brain, and Social Organization, announces itself as both recognizing and denying the dualism. The most exciting new work, as this periodical intends to show, is taking place precisely at the frontier between the two realms, and the evidence points increasingly to the unreality and illegitimacy of the distinction. The human world is not one of pure Kantian intention and self-referential text, insulated from the bodily nature and animal evolution of our species; and the physical world, as chaos and complexity studies have shown, is not merely one of linear mechanical causality and atomistic reducibility. The sciences have much to learn about nature and human nature from the brilliant six thousand year history of human arts and humanities, which discovered, for instance, the double helix as the characteristic geometry of life three thousand years ago when it gave the caduceus to Hermes and Aesculapius. And the humanities have neglected the amazing wealth of scientific research about matters humanists should hold dear–the psychology of the human arts, the origins of our species, the way we think and feel, the fundamental dynamics of the cosmos.
Mind, Brain, and Social Organization takes its inspiration from the work of two giants in the work of reintegrating our divided scholarship and bridging the gap between the cultures. They are Roger Sperry, the nobelist who can be called the father of modern brain science, and Victor Turner, whose pathbreaking research and brilliant interdisciplinary interpretation redefined the mission of anthropology. Starting off from the hard brain science side, Sperry discovered the absolute necessity of the mind as the brain’s highest integrative level. Starting off from a classic structural-functionalist social science position, Turner discovered first the absolute necessity of the realm of ritual, art, and free human communitas to the very survival of social structure, and then the roots of this realm in the neurochemistry and neuroanatomy of the human brain. A third inspiration to the founders of this journal is a group known as the biogenetic structuralists, whose work still continues, and whose insights into the neurobiological foundations of human social behavior are represented in their classic collection of essays The Spectrum of Ritual.
This essay is an attempt to show how the new integrated perspective might go about giving an account of one of the central issues of the arts and humanities–the nature of beauty. As a civilization we have tried to get by on cognitive and moral values, while relegating beauty to the realm of the subjective and private; esthetic value has become a leisure activity, a decorative hobby, a status symbol, a narcotic form of entertainment to keep the masses quiet, or worst of all, a consolation prize for those whom the educational system has failed to teach serious knowledge and skills. But beauty is the essential element in those very accomplishments. In the absence of the deep test of beauty, by which all true scientists and philosophers assay their ideas, cognition is increasingly arbitrary in its conclusions, the search for truth is bereft of its compass, and the cognitive connection between human beings and the rest of nature begins to get lost. Relativism is the only recourse of someone who cannot recognize that one idea is more beautiful than another. Likewise, without beauty, which is the natural inducement to love and selfless concern, morality becomes schematic, masochistic, puritanical, inquisitorial, coercive, and cruel. Without beauty, the difference between good and evil comes to be defined in terms of the avoidance of pain and the maximization of comfort. I think we are still aware that a human being whose sole desire is a state of painless comfort is scarcely a human being at all, since we ban the drugs that can induce such a state. But we are in danger of forgetting the intellectual or moral or perceptual beauty that might make someone choose the pain and struggle and deprivation of discovery, love, art, or work.
The rejection of beauty as a central civilizational value resulted from a collective cultural decision that shame was too high a price to pay for beauty. We substituted self-esteem for the aspiration toward beauty, and so deprived our children of their birthright. I teach karate, a minor if ancient art that demands considerable discomfort and discipline. It is quite extraordinary to see how young karate students begin to change over from the self-esteem ethic they learned from their school and their society, and adopt the pure pursuit of good karate form. The more advanced they become, the more humility they attain, and the more capable and confident they become. The very issue of self-esteem becomes irrelevant. I have had exactly the same experience teaching poetry students how to write in meter. After a while they begin to feel cheated if I give them too high a grade, because they know when a rhyme is forced or a line stumbles, and their allegiance is to the poem, not their own psychological comfort.
We as a civilization are stunningly ignorant about beauty. In a time when thousands of scientific, sociological, and humanistic journals report the research of millions of researchers, there has been scarcely any serious work on this most central value of all.
Ironically, all the ingredients for a really new breakthrough in the study of beauty are now in place. The discovery of the structure of DNA and the function of RNA, and our first groping steps to synthesize new forms of life, have closed one of the last major gaps in the emerging evolutionary synthesis of scientific knowledge. In the last few decades we have seen the biochemical theory of life as a self-organizing feedback system extended by nonlinear chaos theory, fractal mathematics, and Prigoginian dissipative systems theory, to every level of material being, including the inorganic. The beauty and reflexivity of life have now been found, in a dimmer and simpler form to be sure, in the turbulence of liquids and gases, in phase-changes such as crystallization and partial melting, even in the processes by which the elementary particles and before them the four forces of physics precipitated out of the incandescence of the Big Bang.
This is not to say that there is nothing linear, predictable, and mechanistic in the universe. Each level of being might regard the lower and earlier levels rightly as more linear, deterministic, and innocent than itself. What is most painfully and delightfully reflected upon is, after all, always the previously unreflected. Certainly there never was an unalloyed purity in the universe; the cosmos hides its privates with a fig-leaf, and, if the cosmos is the body of God, then God, coyly, hides Hers too. The blush, which Darwin saw as one of the defining characteristics of humanity, is the very condition of physical existence, and there is no way back to a time before the blush. The blush is time itself.
But that world-blush is also the beauty of the world. Many of the higher animals have, through the feedback process of evolution, added a new twist to this reflexive spiral or helix, and have developed a capacity to recognize that beauty in certain limited forms. The colors and shapes of the flowers are a precise record of what bees find attractive, and it would be a paradoxically anthropocentric mistake to assume that, because bees are more primitive organisms–as they indeed are–there is nothing in common between our pleasure in flowers and theirs. The play behavior of many higher species has an irreducible element of pleasure in beauty, a rejoicing in their sheer physical capacities–flight, in the case of the jackdaws that Konrad Lorenz (Lorenz 1963) so lovingly observed, or speed and power, as among frolicking horses, or agility and coordination, among cats. Animal communications often seem to be as much for the sake of beauty as for use, as Charles Hartshorne (Hartshorne 1973) observed in the antiphonal music of tropical songbirds, or has been recently remarked in the complex individual songs of the humpback whale.
Most salient of all is the strong element of beauty in animal rituals, especially mating rituals. It is important to look closely at how such rituals function and evolve, because their implications for our own rituals are very interesting. Generally when a survival behavior can be accomplished easily, without contradicting other instinctive behaviors, it is done automatically and without fuss and fanfare: breathing, perspiring, sleeping and waking up. We do not notice such behaviors as “drives;” they are more part of what an animal is than what it is driven to do. When two behaviors contradict each other, however, a space between them is sometimes formed which does not belong strictly to either. The animal now must use its nervous system to the utmost; you can see an squirrel or sparrow thinking when its natural and uncomplicated fear of humans is contradicted by its natural and uncomplicated desire for the crust of bread you have put out for it.
When the two contradictory behaviors are both social, their intersection can become the stage for the most elaborate and beautiful displays, dances, songs, even dramas (as when in the triumph ceremony of the greylag geese, that Lorenz describes, the heroic lover attacks an imaginary counterfactual enemy goose as a sign of its exclusive devotion to the beloved). In mating ritual reproductive behavior is contradicted by territorial or intra-specific aggressive behavior. An area between them is opened up in which the linearity of an uncontradicted system will no longer work, and elaborate, nonlinear, highly self-reflexive and mutually-reflexive feedback processes take over. Here the linear mathematics of continuous functions no longer applies, and the mathematics of catastrophic and fractal discontinuity comes into its own.
When this immediate individual-to-individual feedback system is in turn supplemented by the much larger and slower feedback system of evolution, remarkable changes and developments can take place in a species as a whole. Mating rituals directly affect the reproductive success of an individual: thus an individual with better ritual pigmentation, better plumage, better-looking reproductive organs, better songs and dances, or better antlers with which to stage the gladiatorial games of sexual rivalry, will end up with more progeny; and so the genes for those qualities can rapidly pervade the gene pool of the species, crowding out the others. Hence the beautiful feathers of the peacock, with their fractal designs; the neon displays of tropical fishes; and the extraordinary artistic activities of the blue satin bowerbird, whose courtship involves the building of an elaborate and useless bower, its decoration with colored objects, and even its painting with the juice of berries. Hence also the development of the elaborate tribal structure and status hierarchy of our close relatives the baboons, chimpanzees, and gorillas. The guenon monkeys have differentiated themselves into dozens of microspecies purely, it would seem, on the basis of their body-decoration.
Having placed the concept of beauty in the context of the evolving physical world, it is incumbent on us to explain how human beings developed their peculiar capacities for experiencing and creating objects of beauty. All human societies possess the concept of beauty, often with a very precise vocabulary and a tradition of argument about it. People see (hear, touch, taste, smell) the beautiful, and recognize it by a natural intuition and a natural pleasure. This “natural intuition” is for us human beings activated, sensitized, and deepened by culture, that is, a natural capacity of the nervous system now incorporates a cultural feedback loop, and also uses the physical world, through art and science, as part of its own hardware. The theory of such a training or sensitization, the incorporation of this cultural feedback loop, the plugging of it in to the prepared places in our brains, is what I have called “natural classicism” (Turner 1991a, 1991b, 1991c).
The foundation of the natural classical perspective is that the universe, and we, evolved. This fact entails two truths about beauty: a special evolutionary truth and a general evolutionary truth.
The special evolutionary truth is that our capacity to perceive and create beauty is a characteristic of an animal that evolved. Beauty is thus in some way a biological adaptation. Beauty is a physiological reality: the experience of beauty can be connected to the activity of actual neurotransmitters in the brain, endorphins and enkephalins. When we become addicted to a drug such as heroin or cocaine we do so because their molecular structure resembles that of the chemistries of joy that the brain feeds to itself. We have this very great pleasure of beauty, for which artists will starve in garrets and for whose mimicked substitutes rats and addicts will happily neglect food and sex. What is it a reward for? What adaptive function does it serve, that is so much more important than immediate nourishment and even the immediate opportunity to reproduce the species?
To answer this question we need to know a little about the timing of human evolution, as it is becoming clear from the work of paleoanthropologists, paleolinguists, archeologists, and paleogeneticists. The crucial point is that there is a peculiar overlap between the last phases of human biological evolution and the beginnings of human cultural evolution, an overlap of one to five million years, depending on how the terms are defined. In any case, there was a long period during which human culture could exert a powerful, indeed dominant, selective pressure upon the genetic material of the species and thus upon the final form it has taken (if ours is the final form).
For over a million years the major genetic determinant in the environment of our genus was our own culture. A creature that is living under cultural constraints is a creature that is undergoing an intensive process of domestication. Consider wheat, dogs, apple trees, pigeons: how swiftly and how dramatically they have been changed by human selective breeding! But we domesticated ourselves.
Imagine, then, a mating ritual, which directly affects the reproductive success of the individuals within a species. Those who are neurologically capable and adept at the complex nuances of the ritual would have a much better chance of getting a mate and leaving offspring. Now imagine that this ritual is being handed down from generation to generation not just by genetic inheritance, but also, increasingly, by cultural transmission: imitation, instruction, eventually language (did it evolve in order to facilitate this transmission?).
If a behavior is handed down purely by genetic inheritance, any variations on it which result from individual differences and special environmental and social circumstances will be wiped out by the death of the individuals of a given generation and will not be transmitted to their offspring. Of course if over thousands of years those individual differences lead to improved rates of survival, and if those special circumstances persist, then there may be a selective advantage in the behavior as modified by the variation, and that variation will become frozen into the genes. But this is a very slow process: the learning is being done at the genetic level, not at the social or mental level.
But in the thought-experiment that we have commenced, changes in the ritual can be handed down very quickly, in only one generation; and so the faster system of transmission will tend to drive and direct the slower system of transmission. That is, cultural modifications in the ritual will tend to confer a decisive selective advantage upon those members of the species that are genetically endowed with greater neural complexity, a superior capacity for learning the inner principles of the ritual which remain the same when its surface changes, for following and extending the ritual’s subtleties, and for recognizing and embodying the values that the ritual creates. Cultural evolution will drive biological evolution. This species, of course, is ourselves: perhaps what created us as human beings was an improved lovesong. In the beginning, indeed, was the word.
In this scenario the idea of beauty clearly has a central place. The capacity for recognizing and creating beauty is a competence that we possess, a competence that was selected for by biocultural coevolution: it is both a power that the “mating ritual” of human and prehuman culture demanded and sharpened, and a value generated by that ritual that it was in our reproductive interest to be able to recognize and embody. Such an analysis might well adjust the balance of traditional paleoanthropology, which has been perhaps excessively concerned with hairy males with flint axes, and begin to provide, if not a feminist anthropology, then a human one. To be, and to be able to recognize, a beautiful human being, and to desire to mix one’s genes with his or hers, might be a survival strategy that drove the flowering of homo Sapiens. From this point of view personal physical beauty takes on a new importance. We look the way we look as a species, largely because that was the way our ancestors thought intelligent, strong, loving and imaginative–ritual-ready–animals ought to look. We are the monument to our progenitors’ taste.
What are the results of this coevolution in the neurobiology of esthetic experience? Simply to be able to ask this question–that it should be reasonable, indeed predicted by a solid theory, for beauty to have a pancultural neurobiological base–overturns modernist and most postmodernist esthetics. If the theory of the biocultural evolution of the sense of beauty through traditional ritual is correct, we might expect to see a specific set of capabilities, natural-classical genres or systems by which we generate, recognize, and appreciate beauty, based on new or revised neural structures in the hominid brain, that would be culturally universal and fundamental to the human arts. What should we call these special human abilities? They would be much more powerful and more sharply focussed than the general processing of the basic mammalian brain. Perhaps we could call them hereditary knowledges, or lores, or skills, or powers, though each of these terms is misleadingly limited in one way or another. Or perhaps we should call them genres, because they have distinct forms and even rules, and need a cultural feedback loop of imitation and instruction to bring out their full power. Let us settle for the word “charms,” in the combination “neurocharms.” This word implies not only a linguistic element, but also a musical one (as in its cognate “carmen,” song) and a visual one (as in a magic charm one might wear on one’s wrist or breast or temple). Likewise, the word can refer to an ability, to an experience, and to the feeling of pleasure that rewards us for either. For the Greeks they were the muses and the graces, and the experience of them is most like a mild divine possession.
The development of these neurocharms in the course of mammalian, primate, and human evolution required a massive enlargement and modification of parts of the brain. The neurocharms divide themselves first of all into two large groups, the left-brain group and the right-brain group. The right-brain group in turn divides itself into two subgroups, one developed out of auditory or musical information-processing, and one developed out of visual or pictorial information-processing.
In Homo sapiens all the neurocharms in the left-brain group have increasingly been subsumed into and dominated by what we might call the supercharm, language. They are as follows:
1. Syntactical organization.
2. Trope, symbol, metaphor, and various forms of reference.
3. Collecting, selecting, classification, and hierarchical taxonomy.
4. Dramatic mimesis, the power of inter- and intra-personal reflection and modelling. (This is the reflexive or dramatic operator, by which we are able to simulate other people’s consciousness and point of view in imaginative models–containing miniature models of the other person’s model of us, and so on–and set them into coherent theatrical interaction. “O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us,” says Robert Burns, “To see oursels as others see us!” This natural-classical genre does exactly that.)
5. Debate, dialectic, and eristics.
6. Divination, hypothesis and metaphysical synthesis, the scientific imagination.
7. Narrative, story, and myth. (The narrative operator is the genre by which we give time a complex tense-structure, full of might-have-beens and should-be’s, conditionals, subjunctives, branches, hopes and memories. Fundamentally the narrative operation constructs a series of events which have the curious property of being retrodictable–each one seems inevitable once it has happened–but not predictable–before it happens, we have no sound basis on which to foretell it–which is why we want to know what happens next. This operator comes with a large collection of archetypal myths and stories, such as The Swan Princess, which are fundamentally identical all over the world, because their seeds are in our genes.)
The auditory right-brain group is as follows:
8. Musical meter, tempo, and rhythm. (The metrical “operator” of music is related to but different from the poetic metrical operator, and which also connects with dance. It is very highly developed in African drum rhythms.)
9. Musical tone, melody, and harmony. (This includes musical tonality and the inexhaustible language it opens up, from Chinese classical music, through Balinese gamelan, to the fugues and canons of Bach.)
10. Musical performance, the making and playing of musical instruments.
The visual right-brain group is as follows:
11. Pattern recognition, detail frequency preference, visual rhythm, and composition. (The visual detail-frequency preference system makes us prefer pictures and scenes with a complexly balanced hierarchy of high-frequency information–dense textures and small details–ranging through to low-frequency information–large general shapes and compositions. Consider, for instance, Japanese prints, or the arcadian landscape paintings of Poussin and Claude.)
12. Color; the recognition and creation of meaningful combinations of colors.
13. The eye-hand mimetic capacity: picturing. (A representational operator–unique to human beings– whereby we can reverse the process of visual perception and use our motor system to represent what we see by drawing, painting, or sculpting.)
In addition, there are five other neurocharms, three of which mediate between the groups listed above, as follows:
14. Dance, gymnastics, and the martial arts. (This charm mediates between the visual right-brain group and the auditory right-brain group.)
15. The ideographic, geometrical, architectonic, mapping capacity. (This charm mediates between the right-brain visual group and the left-brain linguistic group, and is the basis of writing.)
16. Poetic meter, cadence, and the art of vocal expression. (This charm mediates between the right-brain auditory group and the left-brain linguistic group.)
Another charm, which does not fit into any of the main groups, is a sort of marvellous by-product of the rewiring of the olfactory (smell) and taste centers of the mammal brain as an emotional and motivational system:
17. Cuisine and its derivative arts, the appreciation and making of wines, perfumes, cheeses, etc.
A final charm is based upon the mammalian and primate grooming rituals:
18. The art of massage, therapeutic manipulation, physical nurturing, and sexual pleasure.
There are other neurocharms besides the eighteen I listed above; however, I believe that we share them in an unchanged or perhaps diminished state with other mammals, and they have not been through the ritual acceleration into the realm of human beauty. But it should now be clear that the forms of the arts are not arbitrary, but are rooted in our biological inheritance. To say this is not to imply that these neurocharms or natural classical genres are constraints, or limits upon the expressive powers of the arts. Quite the reverse; they are like what computer enthusiasts call turbos–programs or hardware that can accelerate and improve the operation of a computer. These systems, which incorporate a cultural feedback loop into the brain’s processing, can enormously deepen and broaden its powers. Language itself may be one of the most comprehensive and earliest of them. They are not constraints any more than the possession of a hammer or a screwdriver is a constraint upon our carpentry; but their use must be learned. An esthetic education that assumes that genres are obstacles to creativity, and which thus does not bother to teach the old ones, deprives our children of their inheritance.
The experimental neuropsychologist Ernst Poeppel and I have investigated one of these neurocharms or natural classical genres in some detail–poetic meter, or what we have called the neural lyre (Turner, 1991c). All over the world human beings compose and recite poetry in poetic meter; all over the world the meter has a line-length of about three seconds, tuned to the three-second acoustic information-processing pulse in the human brain. Our acoustic present is three seconds long–we remember echoically and completely three seconds’ worth of acoustic information, before it is passed on to a longer-term memory system, where it is drastically edited, organized for significant content, and pushed down to a less immediate level of consciousness. If a natural brain rhythm, like the ten cycle per second alpha rhythm–or the three second audial present–is “driven” or amplified by an external rhythmic stimulus, the result can be large changes in brain state and brain chemistry, and consequently in the amount and kind of information that the brain can absorb, and in the kind of higher-level processing it can put to work. We showed that in addition to these effects, poetic meter contained within the line a regular pulse of syllable-patterns, made of heavy and light, long or short, tone-changing or unchanging, against which significant and expressive variations could be played. The difference between the expected rhythm and the actual rhythm carries information, as a tune does, or as a line does in a drawing; and that information is processed and understood not with the linguistic left brain, but with the musical and spatial right brain. Thus unlike ordinary language, poetic language comes to us in a “stereo” neural mode, so to speak, and is capable of conveying feelings and ideas that are usually labeled nonverbal; the genre itself is a biocultural feedback loop that makes us able to use much more of our brain than we normally can.
Let us take a closer look at another neurocharm, visual pattern (Rentschler et al. 1988). If human experimental subjects are shown simple visual images consisting of rows of vertical or horizontal lines, or lines diverging radially at equal angles from a point, they show a clear statistical preference for a certain frequency of lines. They prefer to look at a fairly rich field of lines, neither the simplest kind of row or star, made of only two or three lines, nor the densest kind, in which the lines are so close together they are indistinguishable, or so many that the eye loses track of them as individuals. In other words, the eye craves a certain complexity, but if the complexity is too great, and at the same time uniform, the eye reduces the pattern to a texture. The texture is now the only thing to look at, and so the eye finds itself as fatigued by the boredom of the single texture as it had been with a single line.
According to the same principle, subjects prefer images with more than one level of detail frequency, and with various kinds of texture; but again if the image is too “busy” and cannot be systematically organized into a hierarchy of detail-frequencies the eye becomes fatigued, and generalizes the whole scene as a mish-mash, which in turn, as such, produces visual boredom. If the image resolves itself into too simple a hierarchy, the eye–or rather the visual cortex–after an initial sensation of satisfaction at having solved the puzzle, begins to look about for ways in which the hierarchy either contains hidden contradictions or might be made to fit into a larger pattern. One example of a relatively complex and satisfying hierarchy is the perspective in which the world actually appears to us, its closer objects systematically larger than more distant ones, and its straight lines apparently curving in order to maintain the wholeness and consistency of the visual scene. It is interesting because such a scene implies occluded objects and spaces, which either invite investigative movement or speculation based on visible clues. It was in fact this richness of interpretive potential that served the great renaissance masters of pictorial perspective.
One way of describing what is going on here is that boredom is our way of detecting inefficiencies and redundancies in a flow of information, so that we are motivated to generalize repetitions as texture and concentrate on unique features of the visual scene. Those unique features include major contrasts, the borders between generalizable textures or tones, or structural outlines (which are two contrasts back to back). These then act as the higher-level signs or triggers or controls by which the lower-level information can be labeled, referred to, and retrieved.
The boredom response is in turn perhaps based on a universal characteristic of living cells, which makes every cell, however remote in function from the nervous system, a kind of neuron: that is, its capacity for irritation or sensitive response to stimulus, which can be overloaded and fatigued by the exhaustion of its capacity to respond, and habituated by repetition. If the eye is held still before a visual image, the image rapidly disappears, because the visual neurons are repeatedly and continuously getting the same stimulus. We are only able to see because the eye is free to range in a series of saccades, synchronized with the brain’s alpha rhythm, and thus continually encounter new information. We do not see areas and states; we see contrasts and changes. This visual insistence on difference is emphasized by the fact that a given sector of the retinal field, tuned to fire if it receives a given stimulus, is always surrounded by a region in which sensitivity to that stimulus is actively suppressed. Interestingly enough, the area ratio of the receptive to the repressor field is almost exactly the golden section ratio.
The eye, then, tends to generalize if it can, to tag the ensemble of generalized elements (as a texture or a mish-mash or a hierarchy) by means of a significant epitomizing fragment of it, to outline it with a contrast-boundary, to compress all that detail and push it down to lower-level processing, and then to look around for more interesting things to look at. Thus we can, with a scientific graph curve, generalize and smooth out its tendency, eliminating obvious mistakes and anomalies, and then extend and produce the curve in our imaginations, consistently with its existing trend. Or, to take a homelier example, an outfielder can judge the trajectory of a fly ball and be there when it arrives. Without the eye’s activist policy of hierarchizing and generalizing visual information, we could not accomplish such feats. Certainly, this policy can produce mistakes; we can fail to take account of the crossing of critical thresholds in the graph, or of the gust of wind that catches the ball as it sails above the shelter of the bleachers. But next time we can include the new information as a parameter, and improve our odds of being right.
This, the default option of the optical system, consists in a sort of continuously correctable but deepening visual prejudice. There are other possible visual policies, such as those recommended by modernist and postmodernist estheticians, which require us to abandon our prejudicial expectations and conventions, to treat every visual element as equally significant (or, which is the same thing, insignificant), and to avoid generalizations and visual hierarchies–especially those whose solution and meaning is the representation of a real object in space. But a species which relied on these would be unable to evade a falling rock or thrown spear, could not dance or make pictures, and would be blind to the beautifully intricate and coherent way in which the universe makes room for all its details, and reconciles all its forces and trajectories.
Patterns are beautiful that exist at the margin between order and disorder, that exhibit a hierarchical organization which is troubled and opened up by contradictory elements. Those contradictory elements do not, however, obscure the hierarchy but add to it indeterminate meta-levels that hold our visual interest, and that are essentially dynamic and changing, so as to avoid the eye’s tendency to become habituated or bored.
Only one kind of phenomenon can satisfy all these criteria, and that is the form of a growing organism or evolving system. Growth is a feedback process: an organism grows in proportion to its existing size and shape, and as an orderly continuation of its previous growth. The simplest kind of growth we know (as opposed to mere addition) is the Fibonacci series in mathematics, in which the next member of the series is simply the two previous members added together. Thus we get 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc. When this series is translated into a curve, we get the Fibonacci spiral, which is found throughout nature in the forms of growth, such as seashells and sunflower-heads; I have measured the intervals between the fronds of a fern and found the series there too. If you try to make a spiral pattern by close-packing uniform elements (like sunflower seeds) outward from a center, you will always get just such a spiral. Leonardo Fibonacci discovered it as a way of calculating the theoretical rate of reproductive increase in a population of breeding rabbits.
This series is, interestingly enough, one of two ways in which the golden section ratio can be calculated; simply divide one member of the series by its successor. The further along the series one makes the calculation, the more accurate the value of the ratio will be. The other way of making the calculation is by taking the square root of 5, subtracting one, and dividing the result by two. This formula also has a spatial expression: take a regular five pointed star, and calculate the ratio between the side of any of its points, and the side of the pentagon which connects its internal angles. (This figure, the pentangle, pentacle, endless knot, or golden knot, is a traditional symbol of magic.) “Fiveness” is associated with the golden section in another way too: the “Penrose Tiling,” by which the plane can be endlessly covered by a growing non-repeating pattern made up of two shapes of parallelograms, continually suggests–without achieving–a fivefold symmetry: and the ratio of fat parallelograms to thin ones is the golden ratio (Roger Penrose, 1989). It is as if irregular growth were a spatial invention to replace for the regular pentagon the capacity to tile the plane regularly that is possessed by the other simple regular polygons–the triangles, squares, and hexagons.
Psychophysical experiments show that irrespective of culture and education, people prefer golden rectangles, the lengths of whose sides are related by the golden section ratio, to any other shape of rectangle. Thus the rudiments of visual beauty are founded upon the ratio of growth. The golden section is one of the core concepts in classical, medieval and renaissance architecture and in the traditional visual arts.
But the Fibonacci series is only the simplest of a whole class of iterative algorithms or formulae whose results are fed back into the equation and which thus incorporate a mathematical feedback loop. Other examples include the Newtonian algorithm for obtaining square roots, the process by which such strange objects as Koch curves and Sierpinsky carpets are constructed, and the whole class of fractal algorithms described by Benoit Mandelbrot, including the Mandelbrot Set itself (Gleick 1987). When the results of these iterative formulae are plotted in space, they produce exquisitely beautiful and elaborate forms, with depth below depth of detail at different hierarchical scalings; such forms please the eye, which recognizes in them the principles of animal, plant, and crystalline growth, and perhaps the principles of Growth itself. The attractors of Lorenz and Henon, which plot the statistical results of a variety of natural iterative processes, share the same depth, clarity and inexhaustible complexity; I believe the golden section can be found in many of their spatial relations.
Fractal theory (Mandelbrot 1977) is now used by computer graphics programs to store visual information with astonishing economy, as algorithmic seeds which need only be played iteratively out to generate an accurate recreation of an original image. Thus computer programs, in the course of their hurried evolution, have discovered, as it were, the same techniques of generalizing, of compressing and pushing down, that the visual cortex did. We, and these new programs, do not remember by storing a picture, but by storing just the essential inner information needed to recreate the picture: the algorithmic seed, or tag, or symbolic/metonymic epitome of the whole. We are thus in theory able to create a thousand pictures, by varying this algorithm, where a photographic memory could give us but one. This is the strategy not only of memory but of life, which does not hide its one talent in the ground, to be returned to its giver pure and unchanged; but which invests its being in a productive organic process that can not only copy over what it is given, but produce new things that are not given.
So much for the special evolutionary truth about beauty. Without the general evolutionary truth, it would be meaningful only in a practical sense, it would leave out that tremble of philosophical insight that we associate with beauty, and would ignore the beauty that we find in nature and in the laws of science. It is not enough, from an evolutionary point of view, that individuals within a species should be endowed with a species-specific sense of beauty related to co-operation and sexual selection, even if the selection favors big brains, sensitivity, and artistic grace. The whole species must benefit from possessing a sense of beauty. This could only be the case if beauty is a real characteristic of the universe, one that it would be useful–adaptive–to know. How might this be?
What I want to suggest is that the experience of beauty is a recognition of the deepest tendency or theme of the universe as a whole. This may seem a very strange thing to say; but there is a gathering movement across many of the sciences that indicates that the universe does have a deep theme or tendency, a leitmotif which we can begin very tentatively to describe, if not fully understand.
Let us play with an idea of Kant’s (Kant 1911, 1949) and see where we get if we treat the esthetic as something analogous to perception. Imagine dropping a rock on the floor. The rock reacts by bouncing and by making a noise, and perhaps undergoes some slight internal change; we would not imagine that it felt anything approaching a sensation.
Now imagine that you drop a worm on the floor; the impact might cause it to squirm, as well as merely to bounce and to produce a sound of impact. The worm, we would say, feels a sensation; but from the worm’s point of view it is not a sensation of anything in particular; the worm does not construct, with its primitive nerve ganglia, anything as complex as an external world filled with objects like floors and experimenters.
Now imagine that you drop a guinea-pig. Clearly it would react, as the rock does, and also feel sensations, as the worm does. But we would say in addition that it perceives the floor, the large dangerous animal that has just released it, and the dark place under the table where it may be safe. Perception is as much beyond sensation as sensation is beyond mere physical reaction. Perception constructs a precise, individuated world of solid objects out there, endowed with color, shape, smell, and acoustic and tactile properties. It is generous to the outside world, giving it properties it did not necessarily possess until some advanced vertebrate was able, through its marvelously parsimonious cortical world-construction system, to provide them. Perception is both more global, more holistic, than sensation–because it takes into account an entire outside world–and more exact, more particular, because it recognizes individual objects and parts of objects.
Now if you were a dancer and the creature that you dropped were a human being, a yet more astonishing capacity comes into play. One could write a novel about how the dance-partners experience this drop, this gesture. Whole detailed worlds of implication, of past and future, of interpretive frames come into being; and the table and the dancing-floor do not lose any of the guinea-pig’s reality, but instead take on richnesses, subtleties, significant details, held as they are within a context vaster and more clearly understood. What is this awareness, that is to perception what perception is to sensation, and sensation to reaction? The answer is: esthetic experience. Esthetic experience is as much more constructive, as much more generous to the outside world, as much more holistic, and as much more exact and particularizing than ordinary perception, as ordinary perception is than mere sensation. Thus by ratios we may ascend from the known to the very essence of the knower. Esthetic perception is not a vague and touchy-feely thing relative to ordinary perception; quite the reverse. This is why, given an infinite number of theories that will logically explain the facts, scientists will sensibly always choose the most beautiful theory. For good reason: this is the way the world works.
Beauty in this view is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe, to be able to model what will happen and adapt to or change it. But this line of investigation has clearly brought us to a question which it seems audacious to ask in this anti-metaphysical age. Let us ask it anyway: what is the deepest tendency or theme of the universe?
Let us make another list, a list of descriptions or characteristics of that theme or tendency. We can always adjust or change the list if we want.
1. Unity in multiplicity–the universe does seem to be one, though it is full of an enormous variety and quantity of things. Our best knowledge about its beginning, if it had one, is that everything in the universe was contracted into a single hot dense atom; or if it had no beginning, then it is bounded by a single space-time continuum out of which all forms of matter and energy emerge.
2. Complexity within simplicity: the universe is very complicated, yet it was generated by very simple physical laws, like the laws of thermodynamics.
3. Generativeness and creativity: the universe generates a new moment every moment, and each moment has genuine novelties. Its tendency or theme is that it should not just stop. As it has cooled, it produced all the laws of chemistry, all the new species of animals and plants, and finally ourselves and our history.
4. Rhythmicity: the universe can be described as a gigantic, self-nested scale of vibrations, from the highest-frequency particles, which oscillate with an energy of ten million trillion giga-electron volts, to the slowest conceivable frequency (or deepest of all notes), which vibrates over a period sufficient for a wave to cross the entire universe and return. Out of these vibrations, often in the most delicate and elaborate mixtures or harmonies of tone, everything is made.
5. Hierarchical organization: big pieces of the universe contain smaller pieces, and smaller pieces contain smaller pieces still, and so on. Relatively big pieces, such as planets and stars, control to some extent–through their collective gravitational and electromagnetic fields–the behavior of the smaller pieces of which they are composed, while the smaller pieces together determine what the larger pieces are to begin with. We see the same hierarchical organization, much more marvellously complex and precise, in the relationship of the smallest parts of the human body to the highest levels of its organization, from elementary particles through atoms, molecules, cells, organelles, and organs, to the neural synthesis that delegates its control down the chain. Consider also the elegant hierarchy of support, control, cooperation and dependency that one finds in the parts and whole of a Bach canon.
6. Self-similarity: related to the hierarchical property is a marvelous property now being investigated by chaos theorists and fractal mathematicians: the smaller parts of the universe often resemble in shape and structure the larger parts of which they are components, and those larger parts in turn resemble the still larger systems that contain them. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the three-line stanza of its microcosm is echoed in the trinitarian theology of its middle-level organization and in the tripartite structure of the whole poem, so the universe tends to echo its themes at different scales. If you look at the branches of a tree–Yeats’ chestnut tree, perhaps, that “great-rooted blossomer”–you can see how the length of a twig stands in the same relation to the length of the small branches as the small branches stand to the large branches, and the large branches to the trunk. You can find this pattern in all kinds of phenomena–electrical discharges, frost-flowers, the annual patterns of rise and decline in competing animal populations, stock market fluctuations, weather formations and clouds, the bronchi of the lungs, corals, turbulent waters, and so on. And this harmonious relation of small to large is beautiful .
Now these descriptions would be immediately recognized by scientists in many fields as belonging to feedback processes and the structures that are generated by them (Gleick, 1987). Indeed, it is often difficult to tell the process apart from the product: how can we tell the dancer from the dance? The fundamental tendency or theme of the universe, in short, is reflexivity or feedback. We are beginning to understand more and more clearly that the universe is a phenomenon of turbulence, the result of a nested set of feedback processes. Hence it is dynamic and open-ended: open-ended, moreover, precisely in and because of its continual attempt to come to closure, to fall to a stop. Moreover, as with any dynamic nonlinear open feedback process, the universe continually generates new frames and dimensions, new rules and constraints, and its future states are too complicated to be calculated by any conceivable computer made out of the universe as it is. It is retrodictable but not predictable, like a good–a beautiful–story.
As we have seen, the universe is free. We human beings possess a larger degree of freedom, perhaps, than any of the other parts of the world, but we are not unique in being free, even in a very powerful sense of the word. If we could isolate any part of the universe–which is the aim of a good laboratory experiment–then we might be able to create small pockets of determinism: planetary orbits are one example of a sort of natural isolated experiment of this kind. But even here both the microcosm–quantum uncertainty–and the macrocosm–the gravitational influence, however weak, of distant stars–will create a margin of irreducible error.
The process of evolution itself is a prime example of a generative feedback process. Variation, selection, and heredity constitute a cycle, which when repeated over and over again produces out of this very simple algorithm the most extraordinarily complex and beautiful lifeforms. Variation is the novelty generator; selection is a set of alterable survival rules to choose out certain products of the novelty generator. And heredity, the conservative ratchet, preserves what is gained.
But evolution is only one of a class of processes that are characterized by various researchers in various ways: nonlinear, chaotic, dissipative, self-organizing. They are based on very simple iterative formulae. The Mandelbrot set is a nice mathematical example: take a complex number; multiply it by itself; add the original number; then take the number that you get and repeat the process several times. Now start with a different number, and do the same thing. Make a collection of original numbers, and then map them on a plane, coloring them according to whether, and how fast, the algorithm makes them rush off toward infinity, or to zero in on some limit, called an attractor. (This is best done on a computer, because it would take many years to do it with paper and pencil.) You will get a self-similar shape of great beauty and infinite complexity and variety. (Mandelbrot 1977)
All such processes produce patterns with the familiar characteristics of branchiness, hierarchy, self-similarity, generativeness, unpredictability, and self-inclusiveness. To look at, they are like the lacy strands of sand and mud that Thoreau observed coming out of a melting sandbank in Walden; they are filled with lovely leafdesigns, acanthus, chicory, ferns or ivies; or like Jacquard paisleys, the feathers of peacocks, the body-paint or tattoo designs of Maoris or Melanesians, the complexity of a great wine, the curlicues of Hiroshige seafoam or Haida ornamentation or seahorses or Mozart melodies.
The iterative feedback principle which is at the heart of all these processes is the deep theme or tendency of all of nature–nature, the creator of forms. It is the logos and eros of nature; and it is what we feel and intuit when we recognize beauty. Our own evolution is at the same time an example of the principle at work, the source of our capacity to perceive it in beautiful things, the guarantee of its validity (if it were not valid we would not have survived), and the origin of a reflective consciousness that can take the process into new depths of self-awareness and self-reference. As the most complex and reflexive product of the process that we know of in the universe, we are, I believe, charged with its continuance; and the way that we continue it is art.
If beauty is a real property of things and, though fertile of free and unpredictable developments, rooted in the physical universe, then the whole body of contemporary critical theory and practice is deeply in error and should be revised. The postmodern avant garde founds its criticism upon the principle that beauty is a socially or individually constructed illusion that can be reduced to the glamor of economic interest and mimetic desire, the sadistic shudder of power, and the sickly jouissance of repressed sex. Out of these assumptions have come the radical forms of environmentalist, feminist and multiculturalist criticism. These ideologies, however, could only begin to flourish once the meanings and values of literature and the other arts had been discredited. The critical movement known as deconstruction was the agent of that discrediting. Having dissected the living body of the cultural tradition, deconstruction left a vacuum where its central content had been; and into that vacuum rushed the enthusiasms of political reduction.
A vital criticism is essential to a vital art; thus in the hopeful rebuilding of our culture that this essay proposes, a new system of critical theory is essential. What would an evolutionary theory of value and meaning look like? Value evolved slowly in the universe, increasing with each access of reflexivity and level of feedback, complex entities conferring value upon each other and upon the less complex by sensitively registering their presence, perceiving, eating, mating with, desiring, or loving them; and conferring value upon themselves by their increasingly intentional and planned attempts to survive and reproduce. More intense and more universal values evolved with increasing ecological interdependence, whether among whole populations of species or in those fantastically complex and swiftly-evolving inner ecologies, the nervous systems of higher animals. Human beings represent the most elaborated and reflexive stage of this process that we are aware of.
Given this view of the universe, various candidates for a good definition of such terms as meaning, reference, representation, and value emerge without strain.
It is clear that a word occupies the last and most temporally complex milieu in the evolutionary series I have described–the human–and that later and more advanced milieux embrace and include earlier ones, though with all the tragic strains and paradoxes and existential tensions they have accrued in the process. Thus we could well define the relationship of reference or representation, for the kind of word that refers to a non-human object, as constituting one of containment or inclusion–even if the containment is not entirely successful and the inclusion is procrustean in the ways characteristic of a temporal universe. The fact that the operation of reference or meaning is not always successful–Priestley’s word “phlogiston” is much less good at including and exemplifying its chemical ancestors than the word “oxygen” that supplanted it–does not mean that the operation itself is intellectually incoherent or so compromised by internal contradiction as to be infinitely deconstructable.
In this analysis we will find again and again that the claims of the poststructuralists, exciting and apocalyptic as they sound at first, are based on a false premise. It is only if utterly unrealistic claims of perfection are attributed to human language, that words will fail the test of referring, fairly reliably, to a real world in which they themselves have an existence no less real. We should not allow ourselves to be confused by the relationship of containment, as humanistic intellectuals often are. Local indeterminacy can coexist in a perfectly rational way with global coherence; and the fact that an element of something–a discourse, a text, a society, a human body, a world–requires a context should not be cause of astonishment or skepticism about their reality. They themselves help to create their context, and contexts are the more robust and substantial, the more inclusive they are. Nor should this idea lead us to conclude that society alone, being the “largest” context, has the exclusive power to construct reality. For society only imperfectly contains its individual members; and it is not, in any case, the largest context, since it itself exists, as the environmentalists remind us, within a much larger context of natural history and ecology. Society will only come to include that context to the extent that we come to understand the universe through science–so that larger parts of nature get the vote in our decisions, so to speak–and to the extent that scientific knowledge really becomes disseminated through the population, including its scientifically-illiterate cultural critics.
We can picture the relationship of containment that is proposed here for certain kinds of signification, in terms of those remarkable fractal images that are now being generated by the iterative self-including algorithms of the new mathematicians. A word is like a shape–say, the radiant snowman of the Mandelbrot Set, the flying scud of the logistical equation, the twisted butterfly of the Lorenz attractor–which, when blown up to show its inner detail, reveals miniature, simpler versions of itself at an infinite variety of scales. The process of “blowing up” corresponds to our inspection of the world for examples of the meaning of a word. In other words, a word is not just the thing on the page or the sound in the air, but includes, though only with the labor of iteration, part of the physical world as its microstructure. This description obviously works best for ordinary concrete nouns. But in fact, since every fractal is really a process of continuous internal articulation, it works for verbs on a much subtler level. And any study of etymology will show that other parts of speech are derivable by metaphor–itself an iterative process of self-inclusion–from nouns and verbs. Again, gramatically, this description can be extended beyond the indicative to other moods–it is really just a matter of pulling the camera back a little from the fractal, and seeing what its shapes are the microstructure of.
An even richer way of thinking about the problem of meaning is in terms of the relationship of strange attractors to the physical processes they describe. Any nonlinear dynamical system, when triggered by a stimulus, will generate a sequence of unpredictable events, but those events will nevertheless be limited to their attractor, and further iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail. The brain itself holds memories in the form of such attractors, the dynamical feedback system in this case being circuits of Hebb cells. Hebb cells constitute that class of neurons whose synaptic junctions are capable of being facilitated by frequent use, and which can therefore carry information by the collective weighting of preferred neural pathways. The iterated firing of complex circuits of such cells generates a characteristic electromagnetic signature, a complex rhythmic waveform whose shape is unique to the sensation of memory it embodies. Thus we can picture the relationship of a word to its meaning as the relationship of a given trigger to the attractor that is traced out by the feedback process it initiates. When the word “refers” to a perceived object–say, a smell or a sight–that object is one which can trigger a subset of the full attractor, as a Julia Set is a subset of the Mandelbrot Set. Thus a single word can trigger a “meaning-attractor,” sections of whose fine detail can also be triggered by various sensory stimuli. This description rather nicely matches with our Proustian experience of connotation and poetic evocation, and with the logical form of generalization. It accords with the results of liguistic experiments concerning the relative strength by which a given example–say, a duck, an ostrich, or a sparrow–is recognized by a speaker as belonging to the meaning of a word (“bird”). It also explains the difference between ideas and impressions, that exercised the philosophical imaginations of Locke and Hume: the richly-detailed subset evoked by the sight of an object would certainly make the general sketch of the whole set evoked by the word alone look somewhat pale by comparison.
Since the trigger–whether the word or the sensory stimulus–is itself part of the feedback system, it is encompassed by its description, which is the attractor proper to it when it is allowed to iterate its effects upon a complex neural network. Thus the represented, the representation, and the experiencer of the representation are all part of the same physical system. The usual critique of physical descriptions of representation–for instance, John Searle’s Chinese Room analogy for artificial intelligence–is that however a given object is represented inside the physical system, it requires a smaller system inside the system to see it and know it, or, as John Eccles believes, a detachable non-physical soul (Eccles et al. 1985). The chaotic-attractor theory of meaning holds out the promise of an intelligible physical description of meaning that does not require an inner homunculus or the intervention of a metaphysical deus ex machina, with further attendant problems of infinite regress–how does the god in the machine perceive and know the representation?–to make it work. One way of putting this is that the issue of reflexiveness, of self-reference or self-inclusion, has been transferred from the metaphysical level where it can only be interpreted as a barren infinite regress or reductio ad absurdum, to the physical realm where it can be studied as we study turbulences of other kinds, with their own emergent properties and self-generated orderliness. The reflexiveness, we feel intuitively, should be there in any account of meaning; the trick is to keep it from messing up our own thinking about it, and place it where it belongs, in the operation of the brain itself!
It remains to suggest how this “attractor theory” of signification might work itself out in the etymological history of a language, and express itself in terms of phonology, morphology, and metaphor. The social and cultural dimension of language, like the neurosensory dimension, has the form of a nonlinear dynamical system with strange attractors pulling it toward certain “archetypal” forms. Those forms could be seen in the odd “targetedness” of the great sound-shifts that periodically convulse a language; they can also be observed in the way that metaphorization will take parallel paths in different languages, so that when a colorful idiom from another language is presented to us, we can almost always find an equivalent in our own. Thus the words “spirit” in English and “Atman” in Sanskrit have identical metaphoric histories, as do the words “kind,” “nature,” and “genus,” all of which came together again in English, having led separate lives in Germanic, Latin, Greek, and other tongues for thousands of years since their original common root in Indo-European. Metaphorization and sound-changes are every new human generation’s way of committing a sacrificial impiety against the tongue of its ancestors, an impiety that commutatively atones for the crime of the ancestors themselves in similarly appropriating the language for themselves from their own mothers and fathers. And since meaning dies the moment it ceases to cut slightly against all previous usage–a valuable if over-emphasized and not entirely original contribution of Deconstruction–it is constituted by this continual low-level feedback between the language and the world it contains.
Such might be the rudiments of a new, evolutionary poetics and a new nonlinear theory of meaning and representation. Obviously I have only scratched the surface here; the point is that we do not need to sit helplessly in the morass of late poststructuralist despair and misologism, and that there are still worlds for the literary humanities to conquer.
And there are practical implications of this model of meaning. (By now such phrases as “model of meaning,” with their invitations to further reflexive iteration, should hold no terrors for us, since we hold a clue to the labyrinth, a clue whose own windings are equal to the windings of that dark place we would discover.) One implication is that many of the characteristics of the relationship of word and meaning are already present in the relationship between a percept and the experience of it. If a sense-perception can generate a sort of “Julia Set,” then in a way a sense perception is like a word. That is, we share with other higher animals the elements of a sensory language which preexisted the more encompassing kind of language that uses words. Or we could put it the other way around, and say that language is just a larger kind of sensing, using internal triggers to evoke larger attractor-sets than any percept could. Obviously we have here a further reason for exploring our kinship with other animals: it is a way of understanding the fundamentals of our own language, of discovering that ur-language we share with other parts of nature than ourselves. One huge advantage of that ur-language is that it is not riven by the linguistic boundaries that divide the more fully human languages like English and French from each other; and if we learn to speak it better, we may find more common ground with cultural Others as well as with biological Others.
In one sense, of course, we already possess such ur-languages, in the shared imagery of the visual arts and in the “universal language” of music. But the theory of meaning proposed here suggests that there is something analogous to music and visual imagery that underlies language itself, obscured by its more recent evolutionary achievements, to be neglected only at the cost of a vitiation and greying of our expression and understanding. I came to this conclusion by an entirely different route a few years ago, while translating the poetry of the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti with my colleague Zsuzsanna Ozsvath (Radnoti 1992). Suffice it to say here that poetic meter turns out to be a sure road to the ur-language, or to change the metaphor, meter is the lyre or golden bough or magic flute that enables the shaman-poet to enter the underworld of that language and to return with intelligible gifts for the linguistic community. Meter, like music and visual imagery, is an ancient psychic technology by which human nature and human culture are bridged appropriately, and as we might imagine from our discussion of the fractal harmonics of Hebb-cell circuitry, meter is a rhythmic and harmonic system in itself, a way of inducing the wave functions of the brain. The lyre through which Rilke traces Orpheus in the Sonnets to Orpheus is the poetic form of the sonnet itself.
If the words of a poet can induce in one brain the same strange attractor that they proceeded from in the poet’s brain, an extraordinary possibility presents itself. This possibility is that when those harmonics are in our heads we are actually sharing the thoughts, and indeed the subjectivity, of the poet, even if he or she is dead. The poet lives again when his or her attractors arise in another brain. Poetry and the other arts, then, are artificial intelligence programs, that spring into being when booted correctly into any good human meat-computer; or, in other words, to experience a work of art is to take a journey to the land of the dead.
1992 A Blessed Rage for Order. Ann Arbor: University Press of Michigan.
The best book to date on how the new ideas in evolution and chaos theory might revolutionize contemporary critical theory.
1983 Creole Languages. In Scientific American, July.
Language is not an arbitrary cultural invention reflecting political forces, but an inborn natural capacity.
1949 The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Bollingen.
The hero story is one of the fundamental components of the narrative “neurocharm”–a culturally universal product of our gene-culture coevolution.
1992 Art: The Replicable Unit–An Inquiry into the Possible Origin of Art as a Social Behavior. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 15 (2).
Coe’s well-supported theory of the function of art as an attention-getting signal of the capacity for social conformity is in good agreement with the ritual/evolutionary mechanism proposed here, though it concentrates more on the conserving than the innovative value of the process.
Brett Cooke, ed.
1995? Biopoetics: Art in a Sociobiological Context (Unpublished ms.).
A fascinating collection of essays on the new synthesis of biology and esthetics, with a splendid bibliography of work in the new field. Cooke is a professor of Russian Literature at Texas A&M University.
E.G. D’Aquili, C.D. Laughlin, Jr., and J. McManus, eds.
1979 The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia U.P.
A pathbreaking book about the neurobiology of culture.
1962 The Origin of Species. New York: Collier; Macmillan.
Every serious student of contemporary arts and ideas ought to reread this profound and splendid book.
1993 Knowledge, Evolution, and Paradox. Albany, N.Y.: State University Press of New York.
A brilliant and profound book about the philosophy, esthetics, and neuropsychology of interdisciplinary studies.
1992 Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: The Free Press.
A convincing survey of the cultural universality of human art as “making special”, and a persuasive argument about its evolutionary roots.
Sir John Eccles, Roger Sperry, Ilya Prigogine, Brian Josephson, R. Patton Howell.
1985 Nobel Prize Conversations. Dallas, San Francisco, New York: Saybrook.
A fascinating book about the new brain science: mental causality is neither purely bottom-up nor purely top-down, but constitutes a nonlinear feedback system with unpredictable yet ordered emergent features.
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1989 Expansive Poetry. Santa Cruz, California: Story Line Press.
The most comprehensive discussion of the New Formalism and the New Narrative movements in poetry: trenchant essays by several of the most important poets and critics of the new approach.
1975 Biosocial Anthropology. London: Malaby Press.
1991 Encounter with Anthropology. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.
1994 The Challenge of Anthropology. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.
Robin Fox has been the clearest advocate for the fact that we are an animal species reflecting the history of our evolution.
1978 Time as Conflict. Basel, Stuttgart: Birkhauser.
1980 Out of Plato’s Cave: The Natural History of Time. In Kenyon Review, Winter.
Fraser’s theory of the composite nature of time, as a concentrically-nested hierarchy of temporalities, is in my opinion the most important contribution to fundamental philosophy of this half-century.
1987 Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking.
The classic overview of the new nonlinear science, which, however, puzzlingly leaves out Prigogine.
1986 The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
1993 Visions of Caliban: on Chimpanzees and People. With Dale Peterson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
There is not so great a gap between us and our primate relatives as the social constructionists would like to believe.
Stephen Jay Gould
1985 The Flamingo’s Smile. New York: W. W. Norton.
1993 Eight Little Piggies. New York: W. W. Norton.
Gould’s insistence on the nonlinear and sometimes sudden processes of evolution has been a useful corrective to more determinist views, but his ideological distaste for teleology makes him miss some of the more exciting implications of his approach.
1973 Born to Sing: an Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song. Bloomington: Indiana U.P.
1991 Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Though Hayles’ work is occasionally marred by poststructuralist cliches, it is full of brilliant insights about the humanistic implications of the new science.
1979 Godel, Escher, Bach. New York: Vintage.
This book has not lost any of the wonderful surprise, playfulness, and originality of its investigation of self-referential processes and structures.
1911 Kant’s Critique of Esthetic Judgement. Trans. J.C. Meredith. Oxford: Oxford U.P.
1949 Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. L.W. Beck. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press,1949.
1982 The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. New York: Harper & Row.
This finely-written book challenged the prevailing view that human nature is a blank sheet to be inscribed by society.
1987 The Fundamental Structures of Human Reflexion. In Journal of Social and Biological Structures 10.
Lefebvre’s interesting speculations trace the nonlinear mathematics of human ethical and veridical judgements.
1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Human literature is rooted in traditional ritual narrative, and is a continuation of our whole evolution.
1963 On Aggression. New York: Harcourt Brace.
The classic work of animal psychology.
1977 The Fractal Geometry of Nature. New York: Freeman.
One of the most original books ever written, this beautifully illustrated and eccentric treatment of nonlinear and discontinuous mathematics is still at the leading edge of contemporary natural philosophy.
1982 Vision. New York: Freeman.
A pathbreaking book on the nature of visual perception, with striking implications for esthetics; now slightly outdated, but still very useful.
1989 The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This book purports to show the impossibility of artificial intelligence, but it is actually a brilliant exploration of the new implications of nonlinearity.
Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers
1984 Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam.
The most important book on the emergent properties of nature.
1992 Foamy Sky: the Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti. Trans. Zsuzsanna Ozsvath and Frederick Turner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
This book puts into practice in metrically accurate translations the theoretical principles of natural classicism.
Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, David Epstein, eds.
1988 Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhauser.
The first major book on the evolution, neurobiology, and psychophysics of beauty.
Thomas J. Scheff
1968 Microlinguistics: A Theory of Social Action. In Sociological Theory 4: 1.
1990 Microsociology: Emotion, Discourse and Social Structure. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
In his recent books Scheff turns his meticulous methods of conversation analysis upon the emotional interior of human behavior, with special emphasis on the key emotion of shame.
George A. Seielstadt
1989 At The Heart of the Web: The Inevitable Genesis of Intelligent Life. New York: Harcourt Brace.
The onto-epistemological necessity of observers in the universe.
1983 Science and Moral Priority. Oxford: Blackwell.
1985 (with Sir John Eccles, Ilya Prigogine, and Brian Josephson) Nobel Prize Conversations. Dallas: Saybrook Publishing Company.
Roger Sperry’s work on bilateral assymmetry in brain function opened up profound philosophical perspectives in the relationship of mind and brain.
1979 Optimism: The Biology of Hope. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Hope is an essential activity of the human brain.
1991a Rebirth of Value. Albany: SUNY Press.
1991b Beauty: the Value of Values. Charlottesville, Virginia and London: University Press of Virginia.
1991c Natural Classicism. Charlottesville, Virginia, and London: University Press of Virginia.
1991d Tempest, Flute, and Oz: Essays on the Future. New York: Persea Books.
1995 The Culture of Hope. New York: The Free Press.
Victor W. Turner
1967 The Forest Of Symbols. Ithaca: Cornell U.P.
1969 The Ritual Process. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
1974 Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Ithaca: Cornell U.P.
1982 From Ritual to Theater. New York: Performing Arts Journal Press.
Victor Turner’s deeply humanistic anthropology is a sound basis for the comparative study of human aesthetics.
Judith Wechsler, ed.
1978 On Aesthetics in Science. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.
An excellent collection of essays on the intricate beauty that science uncovers in nature. The essay by Cyril Stanley Smith on crystallography and visual beauty is especially recommended.
Edward O. Wilson and Charles J. Lumsden
1987 Promethean Fire. Cambridge: Harvard U.P.
A lively and controversial introduction to human sociobiology.
Catastrophe Theory. In Scientific American, April, 1976.
A lucid presentation of the ideas of Rene Thom; one of the first appearances in America of the new nonlinear mathematics.